Communication Currents

Experiential Degradation: It’s Not Just the Environment that’s in Danger

June 1, 2012
Environmental Communication

If you’ve ever been hiking and encountered a piece of trash, you’ve probably felt what I callexperiential degradation. Experiential degradation happens when someone perceives that they have lost an expected experience. In outdoor recreation, we expect to encounter nature free of other humans, and if something disrupts that expectation, we might feel as if our experience has been degraded. For example, in an interview, one woman complained, “Like the West Rim trail [in Zion National Park], the whole damn thing was, was paved. Ten and a half miles of paved or slickrock. I mean, it was paved! It was just outrageous. And the traffic thing. And thank God they’ve got the shuttle bus. That is just a gem. That’s just a—that makes such a difference in the quality of experience.”

I am concerned with this “quality of experience.” I interviewed 20 people in-person at Zion National Park and 70 people online to get a sense of outdoor recreation behaviors and approaches. With so many visitors to national parks, the likelihood of environmental degradation is obvious. However, my study focuses on the degradation that reveals assumptions of authenticity and experiential degradation. I want to be clear here that I am not arguing that a true, right, or good outdoor recreation experience exists, but that specific outdoor recreation practices perpetuate the construction of authentic outdoor recreation experiences for park visitors. When people or situations violate such practices, park visitors understand that as experiential degradation. I conceptualize repetitive, embodied actions as communicative practices. In other words, the ways we act on a daily basis communicate who we are, what communities we belong to, and what desirable behaviors are.

I contend that walking as an outdoor recreation practice constitutes (in part) the outdoor recreation subculture and perpetuates ideas about authentic outdoor recreation. Both environmental and experiential degradation depend upon discursive ideas about the materiality of environments and experiences. That is, how recreators think about nature and their experiences in it have an impact on the physical environment and embodied experiences. I concentrate on practices of walking on- and off-trail and running downhill on Angels Landing as examples of behaviors that reveal assumptions about authenticity and the way our everyday actions communicate authenticity.

In addition to following the “rules” of outdoor recreation such as packing out trash and knowing when to yield to other hikers, participants in my study demonstrated that they could tell who a real recreator was by the clothes they wore and the ways they behaved. Hiking on- or off-trail was a point of contention among my interviewees, which reveals an assumption of authenticity among some participants. Additionally, running downhill on Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park emerged as a practice that not only revealed the participants as novices but also led some people to feel experiential degradation.

In discussing practices of walking on- or off-trail, interviewees frame hiking on-trail as responsible and off-trail as authentic. Participants, who said they stayed on the trail to hike, framed this practice as one of responsibility. Many cited the potential for environmental degradation as to why they stayed on trails. But others framed the going off trail as dangerous. One participant stated, “I just try not to get too far from what I know is a safety zone ‘cause I know I wouldn’t want to put myself in danger nor would I want to put anyone else in danger coming to rescue me.”

By contrast, participants who reported hiking off-trail framed this practice as authentic. One participant stated, “Well, we want to see different things, and not everything is on a trail. So, you can’t have a rounded, full experience, I would say, if you stayed on the trail all of the time ‘cause most of the stuff is not on the trail.” When this interviewee referenced “a rounded, full experience” as what one acquires off-trail, he revealed his view of what makes authentic outdoor recreation. A second interviewee said, “Trails are too confining; I’d rather have an original experience with nature, not shared by anyone else.” Again, the idea of an “original” experience implies off-trail hiking is where to find authenticity in outdoor recreation. Going off-trail allows recreators to avoid other people. Not seeing other people conforms to an ideal form of nature as a peopleless wilderness. This practice also communicates that the recreators have enough knowledge to avoid danger and return safely, thus positioning them as more authentic.

One practice that people reported as degrading their experience was when visitors ran downhill on Angels Landing trail. Much of this trail is steep and slippery. So, running downhill not only puts people in danger, it is also easier than using the muscles as brakes every step of the way. When other hikers saw people running downhill, they would frequently make faces to show their disapproval. Moreover, when I heard one runner yell, “I can’t stop!” as he turned a blind corner of the cliff, another visitor grumbled, “Big hurry ‘til he knocks somebody off the side.” This practice challenged some people’s expectations about what a quality hiking experience should be. It not only puts people in danger, it revealed that people were in a hurry to get through with the experience. Many participants explained that “real recreators” were safe and knowledgeable. Another layer, though, involves enjoying the experience all the way to the end of the trail. One interviewee summarized this sentiment:

The real recreators, I think, are the folks on the Observation Point trail [an 8-mile trail that goes from the bottom of the canyon to the top and back down again and has a total elevation gain of 2,148 feet] because you’ll see them, they’re exhausted. They’re hiking uphill for four miles, but they’re still smiling and saying, “oh, this is great, beautiful.” You go on the Riverside Walk [a 2-mile trail that has 57 feet of elevation gain]; it’s flat, it’s easy. And no one makes eye contact. You say, “hello.” And the people’ll just look down and don’t say anything. I mean, if you’re enjoying the scenery, if you’re enjoying the hike itself, just being outside, enjoying the fresh air, then to me that’s someone who’s really recreating as opposed to someone who feels like they should be doing it.

When people run downhill on Angels Landing trail, they communicate a disregard for safety and for the quality of the experience. This leads to experiential degradation for some visitors.

This study is useful because it illustrates a tension between wanting more people to be involved in outdoor recreation as a means of generating pro-environmental attitudes, and contending with the behaviors of people unfamiliar with expected outdoor recreation practices. In a world increasingly concerned with environmental problems, getting people involved in outdoor recreation is important. Just as important is educating people about responsible environmental practices when recreating. However, my study highlights that without knowledge of experiential expectations, people may be discouraged when first engaging in outdoor recreation or they may be disenchanted by others when they do. Either way, we need to be aware of the practices that impact the quality of experience for people seeking encounters with nature. They may affect their political sympathies and sensibilities in the future. Although many behaviors are open to interpretation (as the distinction between hiking on- and off-trail demonstrates), outdoor recreators cannot go wrong by being respectful to other people and conscientious about the environment and potential dangers. After all, such behaviors not only contribute to a quality outdoor recreation experience, they also keep people safe and preserve the environment.

About the author (s)

Samantha Senda-Cook

Creighton University

Assistant Professor