I was … envious?
Envious of Alan’s 13-hour nights in the tent? Envious of the 10-degree nights? Envious of having to crawl out of a warm bag at 4 a.m. for the inevitable commune with nature that goes with calling it a night at 6 p.m.?
Alan had just gotten back from six days on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. Six days that saw the first cold of the season descend, bringing with it those 10-degree nights and daytime highs in the 20s. Six days with snow, a foot on the trail in places, drifts of up to two-and-a-half feet. Six rare days of bona fide winter backpacking, Southern style. His trip had the added cache of accompanying a thru-hiker down the homestretch. His buddy Rich — a k a Orson Deep Waters — was concluding his conquest of the AT (a conquest interrupted once to cut Christmas trees in Avery County in November, once to go to Belgium for the world punkin‘ chunkin‘ championship). Meanwhile, I spent the week here in Cary, sick, going three-on-one with the kids. An adventure in its own right.
“Tell me again about having to get out of the tent and pee in the middle of the night,” I pleaded when Alan touched base upon his return. I was desperate for adventure. Alan was desperate to get off the phone.
Alan wasn’t returning from the North Pole, or from bagging one of the Seven Summits, or rowing across an ocean. In fact, I’d hiked some of the AT they had covered (a 55-mile stretch from the James River footbridge southwest to Daleville, Va.). And it wasn’t like I’d never been backpacking: I just finished a book on backpacking in North Carolina. Having grown up in Colorado, it wasn’t like I’d never hiked through a foot of snow or seen two-and-a-half-foot drifts. And it wasn’t like I had never had to amuse myself for 13 dark hours in a tent. It wasn’t that I’d missed a new experience. It was that I’d missed an adventure.
It’s bemoaned that the age of adventure has long since passed, that all the places left to explore (save space or the oceans’ deepest trenches) have been trod, mapped and declared fit for ecotourism. And that may be true for the Edmund Hillarys and Ernest Shackletons of the world. But for the vast majority of the rest of us, adventure abounds. In the case of Alan and the AT, there was the adventure of experiencing deep snow in the South, of gutting out 10-degree nights and of “just keeping the water in my bottle from freezing during the day.” In exchange, there was the reward, on that 4 a.m. passage to the privy, of a crystalline sky revealing an astonishing (for the east coast) display of stars, or the stillness of a frigid winter forest broken only by the occasional rustle of die-hard beech leaves. To those of us who will never conquer a geologic feature and have it named for us, that should be enough.
That’s how adventure writer Tim Cahill sees it. Cahill has had his share of adventure over five decades of going, observing, experiencing, reporting. A founding editor of Outside magazine, Cahill makes his case for the everyman adventure in “The Lure of Impossible Places,” which first appeared in the October 2003 “National Geographic Adventure” and reappears in “The New Age of Adventure,” a collection of pieces from the now, sadly, defunct magazine. Cahill is talking with an archaeologist friend who shares an incident in which journalists show up at his dig but but quickly become disinterested and leave when they learn that the site holds no promise for being the “first” or the “oldest” of anything. “We journalists,” writes Cahill, “think that ‘ultimates’ make better stories. We believe people are more apt to read an article titled, ‘World’s Oldest Human Habitation Reveals Evidence of Unique Weapons Technology,’ rather than one headlined ‘Typical Stone Tools Found at Pretty Old Site.’
“I’ve tried, over the ensuing years,” he continues, “to wean myself off the journalistic search for nothing less than the unmatched or the incomparable. For example, I’ve spent a lot of time walking the area near that pretty old site where the typical stone tools were found. I thought for a time that I’d conquered the urge to deal with the ultimate. But then it occurred to me that this was, in fact, the oldest site I could see from my front door, the oldest site on the mountain overlooking my town, and the oldest site that I personally knew a great deal about. It is my personal ultimate first-American site.”
There’s a pretty good chance I’ll never get to Everest. There’s an equally good chance I’ll never row the Atlantic. But I have done a winter climb up Mount Mitchell and I’ve done plenty of paddling on waterways that feed the Atlantic. Ultimates? Maybe not in the grand scheme of things, but certainly in my sphere of adventure.
To me, that’s all that matters.
Photo: Mount Mitchell in winter (photo courtesy N.C. State Parks)