Once, in a spirit of high adventure, my friend Jim and I spent several weeks traveling in Newfoundland and Labrador. Our goal was to canoe some truly wild rivers – a goal only partially realized as we managed to choose a summer of uncommon drought. Still, the adventure was realized in my mind, if nowhere else, and I find myself thinking of it often.
Adventure! The word calls forth images of Ernest Shackleton and Sir Edmund Hillary, the search for the Northwest passage, Vikings braving the cold North Atlantic, and even the heroes of my childhood fantasies: Davy Crocket, Tarzan, and Mowgli. These images, fictional and real, have all tumbled together to give the word "adventure" a vivid and genuine meaning. Whatever else, adventure was always serious business.
But the world has changed, and so has the word.
Today, travel to the highest mountain in Tibet and you will find an expedition of scores of cameramen, transport crews, and media people all in support of a single man who wants to ski down Everest, or another who dons aqualung and wetsuit in order to "swim" down the great mountain's frigid glacial streams.
Journey to the Bering Strait, and you might see a middle-aged woman swimming from America to Russia in waters so cold she must dodge icebergs.
On the frozen Arctic Ocean, a man is attempting to be the first to ride a motorcycle to the North Pole. In the South China Sea, another has just completed a grueling open ocean voyage windsurfing on a fiberglass board. And a blind man once undertook the first "blind" crossing of the Atlantic. In what must be one of the great understatements of any age, he said: "It's not going to be easy."
Or consider the recreation of adventurous exploits in the name of commerce. Stephen Spielberg reproduces Shanghai of the 1920s complete to thousands of extras dressed in costumes of the era. On a frozen wasteland, a public television company reconstitutes the tortures of the ill-fated Shackleton crew. And in nearly every country, wars past and present are perpetually recast and refilmed to supply TV networks with late-night adventure reruns.
In the face of such incredible and often outrageously expensive feats, what can be left for the ordinary set of adventurers?
What, I wonder, does a starving African family think when they see a Land Rover, patriotic flags flying, roar past their outstretched rice bowls, as it competes in a trans-African safari? How do boatloads of starving Haitian refugees comprehend that windsurfer who glides past them on his hi-tech board dressed in a rubberized wetsuit?
The gap between what adventure was and what it has become is as great as the distance that separates that starving refugee from a Donald Trump in his penthouse. Today, adventure appears to represent more an act of self-discovery than one of physical exploration–of psychological absorption rather than societal obligation.
There is something in us, it seems, that will always need adventure, so that as the real ones become used up, we stand ever-ready to create new ones, however absurd and remote from real life. What is the point, after all, in attempting to "re-create" Amundsen's march to the South Pole if one uses modern down clothing, high-protein-density dehydrated foods, and satellite positioning devices to determine longitude and latitude?
Adventure is escapism in today's world. It enables us to forget, however briefly, the bewildering and fast-moving changes that are overwhelming our crowded planet. It can, quite simply, make us feel relevant again.
And so, in the absence of new frontiers, we create false ones based on doing a thing faster or without oxygen or by a more dangerous route or simply in a manner so ridiculous that no one ever thought of it before–motorcycling to the North Pole.
What makes us "feel" relevant has at last become truly irrelevant. We go four-wheeling past the gaunt faces of the starving.