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Monday, September 30, 2013

Adventure Travel at It's Best: Part 1

I use Grammarly's grammar check because it's what separates us from the animals, or at least those members of the animal kingdom who suffer from problems of spelling, verb agreement, frequent use of clichés, poor word choice, and punctuation errors probably the result of bad public schools.

I have said before that if you book your travel online and use credit cards then the words “adventure” and “journey” hardly belong in our vocabulary. Two of my favorite travel books, Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor’s Life at Sea (1840) by Richard Henry Dana Jr. and Around the World on a Bicycle (1887) by Thomas Stevens chronicle a kind of travel that was at the very end of an era in which travel truly could be defined as adventure. I think that rounding Cape Horn on a square-sailed brig and riding around the world on a bike would still qualify today as thrilling but can’t compare with what these men pulled off well over a century ago. These books will give you something to think about the next time you are complaining about not having enough clean towels in your hotel room.

I remember reading Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents back at university and since then I’ve felt that because the world is completely known to us our inability to discover goes against our primal instincts, just as Freud postulated that civilization is in conflict with man’s instinctual quest for freedom. People make attempts to push the limits of travel and adventure but these seem desperate and phony to me. Who cares who the first person was to climb Mount Everest on a Segway Scooter or whatever? Swimming from Cuba to the United States without the aid of a shark cage was the latest yawn to hit the newspapers.

The protagonists of these two memoirs don’t suffer the fate of inconsequential stunts, at least not in my book. Tom Stevens starts out in April of 1884 from San Francisco and pedals his penny farthing bike with a 50 inch front wheel eastward across the Sierra Nevada mountains. A man who had little to learn about traveling light, he carried in his small handlebar bag some socks, a spare shirt, a raincoat that doubled as a tent and bedroll, and a revolver. Just how he financed the journey isn’t well explained in the book.

As I have stated somewhere else, to judge people from the past on things like our modern thoughts on political correctness makes about as much sense as making fun of the clothes they wore. If you are free of prejudices and racism then you are just reflecting the norms of our societies so don’t be so quick to pat yourself on the back while condemning folks who lived in other times. At least Stevens had a bit of humor to spice up his stereotypes. He refers to a Hungarian gypsy as “unregenerate chicken-lifter.”

The hero of Two Years Before the Mast dropped out of a comfortable life among the American elite of the time to work on a cargo vessel and our world of letters is better for it. In this day of Google maps it’s hard to imagine just how vulnerable travelers were in the past. Even many generations after the puzzle of determining longitude had been solved ships were still at the mercy of lousy time pieces. The captain on this voyage quickly abandoned the use of the ship’s unreliable chronometer and set longitude by means of dead reckoning and line-of-sight—not the most reliable tools in navigation.

He describes in great detail the difficult and sometimes perilous work of a sailor. In this passage below the ship is rounding Cape Horn which is infamous for its high seas and terrible storms:

The crew stood abaft the windlass and hauled the jib down, while John and I got out upon the weather side of the jib-boom, our feet on the foot-ropes, holding on by the spar, the great jib flying off to leeward and slatting so as almost to throw us off the boom. For some time we could do nothing but hold on, and the vessel, diving into two huge seas, one after the other, plunged us twice into the water up to our chins. We hardly knew whether we were on or off; when, the boom lifting us up dripping from the water, we were raised high into the air and then plunged below again. John thought the boom would go every moment, and called out to the mate to keep the vessel off, and haul down the staysail; but the fury of the wind and the breaking of the seas against the bows defied every attempt to make ourselves heard, and we were obliged to do the best we could in our situation.

Fortunately no other seas so heavy struck her, and we succeeded in furling the jib ``after a fashion''; and, coming in over the staysail nettings, were not a little pleased to find that all was snug, and the watch gone below; for we were soaked through, and it was very cold. John admitted that it had been a post of danger, which good sailors seldom do when the thing is over.

Step aside fast-food workers, the definition of “shit job” just took on a new meaning. Or as a friend of mine once said about a climbing trip we took into the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, “Fun is over-rated." If all you are looking for is fun go to Disneyland or stay home and watch a movie.

I’m not saying that you have to be miserable every minute of your trip but roughing it (i.e. on a shoestring budget) certainly makes for a better story once you get back home. The less money you spend traveling the more others want to hear about it and by “others” I mean “me.” Traveling with little or no money means that there is some risk involved. I know that my own traveling has become more mundane and boring as I get older and have much more in the way of resources. I remember traveling before I had a credit card and I would often come home with less than a dollar in my pocket.


  1. Hello John,
    Its humorous that I read this as I sit here in Lynnwood, Wa. Dana had a combo wedding/baby shower this past weekend thrown by her Aunts along with Mary who has just moved back to the Seattle area this last summer. My new wife has a hard time flying so we drove the best fuel economy vehicle in the driveway. The 1996 Taurus Wagon averaged 24 mpg but has had a little overheating issue. Now I debating finding a nice clean older car, seems to be a ton of them out here or fixing it or even renting truck and tow dolly. Not anyway near the adventure of type you describe above but definitely not just fly in fly out. We did hit snow coming over the continental divide last week and we have had 6 days of rain since we have been here..... record rainfall for this time of year I am told.

  2. Hey Dave,
    I think that as close as we got to adventure was humping around Israel and then having our military flight canceled and having to fly back commercial with no credit cards and not quite enough money. If anyone wants to get jacked up by Israeli airport security just say the words “I need a one-way ticket” and you’ll be in a room answering questions before the last syllable has cleared your voice box—and that was 1986.

  3. And I got paid for the bit about Grammarly's grammar check but it's a good product.


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