Not long ago, I Googled my old hometown, Moab, along with the word “adventure,” and found over 500,000 links. Apparently there are adventures enough to be found in Moab to keep tourists entertained and spending their money until the next millennium. Just to mention a handful, I found the Moab Adventure Center, Moab Adventure Xstream, Moab Adventure Headquarters, Moab Resort Adventure Package and a link to Moab Adventure Park, from television station WWTI in, of all places, Watertown, N.Y. It reported:
“Riding down the ski lift from the highest point on the red-rock rim overlooking the Moab Valley in Utah, our feet dangled some 800 feet in the air as Scott McFarland talked about the latest project for his Moab Adventure Park. ‘We're applying for permits for a zip-line, a 2,500-foot-long cable that goes from the top of the hill to the bottom… Without a braking system, you'd hit about 145 miles per hour. With the system, you'll go 50 or 60. That's on the computer, anyway. We'll see.’” That’s one adventure we’ll never have to embrace, thanks to The Nature Conservancy, which bought the tram and removed it from the face of the earth.
By comparison, if you travel just 55 miles south to the sleepy Mormon-cowboy hamlet of Monticello, the adventure falls off dramatically in the world of Google, to just 759 hits. What do you expect from a town without a brewpub? At the other end of the scale, nearby Aspen, Colo., kicks Moab’s relatively passive rear with 1,890,000 adventure hits, and New York City boasts a stunning 8,370,000. According to Google, you can find four times as many adventures in New York as you can in Baghdad, which produced less than 2 million hits. That is a telling piece of information. Just what kinds of adventures are we talking about? According to one dictionary definition, an adventure is "an undertaking of a hazardous nature" or "an undertaking of a questionable nature.” Both sound like Baghdad to me.
But there’s a third definition: "an unusual or exciting experience." This was the one I was looking for, the kind of adventure that tourists search for when they come to places like Moab. Most, if not all, of the Moab Google hits are commercial enterprises, eager to provide an exciting and unusual experience for the paying public. But an adventure that’s truly hazardous is out of the question. Imagine a company that faced its customers and announced, "Listen up, people... we want all of you to understand there’s an excellent chance only half of you will survive this hike in Arches National Park to the Fiery Furnace...the rest of you will probably die in free falls or rock collapses or from equipment failure. So call your family and tell them how much you love ‘em."
No, none of this would pass muster. The adventure-tour companies must endure inspections, meet various federal standards and pay substantial insurance premiums to ensure that an adventure is as free of danger as humanly possible. It’s okay for the customer to get excited, and compared to the workaday cube-farm life he or she leaves behind, how could it help but seem exciting? But is it really an adventure?
I have my own adventure definition; I call it a "spontaneously sought, poorly planned, stupidly conceived exploration of a mystery." Spontaneity is critical to an adventure. How can an adventure be planned and scheduled? And a real one should have an unknown component to it: You might get lost, for example.
But instead: "Now, let’s see, Kimberly ... I’m thinking...an adventure that starts around 10 a.m. would be perfect because I want to have a leisurely breakfast at the lodge. Love the eggs benedict! Then maybe a rappel down a cliff? Or would you rather do a boat thing? No more than $100 ... $150 tops. And back here by four for drinks … does that rock or what?"
Yes, it’s true. I’m out of touch with Mainstream Adventure America, and how can I argue with 480,000 Google hits and a booming adventure economy? But like so many other words -- wilderness -- for instance, an adventure isn’t what it used to be. I’ll take mine as they come, unplanned, unscheduled, free of charge and sloppy. If it kills me, I just hope I don’t die with a cell phone clutched in my hand, frantically punching 911 as I hurtle toward the greatest adventure of them all.
Jim Stiles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He publishes the Canyon Country Zephyr in Moab, Utah.