Traveler's Omertà: Is There No Place We Should Keep Secret?

Photo + Video + Film
by David Page Jan 28, 2010

Mining the Fagaras Range, Transylvanian Alps, Romania. Photo by mountain guide Iulian Cozma.

Never before has the traveler had access to so much on-the-ground, up-to-the-minute beta. Never before has travel, by the miracle of technology, been so thoroughly rid of hassle, wasted time, wasted money—and, of course, dreaded uncertainty. But with the internet now in every traveler’s palm, are we losing something essential? Are we ruining travel?

During a lull in last week’s storm we took it upon ourselves to hike up a mountain—and by hike up a mountain I mean put traction devices on our alpine touring skis and set out from our cars in a generally, then quite seriously, uphill direction for several hours, breaking trail through a thick, waist-deep accumulation of el-niño caliber snowdump, in exchange for a few minutes’ dreamlike turns on the way back down. We weren’t sure what to expect. We were the first-ever travelers to lay tracks in that newmade landscape.

Pioneering in the Sherwins. Photo by Dan Patitucci.

It was, as pro shooter Dan Patitucci had promised, hard labor. But we took turns doing the heavy lifting, with one or two proudly doing the bulk of it while the rest of us, toward the back of the line, chatted away about food and the state of publishing and such. We went up through the old-growth trees. We stayed clear the chutes on either side, so as to avoid dying a slow, horrible death by asphyxiation beneath thirty or forty feet of avalanche detritus.

On the way up I couldn’t help but re-tell an old Jack London story about breaking trail, about the guy who invests his fortune in eggs in Chicago on the notion that he will be able to sell them for a tremendous profit in the Yukon. “What he suffered on that lone trip,” wrote London, “with naught but a single blanket, an axe, and a handful of beans, is not given to ordinary mortals to know.”

This was during the Klondike Rush, just before the turn of the last century. When fresh food was worth more than gold dust, and news, like hard supplies, traveled not on the ether but overland, passed from person to person, from mortal to mortal.

“The name and fame of the man with the thousand dozen eggs began to spread through the land. Gold-seekers who made in before the freeze-up carried the news of his coming. Grizzled old-timers of Forty Mile and Circle City, sourdoughs with leathern jaws and bean-calloused stomachs, called up dream memories of chickens and green things at mention of his name. Dyea and Skaguay took an interest in his being, and questioned his progress from every man who came over the passes, while Dawson — golden, omeletless [and internetless] Dawson — fretted and worried, and waylaid every chance arrival for word of him.”

It was tough going. Being the first in over the ice that season, it fell to this unfortunate fellow (and to his dogs and Indians, whom he drove onward at gunpoint) to hammer out a trail across half a thousand miles of snowy waste. His progress was slow. Behind him, in the brief twilight at either end of the days, he would often see a trickle of campfire smoke on the horizon. He wondered why whoever it was back there didn’t just overtake him. He didn’t get it.

“How hard he worked, how much he suffered, he did not know. Being a man of the one idea, now that the idea had come, it mastered him. In the foreground of his consciousness was Dawson, in the background his thousand dozen eggs, and midway between the two his ego fluttered, striving always to draw them together to a glittering golden point.”

The golden point, of course, was the fortune he stood to make with those eggs.

I paused to catch my breath, perhaps even took a turn in the lead for a few exhausting moments before once again ceding the glory to the harder men (and woman) among us.

“Well, did he make it?” asked Patitucci.

Oh yes, he made it, I said. And when he was not far out from his destination, he finally came to understand the slow progress of those who had for all those long, dark days been following in his track. Now that word had spread back down the Chilkoot that that trail had been broken, the rush was on.

“Rasmunsen, crouching over his lonely fire, saw a motley string of sleds go by. First came the courier and the half-breed who had hauled him out from Bennett; then mail-carriers for Circle City, two sleds of them, and a mixed following of ingoing Klondikers. Dogs and men were fresh and fat, while Rasmunsen and his brutes were jaded and worn down to the skin and bone. They of the smoke wreath had travelled one day in three, resting and reserving their strength for their dash to come when broken trail was met with; while each day he had plunged and floundered forward, breaking the spirit of his dogs and robbing them of their mettle.”

There remained for poor Rasmunsen one last tragic revelation upon arrival in Dawson City—to do with his eggs and the price they might fetch—but I’ll leave it to old Jack to tell you the rest.

Starting for the Klondike. Alaska State Library.

My concern here is more to do with the onslaught of other plunderers that poured in in his wake.

At the top of the ridge the sky cleared briefly, giving us a view of the valley and the ranges beyond. Then some good orange light. Then the snow came in again.

The ride down was not much of a ride at first, the snow being too deep to gain any momentum. But then the aspect fell away and we went with it, dropping through the trees, floating, soaring, the only sound that of steel edges cutting through a pile of delicate crystals—a pile soft as goosedown and deeper underfoot than a man is tall. And the occasional hoot-hoot of our fellows through the woods.

Even before we’d made it back to our cars we came upon another skier gliding fast and easy up our hard-won skintrack.

Later that evening, Patitucci posted an entry on his very popular blog and from there it spread to Facebook and Twitter, and by the next morning the whole mountainside was fairly overrun with powderseekers. Perhaps I exaggerate. But in any case the sense of solitude and discovery that is the golden egg, as it were, of adventure travel—which we had tasted for a day—was gone.

Patitucci, whose livelihood is based on selling photographs, as mine is on selling stories, wondered if in this case he should have kept it to himself.

It’s an age-old burden for the travel writer (older and heavier than today’s ethical quandaries about who should pay the bills): like the trailbreakers of yore, you beat your way to the next great “undiscovered” village, the last “lost” culture, the ultimate “secret” beach. You write about the wonder of the place. Maybe you give it away for free on Facebook. Maybe, if you’re scrappy, or lucky, you get two bucks a word for it. But in your wake the wonder, such as it was, is gone.

The place will never be the same again.

We justify it to ourselves in various ways: This is what we do. This is what people want. If we don’t do it someone else will (and maybe we can do it better, more responsibly). If pushed up against a wall, we take the anthropological tack, or that of the museum curator: we say, hey, we’re just trying to document this stuff before it goes away—we’re saving it (even as we track it up). Oh yeah, and we need the money. And what’s wrong with change anyway?

Pave It and Paint It Green, by Rondal Partridge

“I don’t think I ever ruined Calcata,” writes David Farley in his fine essay, On the Perils of Travel Writing, confronting the effect he may have had upon a particular Italian village simply by writing about the place. “If anything, I only ruined it—or at least half of it—for one person: myself.”

And let us not forget Simon Winchester on the wounds he re-opened by sharing stories about the people of Tristan Da Cunha. “It suddenly seemed to me,” he writes, in retrospect, “that my very being on the island, and my later decision to record my impressions of that visit and the impressions of earlier visitors, had resulted in a series of entirely unintended and unanticipated consequences—consequences that were as inimical to the islanders’ contentment as if I had plundered or polluted there.”

Sicilians, surfers, fly fishermen and keepers of mythical, undiscovered hot springs have a code they call omertà, a code of silence. You don’t talk to the cops—even about your least favorite neighbors. And you don’t tell strangers about your favorite stash.

Not long ago, a fellow contributor to The New York Times wrote a nice piece in that paper about one of my favorite places on the planet. The place—a hot springs, as it happens—was no big secret; it’d been written up before; it was once a favorite of Charles Manson’s; I’d even mentioned it (briefly) in my own guidebook. Besides, if you knew what you were looking for, everything you needed to know about how to get there was on the internet.

Still, I was disappointed to see it splashed across the venerable pages of the Gray Lady. And though I’d done as much for places I cared less about, I couldn’t help but call the author on a breach of code.

“Don’t go looking for Yankee caps at the springs anytime soon,” he replied, and then went on as follows:

“When Nat Geo did that story about fifteen years ago with the enormous photo, I was horrified. “There goes the neighborhood,” I thought. It didn’t have the slightest effect on traffic. I don’t really think all the news stories that have been posted and broadcast the years since have had much effect other than reminding the National Park Service that the springs, as they stand now—and there are many people who don’t believe they should be standing now—has some mainstream support beyond the perceived “fringe element” of rednecks and stoners. National stories extolling The Way Things Are help keep things that way.”

On some level, I guess he’s right. John Muir figured he was saving Yosemite by writing about it. And of course he did save it—from mining and logging and all manner of voracious industrial plunder. But how now do we save it from the 3.9 million of us who take our bootheels to the place every year—and from those who profit by selling us eggs and popcorn along the way? Hard to say.

Again, Simon Winchester:

“Students of tourism science can and do construct elaborate theories from physics, invoking such wizards as Heisenberg and the Hawthorne effect and the status of Schrödinger’s cat to explain the complex interactions between our status as tourist-observers and the changes we prompt in the peoples and places we go off to observe. But at its base is the simple fact that in so many instances, we simply behave abroad in manners we would never permit at home: we impose, we interfere, we condescend, we breach codes, we reveal secrets. And by doing so we leave behind much more than footfalls. We leave bruised feelings, bad taste, hurt, long memories.”

So should we really just stay home, as Winchester suggests? Of course not. But as we go out into the world, as we forge new paths to newmade places—or places new to us, anyway—it seems worth considering which part of our experiences we ought share with our fellows. And which, perhaps, we ought keep to ourselves.

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