According to a new national survey in the UK, British citizens lie up to three times a week...my guess is that the figure is more like three times a day, or even per hour in some situations. Facebook updates and job applications are where the most memorable lies take place it seems. My favourite factoid, though, is that unemployed people are more likely to be honest and tell the truth than those with jobs....
What's your next adventure?...
The second law of adventure is: the right kit can help create an adventure.
There is an early Simpsons episode where Bart, banned from seeing the new Itchy and Scratchy movie, tries to use his imagination instead. He imagines the characters alright but they stand there dumbly in a thought bubble with a questioning look on their faces. I sometimes think that is what it is like when you ‘ban’ yourself from using equipment in an attempt to get back to basics; sometimes you so starve your imagination nothing happens.
When I was a student I was interested in film making but did nothing about it. I could have borrowed a camera anytime but I never did. Then I used my grant to buy a Super 8 camera and started making films. Once I owned that camera I was ready to go. It taught me a simple lesson- kit can get you in the right zone. Naturally this is exploited by every manufacturer out there. The cumulative effect of all their advertising can be to paralyse you or to pervert every adventure into a shopping trip.
Kit can provide a uniform. If it is a uniform that gets you moving and doing things, then all well and good. But if it is a uniform you cannot afford, so you end up doing nothing then that is not so good.
The right piece of kit can open a window into a different world. A climbing rope. Crampons. A canoe. A tent. But then you can always use a tarp instead of a tent, or make a shelter of leaves instead of using a tarp. The urge to use less kit seems to promise even more adventure…
What about no kit at all?
There is something intoxicating about someone facing the wilderness with no kit at all. I have written about Bedouin who believe that the more tools a man carries the weaker he is- a real expert can make do with very little in the harsh environment of the desert. Survival experts test themselves by carrying a knife and a cooking pot and that’s it (sometimes, a la Rambo, it’s just a knife- and without the cute little button compass at the end…)
So the fantasy of no-kit is strong. And for a day hike it’s a good idea, if you are able or allowed to start a fire en route. An adventure without a fire or a brew is just not really quite as good in my view.
But try a multi-day hike without kit, as I did once, and be prepared to suffer. It was many years ago when I attempted to walk the benign Ridgeway of southern England armed with just a box of matches, a mess tin, a cycling poncho, food, and a lightweight sleeping bag. From the first hour it started raining. The cycling poncho worked well until the wind got up and blew rain underneath it. In retrospect I would tie a belt around the outside but then my brain was already a little sodden. By nightfall I had found a damp wood. Much creative foraging revealed some tinder trapped in still dry tree trunks. More fossicking and a lot of palaver with building a wooden rain cover, followed by splitting to get at dry wood and some carving and I had a little fire of curled fire sticks going. The mess tin bubbled with a welcome cup of tea- it had taken about an hour to prepare it. As all survival types know- it’s not the skills that count, it’s the time it takes to make those skills count that counts; and I had taken an awful long time. I then had to make some kind of shelter for the night, which was already upon me. The rain thrummed down as I artfully arranged the poncho- which would keep the water off my head and upper body but not my feet. Hmm, talk about optimism but I had simply not believed it would rain for so long. In the morning my feet were drenched and cold. I knew this because I had only slept about ten minutes all night (or so it seemed).
I skipped breakfast, drank a cup of cold water and headed off. The following night was a little dryer, but then the downpour began at 5am. Rain before 7, fine before 11 or so the adage goes. Not always…
And so I gave up. Left the ridgeway. Bought a meal in a pub and phoned my Dad to pick me up…
Too little kit can stymie a good adventure. So knowing this we often go to the other extreme…
The delusion of getting all the kit first
I see them on the internet, cramming the threads and forums with their endless chat about the kit they have and the kit they want. Do they ever use it? Or are they, like the Cairo bikers and off-roaders I used to know, keener on just gathering in the wilderness for a few hours to simply…examine each others kit?
If only I could have X then I would do Y is a simple equation for doing nothing, a persuasive opiate, a nice opportunity to peruse Amazon looking for bargains and upgrades. In fact, why buy now when the new upgrade will be out in a couple of months? I’ve gone years not getting a decent camera because the next upgrade promises to be so much better…
In the end you have to take the first step. You have to go out the front door and have your adventure. Almost any kit will do as long as you can keep warm and dry and can eat and drink. I speak as someone who has just spent two hours looking for the perfect drysuit for sea kayaking…when I know almost any suit will do. Which leads us to…
Get the BEST kit
I once read a book on backpacking by an author who claimed to hate all camping until they discovered modern backpacking gear. He revelled in super-lightweight tents, hi-capacity rucksacks, thermarest, jet-boil stove and toasty warm RAB quantum down bag. Not to mention the LED headlight, the Parimo jacket and trousers, the pump filter and all the other gadgets he loved. One may scoff- but it got him outside and doing things.
In an earlier post I wrote about how mountain bikes injected some much needed pizzazz into cycling. Now ultra lightweight gear makes backpacking fun again. You will have to pay for the privilege unless you become adept at making things.
Make kit or make do.
Pack rafts are nifty very durable very light blow up rafts. They are also very expensive. I’ve made a much cheaper alternative by removing the outer ring on a cheap sevylor seahawk and using a tarp or bivvy bag to protect the more fragile pvc outer. This cost about one twentieth the price of the Alpacka pack raft. For my purposes it’s just as good.
Instead of a sil-nylon tarp I’ve used an old army one. Instead of top end down bags I’ve used a silk liner inside an artificial down bag in temperatures well below zero. Making do isn’t so hard, especially when you have steeled yourself for a few days away whatever happens.
How to use kit to create an adventure
Kit can suggest an adventure. I wanted to travel in a birchbark canoe. I started reading about them. I found that the longest birchbark canoe journey in history had been the first crossing of Canada by Alexander Mackenzie in 1793. No one had replicated his exact journey so I decided to do it. I would never have even thought of this adventure without first getting interested in birchbark canoes. Plastic boats may suggest different possibilities. Sometimes a new development- like the ultra-portable pack raft- suggests a whole slew of new adventures.
The things you carry
Kit I always carry: my leatherman classic- the well named supertool version with saw. Despite breaking the lock on one side this tool has been used to fix cars, saw off moose antlers, extricate someone from a locked Macdonalds’ loo, file down nail heads into fish hooks and countless other tasks. Though I like a Victorinox hunter penknife for lightweight camping you can’t beat the supertool for sheer toughness and utility. No other leatherman or gerber comes close.
But does it inspire me to have the idea for a new adventure? Maybe not. For that I think you need a piece of transport related kit. After building the desert trolley all sorts of desert expeditions suggested themselves. Having an inflatable kayak meant solo sea canoeing was less risky than solo sea kayaking in a regular kayak. A mountain bike with a sideways extendable handlebar (making it easier to push without getting hit by the peddles) allowed the transport of loads more gear, suggesting longer trips, again in the desert.
I think kit is one of those things you probably want to have experienced before you give it up. You need to have used a tent, maybe, before you try a bivvy bag or sleep out under the stars. Kit is the way we transport ourselves psychologically out of our comfort zone. Think of those people who travel everywhere in a mobile home, taking their comfort zone with them like a tortoise or hermit crab. Gradually you get used to less. For years I only liked new kit. Now I always go to ebay first. There is nothing like getting a hardly used piece of kit for almost no money because of a wrong listing or because the owner didn’t know what they were selling. Some people go the other way, demanding more comfort, which is a little different from demanding more of a comfort zone. As Baden Powell was fond of remarking, ‘any fool can rough it’.
The first law of adventure is: adventure is a decision
We all decide for ourselves what does and does not constitute an 'adventure'. Often the difference between two people's lives- one seemingly dull and the other chock full of adventure is simply the decision each made on what counted as an adventure.
If we don’t make a decision in advance, we will react with our default setting.
Your default setting depends on whether you’ve been given any warning or not that an adventure is on the offing. There is one setting for absolutely no warning and another for when you have some chance to get your head together. Imagine you are driving along the road and suddenly you hit an enormous flood across both lanes, something you have had no warning about. You have to drive through it carefully to avoid stalling. You’ll discover what your default setting is by running this as a thought experiment. Do you think you’ll be grinning to yourself about the challenge or grimly worrying about the car conking out? And if you are in a hurry this will probably NOT be an adventure. But if you have been given a little warning then successfully negotiating the flooded road could be a nice little adventure.
The connection between time and adventure is interesting. The more of a rush we get ourselves into the less we see the adventurous options that surround us. And often they don’t even take up anymore time than the non-adventurous option. It’s yet another insidious effect of the ‘time poor’ lifestyle we shoehorn ourselves into- often for no better reason than everyone else is similarly afflicted. (To feel less stressed about time you might care to look at the timeshifting material on this website). For an instant quick solution: reduce the time spent watching TV and using social media. I also recently started learning a new skill- ceramics. Learning is the best way to slow the sensation of time rushing by.
Your capacity for adventure also depends on your situation, the space that you occupy. In a different location your sense of adventure could be higher than at home.
But if you want to reset your default setting, then you need to decide that taking the adventure option is the right thing to do. You have to decide in advance that the ‘way of adventure’ is for you. And though I believe that almost all of us need more adventure in our lives, I think that it shouldn’t feel like a forced or contrived decision.
After all, sometimes you don’t want an adventure.
However you may brainwash yourself that you are a real adventurer, or adventurous type, there comes a time when you simply don’t want an adventure. Everyone has a Took side and a Baggins side (Bilbo Baggins was half Took, half Baggins- the Tooks were adventurous, the Bagginses weren’t). Sometimes the Baggins side in all of us triumphs.
Just don't let it happen too often, after all, even Bilbo left home eventually. As one French yachtsman told me: "if you want to be really safe, stay in all the time and watch television." Though even that isn't as safe as you might think: several people have been killed by exploding TVs and one unfortunate woman was wiped out when a truck left the road and crashed through her living room wall, killing her, as she watched television...
Adventure is the mindset that says YES to a challenge
An adventurous mindset is one that is looking for potential adventures everywhere. It is a state of mind geared to seeking out challenges on all levels, challenges that bring you into situations where you break new ground.
What stops us from saying yes? Default settings, as we have seen, but also our mood, influence by our perceived state of health, wealth and happiness. If you are feeling ill the last thing you want to do is go and shoot some rapids or even meet someone new.
When you’re feeling hard-up your mind will be pulling you towards the more boring option. We assume money is more plentiful where boredom proliferates...I wonder why? It may be that the bigger the adventure the more profitable it is.
One of the odd things about human beings is that we tend to opt for things that prolong the state we happen to be in. When you’re unhappy you’ll opt for doing things that prolong unhappiness. It takes a while to learn that we need to flick a mental switch and do something different.
Flicking a mental switch sounds easy, but it takes effort, or at least it requires you assign some signifcance to the task. To switch into a more adventurous mindset, to say YES, we need to change the way we perceive the adventurous option. By changing what we contrast the adventure to, we change our perspective. And if there is one KEY to taking control of your life and your moods it is the ability to switch perspective at will.
Health, wealth and happiness affect our inclination to be adventurous, but they are all also subjective states. Athletes are always nursing an injury. They’re never 100% healthy. If you’re not starving then you have ‘enough’ money from one perspective. And there is no better way to short circuit an unhappy frame of mind than to plan or have an adventure. You might need to drag yourself kicking and screaming to the wilderness, or let yourself be dragged (I’ve done that), but once there you won’t regret it.
An adventure brings you BANG into the present
When it appeared, ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced I am told Mi-haley-chick-sent-mi-haley), was a groundbreaking book. He highlighted the need to really get ‘into’ what you are doing, to enter a ‘flow state’ when past and future cease to matter and you experience an expanded sense of the present.
A few years after ‘Flow’ appeared there was an upsurge of people seeking ‘to be in the now’.
More recently we have seen how ‘mindfulness’ training has brought meditation practices of self-observation to bear on ordinary life in the modern West, shifting people into a more ‘present centred’ frame of mind.
Why do we need to be more in the present? Why is ‘being in the ‘now’’ a good thing? If you have spent any time worrying about the future or regretting the past you won’t need a long answer to the above. For those with less traumatic experience, being in the present supplies, or re-supplies, us with a more durable energy than the past or future do.
It’s a rather subtle thing, but being in the present is the champagne of energies, whereas living in the future or revelling in the past is like guzzling the kind of wine they sell at French service stations out of a nozzle, not dissimilar to the one that delivers your petrol. Not that being in the present is intoxicating- it just looks and feels like it compared to being stuck in the past or locked onto the future.
Make adventure plans all the time
When you go for a walk in your neighborhood, check the map for someplace that looks interesting- ruins, woods, even as I did the other day, an interesting stone. The key thing is that it should be somewhere you haven’t been to before. Along the way you are bound to have lots of side adventures too. It’s a result of having the mindset that says YES to a challenge. But it can be planned for. You can prime your own mind to be more alert, looking out for potential adventures.
The initial plan is just a springboard to get you into a more adventurous zone. You must be able to depart the plan when something better comes up.
Since life is always more interesting and varied than our own plan can be, be ready and able to depart the plan when required. Except when you shouldn't...
Know when to stick to the plan
Most failed expeditions result from two things: failure to plan correctly or a decision to depart the plan whilst on the expedition. If the plan is good, and nothing solid contradicts it (ie. if you plan to walk over a volcanic mountain and it erupts then you may change your plan. But if you plan to walk over the mountain then on the day someone points to a more interesting looking mountain then stick to the plan.)
This is a direct contradiction to the earlier comment about being ready to depart the plan when something more interesting crops up. When I was walking across the Great Sand Sea the group I was leading discussed the idea of achieving a confluence point (a whole number intersection of latitude and longitude, check DCP.com for more information). The problem was, this confluence point meant walking 30km into very severe dunes, 200 metres high over which none of the camels could pass. That meant we’d be splitting the group. We were already a little behind time so I didn’t want extra pressure forcing a bad decision. So we didn’t do it. Less adventurous? Maybe in the short term. But if we’d had to give up our attempt at crossing the Sand Sea because of a lack of time then we’d have missed out on the bigger overall adventure. As a general rule- stick to the big plans, feel free to amend the minor plans.
Make something out of nothing
Can you pull something from a trash bin and make something out of it? Can you sit round a campfire and spin a yarn or a fantastical conversation? Can you make a sculpture out of a pile of driftwood; in other words can you make something out of nothing?
To make a habit of making something out of nothing is a way to see the adventurous possibilities that surround us.
The energy of an adventure= fun/treasure/story
In the quest for adventure the poles we seek are usually fun, some kind of hidden treasure and a good story. ‘Treasure’ can be interesting people, experiences, places. The fun of it relies on keeping the ‘bullshit’ aspects of adventuring to a minimum. Bullshit includes too much kit, too high a financial cost, too ‘serious’ a goal.
An odd aspect of adventure seeking is that often the less serious the goal the more adventures it generates. Tony Hawke’s famously travelled round Ireland with a fridge; it created a lot more adventures than if he had travelled with a stout pair of walking boots and sensible rucksack. When Roger Mear completed the first manhaul to the South Pole since Scott, he remarked that an earlier visit he had made to New Guinea, a far less ‘serious’ undertaking, had been more adventurous.
Despite this remark, one way of balancing seriousness with adventure is to follow in the footsteps of another explorer (as long as not many other people have). You have a respectable goal but also lots of opportunity to improvise along the way, and investigate things the original explorer may have been in too much of a hurry to have paid proper attention to.
Some nalgene-type drinking bottles resist heat well...
This happened on a walk between two stones marked on the map as interesting. Both turned out to be modern engraved things left by conservation societies at pleasant viewpoints. Then we came across this stone embedded in a wall.
Maybe an old Sarsen stone, or perhaps a slab made for an early enclosure. Thomas Hardy built his house within a stone circle, and somewhat implausibly didn't know this. Richard Burton's first long poem was entitled 'stone talk'. Richard Long the artist famously carries small stones from place to place. In Robert Graves's masterful short story 'The Shout' a man searches endlessly on the beach for the stone that is his soul...then the stone is broken into four pieces.
Walking between big Sarsen stones, or looking out for them, makes for an interesting expedition, even if they turn out to be not what you imagined.
Law 1: adventure is a decision
You decide to post a letter. You decide to go out and post a letter dressed as a giant chicken. One is very definitely an adventure. Does that mean an adventure is just another word for a new experience? Maybe. But as soon as you repeat it, it ceases to have the adventure quality. This is why thrill sports can soon cease to be adventurous- the addiction is to the thrill, not the newness of the experience.
Law 2: some kit can help create an adventure
If you have the ‘right kit’ you can get to some interesting places. If you have ropes you can go climbing, if you have a kayak you can go down whitewater. But kit can be very limiting too. You can tell yourself you can’t do X until you have the right boots or tent. I met a guy who wanted to spend £10,000 on a landrover in order to ‘have adventurous times’ with his family. Imagine how many trips you could make for £10,000? What he imagined was that merely owning a Landie put you in a ‘zone of adventurous possibility’. Just having the ability to go offroad, even if you didn’t, felt good. It was like having a military watch when you worked in an office. The zone of adventure isn’t actually adventure though. But being in the zone can get you involved in adventures as you are now edging towards the right mindset. So a big bit of kit can SOMETIMES be the right decision. It’s a hard call. When you have developed a better adventure mindset the lure of kit is less. You realise you can do things with homemade kit or cheap stuff bought on ebay.
Law 3: An adventure breaks new ground
You go on a walk for the first time- it’s an adventure. You go on the same walk a second time, it will be less of an adventure. Or maybe not one at all. Breaking new ground is essential.
You could break new ground by doing a journey in a different way. In a way ‘breaking new ground’ is the essence of innovation. You have a worthy hunch, a pretty good inspiration and you try it out; the whole experience is an adventure.
Either the challenge, or the solution to the challenge involve creativity.
An adventure sets up a challenge. This means solving a problem. The problem could be ‘which way to go’. Or it could be ‘get over this obstacle’. Or it could be ‘make this journey in a new way’. The solution could be pure luck, or a great inspiration, but it cannot be purely automatic. An adventure can occur when we deliberately limit ourselves, make things hard for ourselves. Jason Lewis spent 13 years going around the world by human power alone. No engine or even wind power allowed. This limitation created lots of problems he had to solve creatively, thus generating a vast quantity of adventures.
Law 4: an adventure takes you out of your comfort zone
Adventures can happen indoors but they usually don’t. We live indoors and this is our comfort zone. A luxury hotel is great after an adventure, but the adventure won’t happen there: it’s a comfort zone par excellence. Thrill riders like to stay in a mental comfort zone- each thrill must resemble the last. Whereas the adventurer wants to put him or herself in a place where you can’t predict exactly what you’ll experience. This place is always a little, or a lot, outside your comfort zone.
Law 5: Adventures cluster together
Adventure can be like hitting a roll on the roulette table. You never win on a regular basis. It’s either feast or famine. When you have one adventure, when you are in an ‘adventure mindset’, then you’ll have many more. You’ll start putting yourself in places where more adventures are likely to happen, but equally as important, you’ll be looking and seeing possibilities that you missed before.
For outdoor adventure, the less uniform the terrain, the bigger the adventure cluster, the more remote the terrain the bigger the adventure cluster.
I spent three, three month periods, crossing northern Canada by birchbark canoe. On the first section there were no rapids and one big lake crossing but we were in a very remote place. On the second there were two sets of big rapids. On the third there were rapids, lakes, ascent and descent of rivers, transporting the canoe over mountains and hiking to the sea. The third section was the most adventurous even though it was less remote than the first. Less uniform terrain trumps remoteness- but only just. Remoteness can be defined by distance from other people. This includes satphone distance. If you are rowing the Pacific but satphoning home everyday you are not remote in one sense.
Law 6: On every adventure there will come a point when you have to trust yourself
This is connected to being outside your comfort zone. You have to trust yourself and not a rule, or someone else. Most of us, when we get outside our comfort zone, repeat behaviours that worked inside our comfort zone. Or we ask for rules to follow- usually safety rules. But what you really have to do is develop self-trust. You need a nose for a good direction, a right choice. You can hone this by making instant decisions in situations where you won’t be too harshly punished. If you note your first feelings about some decision see how it pans out: was your hunch right?
Law 7:to take the first step, start the adventure at your front door
Most people start their adventures in the future in a different place, maybe abroad somewhere. So their plan has a hole in it from the beginning. There is all the fancy expedition planning and there is getting to the start. Getting to the start can sometimes be harder than the expedition…the solution is start the adventure at your kitchen table or your front door. Imagine just walking out the door and doing the adventure. Work out all the steps you need to follow from the front door to the proposed place where the adventure is supposed to happen. Make it very simple and homely. When I first wanted to get into the desert I had no idea how to do it. So I figured if I walked out the front door (I was in Cairo at the time) what would I need? I’d need water. How much? Maybe 5 litres a day. So each day I’d carry 5kg of water. If I went for ten days I’d need to carry 50kg. But the desert is warm and the terrain is soft and not great for backpacking. Carrying such a huge amount of water in a rucksack would be foolish. Then I thought of sledges in the arctic and this drew me to the idea of a wheeled sledge- a trolley. Which I had made in a backstreet cycle repair shop for less than £50. The trolley could be carried on a bus to an oasis- from there you could get into the desert. Without starting from my front door I’d never have ventured out because it all seemed ‘too impossible’.
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.
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.
Charles Upham was one of only three men to receive the VC twice- and the only one to receive two in WW2 (for non-UK readers a VC is the highest award for valour). Upham, a New Zealand farmer by origin, was not only exceedingly brave, he was a tactical innovator. Upham realised that storming a machine gun post armed with just a rifle, or even a sub-machine gun, is a very hit or miss affair. It requires near suicidal courage because the odds are very much stacked against you. However, if you are a skilled bowler- as Upham was, a hand grenade can become a much more deadly and useful weapon. Typically, in the ordinary model of infantry tactics a man will carry 3 to 5 grenades. Upham fashioned a special carry bag on his hip holding up to 20 grenades. He would then advance carefully and throw his grenades accurately, using them to knock out machine gun nests in a dynamic fashion – something a mortar team cannot manage when under heavy fire and moving fast.
But the key thing is the way this personal tactical innovation boosted his courage. Because he now had a weapon that worked really well he had a much better motive for attacking what others saw as hopeless situations.
It is this synergy between personal tactical innovation and courage that drives success in many areas including an expedition.
One of my favourite explorers is the Japanese Polar explorer Naomi Uemura, the first man to reach the North Pole solo. Uemura mainly travelled alone. He trusted himself and he wasn’t foolhardy. His personal tactical innovation for crossing crevasse fields was to wear two long bamboo poles, like a twenty foot ‘X’, attached to the top of his pack. He must have looked like a weird human helicopter. However, if he fell down a crevasse this apparatus stopped the plunge into the abyss below.
Often a personal tactical innovation looks a bit silly. I am sure many people have died because they wanted to keep looking cool.
When I wanted to explore the Sahara I had to endure a mild level of ridicule when I unveiled ‘the trolley’ – a cumbersome 4 wheeled trolley used for carrying up to 200kg of supplies (we actually carried around 120kg). But it worked, allowing two men to travel for over ten days without needing camels or 4x4s.
A personal tactical innovation addresses a seemingly ‘hopeless’ problem with more than just plain human doggedness. Scott’s response to the polar cold was to man haul his sledges. Amundsen’s personal tactical innovations were to use the skills of indigenous arctic peoples (dog sleds and skis) and apply them to the Antarctic. Scott attempted to use ponies and tractors in his attempt. But neither were tested and neither were personal. Amundsen had lived in the arctic for four years during his Northwest Passage expedition. Here he learnt the value of Eskimo ways and enjoyed using them.
A personal tactical innovation is not just a good idea; it is a good idea that suits YOU. It emerges because it favours something you are already good at. It is a personal solution not a generic one. I was interested in the trolley because it involved towing, something I knew I was good at, having towed a canoe up a 1600 mile river in Canada.
During the subsequent crossing my team made of the Rocky Mountains I knew we would encounter a river that had defeated many recent attempts at descent- the aptly named Bad River, a tributary of the Fraser River system. The Bad River was not just very steep, it was ice cold from glacier melt and blocked in many places with logs. Because no native peoples lived in the area anymore there was no motive to keep the river clear. Reports of canoeists retiring with their legs blue from bruises and cold made me consider using a slight, but highly effective personal tactical innovation. I knew that we would have to manhandle our bulky 21 foot canoe over considerable debris, and also resist a powerful current. I knew that even wearing wetsuits we’d get cold after spending hours in glacial melt water. However neoprene chest waders with sock feet would allow us to remain warm and dry at the same time (though each man carried a knife around his neck in case he upended in the waders- trapped air can keep you forced underwater in some situations). This solution worked admirably- and though the Bad River, was indeed a bad river, which supplied a few close calls, it was not in the end, the Worst River.
When we learn a new skill we often neglect our own personal inclinations and aptitudes. We often try and learn something ‘the official way’. My view is to have a go on your own and see what seems, to you, to be the logical solution. Remember this and then see what the regular practitioners are doing. Finally combine both. Many times the ‘obvious’ solution to you has been overlooked because the original solution has outgrown its application, or been superseded by a new development, but people have carried on blindly copying what their elders and better do. I remember aikido students banging their toes on the mat because that is what a top teacher did. Later I discovered he only did this because he had incipient arthritic pain in his toes and this was a way to dispel it. Yet his students did it as if it was part of the technique.