On a recent vacation to New England, my wife and I visited Purgatory Chasm in nearby Massachusetts. Without degrading the experience or beautiful and interesting landscape (see pictures left) I couldn't help but think about the human/land interaction I saw around us.
The first thought involved that of site establishment and labeling. When I was younger, I would spend weeks working at a summer camp in the Catskills. During free time, I would break the rules and leave the camp with friends, striking out across the mountain wilderness. The Catskills were full of cliffs, caves, and rocks, more pronounced than that offered at Purgatory Chasm and other sites having official names, maps, and picnic areas. Sites that are official are often created based on economics, demand, and availability and named to attract attention and interest rather than being particularly unique. What is the effect of hyping nature in this manner? Why did a small nook created by falling boulder have to be called "Devil's Crib" instead of "A little nook under a rock". Why note it at all? The result is an enhanced experience at the cost of a twisted reality and influenced perception.
The second thought on this issue is one that often comes up in postmodern studies relating to representation. Any location has multiple existences: The true place as it actually is, the place as it is interpreted by individuals experiencing it, and the place as it comes to exist in view of a society or group.
The first existence is unknown to us do to the limits of our senses. The second existence is what we create in our minds depending on what part of the place we see, from what angles, and what is going on in the place at the time we are there (weather, crowd, time of day). The third existence is a combination of second existences along with evolutions created by photography, conversation, and writing. People who have never been to the Eiffel Tower, for example, have a sense of the place that will be entirely shattered once they actually visit it. A similar existence is shared by many people who have never been to the Eiffel Tower due to photographs and movies.
The difference between second and third existences is most evident to those who have had the opportunity to travel to many of these sites. My first experience was with the Sacre Coeur in Paris. The Sacre Coeur presents an image of religiously inspired strength and solidity, but the reality is an amusement park line, noise and crowded masses of tours. It is targeted by hosts of peddlers. As people worship, a shuffling line of tourists moves much like at an amusement park. It was depressing. I've experienced similar at popular sites around the world. If tourists were honest, they would admit how many of the popular sites were miserable to attend. Most however, won't be honest because they either don't want to admit they were hustled and are afraid to admit the emperor has no clothes, or are just so overwhelmed at being somewhere so often talked about and pictured that they don't care how miserable it is. These people have accepted the third existence to such an extent that they disregard reality. Here are a few comparisons as examples.
Dunn's Falls Jamaica
Eiffel Tower -- France
Sting Ray City -- Cayman Islands