As one turns through the final steep curve to reach the top of Sam’s Point, the connection with the organic mass at the cliff base that is threaded all the way to the parking area through strands of clustering individuals, is broken. A junction exists on the cliff to bifurcate the diminished flow even more. Loop Road continues straight to eventually circle around Lake Maratanza and then cycle back through the remnants of old berry picker shacks before making a beeline to the parking lot on the far side of the switchbacks that lead to Sam’s Point. One of the more popular routes in the preserve is to continue straight on Loop Road toward Lake Maratanza until a spur road to the right appears about halfway to the lake. The spur leads to Ice Caves— a short self-guided tour directly through impressive crevices and cave-like chambers amongst the large debris and talus boulders of fractured Shawangunk conglomerate. The Ice Caves loop is not terribly long, so many day trippers attempt a trifecta: a visit to the caves, and then a longer hike to Verkeerder Kill Falls, after their short excursion to Sam’s Point lookout. Prior to the Ice Caves entrance and just off the main spur that branched to the right from Loop Road, a trail to the left disengages to embark all the way to Verkeerder Kill Falls in the form of the Long Path Trail. That is the trail that had situated us within mixed forest above Verkeerder Valley as we observed passing hikers returning from the falls.
Just before the final sweeping turns that lead to the top of Sam’s Point during the first part of the hike from the parking lot, New Jersey’s High Point can be spied to the south. To the west, the Delaware Valley lay beyond Ellenville and the rapidly narrowing Shawangunk spine. The Hudson Highlands frame the Hudson River to the southeast. All of this is abruptly available from the base of the large white cliffs. At this point of the initial ascent, and almost in sequence, people migrate to mill about on the broad flat surfaces of rock on the far side of the road because the horizon has suddently opened up. Striding abreast a group of young travelers when my opportunity arose, I accompanied the young group onto one of those natural platforms. In turn, we all stepped onto the rock as if it were a paid attraction. After a few moments of quiet observation, it took but an economical word or two, and the swift unpacking of a selfie-stick for the young Koreans that I had stepped up with to noiselessly gather into a single organic being for their own group capture, with the impressive horizon behind them. I had not time to set down my pack and take out my own camera, though I wished that I had anticipated the sight of such a rapid assembly of nonchalant, matter-of-fact cohesion. It was, in fact beautiful. As quickly as the collective being assembled, it disassembled; and still I had not time to adequately take in the soft freshness of their individual faces, or the bright glow of excitement that transmitted the onset of their shared social excursion. Immediately following the group shot, when the young men and women were still in the act of tearing their individually from the tucked assembly, I caught an undercurrent of sexual tension that was designed to reinstate a comfortable distance between the paired couples— for it became evident only at that moment that the group had arrived for the hike in pairs. The awkward moment occurred for some when the social comfort of gently touching heads in preparation for the group photo required pulling back to individuality immediately afterward. The re-emergence of a more authentic mix of feelings began to play across their faces as picture-ready smiles began to lose their temporary hold. To most people, this transition does not solicit even a whisper of self-awareness, but for this group, it seemed to bring a rather heightened transition. Playful jostling masked nervous excitement as they sought to recreate both the hidden bond and the comfortable spaces that they had established as a traveling crew prior to the group shot. This push and pull held sway even later when I ran into the same group on top of the cliffs at Sam’s Point. It was there that, again as paired couples, they took turns moving onto the edge of the cliff as their companions captured their gestures of tentative intrigue before the all-embracing horizon, and knowledge of their dangerous proximity to the edge. As I sat on an adjacent cliff, I asked permission to photograph their own sessions positioned so very near the cliff edge, with the old road poised below in warning. They heartily accepted.
Hours later, during the final leg of my hike, and upon the same viewing rock where the group-selfie had been taken at the outset, I participated in, or perhaps simply witnessed, another group experience. This time, however, it was a gathering of young men— from the Bronx I overhead them say— that milled about on the platform. The group had seized their viewing position just before the sun began to set. There was significantly more individuality in the young men’s slow pacing movements relative to the Korean couples that had assembled prior, but when the sun entered its magic moment before silently slipping under the horizon with a soft, lingering glow, stillness was immediately imparted as if a capture were again in progress— though no smartphones had been raised, and no selfie-sticks were present. It was, however, an economical use of language that came to define that particular stillness once again, even while the sunset had been the source of the transfixed group. For these young men, the sheer contrast of a day in the mountains was radically different then the chaos of their native streets.
Nonetheless, the individuals never lost their capacity to project a unique personality even in the posture and poise of their collective movements. As their slow, nearly cyclical revolutions and the punctuated form of their chatter began to ebb, one of the young men commandeered the silence for an effective and perfectly timed address, stating succinctly: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sunset”. This, of course, was not a literal or humble admission of lack that had been snuck out at an unguarded moment, it was a strong affirmation of the present— and everyone understood.Both of these groups appeared to receive the Gunks as part of a day completely out of the ordinary. The setting contrasted strongly with their normal environment, thereby heightening the shared nature of their experience. But in general, the first group seemed to demonstrate individuality through that social experience. The unfamiliar but intriguing landscape brought cohesion and pushed them together as collective subjects attending to a new arrangement of perceptual objects. The group dynamic, even if transiently formed for the day’s outing, granted each member a measure of their individuality within the social context of collective witnessing. Sometimes the group itself was a more compelling set of objects to witness than the environment, which acted as background for social interactions. For the second group, as opposed to extracting fuel for their individuality from the cohesive group, members addressed their individuality to the group— as they did in their everyday environment. The novel environment affected each differently, but that impact was transmuted into the potent and individual way that they communicated to each other almost by means of gesture. Gesture accompanied the few economical words that they expressed in the form of their individuality, whereas, in the first group, words and gestures were pitched to the group with the expectation of a rebound. They had sought, and received, affirmation from secure social belonging.In different variations throughout this essay we’ve utilized the leash and the selfie-stick as symbols for the diverse types of relationships that exist between our spontaneous perceptual powers on one side, and our socially projected selves on the other. It is clear, moreover, that our social group forms the first target of our affective perceptions, as well as another primary lens through which we see the world sensually. In a few short years, selfie-sticks— one of our symbols for that intervening medium that separates our subjectivity in the form of direct experience from our subjectivity as a presentation of personality to others— will be regarded as a clumsy, but charming instrument from a bygone era, as we prepare to apprehend our world through the medium of wearable devices and other appendages. We might now begin to ask: how much will these new technologies not simply be emblematic of, but actually impart a greater degree of separation between our spontaneous sensations and the rich world beneath the means that we use to display it? Will we increasingly attend exclusively to our virtual presentations as mediums of ‘augmentation’, or will we retain vital access to the physical world that our senses range over in a formative but forgotten dance? For how long will we retain the capacity for this rich and spontaneous dialogue? Does not language, culture, and even our social group already perform a virtual separation relative to the sensed world of some of our furry friends? Is not technology but a natural extension of the same movement that we have been engaging for millennia— away, that is, from the self-enclosed richness of perception? Like language and culture, does not technology offer the continued creative development of novel worlds by means of our representations of that concretely perceived world? If that is so, should we not still retain an escape hatch toward our natural roots, primarily because we must understate the flexible power of those active perceptual processes in order to act within a concrete world? At what point must we turn back from the higher plane of our constructs and believe again in the dense trees and branches below us, so as to leap for safety after our adventures, like Sam Gonzalus? Will we still be able to make the leap if the trees that link us to our sensual roots are increasingly cut off by sediments of sanctioned virtual representations? Will it remain within the simple power of the simple man to go unleashed— with full faith in the knowledge that our natural explorations and contact with the sensual world does not need guidance or interpretive features in order to remain functional? Or will we choose, instead, to remain tethered in order to funnel all spontaneity and creativity toward a sanctioned version of functionality, because it provides a greater measure of identity through the social and cultural bond?
A dog barks in the distance. It is a controlled, communicative bark, not a reactionary bark of urgent compulsion. In response, a rapid, but piercing whistle shrieks between the index finger and thumb of its owner as a single, meaningful burst. The same fern-carpeted oasis that we had stopped at earlier entertains a tall brown dog with a white chest bounding through the trail, like an athlete in its prime. The trail transitions from forest path to parallel planks, but this raises no difficulty for the dog as it deftly picks a side and crosses without the slightest loss in cadence or grace. The dog had been investigating the trail a consistent distance ahead of its owner when it was diverted for some time on a small game trail that meandered off to the east, just at the edge of the forest. During its adventure, the dog’s owner passed its position on the main trail. In short order, dog and owner were reunited, and the dog moved on to take its normal position in the lead.