Westward Expansion

Susan Robb is standing in the dining room of her Columbia City home last March, surrounded by boxes full of individual meals in ziplock bags. She has prepared and dehydrated 120 meals in her Excalibur dehydrator—elated to discover it can make injera chips and dehydrate Key Wat from Tagla Cafe, her favorite Ethiopian restaurant. Her living room is taken over by piles of ultra-light packs, clothing and bespoke camping gear, the weight of which is measured in grams. It seems like no amount of preparation is too much: In a few weeks, Robb will fly to the Mexican border and begin hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a trek that spans the West Coast from the Mexican to Canadian borders, carving its way through desert, the Sierra and the Cascade mountain ranges.

Robb’s hike—which passes through Washington this month—is also an art project, but it won’t result in sweeping Bierstadt-esque depictions of an untamed Wild West or objects for the auction block. Instead, it proposes to locate “wildness” wherever it can be found, in the midst of today’s technophilia, superficial self-promotion and addiction to Instagram. A five-month-long walk spanning 2,663 miles of actual wilderness just might be a fix for social overload and psychic wear and tear.

“I don’t really know what to expect or what work will be produced,” Robb says, surrounded by her piles of half-packed gear. In the art world, where artist statements bloat with art-speak, the specifics of the expedition are both perplexingly and refreshingly foggy.

Robb’s project, Wild Times, teeters into territory where the boundaries between recreation, self-help and art blur. But the support of institutions and friends around the world suggests she isn’t the only one curious to see how her back-to-nature experiment pans out. In addition to receiving a prestigious $50,000 Creative Capital grant for the project, she raised $20,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, and art museums up and down the West Coast have agreed to exhibit the work she produces as she makes her way north.

The work is a bundle of field notes, journal entries and other “transmissions” selectively sent back home from the trail. Robb’s using her iPhone to make 3-D scans of rocks she finds along the path, then sending the files to art museums. Right now at Tacoma Art Museum, MakerBot Replicators are humming away, weaving clones from brightly colored plastic threads, which will then be displayed like specimens at a natural science museum, artfully housed in vitrines. As transmissions through the digital ether, the rock piles are winkingly ironic, a tedious, baroque twist on text messaging. Jettisoning technology altogether isn’t the point of this trip. Taking a hard look at how technology can integrate with wildness—trying to slow down and rethink tech-based interactions—is.

If anyone could take an activity like hiking and turn it into a sweeping epic of evangelical self-discovery and art production, it would be Robb, who has a knack for recontextualizing activities and wrestling restlessness into art form. Her projects often take the form of sculptures or fantastical installations that require participation and question societal status quo, like the ONN/OF light festival held in dreary Seattle winter or her Sleeper Cell Training Camp, which invited people to sleep and dream together in temporary shelters later donated to the homeless.

Robb made an art of walking years ago, well before Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book Wild hit bookstores. In 2010, Robb hosted her first Long Walk, a four-day, 45-mile trek that wound its way along the Regional Trails System from Puget Sound to Snoqualmie Falls. Hailed as a work of land art peppered with pop-up performances and social engagement prompts, Robb hosted The Long Walk three years in a row, blistering hikers’ toes and bonding strangers along the way. Limited to a group of 50 people accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, the walk met with rave reviews from participants.

Now she’s walking alone. In contrast to the relative leisure of The Long Walk, the Pacific Crest Trail is a test of individual mettle and superhuman stamina. The Pacific Crest Trail Association estimates that only about 180 of an average 300 thru-hikers actually complete the entire trek each year.

This formula for spiritual self-improvement—for retiring into the depths of nature to relocate the mythic, lost self and other utopias—goes hand in hand with the discontents of civilization and is as old as the sackcloth-clad ascetic in the wasteland, Marie Antoinette’s obsession with Rousseau or Thoreau’s retreat to Walden Pond.

It’s also territory well traveled by artists, like Bas Jan Ader, a poster child for the wanderlust-meets-art genre.

In 1973 the Dutch artist documented a solo hike across the city of Los Angeles in the dead of night, snapping a series of dusky, black-and-white self portraits along the way. Titled In Search of the Miraculous, the images captured his slim silhouette disappearing in the darkness, almost enveloped by the immensity of the urban desert landscape. Two years later the 34-year-old Ader embarked on the second leg of his project, launching a one-man yacht, barely 13-feet long, from Cape Cod to England. The voyage across the sea would pit Ader against the elements in a stroke of unsurpassed romantic heroics. No one had ever attempted a solo, transatlantic passage on such a small craft. After three weeks, radio contact with Ader was lost. Ten months later, the remains of his yacht, Ocean Wave, were discovered floating off the Irish coast.

Traveling the Pacific Crest Trail is less perilous, but the aura of the mythological soloist pitted against nature and packaged as art (of which Ader is an apotheosis) clings to Robb’s project. Fleeing civilized life in the 21st century in search of existential terra incognita—an El Dorado of the soul—still has cachet. Surely something resembling utopia is always around the next bend, especially in the Wild West.

In May, a little over a month into her trek, Robb develops shin splints. She posts a photo of herself splayed in front of a pictureless TV with bags of frozen peas draped over her ankles. “How long can I live at a Motel 6?” she writes. “I try to figure out my options. I need to stay off my leg, my cash is tight, and I’m bored.” It’s as though she’s been stirred from a trance, and it’s intolerable. Her online diary, usually updated every few days, is nearly nonexistent during her period of bed rest and ice.

After a week, Robb is healed enough to get back on her feet and eager to catch up with the hikers she befriended earlier on the trail: Stealth, Namaste, Shiny and Mountain Goat. Their superhero monikers are only one part of the evolving language of the thru-hiker culture. Robb’s name is 3-D. Everything about the trail takes on a mythological shine; stashes of food left by non-hikers along the way are lovingly called “trail magic.” Locals who provide laundry services, a place to rest or free meals are “trail angels.”

At the foot of the Sierras, the desert barely out of sight, Robb invites fellow hikers to erect a makeshift shrine to the terrain they’re about to abandon. It’s made with stones, burnt pieces of wood and Gatorade bottles filled with the last remnants of uranium and arsenic-contaminated water they’ve been forced to drink in the desert. She invites them to meditate on what to take from the journey thus far, what to leave behind.

“I know that I’ve changed since I began hiking the PCT,” she writes on her site. “I can’t say how exactly, but I definitely feel like a different version of myself.”

Maybe it has something to do with the claustrophobia-inducing boom Seattle is experiencing, or maybe it’s coincidence, but Robb isn’t the only Seattle-based artist walking the Pacific Crest Trail this summer. Composer Nat Evans is thru-hiking the trail alone as well, armed with a portable recorder to capture ambient sounds along the way—whether windmills churning the air with 36-ton blades or the staccato chirps of an unseen bird in the brush. His project is called The Tortoise and His Raincoat: Music for a Very Long Walk. Every few hundred miles, he mails a memory card to a different composer who lives in proximity to the area he’s covered. The collaborators each respond with musical compositions layered over Evans’ audio.

He’s been publishing the finished pieces online. A collaboration with LA-based double bassist and composer Scott Worthington, With No Surroundings There Can Be No Path, begins with a roar that resembles nothingness, slowly weaving the lush throb of insects at night with the sound of strings.

Evans is aware of the paradox involved with getting in touch with nature on the PCT. Unlike traditional walking sites in other cultures, like Mt. Kailash in Tibet or the Womb-Diamond trail in Japan—each treated as sacred, requiring ritual movement, chanting or meditation—the PCT pits man against nature, demands combative speed, calculated determination and preoccupation with food, water and shelter.

Inspired by the meditation practice of beat poets like Gary Snyder, whose book The Practice of the Wild informed the trajectory of The Tortoise, Evans’ pace isn’t a Herculean breakneck, not a race to the Canadian border nor to the center of himself. His work is a slowly unfolding, gigantic site-specific work—a sonic travelogue—that spans half a continent and records the ambient, ancient pulse of the land. As he walks, he describes experiencing the slightest sounds and sights with the crystalline acuity of a hallucination or a mushroom high. Sleeping for months on end with head pressed to the earth, his hearing attuned to the terrestrial drone, is a drug.

At the seven-week mark, Evans makes a post online about the transformations he’s experienced:

My hearing has changed dramatically. Sounds are much sharper and clearer, as well as more complex. I take time to analyze what I’m hearing and to react to it. This shift in perception is also part of an overall greater alertness in all my senses, such as vision—spotting the tiniest of things moving on the hillside or being able to make out a friend’s shoe print amongst others. A sea of sagebrush has greater relief and detail and parsing out the different shades of gray in clouds is easier—they seem infinitely more complex than any clouds I’ve seen before.

At one point along the trail, in late June, Evans loses cell reception completely for 10 days. His Twitter and Instagram go silent. When he emerges on the other side of the shadow, an explosion of backlogged, lost communications spill out into the ether. Amid the postcard-perfect snapshots of puff clouds and snow-capped peaks is the observation, “There is changing life, there is unchanging life.” Gathering field recordings off the beaten path is a regular part of Evans’ practice as a musician and composer, but this is different. Like Robb, he is mute on the particulars of what has changed. Or maybe 140 characters aren’t enough to fill in the blanks.

Conceptual artist and poet A K Mimi Allin is also no stranger to the wilds. She’s crossed the Pacific Ocean by sailboat twice and worked as a climbing ranger. She has used her body to draw a 36-mile line around Mount Rainer with a series of ritual prostrations. She has carved all of Shakespeare’s sonnets in the sand at low tide and let the water wash them away. She exhausts herself through ritual performance in nature.

This summer, she is also making the 2,600-mile trek from Mexico to Canada. Instead of sending transmissions, she’s invited people to snail mail things to her—specifically, their dreams. She receives parcels filled with folded pages containing the oneiric adventures of strangers. She meditates on them. Then she makes an offering and plants them in soil along the way. With the dream-seeds, Allin tucks an actual plant seed into the ground.

Her project is called The Woman Who Planted Dreams. “With ample sunlight, fresh air and nourishment, our dreams just might reach full height,” she declares in a statement describing the project.

Her own notes from the trail, mailed back to friends in Seattle who scan and post them to her blog, are scribbled across countless creased and dusty maps. Her altered documents take the tone of fantastical Situationist derives from the ’60s, designed by artists to turn the everyday city streets or labyrinthine metro systems of Paris into a boundless playground for apathetic commuters. Allin’s annotations, at once dreamy, absurd and perhaps useful, reimagine both landscape and cartography. An expansive, white space on one map is labeled “a great place for a turtle to roam…” A campground site along Kidd Creek Road (which Allin has amended to read “Kidding Creek Road”) sprouts a cloud bubble with the warning “NONE OF THIS EXISTS. IT’S ALL IN YOUR MIND.”

Allin documents each meal cooked or purchased at a diner along her way. For all PCT travelers, food is the one shared orgasmic sacrament. For Allin, meals are equal parts mystical fuel and found poetry. The euphoric description of samosas and chicken mo-mo at a Nepalese restaurant in Big Bear Lake, Calif., are worth defacing half a menu for. As Allin moves through 100-degree heat on dirt roads littered with brittle, sun-bleached animal skeletons, her sense of land and speed and food and drink are diamantine. Strawberries and ice cream for breakfast are supernatural manna. Coffee and a hot dog are miraculous. Maybe not the Miraculous that Ader imagined 40 years ago, but then again, maybe not so far from it.

The trail is transformative, but the adventure—swaddled in artist statements about social activations and site specificity—is still a luxury not everyone can afford.

The paradox needles Allin. “This is not a pure idea,” she writes back in February, in candid defense of her upcoming project. “It didn’t burst forth as a passionate life preserver thrown to a storm of circumstance, the way some projects do, yet the circumstances are no less dire than they once were. This idea was, rather, adapted from a real life possibility and question. Can art and life meet here, where I am, in what I’m doing, in what I want to do?”

As Robb, Evans and Allin make their way, their stories evolve and their characters deepen. Art and life do seem to have bonded in this vacuum, this earth-bound outer space. Wilderness and technology, at least for a moment, hold hands. But the artists’ transmissions beg a question: Can we also find it at home, on our doorstep, this wild, or must we suffer exhaustion as a precursor? Is it a mirage? Utopia, after all, means “no place.”

Pictured above: Susan Robb on the first day of her thru-hike. Photo by Robb.