by Jessica Kuzmier
Summer is known for its road trips and family holidays. People go camping, to Disneyworld, or some the destination that is a little out of the ways. You hear how people are doing it for the kids. Maybe they are; some people just don't like to travel, but for the kids it's a big adventure to go somewhere new. It couldn't possibly be because the adults want to travel. When you get to be an adult, that amorphous time that people can't figure out if it's eighteen or twenty-six or thirty, you're supposed to "settle down".
The idea of the sedentary, settled adult who carves out a particular niche in a particular place with a particular goal is certainly something regurgitated as a story of adulthood. It is what you are supposed to do: in the "Bell Curve" by Richard Hernnstein, he talks about what makes American society stable: employed men, married or never married, who have a settled routine that ultimately contributes to the economy and society in general. As far as this author is concerned, the twenty-somethings who bum around America are lacking in foresight. However, those with vision in the same cohort see the future, knows it entails money. Instead of being hobos, they settle down and get a good job that can open doors to more money, power and prestige. Or, if female, they get married and have babies, in that order. And then they travel. For the kids' sake.
The author doesn't mention people who are a little older than twenty-somethings who want to backpack across Europe, as though it's crazy enough that people old enough to drink live this way, so it must be impossible for people old enough to be the President to even think about wild adventures. Modern American culture disparages the hobo and instead elevates the upwardly mobile careerist, particularly if spouse, children, and a really nice house are involved. It is the pinnacle of success to achieve these things. Adventure, in this scheme, is relegated to weekend jaunts that can be blamed on the kids who "don't know better yet".
However, American culture didn't always have such a disdain for the adventurous life. The United States as we know it today wouldn't exist if it weren't for some sense of adventure, of foraging into the unknown. From Lewis and Clark with their famous expedition out West, to the immigrants that peppered the nation looking for a better life showing up on Ellis Island, to those who scurried to California in search of gold, the idea of getting up and going somewhere else has been the root of what settled the American continent. Settlers such as Pilgrims and Catholics looking to escape religious persecution, businessmen looking to set up tradeposts, and young men and women looking for a new and exciting life are all part of this nomadism. Even the native tribes who were the first occupants of the land came from distant lands. From the time of prehistory, the idea of travel to find something better has been rooted in American culture.
The shift in attitude seemed to have occurred sometime after World War II, when post-war success was defined as having a great job, and a family settled in the suburbs. Enterprise and Christian values were always part of the ticket in America. But now, they were described in a different way. One had "arrived" when one had achieved them. As in, the journey's over, time to go home and start real life. One had "arrived" home; the adventure was a success, but it was over.
Ironically, this idea of "arrival" coincided with the creation of the interstate system of Eisenhower, and the peak of the American love with the automobile. But the adventure was different than it had been when cowboys trekked the West. With the lowest marriage ages in American history, and every corner of the American continent accounted for, the love had more to do with family trips to Grandma's than the lone man or woman roaming the countryside to see what one could see. The family vacation had officially been born.
In the sixties and seventies, the counterculture movement arose. Young people began reliving the adventure of bumming across the country in vans and convertibles, sans parents. People hitchhiked, lived in communes and other types of arrangements that defied the settled suburban life that had been created for them as children.
But as with all things that are rooted in adolescent rebellion, once the revolutionaries reached adulthood, it was time to put childish things aside. Oil prices soared, and the famous gas lines in the seventies put a damper on the romance of the road. Most of the revolutions blended into the mainstream society, and with that, the mentality of the family vacation survived. Adventure and fun were for the kids; the parents were only there to provide the fun and keep a lid on things. Single people began amusing themselves with the bar life. Marriage was delayed for boomers and Generation Xers, in part so that they could live free a little longer than their predecessors had and see what life had to offer. But most of this so-called free life seemed to have to do with frequenting bars and taking strange lovers, whether in San Francisco or in Paris.
The idea of exploring the road didn't seem to cross many as an idea of "living it up." Even the onslaught of AIDS and the relatively more conservative approach that to sexual freedom that followed it didn't seem to dampen this mentality. Driving the roads seemed anti-social, especially if you did it by yourself or with just one other person. It seemed lame, like Grandma and Grandpa in the Winnebago. A really wild time was getting drunk in Rio with a foreign person with a foreign accent. Or it was moving to Los Angeles from Iowa to become a big-time actor. White-water rafting on the Colorado River was just nuts.
Perhaps part of why the sense of adventure has died off is because everything is on a map. Even whole forest ranges are accounted for by an unceremonious title; we can see the Bridal Veil of Yosemite on any postcard near you and the Grand Canyon in any National Geographic magazine. So big deal, you go there in real life, have to deal with screaming kids; who needs that kind of crap?
The shadow side of that thinking is that the open road holds many dangers. How many newspaper stories are about women being kidnapped, raped, or killed as they are on the open road by themselves, or of families being trapped in some remote desert or mountain range when they got lost or their vehicle broke down? The recent rescue of a hiker in Mt Rainier is a case in point: it seems almost safer to go where all the crowds go, to familiar places. Daily traffic jams may be annoying, but at least it is a known factor.
The unpredictability of nature is fearsome enough for some also that the jungle of civilization seems safer anyway. Like the traffic jam, it is a known entity. A routine through the maze of chores and responsibilities can be easily rationalized as the sensible way to go: after all, daily life has so many demands, it seems almost immature to abscond with it for a momentary thrill ride that could cost your life and the life of your loved ones. Conversely, with paradigm shifts constantly being broken in the arena of technology, the fear of the future economically, ecologically, and socially, and the wild card in the threat of terrorism makes life itself seem adventure enough. A safe, predictable excursion to Hershey Park once a year is adequate diversion. The open road has become both too familiar and too unpredictable in one fell swoop.
There are also, too, those unreliable gas prices. They have gotten so high that it's expensive to go to work. Unless someone really wanted to go rubber tramping to begin with, going broke at the pump isn't much incentive for people with sedentary ways to become inspired. Better off to have a productive life at home. It certainly is a lot cheaper. With all the nuts on the road and terrorist warnings, it's probably safer, too. The reality that mass transit exists, and that terrorists are probably more likely to hit urbanized areas than wilderness seem to go by the wayside as the familiar seems more secure; the plane one takes to Yosemite may get hijacked, but the fact that this individual lives just outside of Philadelphia where he could be directly affected in a chemical or nuclear attack seems to become diluted.
Fortunately, there are those who still keep the spirit of adventure alive. The eco-tourism industry has become a thriving one, and one can find many a yarn in the library of some modern daredevil. Jon Krakauer has made a name for himself writing about adventure disasters in Alaska and Mt. Everest; those who tried to defy the elements and found they couldn't. One has the feeling, though, after reading these tales that, at least they tried. This impulse to reach the outer bounds of nature or the unknown may seem just plain crazy to most people. Life is insane enough without looking for trouble. But people who decided to live in the desert, sell all their possessions to live on a sailboat, or spend their days riding on a hog on the open road aren't as nuts as they seem to be. Expanding one's horizons, you could say, is part of the human psyche. To try and squeeze it into a box with fixed parameters may in the long run be crazier than if someone said the hey with it and went on walkabout for six months. This spirit of adventure is not confined to the young or middle aged: even former President George Bush jumped out of a plane for his eightieth birthday.
Curiosity is one of the elements that expands human boundaries. The risk it entails requires one to step out into the unknown, whether it is on a mountain or undertaking a project that requires new skills. "Staying safe" is just an illusion: one can have an accident just minutes from home on the way to a job they've had for twenty years. Or, on the psychic plane, one can experience more pain from being stagnant than if he or she was willing to risk the unknown. Kelly Winters, a woman who walked the Appalachian Trail by herself, wrote in her book "Walking Home" that more people make choices because of fear than because of desire. If the concept of projection has any validity to it, one might wonder if a person is deeply offended at the idea of adventure that he might be afraid of it. Perhaps it is the fear of the unknown, which is certainly understandable in these uncertain times. Home and hearth just have a more comforting ring to it than a hike up Mt Kilimanjaro. But a quest for security needs to be tempered with a yen for adventure. Too much adventure can lead to unknown risks, but too much security leads to stagnation- as any good adventurer knows.
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