I was watching a great Ken Burns documentary on Ernest Hemingway the other night. In his early days, Hemingway drew inspiration for novels like The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms from his freewheeling times in 1920s Paris and Spain, where artists were open and unchecked, and found like-minded people all around them.
It occurred to me that Paris and other formerly free and bohemian communities of that time no longer exist… they are mere nostalgia, existing only in black and white. This topic is also covered brilliantly in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris where an American writer travelling in the current tourist-trap enclave that Paris has become, transports magically back to the wild era of the '20s during evening walks. Things are ever-evolving and changing, now more rapidly than ever, and the film reflects a deep desire in many of us to return to a simpler time—which is ultimately impossible.
These days it seems we are all hunting for the new Paris, the ‘inside spot’ where authentic experience still exists. However, we are so over-connected and over-distracted now that we have no connection whatsoever… anything that happens anywhere is instantly documented and shared on a very superficial level. Cultural havens of inspiration are an endangered species at best, as places that allow a fabric of depth and meaning to develop over time have dwindled to almost nil. Now stay with me here—this isn’t a ‘get off my lawn’ rant, this is mere observation. I’m as bad as anyone when it comes to being distracted.
In my opinion, the proverbial Paris of the 1920s does still exist, but it can’t be found in any city—it can only be found in (drum roll please): the wilderness. And I don’t mean Banff National Park. I mean ‘wilderness’… the far-flung regions on this earth that are still largely roadless, untracked and wild. Genuine and difficult to access, these are regions of constant immersive experience where, if you spend a decent amount of time there, meaningful connection and inspiration occur.
True connection happens when we bond with the environment around us on a deep level, not with our phones. Like Hemingway holding court, face-to-face with James Joyce or Ezra Pound in a Paris cafe, conspiring and inspiring, jotting ideas in a notebook, so does (for example) the wilderness writer discuss ideas with their trip partner, the wind and the mosquitoes, and jot ideas into a notebook at the end of a long day on the trail or water. Hard and dispassionate, untainted by nostalgia, the untracked and uninhabited spaces on this planet are where authenticity flourishes in spades. Paris has moved to the wilderness. I suggest you go and check it out—but don’t bring your phone.