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The Summer of the Pandemic Nature Selfie

The ubiquitous mountain-range Instagram photo is a subtle flex masquerading as literal groundedness. That’s why it’s irresistible.

This season’s must-have isn’t the Telfar Shopping Bag or a shag mullet haircut. The hottest accessory will require graphite and limestone, and it’s not a spacious Nancy Meyers kitchen island in your Hamptons quarantine home. To be in the pandemic It Crowd requires admission into a mountain range. 

Over Labor Day weekend, you’d be hard-pressed not to find someone on Instagram triumphantly standing wide-legged, head cocked with a set of sprawling peaks and valleys behind them. Vogue wrote that Kendall Jenner raised the bar on hiking attire in a black unitard and gold chain necklace. Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski mounted Aspen Mountain in Colorado, while Hailey and Justin Bieber made their way to the great Idaho outdoors. 

This isn’t just a celebrity trend. Fortunate coworkers and relatives on Instagram spent their holiday traipsing up and down this country’s greatest geological formations as if they were a mercury-addled Lewis and Clark discovering that nature exists beyond Netflix’s Our Planet. (I’m certainly complicit, having ventured out to the Poconos Mountains to live my Folklore fantasy in August.)

When people arrive at these vast landscapes, there’s a growing phenomenon that occurs when the camera or iPhone comes out. Staring out into the abyss or down to the ground, we stand quiet against a humbling mountain backdrop as if this excursion has centered us in a world that’s quite literally burning. It’s so contrived, yet I did it too — and I’m already gearing up to get away from the Gram again. 

Why taunt the timeline with a mountain-range selfie — and invite scrutiny and public judgment — when it would be so easy to just… not… post? Who, or what, is this meant to inspire?

It seemed odd that celebrities who’ve flaunted their million-dollar homes in Architectural Digest are going for a state of outdoor zen on Instagram. “People who never asked before all of a sudden want to go to a ranch out in the middle of nowhere,” Jason Couvillion, founder of travel agency Bruvion, tells me. While he won’t name his clients, Couvillion says he’s placed actresses, directors and other celebrities a short drive or private jet away in the mountains of Alaska, Montana and New Mexico. “We already had to use aliases and do everything privately and have the hotel protect their identities,” he says. 

Maybe it’s the aspirational appeal that convinces regular folks to wreck their layoff fund on a quiet, boring trip. Have you seen Airbnb prices right now? It’s, like, $400 per night (at the least) for tiny cabins six hours away with no Wi-Fi. Everything else is booked up for months. A representative for Airbnb, Liz DeBold Fusco, tells me that stays within 300 miles from home are the most popular destinations for travelers. “Posts in rural areas made $200 million alone in the month of June, which is up 25 percent from the previous year,” she adds. To that end, travel companies have started pushing the great outdoors before it gets too cold. Airbnb partnered with the National Park Service’s nonprofit on a campaign to promote visiting parks close to home.

Certainly, there’s a vested interest in not appearing too happy amid a pandemic, and an austere weekend upstate fits the bill. There’s the pride of being able to say, “I’m on vacation, but don’t lump me in with those idiots.” But the inherent nature of fleeing for solace and wellness (and posting about it on Instagram) reinforces a sort of monetary and societal privilege: We’re lucky enough to have access to a car and paid time off. Outdoor space, detachment from the overwhelming news cycle and the ability to take vacation without losing pay are, after all, luxuries. If we’re fortunate, we still have stressful jobs to return to after paying to be forcibly removed from cell service.

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Above all, these selfies can make shit feel normal again. Maybe that’s the real reason for a pandemic vacation. It’s not about simply getting away and unplugging: We flee to find some normalcy in our lives and to physically connect with our roots. It just so happens that in our extremely online world, Instagram is one of our strongest connective branches. Answering nature’s call now means posting online, because that’s what we’ve been doing for years. 

The pandemic nature selfie is a subtle flex masquerading as literal groundedness, and that’s why it’s irresistible. Quietness in our mundane lives is far more daunting and uncertain. Who the fuck wants to be present in the moment when that moment is… [gestures at all of this]?

Not me. I’ll take doomscrolling through mountain photos on Instagram any day.