“The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.”– Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, generally cool dude.
Look, I love me some Yvon Choinard. He single handedly created the modern ice axe. He led the charge into a new world of environmentally conscious businesses. His trail cred is second to none.
Unfortunately he is also responsible for this abomination of a quote, most commonly repeated by drunk dudes with beards in muscle shirts who once read a cool book about going hiking.
I understand that people like Yvon, who spend a significant amount of time doing legitimately dangerous things, want to differentiate their experiences from Joe Schmoe’s trip down West Fork. It is natural that we want credit and validation for doing hard things in hard places. However, it is also true that my time in Tibet to and your first time on the climbing wall could have been equally scary for each of us. Yes, breaking cars in the middle of nowhere on Tibetan Plateau gives me some street cred, but given my experiences aren’t your experiences and what is scary for each of us is different. Therefore, adventure is all about context: Who are you? What are you doing? Is it scary?
Which brings me to my favorite kind of adventure: the little adventure.
Let’s break that down: First, a little adventure is an adventure. It is scary and hard. For example, my first adventure came when I was around 10 years old, on my first trip to the Grand Canyon. It didn’t go well. I was fat, and young, and by the end of the like I looked like Ralphie right after he actually shot his eye out. To my 10 year old self that was an adventure in every sense of the word and to say otherwise is to both devalue the experience and be wrong. Full stop.
Second, a little adventure is little. Like I said, I have had opportunities to go on big adventures—huge expeditions to the other side of the world, to valleys unknown to the West, to places I couldn’t have dreamed of as a kid. However, two things: 1.) Setting the bar at for adventures this high means most people will never have an adventure, which seems false, and 2.) How much bravery a something takes is not defined only by the size of the undertaking. Mostly we go on smaller trips—a day hike here, a weekend backpack there. The vast majority of these trips aren’t adventures, but sometimes they cross the line into one. To belittle these trips because they are not massive would be both devaluing and wrong.
So, a little adventure is a trip that is sincerely challenging and probably scary, but can be undertaken in a few days with relatively little planning. Not to put to fine a point on it, but by being both hard enough to be considered an adventure and small enough to actually do on a regular basis, little adventures are the best adventures.
Which brings me to my Dad and I. A few weekends ago, we went on a little adventure in the Grand Canyon. We followed the stereotypical path—the one the guys at Adventure Journal would reflexively vomit at the thought of—down South Kaibab, staying in Bright Angel campground, with a day trip to Ribbon Falls, and up Bright Angel Trail. It is an itinerary that will be taken by thousands of people this year.
I picked my dad up at 3AM on Friday morning. We piled into my Forester and we set off. Five hours later we were at the South Kaibab trailhead and five minutes after than we were bitching about pack weights. I considered being putting a rock in his pack for kicks, but I realized his old man strength and my proximity to cliffs probably made that a bad idea. By noon we were at the bottom of the Canyon drinking vodka tonics (n.b. a benefit of little adventures relative to their bigger brethren is that you can bring tonic water on them). We had a Tecate at Phantom Ranch, I made fun of him for using gear from the Bronze Age, and we went to bed.
The next morning we set off to Ribbon Falls, through The Box. We started off feeling good and finished feeling tired. We used my tripod (another thing you can bring on little adventures) to take a picture of ourselves at the base of the falls. We decided to look tough for the picture.
That night we got lucky and had dinner at Phantom Ranch rather than the freeze-dried stuff. We were surrounded by people who committed what a younger me considered a mortal sin: traveling by mule. Before dinner the server congratulated each of us for being part of the less than 1% of visitors who made it to the bottom of the Canyon every year. As far as I could tell we were the only ones who had packed everything in, so I shot my dad a knowing we are so much better than these guys smirk across the table. Basically I was a dick.
After introducing ourselves one of them started an (unprompted, almost endearingly ridiculous) rant about EVIL OBAMA and GLOBAL WARMING CONSPIRACIES and how we needed to RETURN TO THE GOLD STANDARD for about 20 minutes. Otherwise though, the table was pretty quiet. People were nervous about the trip out, whether hiking or by mule. This was scary for them. Their adventure levels were not based on my expectations.
So far though, this trip hadn’t crossed the adventure threshold for us. That came the next day. Some back story: A few years ago my dad hurt his hip badly. He walked with a cane for months and probably questioned just how worth living a life without hiking would be. Through some rage that can only be explained by my teenage years, he worked through the injury by climbing up the mountain by our house a little bit at a time. To be honest we didn’t know how his body would react to the unique challenge the Canyon poses. Tellingly, I brought my big expedition pack just in case I needed to offload some gear.
Luckily his hip held up and we hiked out with no real hiccups. But we were worried. We left before dawn, pushed quickly up the trail, before slowing and succumbing to that far away look in your eyes that only the last mile of the Canyon can induce. Just before finishing a Middle Eastern man congratulated us, “I did that hike last year. I know how hard it is.”
Initially I put his statement in the scale of all the other things I had done. Nearly dying in Tibet? Going back to Tibet after nearly dying there? 30-mile day hikes? This isn’t hard. Those things were hard. At the top, we couldn’t find anyone to take a picture at us. Seeing our plight, the Middle Eastern man saw ran the last 100 feet of the trail to help us out. It was only then that I really got it. For him we were part of a common brotherhood of people who had done something he judged to be special. For my dad, this trip was a victory over years of injury and self-doubt. For me, it was another weekend in the backcountry. Not only is it impossible to compare these experiences, but also there is no value in doing so.
I guess you could disagree and say this is all a bunch of relativistic liberal bullshit. If you do disagree though, do us a favor and save it for the next time you’re day dreaming at the bar about some far off experience that will probably never come. I’ll be out having adventures.
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