For the most part, it was a fairly normal vacation. My father took the family to Wyoming to see Yellowstone and other odds and ends. I enjoyed my time there and would certainly recommend it to anyone, but there was one specific event that got me thinking. It was our first full day of the trip, and my dad had hired a tourism company to show us around Grand Teton national park. There was nothing wrong with the tour guide at all; he was personable, entertaining, and knowledgeable. Nor was there anything amiss with the park itself. It was certainly an enjoyable excursion with many beautiful sights, but something didn’t feel right about the experience itself. It felt unnatural and contrived, like a trip to Disneyland rather than to one of America’s great preserves.
It wasn’t until later that day that I was able to realize the source of this feeling. After we got back from the tour, I went out on my own to explore the resort town we were staying in. I found my way to the base of the ski slopes (sans snow, as this was during the summer) and set out to climb to the top. It was an exhausting endeavor, and I didn’t even make it to the summit. When I reached my limit I sat on the slope and looked down onto the town, the surrounding plains, and saw other mountains far in the distance. It was certainly a beautiful view, but nothing like I had seen in the park a few hours earlier. Despite this, I felt a strange sensation. I was sitting atop a mountain tailored and manipulated by humans, but I felt more fulfilled than I ever did in the largely untouched park. I took in the view and sat in silence, enjoying the spontaneity and adventure of the moment. I felt a sense of discovery and escape that I didn’t experience earlier in the day. This was very odd to me: the park was much larger, much more natural, and more beautiful than what I saw sitting on the slope. Shouldn’t I have been much more excited by that?
On the way down, I was able to pinpoint the reason for this disparity. Climbing the slope may have been less exotic and seemingly less interesting than visiting the national park, but it was of my own doing. I set out on my own, I made my way to the slope, and I decided to climb it without planning. When I completed my journey, I had all the time in the world to sit and enjoy the experience. It wasn’t anything daring or extravagant, but it was entirely my own. While our trip to the park was entertaining and informative, it was largely manufactured. The tour guide picked us up at our rental condo, drove us to the park, and ferried us around to predetermined points of interest. There was no discovery or uncertainty involved, and discovery and uncertainty are the very things that make something like a vacation meaningful. This doesn’t apply only to something like a trip, though; it can be used to consider the value of any experience, even those that seem pedestrian. An experience is not memorable or meaningful purely because of what is seen or done. The way one engages with an experience, connects with it, explores it, and makes it their own is what truly matters. A truly meaningful experience cannot be contrived, but must be sought after individually and organically.
After considering my experience on the slope, I began to wish that I had been able to experience the park on my own terms. It was, of course, a family vacation, so I absolutely understood the need for a degree of structure, but I still felt a twinge of annoyance that such a promising opportunity had been marred by artificiality. Later, my family discussed the tour. Everyone thought that it was highly beneficial to our experience because it allowed us to see more of the park and find things that we wouldn’t have found otherwise. I don’t find this to be a compelling argument against my proposal for a more natural approach. Sure, we may have been able to see more, but wouldn’t it have been better to intimately and meaningfully engage with whatever we managed to find on our own, rather than viewing everything the park has to offer on the surface level? I sure thought so, and I still do.
I certainly don’t want to sound like an ungrateful brat. I’m appreciative of all the things I’ve been fortunate enough to see, but I do feel that many of these experiences could have been greatly improved. I now make an effort to allow experiences to unfold in a natural manner so that I can engage with them and connect with them on a more visceral level. I do believe that it can help to enrich life, so I implore you to do the same. Explore life’s joys without any pretense or structure, wander aimlessly, search for nothing in particular, and take the time to reflect on what these experiences mean to you. Forego the tour guide and truly connect to whatever you manage to stumble upon. Make an effort to search for nothing in particular, and I guarantee that you’ll find something of value.