The throng of visitors at Artist’s Point overlooking Yellowstone Falls is overwhelming. We choose to visit this park after school starts so as to as avoid such crowds. But, apparently, social media has popularized these amazing views to such an extent that folks flock here to get their selfies at all times. One study suggests people scour sites like Instagram to plan their trips. Once arriving, they get their own selfie to immediately upload. “It’s all about the Gram,” one ranger quipped, referring to the drive of current tourists to splash their experience into virtual reality on sites like Instagram.
In this moment, I see more screens than scenery. An international mix of people are more focused on their smartphones than on the waterfall. A forest of ‘selfie sticks’ towers above the crowd like banners of an army going into battle. Everyone jostles to find the perfect shot, making sure they are the central feature. Of course, a few of us still have old fashioned cameras and have difficulty finding a selfie-free spot to take a photo. I usually take my shot, then sit to savor the view and soak in nature’s gift. Here, it is impossible to do so.
Tarn and I wander off on a hiker’s trail away from the mayhem and within fifty yards, we are alone. We gaze deep into the abyss and gasp in wonder. The angle of setting sun makes the yellow, ochre, and red hues of the canyon really pop. The color of this geological gorge is the park’s namesake. At the side of the trail we see late season pipsissewa, Chimaphila umbellata, with its dried fruits dangling. Another member of the the wintergreen family, white veined pyrola, grows nearby. We breathe in the crisp clear air and remember why we are here.
Unfortunately, after our short hike, we have to negotiate the crowd once more. It has not changed. I remarked to one worker at Canyon campground that it seemed social media was killing our parks. She whole heartily agreed, commenting, “Many people come, take their selfie, upload, and leave—spoiling the wilderness experience for others.” One can still hike the back country but viewpoints near the road are insane. In the ten years since last we visited, the face of the park is completely different.
I remember back in 2013, the Oxford dictionary named ‘selfie’ the word of the year. I slapped my forehead and knew we were on a slippery slope. Ego out of control! The narcissism encouraged by social media is not unlike our tendency to be self-absorbed anyway, but it is now more obvious and pervasive. Buddha taught that self-absorbed motivation always causes suffering.
The day we leave, two young men walk off the boardwalk at Old Faithful geyser, pass the signs that say, “Stay on the Trail,” and proceed to the geyser’s vent. With cell phones in hand, they want to take the definitive photo. They are escorted off the property by a Yellowstone ranger and charged with “thermal trespass.” They were lucky, the crust near some geysers is very thin and every year some folks wander off the trail and break through, getting severely burned and in some cases, perish. I can see Buddha shaking his head and offering a compassionate prayer for us to wake up and get over ourselves.