A Guided Tour Through the Ruins of America’s Democracy

Humans can hardly survive anywhere. It is both terrifying and comical, how vulnerable we are. We live comfortably, sort of, under exactly one condition: in the temperate patches of a very thin crust on a relatively small planet in a tiny corner of the known universe. Transport us anywhere else, and we will basically instantly die. Other planets will choke us; black holes will crush us. Even our own modest planet’s oceans will drown us, and its poles will freeze us, and its deserts will dry us into leathery husks.

And yet: We still want to go everywhere.

We seem especially drawn to the places that will hurt us the most. We want to wander through vast deserts in Namibia, where skeletons rival the living animals. We want to explore remote caves in Borneo for signs of humans who explored those caves before. We want to time travel, even if that only means leaping time zones. Some sinister voice in our psyche whispers that the “real” stuff is always farther out there, and then a little farther, and then even farther — sometimes directly next to total annihilation. We find ourselves shimmying out, again and again, to stare into the face of our own doom.

Accompanying a 1919 article on summer hiking in the Swiss village of Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn, this photograph was said to depict “how the women dress for alpine climbing.” The white brush treatment around her figure was a technique used to silhouette figures in print, a kind of early Photoshop.

What are we supposed to do with this irrational yearning? Technology helps. These days, our screens allow us essentially to teleport all over the world. We can virtually walk the Great Wall of China or watch sea eagles sitting on eggs in nests near magnificent fjords. We can spin the whole planet around and zoom in wherever we want — Mauna Loa, Krakatau, the Great Barrier Reef, the Giant’s Causeway. As we look, we can almost believe we are there.

But a real voyage, by most definitions, requires our actual bodies. And if the destination is sufficiently extreme, we may find ourselves making use of one of the most venerable technologies in the history of human innovation: the big, clunky suit. I’m talking about B-movie, Frankenstein’s monster, stumbling and bumbling, aggressively inelegant, vaguely humanoid Bubble Wrap. Clunky suits are the modern version of knight’s armor: artificial shells designed to ferry us through alien zones. They are half clothing, half contraption. In order to stagger off into some interesting hell hole, we are willing to sacrifice comfort, aesthetic dignity and the ability to move our limbs. We are willing to tolerate bystanders gawking at us and saying: Really? A human is in there? Clunky suits are the blunt instruments of voyaging.

Matthew Henson took part in seven arctic expeditions led by Robert Peary over the course of 23 years. Along with several others, he claimed to be the first man to reach the North Pole in 1909. He is seen here in traditional Inuit outerwear. Circa 1909.

In a way, the clunky suit becomes its own voyage: We look at it and see the human imagination projecting itself across many different eras, into the daunting extremes of the outside world. The images accompanying this text were pulled from the archive of The New York Times, and they are scribbled with dates and reference numbers — evidence of past generations staring at them with fascination, amusement and wonder. Their publication dates range from 1909 to not that long ago. They are trapped in time but also timeless.

Look at them. In 1946, an Air Force pilot hunches awkwardly in a pressurized suit fitted with hoses and valves that will allow him, allegedly, to survive at 62,000 feet — but it also looks as though it weighs 62,000 pounds. A swimming champion prepares to cross the English Channel in a suit that looks specifically designed to make swimming impossible. A diver wears an old Ford gas tank on his head. To navigate a world of snow, a man has not only encased himself in caribou fur but has also donned driftwood sun goggles — a contraption so analogue and elegant that it looks futuristic, like a “Star Trek” visor or a virtual reality headset.

Developed by technicians and doctors at the Dutch airline KLM, this suit was “coated inside and out with a thin layer of aluminum” — much like a space blanket — and was meant to keep passengers alive in the event of a polar crash landing. The image was published in 1973 with a caption reading: “This is what the well-dressed castaway will be wearing in the polar region this season.”

We should remember that although some clunky suits look ridiculously old-fashioned, they are by no means tools of self-preservation from the past. Modern astronauts, geared up for space, don’t look all that different from their 1960s predecessors. And we hardly need to look all the way to outer space. An N.F.L. player suiting up for game day puts on armor as ridiculous as any medieval knight’s. A woman selling honey at your local farmers’ market probably handles her bees in an outfit that looks very much like an old-timey beekeeper of yore. Look at everyone who steps outside their houses between December and March in the nation’s Northern latitudes. A Minnesota man walking his dog in January bears more than a passing resemblance to an Arctic explorer in the 1920s.

A big, clunky suit, no matter how old-fashioned it may look, represents something eternal. It’s the same desire that, today, makes us want to trudge into a vacant-seeming field in Virginia to see disintegrating presidents’ heads. This instinct of exploration will long outlive the suits, as well as the bodies they have protected. But the suits themselves will no doubt continue to arrive, and whether made of whalebone or space-age digital nanofibers, they will always represent something timeless: the insatiable human urge to explore. And we will stare at them and be inspired to go on farther, and then even farther, until we have run out of places to go. — SAM ANDERSON


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