One of the most rewarding things about being a guide is watching my passengers slow down to the point where they let the landscape work its magic on them. How on the first day of a river trip, my passengers will be swaddled in layers of protective clothing, ointments and potions, and then they shed them little by little, day by day, until finally their skin becomes a color indistinguishable from the river.
How at first
How at first, they are so shy with their bodies, so modest about their athleticism, until a couple of near misses on the trip’s biggest rapids require everyone to give better than their best. How, once they start to recognize the birds and the flowers and the age of the rock layers, this new knowledge delights them beyond all reason. How their conversation too becomes more naked and demanding, how more and more of everything gets laid bare.
In just five days of slow and elemental travel, the river can bring even the most disconnected person back to the land and back to herself. In our modern lives–which so often endorse the ordinary, acknowledge the explicable and reward repetition–adventure is our last connection to the wild world we came from, which always was and still is full of mystery and surprise.
Adventure is good for people
There’s no question in my mind that adventure is good for people. I’ve seen what it does for them. I know what it does for me. And yet the question that presents itself in the wake of the adventure craze is, How good are people for adventures? Are we, in our enthusiasm, obliterating the very places we need if we are to keep our spirits of adventure alive?
As the places we go for wilderness and solitude get buried under more and more waves of adventure seekers, it is only natural that we look for what remains untouched. Nepal is overrun, so we go to Bhutan. Peru is passe, so we try Bolivia. Alaska has too many RVs, so how about Antarctica? Should we ask ourselves now if any undiscovered places will be left on Earth in 50 years to serve as the landscapes of adventure? Can we remember, even in the heat of the moment, that what makes an adventure exciting is less the remoteness of the location or the degree of difficulty and more our capacity for wonder when we engage the world?
Too many people believe that they can master nature, that if they are clever enough they can outsmart the river, the mountain, the weather, the sea. If there is any lesson humans ought to have learned by now, it is that nature always reserves the right to win. It’s bigger than we are, and it has been here much longer. That, among other reasons, is why we love it. If we lose our love for it, or our access to it, we will lose the very center of what we are. And if nature is to survive our love affair with it, we are going to have to work even harder at treating it with awe and respect.