I recently read Into Thin Air, a highly acclaimed, riveting, and non-fiction book about a disastrous Mount Everest climb. After finishing the book, I wondered why a tragic story felt so adventurous. Several expedition members—both highly accomplished and amateur climbers—died on the ascent and it was clearly a traumatic event for the author. So much about the story struck me as heroic and foolish at the same time. This led me to another, much more basic question:
what is adventure?
To find answers, I reached out to a special set of New Yorkers, all of who come to adventure from a different angle. The group included a medical researcher, yoga instructor, fiction writer and college professor, holistic image consultant, public high school counselor, Unitarian church administrator, dentist, climbing and outdoor tour professionals, and one of my more daring friends who used to work in New York as an advertising professional. All of them agreed that adventure entails testing one’s limits and experiencing something novel. This is not enough to distinguish it from a new challenge, though. It goes beyond, involving everything from society and the environment to one’s own body and spirit.
Adventure and Society
People had been working for so many years to make the world a safe organized place. Nobody realized how boring it would become. ~ Chuck Palahniuk
Sharon Holden is a school counselor and college advisor for one of Outward Bound’s expeditionary learning public high schools, the James Baldwin School. She described one of her more memorable adventures to me, which took place 10 years ago in Egypt. “After hiking to the top of Mount Sinai at sunset, we found a Bedouin tribe that invited us to stay with them for the night. Though we didn’t share a language, we shared food, company and sleeping under the stars in the middle of the desert in Egypt,“ she ended her story by saying, “I’m quite sure I’ll never have that kind of an opportunity again.”
The experience was an adventure not only because it was new and physically challenging, but also because it was unique. For Holden, leaving behind her world and entering an outlying society resulted in a wonderfully elusive encounter. Nick Catalano, a professor of literature and music at Pace University and author of A New Yorker at Sea, posited that people seek out singular experiences like Holden’s because it allows them to express their uniqueness, which can be hard to do in a large world in which people are often grouped together.
Catalano remembers fondly a misadventure on a 52-foot cutter rig called the Boston Light, which got caught in a storm off the island of Malta. The storm broke the boat’s mast and put it on course toward dangerous waters near Libya. Though stressful, the event was a highlight in his life because it was so different; and the adventure was very much tied to an egalitarian, democratic process. There’s a need to assert individualism and discovery of self when everything is the same.”
By taking on an adventure, a person can stand out and leave behind homogeneity. For the more rebellious, adventure allows them to defy conformity. It is a way of raising our status by stepping outside of normal, day-to-day living.
Adventure and Environment
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” ~ Jack Kerouac
For many, their greatest adventures ensued after leaving familiar surroundings. Take the example of Kirk Reynolds, the owner and director of Discover Outdoors, a New York City outdoor adventure company, whose two-week trip to Namibia’s Namib Desert left him with a thrilling memory. “One evening, as we’re sharing dinner and stories around the campfire, an elephant quietly walked by us, just a few feet from where we were sitting,” he said. “We didn’t hear him coming, but the low grumble of his breathing caused us to turn around and admire the massive beast. After the initial tingling of adrenaline subsided, it felt natural to have a six-ton animal sharing our dining space.”
For Reynolds, living among elephants and rhinos was “both terrifying and incredibly satisfying.”
By venturing into the desert, he had put himself in a position of potential danger. The tradeoff, however, was an awe-inspiring experience.
His is an example of how, by leaving the familiar for the unknown, people put themselves in vulnerable but exhilarating positions that make them appreciate the earth’s true size, strength and diversity. By venturing to new places, people can test their position and power in the world.
Adventure and the Mind
“I am not an adventurer by choice but by fate. “ ~ Vincent Van Gogh
Each person has a different need for adventure. Ask a few people what their greatest adventures have been, and their stories are likely to vary. Take one of my more adventurous friends, Brett Kirkpatrick: he’s left New York twice, the first time to study in Hawaii, the second to volunteer in Bali with his wife for four months. There they contended with everything from a lack of hot, potable water and deadly roads to dengue and typhoid fevers, a corrupt immigration officer, earthquakes, and infestations by scorpions and winged termites. The tradeoff was the opportunity to surf “the most insane waves of my life,” while his wife “made a positive impact on hundreds of students’ lives.” Together, they met “some unbelievably interesting people and learned a lot about new cultures and ourselves.” After Hawaii, they traveled to Singapore, Malaysia, and New Zealand before moving to California, where they will have their first child. According to Brett, welcoming a new family member promises to be one of their greatest adventures yet.
Another interviewee, dentist Dr. Joseph Banker, views himself as highly adventurous. He explains that one of his lifetime goals is for him and his wife to “travel with our daughters (13 and 15) to every continent before they finish high school. This has been an ongoing adventure including Hong Kong, Egypt, Argentina, and many others. Only two continents remain, Australia and Antarctica. They latter will likely be our most exciting adventure yet.”
For Jesse Ezekiel Tolz, who runs media and events at the Brooklyn Boulders climbing gym, an exhilarating memory dates back to his time spent in college when he “hopped on the side-rail of a cop SUV as it cruised on by, and stayed crouched as they rolled around our college campus. That was fun.” When asked where the line between adventure and foolishness is, he said, “somewhere around 90% chance of death.”
Cassandra Rigney, a teacher at the Jivamukti Yoga School, has a much different take. “I became a vegetarian in 1985 when I moved to NYC. Back then there wasn’t a place called Whole Foods. Trying to find food to eat that wasn’t pizza or french fries was an adventure.
I had to be creative.” Since then, she has given up dairy and learned vegan baking. “This adventure has taught me to seek out other ways in which I can live my life without hurting others. Shopping is the greatest adventure when I find an amazing pair of shoes that aren’t leather.”
Adventure for each of these interviewees is different. According to Joseph LeDoux, a New York University neuroscientist and specialist in emotion and memory, “there’s an old theory in psychology that each person has a certain optimal level of exposure to environmental stimuli … When we don’t have our optimal level we are motivated to seek it out.” In other words, the mind wants to be thrilled and is naturally curious. What counts as thrilling, though, will differ from one person to the next.
Adventure and the Spirit
“A large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests his heart in everything.” ~ Laurence Sterne
Finally, adventure provides nourishment to the human spirit. Holistic image consultant Zephorah Nuré, observed that “some want to live an awesome life and don’t want to look back to only see how boring and drab their life was. Others are soul searching and adventures may reveal to them who they are and what they should be doing.”
Valerie Lynch, Membership Coordinator for The Community Church of New York Unitarian Universalist, said, “I look at ‘seeking adventures’ as having an appreciation for life, feeling a connection with the world, a curiosity towards the unfamiliar, people who trust in the goodness and generosity of strangers.”
As such, adventure is linked to values and a need to feel alive. Deeply held interests and passions drive people toward adventures, as does the desire to experience as much life as possible before leaving it. By striving toward something that is both important and thrilling, we satisfy a core need to live deliberately and fully. Adventure, for that reason, is always positive in its nature, whether or not an intended goal is reached. What’s important is the journey of the soul.
With that in mind, there are many ways to experience an adventure by traveling, being creative, exploring new thoughts, and challenging norms, among other possibilities. The important thing is to seek out experiences without focusing on whether the outcome will be an adventure or misadventure. That being said, a little caution and preparation can’t hurt if you’re planning a trek to Everest and “into thin air.”