Sights are the regulatory element of all our travels. Only a few of us manage travel without sightseeing. No matter how far off the beaten path you travel, the sight is where you’ll meet up with all those other travelers and tourists. But who defines what’s worth seeing? What makes a sight a sight?
Some years ago, I was at the lowest point of the North American continent. It’s in Death Valley National Park, USA, somewhere near Badwater Basin, 281 feet below sea level in the middle of the desert. It is extremely hot in the area but otherwise it isn’t too spectacular. Don’t get me wrong: Death Valley itself is truly spectacular. But compared to the National Park itself, the lowest point of the continent isn’t too outstanding.
Death Valley has a lot to offer, given that you dare to leave your car to enter the dusty heat and hot sand. Simply park your car at the roadside and walk into nowhere to get an idea of how spectacular Death Valley is – with its bizarre rock formations and endless salt, sand and rock deserts.
There aren’t many people who do that. The majority only stops at lookouts. From Dante’s View or Zabriskie Point, just next to the main road, you’ll have a pretty good view of the lowest point of North America. The signs on the street tell us that at these lookouts there is something worth seeing, a place of interest.
Which is why you’ll find a big parking lot next to Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point and the like. From the parking lot a short, paved and signposted path leads to a platform bustling with tourists. Everybody has a camera but the sight itself isn’t seizable. You cannot hike there and you cannot take pictures. The point itself is never in the same position. It moves within a certain radius. You’ll never know where exactly it is at the moment.
John Murray who is known by travel literature as the prophet of tourism published his first „Handbook for Travellers“ in 1836 in London. In this book, he listed a collection of sights in Holland, Belgium and the Rhineland and advised people to see them. The guide was a raving success. It sold out quickly – and people accepted Murray’s definition of places of interest.
Sights aren’t per se worth seeing. They are appointed by some cultural authority. Modern travel guides still apply the John Murray principle. With one important difference: Since we travel much longer and much more often than back in the 19th century and don’t want to visit the same places all over again we need more places of interest. And this is why even non visible places become sights: Settings of historic crimes, places with a unique history, or places in which records have been established or broken.
The lowest point of the North American continent that is the lowest point of the USA at the same point is one of those sights. It isn’t a daring claim to say that most people probably wouldn’t notice anything special about that place if no guide book about the Western United States listed it as a place of interest.
Fictive sights confront their visitors with a problem. Our photos of the Eiffel Tower or the Milan Cathedral don’t need any explanation. Those we take at Death Valley do. The lowest point of North America is not self-explanatory. And if we want to prove that we have been there, we have to point our camera lenses into nonentity. Or else, take pictures of totally unspectacular info signs.
Featured photo by Charles Seguy.