The Adventure Craze

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A century later, climbing Mount Rainier is such a common experience that few would call it an adventure, even though the mountain holds its dangers and people occasionally die on it. But anyone with any ambition wants more, wants to bag Aconcagua in the Andes, Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas, Denali in Alaska. Until 1950 no more than 100 people a year summited Rainier. These days about 100 attempt Mount Everest every May. The numbers of people pursuing adventure is unprecedented, and we have to ask, Why now? Is there a reason for this sudden flush of adrenaline into the national bloodstream?

One reason must surely be that no major war is draining it off. The United States has been at peace for nearly 30 years; how else, then, to risk one’s life but to climb Denali, dive Belize? War and adventure have always been twins. One of the great surges of British exploration came after the Napoleonic Wars, when the Royal Navy no longer had much to do. Rather than leave its officers, men, and ships idle, the Admiralty sent them out to discover, among other things, the mouth of the Niger and the eternally elusive Northwest Passage.

A similar surge of adventure in this country came after the Civil War. It was then that John Muir scrambled into the Sierra Nevada, then that the national park system began to take shape, then that sailing turned into yachting and Joshua Slocum cruised alone around the world. Mark Twain turned west even before the war was over to try his luck in Virginia City. Books for boys celebrating a life of derring-do arose and flourished, as did the dime novel. Hiking clubs were established in the East, the Boy Scouts were founded to train boys for the outdoors, gunslingers and Indian fighters became national heroes, and masses of people followed Twain west to seek their fortunes. War transfers these energies to itself. Perhaps at no time has this been more obvious than during the Spanish-American War, when Theodore Roosevelt organized the Rough Riders and did his best to make war seem a great bully lark.

Prosperity also encourages the spirit of adventure. You cannot go sea kayaking in the Queen Charlotte Islands just south of Alaska or climb the remote tepuis in Venezuela without discretionary income. We are now enjoying one of the most prosperous periods in our history. We are also confined, most of us, to our desks most of the time. Life in the countryside has an element of adventure built into it. In the woods or on a farm you are much closer to animal life, you’re in the outdoors as a matter of course, you’re exposed to the dangers of weather in a way the urbanized are not. You almost certainly know how to hunt and fish, how to camp out; you probably have some survival skills.

The urbanized have no such outlets, and urbanized is what we are. So we seek out adventure. And we are the heirs of Western civilization; even more, we are Americans, restless and adventurous by definition; our demigods have names like Lewis and Clark, Amelia Earhart, Buzz Aldrin. Yet here we sit, immobilized, staring at computer screens. I myself have been sea kayaking in the Queen Charlotte Islands. My fellow kayakers were lawyers and scientists, a real estate specialist, a social worker, and a couple of young people not yet ready to settle down. Urban dwellers all.

None of us would have survived a voyage up the Missouri in 1804, no doubt, but we could kayak down Hecate Strait for 10 or 12 miles every day and watch bald eagles passing by, see gray and harbor seals sunning themselves on the rocks and marbled murrelets and rhinoceros auklets diving for herring on the water. If we could not lead adventurous lives, we could rehearse them, and it clearly satisfied a need, an ancient and basic human need to test ourselves against the physical world.

Our current peace and prosperity and the closing of frontiers everywhere have channeled this need into what may appear sometimes to be foolish extremes, like paying $70,000 and up for the chance to climb the highest but also one of the deadliest mountains in the world, where dead bodies litter the trails. But do not mock the need. Here in America it is a vital part of our history to go out and explore. Adventure travel has always been a growth industry in this country; the only difference now is that we no longer do it for conquest or gain. Except, that is, to conquer our fears, or maybe some distant mountain. I, for one, have yet to get back to Mount Rainier, and I’m determined to make it to the top when I do. Why? For the feeling. Life becomes dearest to you, and most intense, precisely when you are risking it.

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