The Adventure Craze


Irving’s trip was not, to be sure, without purpose. He was traveling as the secretary pro tem of a newly appointed Indian commissioner named Henry L. Ellsworth, and they rode with a military escort of Rangers recruited for the trip. Through much of the nineteenth and all of the previous centuries, adventure normally had this kind of utilitarian purpose behind it. Lewis and Clark set out to find a Northwest Passage; the mountain men to pioneer in the fur trade; Captain Cook to see if there wasn’t an Antarctica after all; Amundsen and Scott to explore it. Herman Melville’s great adventure among the cannibals of Nuku Hiva, which he describes in his first book, Typee, was the accidental result of jumping ship from a whaler. He hadn’t signed on in order to have an adventure; he signed on to make a living. Recreational adventure did not take firm hold in America until after the maps were filled in, the frontier closed, the gold and silver mines played out. The spirit of adventure flowed freely in the national psyche, but it expressed itself in activities with practical ends: conquest and gain.

The transition to pursuing adventure for its own sake, which is what characterizes the current adventure craze, was hardly abrupt, however. You can see the germs of what we now call adventure travel in Irving’s book, for example. Whatever the practical purpose of the trip, Irving’s role as “secretary” was really just an excuse to have a good time, and the same was true for many of the Rangers who accompanied him and Ellsworth. Another companion on the trip was a young Swiss nobleman, the Count de Pourtales, one of a growing crowd of European gentlemen for whom American adventures were an exciting alternative to the Grand Tour. The Rangers spent much of their time hunting and fishing; the nighttime camps as Irving describes them were boisterous fun. The count dashed off on his own, hoping to run into Indians. He and Irving chased buffalo and tried, ineffectually, to bring one down. It is clear from Irving’s text that all involved had a grand time. Not the least of the pleasures was the thrill of a possible Pawnee attack.


So with Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840. Dana came from Boston patrician stock. He dropped out of Harvard to go to sea for the altogether practical purpose of resting his eyes, which were beginning to give him trouble, but it never occurred to him or his family that he would make a life on the sea as a common sailor. Seafaring was, of course, a major occupation at the time, and books describing voyages, on whalers, on expeditions, on Navy ships, were plentiful. What makes Dana’s book stand out is precisely this air of doing it to see what it was like, doing it as an adventure, pure and simple. Such a trip was a luxury at the time, possible only for those like Dana who had no need to make a living at sea.

This absence of ulterior motives is the essential ingredient in true adventure travel, and we can see it beginning to emerge in books like these. It appears more strongly in the vogue for climbing mountains, which originated in Europe in the early nineteenth century and began to spread to the United States in the 1850s.

Before that time, nobody had ever bagged a peak “because it is there,” to quote George Mallory’s famous reply to the question of why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. People climbed mountains for scientific purposes, carrying barometers to determine air pressure at the top (and thus the elevation) or surveying equipment to fill in the contours on a map. The idea of climbing them for sport was slow to develop. The first ascent of Mont Blanc in the Alps was made in 1786 by a local man named Jacques Balmat, who served as a guide, and Dr. Michel Gabriel Paccard, and when Paccard got to the top, he spent half an hour making scientific observations with the instruments he had brought. It was an American pair, William Howard and Jeremiah van Rensselaer, who first climbed Mont Blanc for no other reason but the thrill of it. Gradually, over the first half of the nineteenth century, climbing Mont Blanc for the thrill of it become more and more fashionable. By the 1850s, it was something the more dashing young gentlemen tourists wanted to try, and even women were going up.

A parallel development took place in this country, and you can see it in the climbing history of Mount Rainier. The mountain was first seen by white men in 1792, when Capt. George Vancouver of the British Navy spotted it on his reconnaissance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and named it for his friend Rear Adm. John Sprat Rainier. The first excursion to the flanks of the mountain was made by Dr. William Fraser ToImie in 1833 to gather alpine herbs; Tolmie had no interest in climbing it.