Sunday, October 22, 2006

The precedent

I read in a recent issue of Backpacker (yes, while goose-stepping on an elliptical trainer) an article exploring the argument that adventure is dead. Obese accountants can eat filet mignon while rafting through the Grand Canyon. Weekend warriors with low-grade GPS units can trek the furthest reaches of the Brooks Range. The summit of Mount Everest can be bought. This article made a lot of points, but the basic idea I came away with was that the age of information has rendered the death of discovery.

It didn't leave me with any lasting disappointment. My opinion about exploration has always been that if I've never been there, it's new to me. I'll probably never vie to be the first person atop random peak #37 in the Alaska Range or to ride my bicycle across the frozen Bering Sea (not that I wouldn't love to ride from here to Russia.) But as long as I can wrap my adventure around dodging porcupines on a leaf-littered trail or carving tracks through thick, crunchy snow, I stay satisfied.

This human need to explore one's own surroundings is trumped by the even more primal need to do so before anyone else beats us to it. But we have satellite technology that can peer into every window on earth. Scrutinizing the detailed topography of Sibera is a simple matter of having $9.95 and an active eBay account. We know this, and so we're inclined to settle into life, taking comfort in the fact that everything's been mapped out for us. We sometimes feel a tinge of pity for people who whittle their time and savings away to become the first 37-year-old grocery store clerk with a bum knee to paraglide across XY glacier.

"That's, like, so been done."

I guess this is how we compensate for doing what's been done - we claw our way to the fringes, the furthest extremes, the only places left on earth where we feel like we can distinguish ourselves. In Alaska, I always hear about stomach-dropping new adventures, like the cyclists who ride the frozen Iditarod trail for 1,000 unbroken miles. But it never takes long to discover stories like those of Ed Jesson, a Dawson City caribou hunter who rode his bicycle over 1,000 miles over the frozen Yukon River to Nome. After spending one night at 48 below, Ed wrote in his diary:

"The oil in the bearings was frozen. I could scarcely ride it and my nose was freezing and I had to hold the handlebars with both hands, not being able to ride yet with one hand and rub my nose with the other."

He sounds so edgy yet vulnerable, so tied to the postmodern notion of exploration on the extreme fringes. Except for Ed wrote this particular entry in the year 1900. Ed was a gold rusher.

Adventure is more a way of being than an actual path, exploration more a state of mind than an actual game. I try to remember this with I head out to face a road route I've ridden dozens of times, or a fitness jog down a well-worn path.

I never fail to find something new.


  1. Once again Jill, well said! Today I'm heading out on some local trails I've never been on. I've been a road rider all these years. I need to get some miles in on the Pugsley. I'm looking forward to doing some exploring today.

  2. I agree! Every time I walk in the woods, the potential for adventure is there. I don't need to do something brand new to have an adventures -- it's about being willing to take some risks wherever you are.

  3. I always felt that every bike ride I ever take is a small adventure. Sometimes the adventure is a bit more epic, but it's always something new, even on familiar routes. My friend Tim who has been riding bikes for 30-some years says he feels the same way. I have friends who are constantly seeking to do something daring in a natural setting. In my earlier days, I did those things, too, but now I am happy to stick with more commonplace adventures.

  4. Riding is always an adventure. It's never the same experience twice. The weather is always changing, and with changes in the weather comes different trail conditions. Loose sandy trails in the summer, packed dirt in the spring and fall, mud and snow in the winter. An easy ride in the summer can become challenging in the winter. Man and weather are always changing the landscape too. New rocks, ruts, washouts, roads, trails...all in the same riding area. I never get bored!

  5. Jill, you write so well and sincerely. I think i'm going to purchase a hybrid bike--not sure about going to a straight road bike. My shins are pretty bad right now, but we have our conference meet saturday, so the season's in the bag. I was thinking about biking and you though. I really enjoying hearing about what you've been up to--and you say it all so eloquently. Say hi to Geoff for me, too.

  6. jill -- I used to laugh and say -- that in Arizona (I did this just yesterday) -- that the wilderness began at the edge of your skin. So harsh the environment, that even stumbling to your knees might end one's life.

    But I am humbled by your post, not that I don't know adventure, but God, I will never be able to write about it that way.

    Here's to you! Nice post.

    PS -- if you want to ride to russia -- I'd love to go along.

  7. Adventure is when you have come though somthing when you thought you were over your head!

    If youed like another partner for that Russia ride, Count me in!

  8. What an outstanding essay! You should send this somewhere to get published.

  9. For me, adventure=suffering +friends, followed by great stories of triumph around the fire.

  10. Adventure is knowing your immediate area so well that you can do new sequences of trails and roads for months without ever doing the same thing twice. It's more impressive to spend time enjoying what you have in your area than to travel half way around the world to do some super-adventure that you can't really do on your own. If you can't appreciate what's around you, there's no use going to look for it. I enjoyed the post


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