The Adventure Craze

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Death and danger haven’t seemed to rein in this passion for adventure. In 1997, a year after the debacle on Everest, the mountain was just as crowded with climbers. A grueling 12-day event like the Eco-Challenge Expedition Race must turn away more and more would-be entrants every year. Outside magazine reports that participation in races of this type—and there are now 200 of them worldwide—has increased at the rate of 65 percent annually. As I write, somebody is walking alone for 7,800 miles across the Pacific. He walks on small pontoons attached to his feet. He sleeps in a catamaran that he tows behind him. In 1988 the same man walked across the Atlantic. What is going on here? Where has this surge of interest in adventure come from, and where is it taking us? And why now?

Where it comes from is the easiest question to answer, for surely a taste for adventure is as old as the human race itself, a function of an evolutionary development that rewarded risk takers over the timid and the meek. We humans were all originally hunter-gatherers, and the males who ate well (and presumably attracted mates) were those who went up against woolly mammoths and bison and learned how to fight off predators, who left the safety of the cave and went “out there.” Scientists have in fact identified a gene in human beings that might be called the “adventure gene.” Known as D4DR, it is longer, it turns out, in people prone to seeking thrills.

Genetic bases for behavior are, to say the least, controversial, but even if we discount this explanation, there’s no doubt that adventure has a long history, especially in Western civilization, one of whose founding epics, the Odyssey, is essentially an adventure tale. The Greeks were explorers and colonizers, and Western adventurers ever since Alexander the Great have been expanding the horizons of the known world. “Adventure travel” is a long, unbroken thread in the tapestry of Western history. During the Renaissance, it was the West, and only the West, that sent ships into the unknown. Reading about the exploits of explorers and adventurers also has a long history in the West, from the purely imaginary, wonderfully strange Travels of Sir John Mandeville to Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast to Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon. For a time, the East India Company distributed copies of Hakluyt’s Voyages to its officers. At the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries in England, accounts of voyages and travels were published in greater numbers than any other kind of book. It was during this time that Daniel Defoe wrote The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, the grandfather of the thousands of boys’ adventure books that are still being written even now.

IT WAS IN AMERICA THAT ADVENTURE BECAME MOST DEEPLY EMBEDDED IN THE CULTURE. JUST TO GET HERE REQUIRED CROSSING AN OCEAN, AND THERE WAS ALWAYS WILDERNESS TO EXPLORE.

It was in America, however, that adventure became most deeply embedded in the culture. This has been, says Martin Green in his book The Great American Adventure, “from its inception and conception, a land of adventure.” Just to get here required crossing an ocean, and from the Letters of Columbus on, we have celebrated the achievement. Until it was closed in 1890, the country always had a frontier to be explored and colonized, a wilderness to be tamed and settled. Many of our legendary heroes were adventurers—frontiersmen and wrestlers of bears like Daniel Boone, explorers like Lewis and Clark, mountain men like Jim Bridger and Jeremiah Johnson, scouts and Indian fighters like Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill, aviators like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart and Chuck Yeager, people moving off the map, into the unknown. Adventure is a defining tradition in this country, part of what it means to be an American. We are famous for lighting out for the territory. When Washington Irving came home to America in 1832 after 17 years abroad, one of the first things he did was join a small military expedition into an unmapped area of what is now Oklahoma and write a book about the trip, A Tour on the Prairies. It was as if he wanted to let his American readers know that his long residence in Europe had not rendered him too genteel to make such a characteristically American gesture as riding off into the unknown.