After a few minutes, the biting cold of the river turned to numbness in my legs. My wife and I trudged toward an opening between two large rock faces. I was freezing and tired, but when we finally reached the waterfall at the end of the river, I became instantly rejuvenated.
We were on our first adventure in far too long. A random hike in Utah we found on our way back to California after spending the week in Zion and Bryce National Parks.
There was no one else around.
We knew it was going to be a tough hike. The signpost explicitly told us so. But that didn’t seem to bother either of us. We felt like kids. Our minds were nowhere else but on the trail.
We are not typically spontaneous, but something about that last minute decision to experience a little more adventure was life-changing. For the first time in years, my mind was truly present.
I didn’t want to be anywhere else but there. I wasn’t worried about work or responsibilities or my future. I just wanted to keep climbing.
That feeling is the spirit of adventure. As children, we don’t have to look for it. We find it in our imaginations. We find it in the front yard or playing in the street with our friends. But in becoming adults, we often lose that sense of adventure along the way.
After our adventure ended and we headed back toward town, we stopped at an old trading post. My wife picked up some last minute supplies for the trip home while I perused the shelf of used books.
Truly judging a book by its cover and inspired by own mini-exploration, I picked up a copy of John Wesley Powell’s The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons (Penguin Classics)
Powell is someone who understood the importance of adventure. If anyone could sympathize with the feeling that I needed more adventure in my life, it was him.
Powell: American Explorer
As a youth, Powell cultivated an intense passion for the natural world. Similar to a young Theodore Roosevelt, Powell was infatuated with exploring new areas to collect and study biological specimens. In his early twenties, he paddled alone down the Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois Rivers collecting natural artifacts along the way.
In 1860, Powell, an abolitionist, enlisted in the Union Army and entered the Civil War as a second lieutenant. He demonstrated unshakable courage and determination throughout his military career.
Powell: A New Adventure Awaits
Following Powell’s discharge from the Union Army, he l organized an expedition to explore the Colorado River, beginning at one of the river’s tributaries in Wyoming.
Powell and his crew would then travel south ending at the Gulf of California. This would be the first such expedition that would take a course through the Grand Canyon.
Powell’s lifelong embrace of the spirit of adventure motivated him to gain a deeper understanding of the western US despite the difficulties and danger of the task. Not once, but twice.
Powell set out on four small vessels with a ten-man team of hunters, trappers, scientists, and war veterans. The first boat was lost to the rapids at the beginning of the journey, along with it supplies and equipment.
The rapids proved to be relentless.
Three months into the journey and nearly 1,000 miles downriver, three men attempted to convince Powell to abandon the expedition. At this point, the crew’s rations were nearly depleted and no end seemed to be in sight. After Powell’s refusal to give up the mission, the three men left, convinced that if they stayed they would die.
They braved the unforgiving desert, hoping to reach a settlement approximately 75 miles away.
They were never seen again.
Only a few days after the three departed, Powell and the remaining crew members reached the mouth of the Virgin River, where they once again encountered civilization.
After nearly three months of silence from the crew, the outside world assumed Powell and his men were dead. News of their survival was met with acclaim and Powell with his new found fame went on to hold prestigious positions within the US Geological Survey and the Smithsonian.
Not one to shy from the call of the adventure, Powell embarked on a second expedition in 1871 to survey of the Grand Canyon. With a crew of scientists and photographers, he succeeded in mapping the journey and producing multiple scientific studies.
Powell’s expeditions cemented his place among the West’s greatest explorers. Setting an example of what it means to live a life of adventure.
The Importance of Adventure
Despite the onset of numerous calamities throughout Powell’s journey, he chose to once again set forth down the river.
What is it about a trying and difficult adventure that peaks our interest?
When British explorer, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton recruited for his Antarctic exploration aboard the Endurance (pictured below) he did so with an advertisement that now (in)famously read, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”
Though the validity of the advertisement remains in question, the attractiveness of it does not. We want the legend that after Shackleton posted this ad he received thousands of inquiries to be true. Because something about such a difficult journey appeals to our own sense of adventure.
Why else do people become Navy Seals, or climb Mount Everest, or run 100-mile races through scorching deserts?
Why pull over after spending six days hiking to explore one last freezing river? Because adventure forces us to confront the bare basics of who we are as people. Out there, somewhere beyond the reaches of our cellular service plans, we are forced to welcome the present without the distractions of our highly modern and social lives.
Instinct kicks in.
We become hyper-aware of our surroundings and our senses are on fire. We remember what it feels like to be truly alive. The more difficulty involved in the adventure, the more present we become.
It’s challenging to worry about that assignment or making a dentist appointment or canceling that subscription when your quads are burning, your adrenaline is rushing, and you’re focused on survival.
Powell and Shackleton were firsts in many areas of exploration. Both possessed an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and deeper understanding. Beyond the power of adventure to bring us into the present moment, it exposes us to new experiences and discoveries.
It is far more difficult to be the first to discover something in the 21st century, but it is still the first time you will discover something for yourself. And the feeling of learning something by doing, versus looking at a picture, or reading about how someone else first learned of such things, is empowering.
When you earn your knowledge, you are far more likely to retain and appreciate it.
Powell didn’t need to go on a second expedition. He more than proved himself on the first. But he did so because he understood the value of learning through experience.
Embracing the Spirit of Adventure
The spirit of adventure may grow dormant as we get older, but it is rarely lost. Sometimes life gives us an unexpected reminder of the importance of adventure if we’re willing to embrace it.
When American explorer, conservationist, and inventor John Muir (pictured with Theodore Roosevelt below) experienced an eye injury that blinded him for a month, he resolved to focus his regained but cherished sight on what he deemed important.
After this unfortunate, but life-changing sequence of events, Muir began an existence of adventure.
He traveled from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico on foot. Sailed to Cuba then to Panama and up the California Coast to San Francisco. He traveled on expeditions all over the world.
Muir became a renowned writer and explorer who helped establish the US National Park System. All because he embraced the intangible bounties of adventure. Something he may never have learned to appreciate if he hadn’t nearly lost his ability to see.
Get Out There
We all have the spirit of adventure within us. It doesn’t take an eye injury to remember that. It may manifest itself in reality differently from person to person. But its there.
As we move rapidly into an era where the “feeling” of adventure is increasingly manufactured, we should all embrace our instinct for the real thing. The kind that as children led us to imagine our neighborhood streets as an Amazonian rain forest.
The kind that takes us out our front doors and into the real world.
The kind of adventure that makes us part of the experience and not merely spectators.
If you enjoyed this article, please recommend it and check out my blog at www.theroadoftrials.com.
Originally published at www.theroadoftrials.com
Image Credits: Powell image from bbc.com. Shackleton image originally courtesy of Royal Geographical Survey, by Underwood and Underwood, New York; sourced from britanica.com. John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt originally from the Library of Congress; sourced from nps.gov