The cover of a recent issue of National Geographic Adventure proclaims "America's Best! The Adventure 100." Topping the "adrenaline trip" list are the Colorado River and the White Rim Trail in Utah's Canyonlands National Park.
In the "Letter from the Editor," John Rasmus muses: "We need vacations! We all need to decompress from the rigors of making our marks on the New Economy. This whole technological-utopia scenario depends on us maintaining fresh, invigorated minds."
One might expect such preening from Outside or Men's Journal, but this chest-thump resounds from the same corporation that publishes National Geographic - the magazine that, for many, was the window through which we first glimpsed the curious world, where nobody's utopian dream featured lycra-skinned hordes stampeding the 100 Best. But perhaps National Geographic stimulated too many adolescent fantasies of becoming Major John Wesley Powell, Sacajawea, Sir Edmund Hillary - fantasies we've never abandoned.
I'll admit I've had plenty of the Best Adventures, and more that didn't make the cut. But whatever happened to great adventure by chance, to careful listening for word-of-mouth stories? What happened to initiation, to progressive acquisition of skills, to trial by gantlet? What happened to rite-of-passage epics: getting lost, freezing butt, running out of food?
I guess I missed the cultural moment when adventure became a commodity, an industry, marketed to those with perhaps more income than skill. Now, it's so efficient: A million people simply buy the magazine, check the day planner, and call the outfitter with platinum plastic - courtesy of the New Economy - in hand. The grail is no longer elusive, the secrets no longer earned.
I have a friend who writes for a nature magazine I once considered prestigious. The new editor insisted that the writer's recent submission - an exploration of a bird sanctuary endangered by development - wasn't sufficiently riveting. The editor said the piece needed more drama. Nature, apparently, is no longer dramatic enough. And who's interested in stories without some enviable adventure? Envy, above all, fuels consumer culture.
Make something up, I told my friend. Ten Terrors on the Trogon Trail. Why not? Hyperbole is key. Lists are in. The Adrenaline 100. The 1,000 Pieces of Extravagant Equipment You Cannot Leave the Couch Without. The 10,000 Ways You Can Impact Seldom-Visited Areas of the World and Feel Great About It Because ... You Need a Vacation!
I don't doubt that many in the adventure travel industry care deeply about the places they journey; and quite often adventure changes lives, shifts perception and priorities. Perhaps such moments inspire voyagers to safeguard wild places or vanishing cultures. Perhaps not.
But the line between personal growth and commercial exploitation has become fuzzy. When I worked as a river guide, I had a passenger who declared, after one drenching rapid, "Why, this is even better than Six Flags Over Texas!" If all that adventure requires is leisure time and discretionary income, then it becomes just another commodity for insatiable consumers.
No one who cherishes the "wild" can afford to keep it separate from daily life, something just visited on vacation. Such compartmentalization risks turning what remains of the wildish world into a theme park, as marketable, industrialized and tame as Six Flags.
When I lived in a rape-and-robbery-prone neighborhood in Santa Cruz, Calif., my Most Extreme Adventure was sleeping without shelter, handgun, cell phone or companionship in the backyard. The reverb of surf pounding the cliffs! The scent of jasmine and salt! The tense listening for stealthy footfalls! Prowlers, I suspected, would be terrified to stumble upon anyone, even a lone woman, unexpectedly in the dark.
A sound bite from devotees of hard-core adventure says, Go Big or Go Home. Go big or go small, whatever, but why not sometimes stay home, where there's plentiful opportunity for terror or transformation. Since lists are so in, I've begun one to which anyone can add: Risk living with unlocked windows and doors. Backpack through an inner city. Reclaim the ability and right to wander neighborhoods unarmed, at night. Sleep outside.
Conquering The 100 Most Extreme Backyard Adventures might not give anyone bragging rights, but it could lessen the stampede toward wild places and transfigure the danger zone of home.
But will it sell magazines?
Geneen Marie Haugen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). She lives in Kelly, Wyoming.
Copyright © 2000 HCN and Geneen Marie Haugen