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Take a Hike

For the last several months I've been unable to define exactly why Susan Robb's "Wild Times Project" rubs me the wrong way. Normally I simply ignore art I don't vibe with, but something about "Wild Times" incites my unreserved ire.

As Amanda Manitach wrote about in our August issue, "Wild Times" centers on Robb's five-month hike of the 2,650-mile long Pacific Crest Trail, which is right now coming to its conclusion somewhere near the Washington-Canada border. Back in April, Robb introduced the project with the Wild Times website, featuring a splashy minute-long intro video. Since then, she's added semi-regular journal entries, snapshots and videos transmitted from the trail via iPhone and/or laptop as she makes pit stops in civilization.

The website, slickly designed but under-visited, is the primary place for Robb's audience to tune in as she walks. She encourages her Internet audience to "hack their wild" by printing out paper wolf masks, designing their own talismans from found objects and taking photos of morning light. Each of these activities prompts visitors to post photos of their work but the site shows little to no feedback.

In the real world, she has been sending iPhone scans of rocks she encounters along the trail to various galleries and museums, where they're printed in three-dimensional plastic and put on display. Tacoma Art Museum is the closest place to Seattle to see them; I haven't been. The Frye and the Henry have interactive tablets available to track Robb's progress.

To cover the cost of the project, Robb won a $50,000 Creative Capital grant and raised $20,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. She's sponsored by the Washington Trails Association, Microsoft and Whole Foods. 

All of this activity is in response to Robb's self-imposed question: What is wild? How does the concept of wild fit into a world of constant, ubiquitous connection?

It's a good question that I think Robb hasn't come close to answering.

Earlier this summer I came up with an obtuse portmanteau to describe my vague misgivings about the project: trailsploitation. Today someone here in the office used a much better term: ownership

In its big-budget, multi-media, city-spanning expanse, in its constant connection to the outside world, "Wild Times" seeks to encapsulate more than it has a right to. It demystifies and takes possession of an experience that thousands have previously had—typically with no financial backing beforehand and no outside recognition during. The $70,000 behind the project imparts a false sense of ownership. Robb's web-enabled community-building approach falling on deaf ears suggests she's shouting into the void. And calling it the "Wild Times Project" rather than something like "I'm Walking 2,600 Miles on One of America's Most Iconic Trails" conveys unearned authority rather than the humility or singularity such an endevor demands.

So to me "Wild Times" is off-putting. It's exploitative.

Humans have been walking in nature for eons and making art about walking in nature for almost as long. Nature-inspired painting and sculpture are the oldest forms of artwork in existence. From Basho to Kerouac, Diogenes to Thoreau, Cheryl Strayed to Rebecca Solnit, walking and writing are fundamental functions of consciousness, a direct channel between outer and inner worlds. Today you can read a half-dozen books about books about walking and writing. 

And humans have been walking the PCT since the trail was first designated in the late '60s, writing memoirs about it and taking photos of it for just as long. As Robb points out on her site, the PCT has developed its own language and customs over time. People have used the trail for inspiration, publicity and charity. A Seattle man averaged 45 miles a day this summer to finish the trail in 53 days and raise $27,000 for cancer research; Strayed's 2012 PCT memoir Wild comes out as a film starring Reese Witherspoon later this year. Robb follows in a longstanding tradition.

Literature lends itself well to an extended wilderness journey. Photography and visual art, too. Even music: Seattle musician Nat Evans has been walking the trail this summer making field recordings and penning a composition to record and release next year (Amanda wrote about that too). Each of these expressions feels balanced between the internal and external. You ascend the mountain, gain wisdom, come down and impart your experience. 

As an avid backpacker, I believe in the immense power of wilderness. I live in the Northwest so I can access it every chance I get. I encourage you—yeah, YOU—to go walking in the woods for a few days. The experience will change you. And that's all I have to say about that. Because nothing I write will adequately explain my passion for wilderness. No Facebook post will convey what it means. It's like sex. Or art. 

I respect Robb for walking the walk, but the way she talks the talk misses the point. She renders cloying a personal, sacred experience. She turns the inherently organic into plastic. All her efforts to define, describe and document dilute the journey—if not for her then certainly for her audience. It's like live-Tweeting a silent meditation retreat. Corporate sponsors and web updates have nothing to do with wild times. 

Photos via the Wild Times website. 

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