The third law of adventure is: adventures break new ground.
We know that every time we repeat something the neural network associated with that activity is strengthened. The circuit becomes stronger, more connected to the rest of our brain. It’s like a rut getting deeper and deeper as each cart wheel rolls along and cuts further into the mud. Eventually a road is built out of something that may have started life as a simple path. Once it is asphalted it can be used by cars and trucks. Maybe it then gets widened into a motorway.
Adventures aren’t like that. They don’t strengthen existing nerve paths, they make new ones, laying down new experiences as new memories. New connections are forged with other parts of the brain. What is strengthened are certain skills and attitudes associated with adventure. Perhaps we embark on a path to become some kind of master adventurer, nebulous though the concept might seem. What would adventure mastery look like? A bunch of psychological skills: not being too easily phased, a nose for novelty and interest, creativity when in a tight spot, persistence, a sense of humour, flexibility, resourcefulness, playfulness. The kind of skills you need if you want to make a habit of breaking new ground.
Breaking new ground in an inner sense.
We all have a series of preferences which becomes our comfort zone. It is all that we have grown habitually used to. Going outside our comfort zone can be either painful or pleasurable. It makes sense to get an idea of your own comfort zone first, before embarking on a new adventure. Better knowledge of your comfort zone in another sense can actually generate new adventures. What I mean is, the things you are comfortable with which other people are not. If you kind of like wet sleeping bags, battling leeches, bugs and spiders then the jungle is for you. I must admit I fall into this perverse minority. For me it is all part of the adventure, the strangeness of it all. I read yesterday about Ollie Hicks’ first successful attempt to kayak from Scotland to Norway. It took 62 hours. That’s 62 hours of sitting upright, getting very wet and cold and dodging north sea oil terminal traffic through the night and day. Pretty miserable if you ask me. But for some people that’s half the fun of it. So if you have a skewed comfort zone some adventures suggest themselves more than others.
I think you have to rely on an inner hunch about what kind of adventure will test your comfort zone to destruction and what kind will play to your strengths. I see one part of adventure as attention seeking- giving yourself attention as well as getting it from others- and if you can do something easily that others find uncomfortable or dangerous it makes that activity all the more appealing. Psychologist Michael Apter analysed adventure as making safe and controlling (to the individual concerned’s satisfaction) events and experiences that others find perilous or offputting. When you see someone climbing solo without a rope he’s doing something safe in his own mind, safer than driving without a seatbelt for some.
So adventure can spring from exploiting your own comfort zone anomalies. But the higher levels of adventure must come from confronting your own comfort zone and picking away at it. Many adventurers don’t do this. Respect, then, to Ranulph Fiennes, famously scared of heights, who, in his 60s, took up climbing. Though he wasn’t technically gifted, he still got up the Eiger and Everest. I consider the other factors (being guided etc) irrelevant to the argument I am making here, which is: the man left his comfort zone of polar expeditions to enter a zone he was frankly nervous about: heights.
Nibbling away at comfort zones rather than hacking off more than you can chew probably makes sense. But there is a subtle point here, though, which is- you may have a good reason to be nervous of a certain activity. When you read about bicycle stunt riders who have bad accidents, they often have an intuition, a ‘bad feeling’ before something happens. A few years ago I took up tall tree climbing. I used to be a rock climber and I’ve been climbing trees all my life. But this time, instead of following my instincts, which is to do things my way until I reach a roadblock, whereupon I ask others/search books/the net for answers I decided to relearn tree climbing the ‘official way’. This involved harnesses, special ropes and a lot of gear I rather enjoyed buying. But it got in the way. Climbing a very easy hundred foot sycamore with a friend I found myself less than twenty feet from the ground, unclipping to let him abseil down. So I was breaking the new rules I had imposed on myself, yet without the awareness I usually cultivated through doing things my own way. The boots I had on were stiff soled (the only ones that really work for climbing ropes). Without feeling the surface of the branch coming through the sole I made a false move and slipped- and fell headfast fifteen feet to the ground. I broke the fall with my wrist, which took on a nasty ‘S’ curve look. Driving to the hospital with my pal doing the gears for me I vowed to never abandon my own sense of intuition about the safe way FOR ME to undertake any adventure.
I suppose what I am edging around is the best way you adopt for nibbling away at your comfort zone. Taking courses and going with friends both work but I think one must always try and find a way that suits you first. Safety procedures are no substitute for heightened awareness, which includes the awareness that you are tired, ill and prone to making foolish decisions under such conditions.
Breaking new ground in an outer sense
Most adventures break new ground in a geographical sense. Going someplace new, or going there in a novel way, or approaching from a new perspective. If you explore Oxford as T.E. Lawrence did, by kayaking through its sewers, you’ll get a different perspective than strolling down St. Giles.
I keep circling this subject in my homemade expedition posts, but we always end up butting up against the objection that the world is all explored. In a macro sense this may be true: aerial photos long ago revealed the earth’s surface geography, but in any other sense the world is an ever changing place where exploration is always a possibility. Places become isolated and forgotten, either because of politics or economics, then we return to them and explore them anew. People change, places change- bringing back news of this is exploration, and a guaranteed adventure. Colin Wilson, a writer I really enjoy reading, always puzzled me by his assertion that ‘travel bored me’. He boasted of spending an entire visit to Sweden holed up in a hotel reading science fiction. I know now that he was expecting too much of travel, that being in the hotel or the hotel coffee shop is sometimes all you need. The adventure is just being there, the slight edge of excitement on all you do. Seeing the conventional sights IS boring sometimes, unless you use them as an alibi to get out and about. My good friend Tarquin Hall taught me long ago that you can turn around as soon as you reach the tourist sight you’ve travelled to, no need for silly reverence or even a photo, however many hours you took. The journey there was the real meat.
Bandwidth and adventure
Modern industrial and large scale capitalism operates within a very narrow bandwidth. By this I mean, the kind of experiences it requires or recognises is very limited. It requires the ideal human to be a consumer of novelties, often ill, largely unsatisfied with life, scared, profligate but hard working, and above all a follower of trends and fashions.
I think that the thirst for adventure is partly driven by a desire to get beyond this narrow bandwidth. Adventure can test relationships in a way that not many aspects of normal life can. It can push you into places where you ‘see yourself’; reacting in a stilted or automatic way in a novel situation you realise you aren’t as cool as you thought. The most ‘normal’ people I know are those who have travelled and had various adventures- not necessarily dangerous ones. The people I have always thought as cleaving mostly closely to an ad writer’s stereotype of normality are those I see teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
We simply aren’t designed to live in prison, and by this I mean the prison of narrow bandwidth. Indigenous people tend to accept this. For them, life is so much more than a job and a family, from joy to resignation the mysteries of the universe are claimed as being their birthright, and not the province of professors and theologians. Adventure breaks new ground in that it beings us out of this narrow bandwidth. It may start with a simple desire to experience a thrill such as climbing or rafting, but the places you go to do these things come with spectacular and welcome extra baggage- the people and the surroundings of the wilderness. I was drawn at first to the gymnastic aspects of climbing, now I’m only really interested in the exploratory, going to places very rarely visited before.
Doing something alone can be another way of breaking new ground. Audrey Sutherland, one of my favourite adventurers, favoured using at first, a cheap Tahiti blow up canoe for her solo journeys around Hawaii and Alaska. She realised that a blow-up boat is a lot easier to get back into after a solo spill than a kayak. And since she was alone it didn’t matter that she travelled slowly. And when you are alone you can rest and wait out bad weather conditions – groups are notoriously less patient with such things. Her boat could also carry far more gear than a kayak. By taking her time and a lot of food she could get places long considered too distant and dangerous by others. By going alone she found a way to travel that hadn’t been used before.
Solo travel such as rail or bus travel is more adventurous than travelling in a group (unless you travel with an outgoing type who keeps meeting new people along the way. Somerset Maugham always travelled with an extrovert friend who created adventures in this way.) Alone, but always with a book or kindle (this is THE secret of solo travel, making any restaurant or train a place of pleasure not pain) you are free to join up or leave with anyone you run into on your journey.
Solo travel such as sailing alone around the world without touching land or otherwise meeting anyone (the purity of this now a bit spoilt by satphones) is not for many. The adventure of such an intense self-reliance is the chance to become one with your environment; and also to show you have bigger balls than anyone who has to go with others. And it may just suit you- it may be a quirk of your comfort zone that being alone all day and every day really is no problem at all.
Risk and adventure
Breaking new ground involves risk.
What is risky to some is utterly safe to others. In the above section, leaving your comfort zone, we touched on the way that heightened awareness is the best protection you have- it has been serving humans for many millennia longer than safety rules and procedures. I have learnt the hard way, fracturing vertebrae my back in a climbing accident when I was 19. Anytime my emotions are engaged- anger, competitiveness, or when I am switched off- say when descending a mountain- that is when I NOW know I am most vulnerable.
Practising visualisation, being much more aware of emotional states, seeing how those states interfere with your own judgement. Relying on your inner voice- trusting it in simple things- easy route finding for example- and then getting to trust it more and more in dangerous situations; these are a few ways you can do things without getting hurt along the way. As the saying goes: a wise man learns from the mistakes of others, only a fool learns from his own mistakes. Or make that an average person, a fool, presumably never learning anything at all.