In Defense of the Indefensible: ‘High on Life’ at Yellowstone

by Kolby Solinsky

White Cover Magazine

As much as I want to write this, I don’t. Because I don’t know how I’ll be able to keep it short…

The past couple days, my inbox has been hit-up with multiple comments (or as I like to call them, vulgar vomit) on a blog post I’d since basically forgotten about – an article I wrote on a YouTube group called SundayFundayz, also called High on Life. They’re a close-knit bro squad from Vancouver with a very-watched vlog and clothing line, as well as an entertainment label. They’ve done well.

The article I wrote was published on a few news sources in 2014, and I re-published it on my own site, KolbyDoesEurope. At that time, their YouTube channel was kicking ass, but the boys hadn’t yet started taking names. Since our first encounter, I’ve seen them more and more – CTV gave them the lazy local broadcaster treatment, right down to the jokes and banter about this millennial generation, right? … Wow, YouTube celebrities? The Province covered them – the Province always decides to cover something after someone else at a smaller outlet has. The Huffington Post and other online agencies embedded their YouTube videos about social experiments and stunts involving fake ‘Abusive Girlfriends‘ and ‘I Dropped a Dollar, Will the Person Behind Me Pick It Up and Give It To Me?‘ skits. And the boys themselves have put more and more out there on their own – one of High on Life’s mains, Ryker Gamble, is a prominent DJ in Vancouver’s electronic and live event scene, their YouTube channel has swelled and the production quality is noticeably brighter and glossier than it was when I first started watching their stuff, and their social following across Twitter, Vine, and Instagram has grown so much, they’re the reason your son or daughter thinks they can make it as a travel blogging niche celebrity. (Because, you know, that’s not a saturated market.)

But after years of being on the Internet’s good side, High on Life just now forgot to duck when the tether ball came the other way.

They trespassed while visiting Yellowstone’s Prismatic hot spring, hopping off the boardwalk and walking basically right into the natural wonder itself – it’s illegal and prohibited, and the group disobeyed the signs they obviously saw, all for the sake of the perfect selfie, another epic photo and another epic video. (The word ‘epic’ seems to be continually always losing its definition.)

So, now they’re in deep shit. I think? There are reportedly warrants out for the arrests of three of them, a fourth one for the final member of the group potentially on its way. Charges could lead to jail time, and could lead to a $5,000 fine for each of the quartet. At least, that’s reportedly the maximum penalty.

Let’s just say this, which is very obvious – it was a profoundly stupid thing to do. Not just because it wasn’t allowed or because it was disrespectful, but because if everyone single person visiting Yellowstone did what they did, those hot springs would likely be destroyed. The area was prohibited not just for visitors’ safety reasons, but because it’s a sensitive ecosystem. Natural wonders lose both their nature and their wonder when they’re exposed to man’s feet and foolishness – every time.

But, really, that’s the whole story.

Or, it should be.

Except now they’re being Internet shamed. Perhaps it’s a collective effort, or perhaps people are just commenting on their own and the millions of tweets and angry responses have unintentionally formed one massive shit storm. And the debris has even somehow hit me – that explains the messages I’ve been getting.

Just by writing and publishing a couple articles on these guys – Parker Heuser, Alexey Lyakh, and Ryker Gamble, mainly – and their YouTube channel, and their maybe-thriving business, I have been accused of “promoting” them and condoning their actions. I’ve been called both a “douchebag” and “a douche” – so clever, so clever – on the assumption that I must be just like them, or that I must be pissing on every single city and every single statue I see. Someone told me they hoped I hadn’t destroyed Europe, because they were planning seeing it. (I haven’t. I hardly even made a shadow while I was there.) I’ve been told that the “socially responsible” thing to do would be to delete every article I’ve written on them, that maybe I should have done my “research” before reporting on a group of guys that have unfortunately been caught in the rabid breeze of the web’s rabies. (Although, hard to know how any amount of research done could have tipped me off that they’d one day trespass at a national park and make you angry, guy.) And really, at least I reported on them – I asked them questions, sat down with them, dove into the story. Journalism, in other words. I didn’t just embed their video on my site – although I’m sure that low-hanging approach will save the Huffington Post from having to defend itself in this situation.

Forget the fact that reporting on someone or something isn’t the same as condoning them or promoting them – just like retweeting someone doesn’t mean you agree with them, just like praising someone for something doesn’t mean you praise them for everything. Forget that these guys are actually really nice, really solid dudes. Forget the fact that, while I enjoy some of their work and applaud much of what they’ve published, I also don’t share the same travel style – I can’t do back flips, I’ve never been into EDM, I’m not as outgoing as they are (props to them), I’ve never done a Contiki tour or had any interest in partying like these guys do, because it’s way too loud and way too American… but, so what? I have my style, they have theirs. I hope you have yours. Live and let live.

Alexey Lyakh, founding member of the YouTube channel, High on Life, at Mount Rushmore. (Photo from High on Life's Facebook page.)
Alexey Lyakh, founding member of the YouTube channel, High on Life, at Mount Rushmore. (Photo from High on Life’s Facebook page.)

And should I say that I’ve been disgusted every time I’ve visited a ‘sacred’ memorial or monument on foreign soil – the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, the grounds of Auschwitz in Poland, Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, to name three – and I’ve seen people either talking or goofing around or not taking their surroundings seriously? Should I say that, or does it even matter? Because nobody criticizing anyone really wants to listen. They just want to bark.

I’m not a religious man – in fact, I’m very proudly not religious – but I still take off my hat and pretend to care about custom and courtesy every time I enter a temple or church in Thailand or France or the Vatican. (Even though the Vatican disrespects itself enough by selling crappy souvenirs on every inch of its way-too-lavish property. Do you really think Jesus wanted you to build a city of gold, Catholics? Do you?)

Truth is, nobody really cares about other peoples’ customs or traditions. They go along with them. They acknowledge them. They agree to respect them, even when they’re just following orders – even when you have to drag your sweaty legs through 40-degree Bangkok weather, wearing long pants (it’s the rule!) for two hours and standing in line at Wat Arun, painfully soaked in your own watery salt, waiting to see the same statues of Buddha in different sizes. A lot of people – at least, the ones who were commenting – loved High on Life’s videos when they were drunker and younger and basically doing the same stuff, from Full Moon Parties in Thailand (which I imagine some of those locals hate, too) to shooting rocket launchers in Cambodia (video has been taken down) to shooting Parkour videos in Prague and Gangnam Style videos in Italy, to riding ATVs off their wheels in Greece. This stunt in Wyoming was a step further, literally, and certainly legally. But now, the fans have been drowned out by social justice warriors, who are either Yellowstone lovers (and fair enough, if you are) or Internet crusaders, motivated by whatever pissed them off that morning, by whatever they deem too outrageous to ignore multiple times a week.

Most travel is careless. All travel ruins the fresh powder for those who come after, usually leaving behind exhaust and garbage. Even being a responsible guest leaves behind bed sheets that have to be washed, plates that have to be rinsed, wiped, and dried.

And there are awful examples everywhere:

Go to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome – a stone’s throw from the Vatican – and what do you see? You see graffiti and marker all over every inch of its walls, with families having written their names and destroying the serenity of one of the world’s finest structures – or rather, destroying whatever serenity the wake of pedophilia and rape left intact. Go to the Louvre and stand in front of the Mona Lisa and what do you see? A million tourists taking photos of the world’s most famous painting, even though they’re told not to. The High on Life crew have been accused of goofing off in the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin – even though thousands of other travellers do the same thing, and even though I’m pretty sure it’s not a member of High on Life in this picture that’s been posted to blame them. But who cares about accuracy when you’re too busy typing?

People are fine with disrespect and tackiness and being obnoxious. They’re fine with it as long as they’re getting away with it – as long as it’s not in their way. They’re fine with it as long as it’s not at the monument or national park they care most about.

And Americans are fine being the rudest tourists in the world when they are somewhere else. They just hate it when you act that way on their turf.

The SundayFundayz crew made the mistake of trespassing, but they made an even bigger mistake, too – they got caught. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people, or that they deserve any of the over-the-top shaming they’re receiving. There’s even a petition floating on, asking High on Life’s sponsors Bud Light and Red Bull to drop them. Apparently these people behind the petition are so naive, they actually think hitting 25,000 signatures – their goal – requires any formal action. And apparently, the laws of the United States aren’t enough – now, the selectively outraged want to strip them of their income, and their business. That’s a lot of intended punishment for a scandal their critics will forget about in a week, when they’ve moved on to the next thing Blake Lively says.

And sadly, I expect Bud and Red Bull will actually cater and drop High on Life. There are very few examples of corporate courage right now, where employers or brands actually stand up and defend their teammates. Too often, they cave at first demand, when all they have to do is wait for the news to recycle. When all they have to say is, ‘We have spoken to them and we have warned them we won’t accept something like this again.’

(And let’s consider the irony of Bud Light and Red Bull – a beer company and an energy drink (basically, liquid cocaine) company – not being punished for selling products that actually, very truly do physical harm to their customers, myself included, but being called out instead for doing business with a group of guys whose actions potentially could have only harmed themselves.)

In summary: I like a lot of High on Life’s work. I like the guys. I enjoy talking to them, and I’ll cover them and their work again, I’m sure. That doesn’t mean I condone everything in every video, or that I would do the same stuff when I’m in the same places. Their way of travelling, of partying, really isn’t my cup of tea – because, truthfully, I actually like cups of tea. Their style is frat boy fun, a swirling feast of bro humour – mine is lots of beer and romantic lighting. But I consider them friends. This situation, at Yellowstone, was a stupid bit of obnoxious tourism – which they’ve acknowledged. They’ll sit in the box, serve the minor. It’s done. And as much as I care, I also really don’t. Because, let’s be honest, very few of you do, either. And before this incident, I wasn’t even aware of the hot springs at Yellowstone. I am now, and I’d love to visit. Is there anything else? Or did you stop reading 40 words in?

And will we watch Yogi Bear in a different light now that we sorta sympathize with the Park Ranger? (Oh, come on, it was right there…)

Trolls, I know you want me to pay the fee. But I’m not interested in crossing your bridge.