The Power of Light Expeditions

Expedition ( \ ˌek-spə-ˈdi-shən \): A journey undertaken by a group of men with a particular purpose, especially that of exploration, research, or war. OED

“Apathy can be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things: first, an ideal, which takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.” Arnold J. Toynbee. H/T @MMLoneWanderer

Sir Wilfred Thesiger (1910–2003) was an English explorer famous for being the first man to cross the Rub’ al Khali (“the Empty Quarter”), an enormous 250,000 square mile desert located in the Arabian Peninsula. Incredibly hot and dry, with sand dunes towering over 1000 feet, Thesiger crossed this desert not once but twice, between 1946 and 1949.

Sir Wilfred Thesiger

Thesiger later wrote: “For years the Empty Quarter had represented to me the final, unattainable challenge which the desert offered…To others my journey would have little importance. It would produce nothing except a rather inaccurate map which no one was ever likely to use. It was a personal experience, and the reward had been a drink of clean, nearly tasteless water. I was content with that.”

He continued: “I did not go to the Arabian Desert to collect plants nor to make a map; such things were incidental. I went there to find peace in the hardship of desert travel and the company of desert peoples… It is not the goal but the way there that matters, and the harder the way the more worthwhile the journey.”

Can you think of a small but difficult expedition in your past that pushed you to your limits? Perhaps a long canoe trip in Boy Scouts, a long sailing trip with your friends, or a backpacking trip? How did you feel once you successfully completed the trip? What did you see along the way and how did it affect you? Did you bond in some special way with your fellow travelers?

Part of Becoming a Man is Testing your Limits

Testing yourself to find your limits and move beyond them, under the supervision of men you know and respect, is central to becoming and being a man. After you’ve become fit, learned how to approach and connect with the opposite sex, established a career and mission within your own frame, what’s left?

In this piece, I’ll argue that you should make light expeditions and the related necessary skills part of your mission.

Jack Donovan

Jack Donovan in his seminal work ,“The Way of Men”, argued that four virtues — strength, courage, mastery, and honor — are what make someone good at being a man (which is distinct from being a “good man”). Donovan argues that these virtues were born from the struggle for survival among small groups led by men, who established and defended a perimeter from which civilization was born. As civilization advanced, today just as in Roman times, men lost touch with this struggle for survival and masculinity waned.

Donovan is right that we can’t fully recreate this brutal early environment (barring a zombie apocalypse). And yet that environment, small groups of men in warfare with other small groups of men, has clear advantages in developing a deep, powerful masculinity, great men, and ultimately great civilizations (e.g., the Founding of Rome). What’s the closest we can come today without the overhead of lots of violence and bloodshed?

What is a Light Expedition?

1922 British Team that attempted Everest. Mallory is second from left, back row.

I argue that we can capture some of its essence via “light” expeditions. A “heavy” expedition requires months or years of training and other preparation, is expensive, time-consuming and inherently extremely dangerous. Examples include Thesiger’s journey through the Rub’ al Khali, Mallory’s fatal attempt on Everest in 1924, and Teddy Roosevelt’s nearly fatal trip down the Amazon’s “River of Doubt”. Very few men are wealthy or skilled enough to even attempt such trip, and in fact modern transportation and communications technology has made true exploration at that scale nearly extinct, except in the deep sea or outer space.

Light expeditions, in contrast, are accessible to anyone willing to develop the necessary strength, courage, and mastery. A light expedition is a short, performable (in personal cost, preparation time and duration) but potentially difficult journey with a purpose, that leverages and develops masculine skills and confidence. Successful light expeditions create experiences that deepen our self-understanding, build confidence, add color and depth to the story of our lives, and make us more interesting and admirable to friends, family, and women, often via shared experience.

Secrets and Firsts

Heaven Bay. Photo by Matthew O’Keefe.

Now some may not be interested in self-understanding, so perhaps practicing the actual skills themselves in the field will be enough reward for you. Or the potentially rich experiences might hold attraction.

But there is another reward from light expeditions: finding secrets and performing firsts. Large-scale explorations (e.g., Lewis and Clark) have become nearly extinct due to technology as every part of the globe has been mapped and is somehow accessible. But there are secrets and firsts everywhere. Traditionally secrets or firsts, like a heavy expedition, require huge efforts, typically beyond what one or small number of individuals can afford, to find or complete.

But secrets exist locally and at small-scale. For example, in fall 1971, a small floatplane disappeared after taking off in heavy fog at the Canada-Minnesota border. It’s loss was a complete mystery, until nearly 12 years later, in spring 1983, a forestry survey crew found the crash site by accident a few miles north of Hovland, a small village on Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. The plane and the crash victim’s remains laid there undiscovered in a site fairly close to people, yet so hidden from view no one noticed its secret location. Before the plane crashed, it was heard close to ground by someone near the crash site. A light expedition that concentrated in that area, methodically combing through the forest, would likely have found the plane.

Similarly, smaller-scale firsts are attainable. For example, there are quite a few remote but accessible locations that could possibly be surfed but have not been attempted. Up until the 1980’s, there were numerous rivers in northern Canada that had never been canoed by non-natives. My father, in his 60s, was the first person to travel the whole Lewis and Clark trail via float plane. Really any activity you personally perform for the first time qualifies, as personal firsts are critical to developing further mastery and courage, in particular, and serve to contribute to your own sense of personal honor.

If you’ve read this far, you probably wondering what skills might best support light expeditions and why. In the second of this three-part series, I’ll outline the principals and characteristic qualifying skills should have and why, and walk you through my list of preferred skills. In the third, I’ll describe some example light expeditions I’ve done and propose others.

The links below point to all three essays in this series on light expeditions.

Part 1: The Power of Light Expeditions

Part 2: The Best Skills to Master for Light Expeditions

Part 3: Light Expeditions, Lake Superior Style

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