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the essence of adventure

I am convinced that my life has been enhanced by seeking out adventures, or, rather situations where adventures are more likely to happen. It's easy to make light of adventure seeking. Some may even try to convince you that a life based on consuming high status experiences and things is better. But I believe that without adventure we begin to atrophy. Our adventures can be homegrown and very humble in appearance, not all adventures involve foreign travel. What atrophies? I’ve noticed that if I don’t walk near any cliff edges for a long while I begin to get a little nervous of heights. But if I force myself closer to the edge I soon lose this nervousness. Something similar happens when we give up on seeking adventure or doing adventurous things and settle for programmed entertainment and games.

In this article I hope to just circle the subject and get clear a few ideas I have about adventure in general.

People often confuse a thrill ride with an adventure. An adventure can be thrilling, but not all adventures are. A thrill is repeatable, it has less uncertainty and spontaneity than an adventure.

Adventure is a little like comedy, it’s helped by having the equivalent of musical numbers or even boring bits to boost by comparison the funny sketches. A Non stop thrill- such as one can experience riding a wave train of class 4 and 5 rapids on the Zambesi is not actually much of an adventure. Whereas lining the boat through a grade 5+ rapid, involving some difficulty and a bit of danger, is actually more of an adventure as it involves your skill in solving the problem as well as just riding it out.

So an adventure for me is as much about a new experience as using my creativity to work a way round the problem.

An adventure, then, can involve solving some challenge in a difficult and dangerous environment. It doesn’t have to be THAT dangerous. I had lots of adventures on a hike I did along the Pyrenees. I may have had bigger thrills elsewhere, but no greater density of adventure. In the desert you can go a day without adventure, just trudging through sand. There the adventure is often in finding new things: rock art, old pots, fossils, stone tools. It is the same kind of adventure you have when visiting an antiques market- treasure hunting.

All of this probably stems from our inheritance: we are distance walkers and runners who needed to be exploring all the time to get new sources of food. We needed to innovate and be flexible to hunt food. We needed to be able to track (one interesting book by South African author Louis Liebenberg suggests that man evolved through tracking)- the best trackers thrived and passed on their knowledge, until of course we discovered agriculture which is when creativity suddenly shifts from being a useful tactical advantage to being a strategic tool for changing how we live. It is no surprise to me that agricultural communities evolved the modern forms of life we now use every day.

But where is the adventure in being a farmer? One farmer I knew started a book festival because he wanted something to think about while he was driving his tractor all day. Small adventures crop up all the time on a farm when things don’t go the way you plan, but it’s hard to get time off as a professional farmer.

Travel abroad allows for more adventures to happen; travel with some kind of odd form of transport also involves adventure- because of the possibility of mishap, also the planning and inventiveness to get a vehicle through hostile terrain. Even moving your boat through lock gates feels a bit adventurous.

Author Michal Phillips (he wrote the superb Seven Laws of Money) recounts his pleasure in making a sculpture visible from the moon. He hired earth moving equipment to make a huge shape in the desert. It didn’t cost much, but the best by-product, for him, was discovering how much we need adventure as a nutrition in our lives. Using the diggers was a little dangerous and exciting. Planning the shape and executing it in the waterless desert was also not altogether simple. All in all he had a real adventure, and he enjoyed that more than the satisfaction of making an art object. He remarks on how destructive boredom can be. Boredom is the result of a lack of the adventure nutrition. If boredom continues for too long we develop fear. I think this may be a kind of evolutionary response to create adventure. I know lots of writers who have developed a fear of flying. Their lives are ‘perfect’ in the sense that they can do what they want all day- write- but there is a latent and growing boredom in such lives that manifests itself in the growth of inexplicable fears. How right Philip Larkin was when he wrote ‘first boredom, then fear’.

Fear is the flip side of the same coin as greed. Both are unreasoning and headlong responses, a kind of short circuit. Both are a sort of ‘giving up’. In an adventure we can’t give up; it is very plain that giving up will result in failure or even injury. By having adventures we tone the mental muscle that abhors giving up.

At the top of this site I’ve run for a while a section on 50 word micro-adventures. This started as something I did in schools. Many kids wrote about the time they broke an arm or a leg. Mishaps are always adventures, obviously not that pleasant, but in the long run always something to yarn about.

Why do explorers always recount their mistakes and cock-ups as the tales they tell? Because a good expedition probably doesn’t have too many nasty surprises, whereas a badly planned one does.

People go climbing- or complete long distance walks. This provides a sure supply of adventure and a sense of achievement at the end. If people are involved there is more adventure possible. When I went in search of the world’s longest snake this involved meeting a lot of people, and these meetings created their own little adventures.

The French take about affairs as ‘adventures’, which of course they are. Lots of people living dull and uneventful lives, jazz them up by having affairs. But there are complications and sometimes very unpleasant consequences; if we could calibrate our need for adventure better, then we might not imperil our emotional lives in this way.


Big adventures

A big adventure- such as going round the world in an open boat- is really lots of little adventures stitched together. Often they leverage each other so the success of the whole expedition may rest on a tiny thing. I remember in Tim Severin’s epic crossing of the Atlantic, retold as the Brendan Voyage, he and his crew had to restitch a puncture in their leather boat (a replica of a 6th century Curragh). This involved a crewmember sticking his head in icy water from time to time to get the thread through the right place. A small and unpleasant duty magnified by knowing the whole trip depended on its success.

I think if you can give up too easily, the adventure element is reduced. So a big expedition ratchets up adventure possibilities by making backing out less easy. A big project acquires a kind of momentum that gives you added courage and insights to solve problems, it kind of boosts your adventurous capabilities.

Going over different kinds of terrain is more adventurous than crossing uniform terrain. When we walked all day along dune corridors it was less adventurous than going over dunes or through desert canyons. The challenge element increases with the variety of the terrain. Hence the impact of pack rafting- carrying a tiny raft enables you to combine hiking with crossing lakes and descending rivers (though nothing like as good as a kayak you can take a grade 4 or 5 rapid in a pack raft). More variety= more adventure.

One thing I’ve noticed is that taking a small stove and brewing up on a day hike is better and more satisfying than simply sipping at water all day. I think the self-sufficient aspect increases the adventure quotient- the AQ (which I am sure is a term used by some personal development coaches).

Self-sufficiency makes a walk seem like a micro-expedition. Maybe it is the expedition itself, which probably has its roots in the hunting trip, that is the very core of adventure? Self-sufficiency also attracts interest, so human interactions can occur that increase adventure possibilities.

I’ve found that travelling in an indigenous craft attracts sympathy and interest. Using a birchbark canoe in Canada meant we met all kinds of Native Peoples who usually shun canoeists. A weird craft – such as using a beach inflatable to descend parts of the Nile, as I have done, creates interest, but not necessarily the kind you’d want. You get a lot of kids splashing after you. But it can make people smile and be open to you. Maybe the rule is: travel in an unusual way and you’ll have more adventures.

A birchbark canoe is tough but fragile when it comes to spikes in the water. It imposed its own rules of travel on us. You quickly get to accept these, like having a dog that can’t walk fast, and then you make the most of it. The more rules of travel you have the more the possibilities of an adventure by transgressing, then righting, such a rule.

Hitch-hiking is always an adventure. It is uncertain, involves random new people and is ongoing. You relinquish control of your destiny in the short term to get there in the long term.

Foreign travel with an investigative edge is always adventurous. Though many of us are a bit shy of talking to total strangers, when we have a mission to find out about something it’s easier.


Your adventure reality

Everyone has their adventure ‘reality’, by this I mean the kind of adventures that happen to them. One friend is always witnessing violence, sometimes intervening. His ‘reality’ is different to mine, I find I don’t encounter such things unless travelling with other people, when I slip into their reality for a while. It is unproven, but I suspect we experience things we can cope with, that will stretch us just so far without breaking. If we push ourselves into a zone of folly then we may experience more than we can deal with. By being aware of your feelings about a project, and trusting them, you can avoid biting off more than you can chew. Trick mountain bikers and BASE jumpers relay heavily on being able to visualise a successful completion of a stunt. If they get a bad vibe they obey the feelings and change something, or put off doing the jump. Felix Baumgartner really irritated his US team who wanted him to follow a set of rules before making his parachute jump from space. But he didn’t feel right so he kept putting it off. After all it was his neck on the line not theirs. And his crablike approach eventually succeeded.

If we know what the essence of adventure is then we can work out how to get a good supply of it in our lives. Modern life tends to be more boring than life in the past. This doesn’t mean it is worse, it just means you can’t rely on adventures coming your way. When my great-grandfather went down the pub his pals would bring bat nets with them, indulging in a bit of bat netting after a pint or two (why they wanted to catch bats I have never fully understood, but it was still more adventurous than playing the slots).

Most sorts of outdoor challenge can become an adventure. I recently watched a group of top executives try and rig up a rope slide across a wadi in Oman. They had a great time, made more fun by having a series of rules they had to follow when making the rope way. But if the rules are too petty then the adventure drains away and becomes yet more rule following; it’s not always as easy as it looks.

I think a large part of adventure is managing psychological uncertainty. When Chris McCandless walked off the highway without a map he was having a much bigger adventure than if he had a map. He paid for this adventure with his life, as a map would have shown a logging wire he could have used to cross the river that blocked his exit. There are sailors who try to replicate the uncertainty of earlier explorers by deliberately eschewing map and GPS. Some call them foolhardy; what is undeniable is that too much certainty reduces the adventure element.


The Ludic Loop

Recently psychologists have worked out why games are so addictive. They feature a so called ‘ludic loop’ in which constant and controllable bursts of uncertainty (with potential rewards) are interspersed with simple and manageable stretches of rule defined certainty. I always wondered why I could play eight hours of bridge non-stop without moving from my chair, something I would find very difficult to manage with any other activity. The ludic loop of yet another hand which may spell triumph is what keeps you addicted.

Maybe we can become addicted to adventure in a similar way. Perhaps rock climbing or parachuting operates as a kind of ludic loop. What is obvious, is that uncertainty, manageable chunks of it, are needed to make an adventure happen. Yet in a world awash with information this isn’t so easy. One solution is to use technology in a different way. In the desert people traditionally follow tracks and latterly, waypoints. But actually with a GPS you don’t need to. What would be better is a more freestyle approach. Walk where you like without a care for location and only use the GPS for when you want to get home. Probably a good idea to take two GPSs in that case…

Certainly the growth of the ‘natural navigation’ movement is a move toward supplying more uncertainty, and thus adventure, in a journey, uncertainty that has been stripped out by electronic position finding equipment.

Silly missions can generate good adventures. So called ‘experimental travel’- using a dice to determine your route, or planning a weird journey such as visiting old pillboxes and bunkers across southern England (as I did once) can generate some interesting times. But if the goal is too silly and artificial your motivation to keep going wanes. And an adventure is always a balance between determination and challenge, a sort of rising above both. If the determination is absent the adventure fizzles out.

One man I read about is visiting every single outlet of Starbucks. He said, “It may sound silly, but a goal is a goal.” He’s right; but his silly goal is made serious by its massive scope. Some students I know made a fake old style expedition to the summit of a low hill in the UK. It was more playacting than real adventure. You have to get the balance right. I have often thought of going to the source of a small little known river in Scotland, but somehow its smallness makes the goal unattractive, though I know it would be an adventure. Maybe what I am talking about is the fact of making the adventure into a STORY. Maybe that is the key here, we need to have the potential for a good story.

I am still not entirely clear in my own mind the link between story and adventure, but there is one. Our oldest epics are adventure stories- and so are the first novels- Robinson Crusoe and Don Quixote. A story tells of an adventure, and whets our appetite for more adventure, but it also provides clues for dealing with our own adventures, mainly the adoption  of the correct psychological attitude for trying and testing situations.

For me it is important to emphasise the way an adventure returns control to us as ordinary people. We set up a potentially dangerous situation (say, descending a river in a canoe) and then make it safer without it being entirely predictable. One way we make it safer is to train ourselves, obtain skills and then rely on those skills and our own judgement. An adventurer knows accidents aren’t random events, they result from lapses of concentration, and chains of such lapses make for big accidents. The adventurer’s inner knowledge and certainty that he can avoid disaster in what looks to outsiders like a dangerous situation is one attraction of adventure.

I wonder if it is possible to devise ‘therapeutic’ adventures for people. Just enough of an adventure to supply the growth element for their neural circuitry. We know that brain growth factors are released during exercise and when we are deeply focused on something. There is nothing like a problem or challenge in a remote spot to focus the mind. I think that adventure provides a necessary form of learning that not only keeps us from cognitive decay, it also gives us a better perspective on our everyday lives, putting into perspective events that are actually quite trivial.



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