When modern readers think of or read about adventure they’re probably reading about epic journeys of discovery, or thinking about trail blazers who risked life and limb in search of an ultimate prize: Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer and his team of four were the first to make it to the geographic South pole in 1911: Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay, the first verified ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953: Yuichiro Miura, who twice broke the record for the oldest person to summit Everest in 2003 and 2013 at ages seventy and eighty respectively: Amelia Earhart, who disappeared in an attempt to circumnavigate the globe in a plane in 1937: or James Hermann Banning and Thomas C. Allen, of whom you’ve probably never heard because, well, they’re black; they were the first African-American men to fly across the U.S. in an effort to prove that black pilots were every bit as good as white pilots, having only a plane and $25 in 1932. The one thing all of these adventurers had in common is that they were willing to take enormous risks to fulfill a dream or prove they could. Adventure, by definition, involves risk.
The word adventure is made up of two words, ad-, the Latin prefix meaning “to” or “for”, and venture, first used by John Lydgate in 1430, from the late Middle-English meaning “to risk the loss (of something)”, or “to expose to the chance of loss or injury”. The compound word “adventure”, despite its Latin pre-fix, is an English word, and is of Anglo-Norman descent. The earliest known use of the word is in the Ancrene Riwle, or, in modern English, The Rule of Anchoresses, and dates to 1230 AD according to the OED. And yes, I still use AD rather than CE or BCE because I’m old as shit. Back to the point. Virtually every variation of the word, whether it’s used as a verb or as a noun—that is, to adventure vs. to go on an adventure—uses “risk” as part of its definition. But what is risk and how do we measure it?
Different people will define risk differently. There is inherent danger in climbing rocks and mountains, thru-hiking and other adventure sports. One risks falling, equipment failure, rockslide, avalanche, altitude sickness, broken limbs, drowning (kayaking, for instance) or falling to one’s death (sky-diving). Others may define putting your money in the stock market as risky—I can speak to that personally. Still for others, public speaking is a risk, entering a new relationship or leaving a job to pursue a more promising or fulfilling career. In the latter cases, it’s not life and limb we risk in the process of accomplishing a certain task, it’s failure on a personal or social level. “I will reveal my ignorance to the audience”, “When this person discovers the real me they won’t like me anymore”, “I may be putting a comfortable career on the line for something completely uncertain”. In these cases, risk may generally be understood as doing something new, or having a unique (though not necessarily positive) experience. Also, the motto “no risk, no reward” holds true. But is adventure all about risk? Of course not. Risk is a necessary component to adventuring, but it’s more than that. In fact, it’s not even the biggest or most important part. It’s time to expand our understanding of, what it means to, and what is involved in, adventuring.
It’s true that some activities will appear more adventurous than others when risk becomes the standard of measure. However, expanding the definition of adventure to include categories other than risk increases the possibility for adventure and makes it accessible to a wider range of those hoping to experience something new. One way to do this is by changing the way we think about the world around us. So much of it is determined not by “the way things are”, but by how we think about them. Perception is everything. In the 19th century, when Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead were designing and building Central Park, people would come by the thousands and were particularly taken by the fields of dandelions. One account ‘waxed rhapsodically’, stating that the dandelions make “the lawns in places like green lakes reflecting a heaven sewn with stars” (Martin 154). Society had yet to think of these plants as a nuisance; thus, to the eye of the beholder they contained great beauty. Indeed, who among us has not made a wish upon a dandelion puff? The same is true with everyday events. If we think about and define life as an adventure, it will be an adventure.
The path hiked for the hundredth time can be an adventure, or the road travelled on your daily commute. The key is to find the unique in the mundane. The woods are ever-changing. Certainly, there is a sense of continuity and sameness in the trees, fields and flowers; but trees fall, seasons change, and new species may be introduced or abound; and there is always the chance that in the woods a traveler may see something new. Two years ago, along a relatively lightly trafficked trail near my home, a Maple fell. This tree lives! It clings to life with a vengeance, partially anchored to the hillside, refusing to give up. I took the kids out there the other day so they could walk the levelled trunk, which is suspended roughly ten to fifteen feet above the fresh water of Assawompset Pond. Of course, the pond wasn’t full of water, but lava. Later that same day we saw an immature Bald Eagle circling overhead, the product of a successful effort to reintroduce the bird to southeastern Massachusetts. Their heads don’t acquire the tell-tale white hood until sometime around the fourth year. Last fall we were driving home from school, along the same country road we had taken a hundred times before. I went around what at first what I though was a very large rock in the road. Turns out it was a snapping turtle—a big one. Suddenly, our drive home became a wildlife rescue. Neighbors emerged from their houses, cars slowed as they approached and some even stopped to witness the commotion. We helped the turtle into the woods and out of the road. I’m pretty sure she winked at me in gratitude—right after she tried to bite my face off. Adventure sometimes requires nothing more than turning the mundane into the exceptional by shifting a point of view. Adventures might be planned or happen spontaneously; adventures might be big or small. There is no rule that says adventure can’t suddenly and serendipitously happen in an instant, or that they must take days, weeks, or months to plan and require a similar period to execute. All that’s necessary is a sense of wonder, and an open mind.
All of this said, risk is still a part of adventuring. I’m not trying to make the case that adventure precludes risk. On the contrary, I’ve tended to countless bruises, scrapes, cuts, burns, stings, bites, twisted ankles, dehydration and nearly everything else that comes with the territory—thankfully no broken bones yet; but the degree of risk is directly proportional to the magnitude of the adventure. Once we understand that suffering and adversity (even in small doses) are the parents of wisdom and self-improvement, we are more likely and better prepared to moderate and mitigate the risks associated with any given activity.
The benefit of adventuring is that it is often the precursor to self-improvement. This may be related to physical and/or mental health, generally called wellness when considered together. In terms of mental health, hikers often speak of a sense of perspective when summiting. A mountain vista inspires introspection in the same manner that standing near the ocean makes us feel small, by shifting focus away from the ego and toward the natural world. The magnitude of our planet and the insignificance of our place in the universe come into focus when viewed from on high. Physical achievements might be losing weight, inches around the waist or increased strength and vigor, or a new or renewed ability to push the limits of the body. Hiking twenty miles in a single day for the first time, climbing the first 5.10, or breaking a personal speed record on a familiar bike route all represent physical self-improvement. Obtaining these benefits doesn’t necessarily require such vigorous exertion. In Florence Williams’ worthy read, The Nature Fix, she shows how scientists have discovered that even the scent of an alpine forest is enough to lower cortisol levels—a hormone associated with stress. A mindful stroll through a town forest, down a quiet street, or even in the city park are enough to lower heart rate and blood pressure, as well as provide an opportunity to find one’s center. What is necessary is getting out there. You can’t adventure from your couch; and your much more likely to achieve maximum benefits by entering a green space of some kind.
At the end of the day adventure can be found in your backyard; and it makes us better humans. It inspires imagination, helps to overcome fears, and teaches the moderation and measurement of risk, even which risks are worth taking and which are not. We may experience increased self-esteem and self-worth, as well as benefit from an improvement to our physical and mental health. The outdoors community seems to know this better than anyone. It might be interesting to write an essay on the relationship between the outdoors community and mental health. I think it’s one reason why programs such as Outward Bound are so successful where others have failed, especially for “troubled” youth. I’ll have to save that for another day though. This essay has run its course. So, remember, it doesn’t matter whether your adventure is big or small, short or long, or whether you push your body to the limit or stroll mindfully in a garden. What matters is the getting out there of it all.
Have you had an adventure lately? What did you do? Where did you go? Share it below. And don’t forget to get out there.