I am sitting in my tent home tonight struggling to figure out how to start this essay on adventure travel, more specifically one aspect that…shucks, lost it again. The problem is I am picking through a gorpy mix of nuts and fruit and these bizarre white coated black bean things than I’m not sure if I like but I can’t stop eating them. Ok, so adventure travel is like a well built bag of trail mix full of things you really like and fish out first like the chocolate pieces and other things that survive until the bitter end like sunflower seeds. Wilderness travel too has things we dive right for like the chance to see new places and push ourselves to places unexplored. Embedded in the good are the pieces we could do without like hordes of mosquitoes or international border crossings. Top of my list in a gorp bag are chocolate covered espresso beans, top of my list on a wilderness adventure is sharing my story along the way with the folks who call that route home.
*Side Note* If you are putting together a trail mix for yourself or a group make sure to put in the love. That means no measly peanut and raisin mix or pre-mixed store bought drivel. It means pony up for the good stuff- almonds, dried apricots, dates, walnuts, dried mango and pineapple, and, of course, good dark chocolate. Yes, this will cost more but if you are a working guide your clients will love you for your efforts or if it’s just for you and your crew camping for a weekend you’ll be better nourished from the diversity of nuts and fruit and bottom line, it’s just tastier which means happy campers. Side note over.
I am admittedly no great yarn spinner or campfire entertainer able to conjure exploits of adventures past from the smoky crock pot of history. My jokes derail well before the punch line, if I can even remember what the punch line is, and my ability to add detail to a story has gone out the window like so much exhaled smoke. Instead of telling the epic hero’s quest, my gift is in the quick reality jarring sentence, or two if I’m feeling verbose.
Scene- A small mill town in rural Maine. Woodland consists of a gas station and a scattering of middle class homes scaling down to the full on rural catastrophe as you walk downhill (and downwind) of the paper mill. Seven 20-30 (and one 36…) year old guys are portaging 5 canoes and all the compulsory gear 2 miles through town avoiding the mill and it’s river corking dam. Turning right on to Palm St. two of us are met by a young man in his mid 20’s smoking a cigarette and slugging a Monster energy drink. He is wearing blue jeans and a cutoff t-shirt, we are wearing dirty rags and smell of wood smoke and freedom.
“Where are you guys headed?” Smoky Monster asks.
“To the ocean.” We reply almost in unison.
“You can do that?”
“Sure, why not, if we can you can too.”
And with that our paths separate too far to continue the conversation.
Scene- Cape Girardeau Missouri. Three young guys sit at a bar, it is late in the evening, they are listening to a guy play lead guitar on stage with his accompaniment in the form of a computer beat box drum machine. They are drinking beer and eating catfish. On the bar in front of them is a crudely drawn map and a pair of bolt cutters. Enter a middle aged woman and her daughter.
“What’s the deal with that map, you boys going somewhere?”
“Costa Rica” I said and went back to my catfish.
“You mean in Central America, how you getting there?” Mom asks.
“Yup that’s the one, we’re canoeing there.”
At that point mom and daughter exchange a look that I interpreted as a mix of disbelief, concern and excitement. We ordered more beer and left the conversation at that.
Scene- Ely Minnesota, winter, lots of snow. Outside of a cheap hotel 5 wool and fur clad humans are loading a short box Chevy top to bottom full of winter camping gear. As the last few items are fit around the wood stoves, tents, food and snowshoes a man pulls up to plow the parking lot of the 6” of fresh snow that fell as we slept in a warm bed for the last time in 150 miles and 21 days.
“Headed out ice fishing?” Mr. Plow asks us.
“Nope, we’re walking from the end of the Gunflint Trail back here to Ely.”
“Got a gun with ya?”
“Wolves out there get hungry this time of year, will chase ya down you know.”
“I didn’t know that.” I played along and he took off after we thanked him for his concern.
Ok, what’s the point of all this? We all wake up and operate within our own uniquely constructed image of reality. The parameters we set and have set for us delineate all that our world is from all it isn’t. For a while most people lived as though the world was flat right? That was their understanding of reality until it was changed by science and philosophy. If we are taught that the Earth was made by little green men from Neptune then that is the framework our life will bounce around in until we either take that framework to our graves or we have what philosophers call a paradigm shift. Our understanding of life is our paradigm and it encompasses all of our lives from the meta to the micro. The important thing to know is that even though we all have our own unique and highly customized reality they can play nice together, as a matter of fact they do all the time and also no one’s reality of safe from shifting if the proper agent of change comes along.
I live for those moments when I am on trail and cross paths with someone who is of such a different reality than mine that my mere presence is an affront to what they believe, or at least an amusement from their routine. Through all of these interactions I am always on the look out for that moment when I see that I have slightly altered their understanding of reality. Am I shaking them by their foundations? No, of course not, although that is always a possibility. I see these moments as opening a window in a stuffy house or eco-revelations if you will. After years of research, I am able to break down all those reactions to my adventure one liners into 3 categories- the non-believers, the elders, and the dreamers.
This group thankfully represents a minority, although depending on where you are in the country it can range from a small percentage to a significant enough population to rival the Dreamers. While there is a lot of commonality among the Non-Believer’s responses, they come in many forms depending on their level of commitment to their own reality and their personal level of crotchetyness or stubbornness. On the extreme end of the non-believer spectrum are the people who can’t even imagine or pretend to imaging what the hell you’re doing. The “I’m going to live in a hammock on a beach in Costa Rica for 4 months with no real amount of money and no plane ticket home with only the clothes on my back” statement with the real far gone Non-Believers is met with a succinct “whatever,” “must be nice” or they may proffer up some quasi-related but roundly untrue information and turn away with confrontational or demeaning laughter. None of this interaction foretells of any inspiration or imagination on behalf of the Non-Beliver. To me they represent what happens to a human when their soul begins to turn to plastic. The next step down is the non-believer who just shakes their head and emits a small chuckle or tiny laugh as in “Oh, man, really, you think that’s a good idea?” or “Don’t you have something more productive to be doing with your life?” While I don’t write off any of these folks as lost causes, once you stop being at least entertained by other people living their dreams it’s time for serious medical attention.
Warning! The small laugh response has to be measured correctly because if it is accompanied by a glossy, far away look in their eyes it means they were out there rocking it way before you were even wildly riding your tricycle in Pampers (see Elders below).
How to deal with Non-Believers:
- Be polite. Even though their total lack of imagination may have built for them a nice tidy little box around their lives it is always worth telling your story, just keep it quick and move on, they need a life-exorcist at that point not a gregarious adventurer.
- Leave them a small token from your trip. A map, some useless gear (come on, we all take some useless gear) or a photo, something they will see later that will remind them that they are back in their paradigm paralyzed lives while you’re out spearing hot dog fish, eating free mangoes and living rent free on your own private beach. Don’t even ask, I won’t tell ya where it is.
They are the ones who have the glossy eyed, 1000 mile stare and slight smile when you are sharing your story. They’ve been there, done that and I have been super lucky to run into the Elder type on trail on a few occasions. Not only are they great campfire company but they are also fountainheads of information. More than not the Elders just want to be involved in your rad trip. Maybe they’ll offer you lunch, a few cold beers or a ride to your trailhead. It’s up to you how much you accept in gifts, I have turned down many rides because I didn’t want my experience to change, I can’t say the same about the cold beer through. You often won’t find them too far off trail or too far from town, but you’d be surprised how many people I’ve met that, despite my egregiously wrong first impression, have the power to show you your future. Some Elders may become Non-Believers if they haven’t dusted off their traveling boots for a while; paradigms are always in danger of solidifying behind our backs and they may bristle at your freedom, or they are just playing the “I’m old and wise card.” Either way, always treat our elders with respect.
How to deal with the Elders:
- Get in your one line sales pitch (the same one for all 3 groups). If they get glossy eyed do them a favor and share your whole adventure being sure to hit on the meta-moments, the real reasons we’re out there, the passion and spirit. 30 years from now do you want some young punk nerding out at length about their gear, well, maybe, but I know I’d rather hear about what brings them out there to begin with, then I’d want to see all their gear. Remember, we’re not trying to inspire the Elders to get out there like we are, just to inspire them to do what they can to rekindle the flame, or if nothing else just let them know their legacy is still being carried on.
- Offer them a night in your camp if you can spare the space. I have a few times been able to share a camp with Elders who probably would have been ok with just going home but were thrilled to get to spend a night out and have some young folks cook for them over a campfire.
The is the target audience of the one liner adventure evangelist. Don’t think that this group is all doe- eye kids looking to be inspired though. On the contrary you’ll see every social and economic background type here, from all sorts of good/bad/ugly histories and living very different lives than you, especially if your adventure takes you far from your home turf. In my experience I’ve found that the Dreamers represent the vast majority of people I have interacted with on trail over the last 18 years. Maybe our culture still harbors that flame of adventure that has been moving us across the globe for thousands of years or perhaps everyone still recognizes freedom in others even though it is lost on themselves. I have seen old police officers, young rural farmers, city kids and suburbanites alike all get lost in the magic of what you are telling them. Again, my format is a quick attack then I’m out like showing your hand in a game of five card draw; I lay my full house and walk away, so you need to figure out your strong suit and go with it. The dreamer may say “Wow, that sounds awesome!” “Really, you can do that?” “If I didn’t have (fill in the blank responsibility) I’d love to do that,” or “You remind of my (fill in the blank relation), they are always doing crazy things too.”
Hands down my favorite person to reach is the young kid who has no idea that what you are doing is possible and within reach of anyone with the motivation. On the last 22 day canoe expedition I was on we must have met at least a dozen Dreamers, the best being the young man met at the mill town who before he met us had no clue the ocean was only a 3 day paddle away.
This is the reason I love non-wilderness expeditions and adventures. Of course I am always going to seek out true wilderness trips, but to have to ability to influence people along the way is, to me, a fair trade off for having to deal with the downsides of civilization on an expedition. Of course there are many ways of sharing and inspiring, like writing your exploits on a blog, but I feel there is magic and power when people see you out there, sweating hauling gear over a portage or holed up in a city park escaping a raging storm on the Mississippi River. Our culture is used to experiencing just about everything in life second hand, so to be able to see an expedition in progress, to see your gear, to see your sun tanned face, to smell the smoke in your clothes and to be able to be a part of your experience, in my book makes any inconvenience worth it.