A few years ago, my wife and I got rid of cable; partly to cut expenses (starving artist and all that) but partly because we just didn’t watch enough cable programs to justify having it. Sometime later, our daughter convinced us to try Roku, one of those boxes that connects to your television and receives signals from your computer. The result is a host of wonderful classic movies, TV shows old and new, documentaries, news channels, and special interest shows and features. Except for some channels you wish to pay a small amount for (such as a great weather site that’s just $1.99 for life), you really never have to pay anything after buying a Roku box.
One of the first things we discovered was that a few channels offered slick, high-definition tours of beautiful places around the world. Some come with commentary, others with music, and some with simply the accompanying sounds of nature. What better way could there be to relax, we thought, after working in the yard or on some household project, than to curl up and travel to some place we had never been, or to a location we loved and would like to visit again. After watching several of these impressive videos, however, I was forced to come to a sad conclusion. What these short travel vignettes remind me of is those very popular large format “coffee table” books that we all used to buy, often for friends who had specific interests. If someone liked to go to Hawaii, you bought them this huge book filled with sharp, full-color photos taken all over the Hawaiian Islands. If they liked old cars, you found a book filled with photos of all sorts of antique automobiles representing a variety of makes and models. What set these books apart from others were their incredibly sharp photography, and the sort of lighting and color manipulation that could only be mastered by professional photographers with 4 by 5 cameras and a huge assortment of lenses and filters.
Anyway, the video tours available on Roku are very much in the same vein, but as much as I marvel at their crispness and spectacular beauty, I realized after a short while that something was missing. In these videos, every less-than-desirable aspect of a location had been removed. I love desert landscapes and immersing myself in the sensory elements found in desert regions. But when I watched the short videos on Death Valley, Zion, and Joshua Tree National Parks, for example, I missed some of the things that are very much part of the authentic experience. Things like the intense sun beating down on my body, the sweat running down my neck, the fly buzzing around my face. I missed the aching feet, the dust blowing in my eyes and the sudden pain in my knees when scraping them against a sharp-edged outcropping of rock.
In other words, the video versions of the places I love had been sanitized, rid of everything that makes them real, compelling and in some cases, dangerous. Just as we can watch a movie and be safely immersed in the life of a spy, the gun fight of a cowboy, or the terror-filled environment of a zombie chaser, we are protected from the realities of outdoor experiences by the high-definition, brilliantly choreographed, and near-perfect video versions of real places. True, they remain places that are open to real visitation by real people, but are now available to be safely viewed at home in your multi-purpose entertainment room, kitchen or den.
For people who will never leave their homes to traipse across some of these outdoor locales, these videos serve a useful purpose. But just as I shake my heads to know how many tens of thousands of people stay indoors all day and immerse themselves in the incredibly “real” looking environments of modern computer games, I feel sorry for those who will never know what an authentic, unsanitized outdoor experience is like, as opposed to one with so many missing sensory experiences, and one that can be frozen, backed up and fast-forwarded at a seconds notice.
Despite the discomforts, uncertainties and potential danger, real outdoor experiences will always outshine those depicted, however high-definition they may be, in video travel adventures available for consumption on your home TV set.