Most of the gods and demons who used to inhabit their own particular outdoor places died off long ago, and technology has zapped the survivors.
A truth about the outdoors is that it causes people to lie. Strange forces out there in the wild have always conspired to corrupt human honesty. Over time, intelligent listeners and readers came to accept that an adventurer’s reports would not consist of one-to-one representations of fact but instead would contain exaggerations, distortions, omissions, additions, events that foolish people wanted to believe had happened but hadn’t, and deliberate, implausible, fantastical lies. Maybe that was even a reason the restless and sketchy among us ventured into the wilderness in the first place: because if we claimed we did or saw something amazing there, who could prove the contrary? Returned from our journeys, we could brag all we wanted without fear of contradiction. An enormous attraction of far places has always been that no one else was inconveniently in the neighborhood to check.
“Here Be Monsters,” the old maps announced, next to drawings of walking Leviathan-fish with huge maws and claws and fangs. The pictures must have been accurate; how would the mapmakers have known what to draw unless eyewitnesses had told them? Somewhere out there, travelers said, lived blue-eyed Indians who spoke only Hebrew—a Lost Tribe of Israel, miraculously transported to remotest Asia or the American West. Those who revealed this discovery had not, it turned out, met the blue-eyed (blue-eyed?) Hebrews themselves but once crossed paths with parties who had. Inventive wanderers said they had seen snakes that had bit their own tails and made themselves into hoops and rolled across the ground, cannibals with three heads, Arctic dwellers who covered their ears against the sound of the sunrise, and beautiful Amazonian women warriors who held healthy young men (often the wanderers themselves) captive for sex. Explorers claimed they had climbed mountains they hadn’t climbed and had reached the North Pole when in fact they never reached it. Apparently sober individuals gave firsthand accounts of seeing yeti in the Himalayas and Nessie in her loch and jackalopes on the prairies. Old-time sailors boasted of sleeping with beautiful mermaids, annoyingly omitting the precise physical details, and according to certain fishermen, mermaids offering to grant them three wishes had come up in their nets. The words fisherman and liar are linked in our brains for good reason. And in the interest of brevity, I will pass over the many stories involving logging roads, elk hunters, space aliens, and intergalactic crossbreeding. There are some doors man was not meant to open.
Lies made the wild scary and alluring. When I was a boy, local places I knew about buzzed excitingly with crazy tales. In rural Illinois, Argyle State Park was said to be inhabited by a creature called the Argyle Monster—a huge cougar that had lost its front feet in a trap and ran through the forest on its hind legs at dusk and “screamed like a woman.” Or so said Billy somebody, who told his friends, who were friends of mine, who told me. I never saw the Argyle Monster myself, but it ran on its hind legs through my imaginings and colored the dusk of this unremarkable state park a deep and thrilling sepia when I walked back to the picnic area after fishing. It’s been decades since I went there; I regret that I quit being afraid of the Argyle Monster long ago.
More recently, as a grown-up supposedly immune to phantasms, I learned from Russians when I was traveling in Siberia that somewhere in its remotest parts is Coca-Cola City (Gorod Koka-Kola), which was built during the Cold War as a reproduction of an American city. The residents of Coca-Cola City speak perfect English and use American products and behave like Americans, providing a realistic setting in which the Russian spymasters can train special operatives who will be sent to the U.S. Coca-Cola City is alleged to be the topmost of top-secret sites, and it is closed, of course, to all visitors. I’m not sure if that’s why I never could pin it down on the map. I suspect that it does not exist and never did—but who can say? The rumor of it made Siberia more Siberian for me.
YOU MIGHT NOT THINK that any human creation as hardy as lies could be in danger of dying out, but I’m afraid that, at least outdoors, they are. Nowadays, a good outdoor what-if story has a much smaller chance for survival. Some years ago, you may remember, observers in the deep woods of eastern Arkansas said they had seen an ivory-billed woodpecker, the wonderful and near mythic bird that black people called Lord God Bird because of its soul-shivering appearance. There had been no confirmed sightings of the ivory-bill in decades, and its possible extinction was and is bad news. The observers who said they had seen it weren’t trying to deceive, just being wishful, and because they recorded it with a video camera their wishfulness was eventually dashed—close analysis of the video revealed that the bird was not an ivory-bill.
It would have been nice to think that the bird still survived someplace far away in the forest. But truth is always better than error, I suppose. Consider the recent case of the giant wild hog Hogzilla. A Georgia man said he had shot it while it was running around someplace in the woods, and he posted pictures of it online. This eight-foot-long, 800-pound animal was as monstrous a creature as the Georgia swamps had ever seen. The man added that he had buried the hog in a grave marked with a cross (though feral, it had been a Christian hog, apparently), and because of the excitement stirred up on the Internet the man eventually had to submit the corpse for examination. Through DNA testing, experts determined that it was a mix of wild hog and domestic pig. Its size suggested it had eaten a lot of hog feed. Such a disappointment—Hogzilla, a pen-raised fake. How much more stimulating to believe that there are 800-pound wild hogs infesting the swamps of Georgia. One hates to think what a radio collar and a wildlife-management team would have done to William Faulkner’s bear.
The Hogzilla debunking was another example of the pesky trend toward factuality currently sweeping the out-of-doors. Technology, of course, is at the root of it. The global landscape used to be a theater of various shadings—sunlit fields and canyons of dark obscurity, trackless jungles, and misty Shangri-las. Now the whole world is like a cineplex when the lights have come on. Almost no place on the surface of the planet is really obscure anymore. Satellites watch it all and can let you know to the millimeter how far continental drift moved your swimming beach last year. What’s up along the banks of the great, gray-green Limpopo? How’s traffic on the road to Mandalay? What’s the snowpack like across the wide Missouri? The Internet or Google Earth will tell you.
Traveling in Siberia a decade ago, I thought I was pretty much beyond the reach of checkability; in fact-checker shorthand, anything I wrote would be “O.A.,” which stands for “on author,” meaning “unverifiable by anything other than the author’s say-so.” I did not need to worry that any checker would visit where I had been, nor was it likely that an irate reader would write in claiming I had got something wrong about the tundra zone of the Chukchi Peninsula, given the difficulty of getting there and the absence of any reason to go. But then time and advancing technology proved me wrong. During the many years my Siberian research took, satellite imagery of the earth’s surface became available online, and my claims about the lay of the land in Siberia proved to be checkable after all. Even in far-flung places, descriptions could be verified. If I said there was no bridge over a remote Far Eastern river that I had crossed by ferry, the checker could look on Google Earth and see that, in fact, no bridge showed up in the satellite photo, and a small boat much like a ferry could be seen crossing there.