Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.12.7: EXTREME COMMUNING WITH NATURE

It’s a Jungle out there, Part 2

©2004 UrbisMedia

©2004 UrbisMedia

Sooner or later, in a world whose popular tastes are arbitrated by media and fashion designers, everything gets a chance to be chic .   Jeans were originally created from crude canvas for sailors; other than aboriginals, were the only one’s who sported tattoos, which now disfigure a goodly portion of Generation X.   One major designer displays advertisements with models with an unmistakable resemblance to those gruesome photos from Holocaust death camps.   At various times in recent years it has been chic or in to have been abused by a parent or spouse, or abducted by an alien.   For the consummate addict to thezeitgeist the worst fate is to be on the outside,

even if to be chic or in is intrinsically ludicrous.

The most chic or in thing these days in travel is “adventure travel”.   And the most chic or in thing in adventure travel is to be “extreme”.   If you don’t have a face splattered with mud, knees and knuckles with scabs or fresh blood, if you are not about to be engulfed by a surging rapid, or aren’t hanging precariously from a vertical rock face, flinging yourself off a mountain on a snowboard or mountain bike, grabbing a Great White Shark by the genitals, or base-jumping from a cliff into a rain forest . . . well, you just don’t have bragging rights at your sports bar or display that “No Fear” logo on your sports utility vehicle.   And the extreme de l’extreme ?   Like a rock star earning his or her “immortality” with a lethal overdose of a controlled substance, the most chic thing one can do in extreme adventure travel is to. . . how might a real extremer say it—“screw the pooch”.   Death:   it’s the ultimate trip, dude..   .

There’s an amusing little scene in the 1990 film Mountains of the Moon , portraying a perhaps apocryphal meeting between the great 19 th Century British explorers of Africa, David Livingstone and Sir Richard Burton.   These two giants of the age of exploration meet, appropriately, in a room in the quarters of the Royal Geographical Society in London.   This was a time of great rivalries among explorers.   It was also a time when there was still some “incognita” left on the “terra,” and “discovering” some of it for king, country, or God (who should know it where He put it in the first place), or personal aggrandizement, could confer instant fame and fortune.   The film recounts the rivalry between Burton and John Hanning Speke over being the first to discover the source of the Nile.   It was also a time when almost any travel was difficult and dangerous, and travel into the unknown was exponentially so.

 

Facing one another with the combination of wariness and aggression that the adventurer needs to survive, Livingston asks Burton about a large scar on the latter’s cheek.   “Somali spear,” Burton replies tersely, referring to spear that in fact did pierce his face, taking out some teeth en route.

 

Seemingly unimpressed, Livingston then pulls up a pant leg exposing a wicked scar of his own: “Nile crocodile”.

 

They proceed, tit for tat, pulling off their shoes and shirts, dropping their drawers, a litany of the ravages of diseases, parasites, infections, and beastly encounters, including a lion’s bite mark on Livingstone’s buttock.   He would have to take Burton’s word about the tympanum in one of his ears that was dinner for insect while he slept in his tent.

 

Burton and Livingstone were, of course, legendary “explorers,” tough ‘earthtrekkers’ who went “where no man has gone before” and came back to write about it and regale the reporters and attending members of the Royal Geographical Society.   Some of the earliest and most interesting “travel writing” has been by those whose interests, scientific or otherwise, required or compelled them into unknown territory, not the least of these Burton, Darwin, Scott, and other great geographers and naturalists.   Many a young boy of recent generations, inspired by more than those photos of nubile breasts (a subject, by the way, on which Burton had written a treatise and was a ‘hands-on’ authority’) in the pages of the National Geographic , has hankered for such chances for adventure.

 

It’s a smaller world now, and in many of the locales that once aptly qualified for description as ‘dark continents’ and terra incognita a wannabe Burton or Livingstone might as likely be run down by a tourist coach as a charging rhino.   These days one is able to see more of the dark continent watching a cable channel than Burton or Livingstone ever saw, and with global positioning devices and satellites most of the remaining “unknown territory” is extra-terrestrial.

 

These days it is also safe to say Nature has become, like so much else, a commodity. And Nature has become the place where an increasingly popular form of travel is taking place:   Extreme Adventure Travel.   A cable channel shows extreme skiers who are helicoptered to almost vertical mountain peaks from which they fling themselves with seeming abandon, one falls and tumbles for what must be thirty seconds, like a rag doll, careening off rock out-croppings, and finally sliding to a lifeless stop.   Other skiers try to out race avalanches that they themselves have started.   On another program a daredevil travels to the top of a cliff in a South American country that overlooks a mile deep gorge.   He has brought his mountain bike and a parachute to this remote place, where he will ride off the cliff as a “base jump” and, if he not flung into the side of the cliff on his descent, he will let out a whoop of victory over the dangers of Nature.   He lives to tell the tale.

 

One writer has written at least two books on the most dangerous places kin the world to travel.   Many are politically dangerous, but in others the danger is more “natural.”   A current best seller was written (maybe dictated) by a solo rock climber who got his right arm stuck under a huge rock and, after six days without rescue, decided to cut his arm off with a Swiss Army knife to free himself.   An abundance of new books about people freezing to death on the slopes of Everest, diving with sharks, challenging perilous rapids in remote places, and trekking through jungles in Borneo and across desert expanses.   Perhaps a sure sign that a new human activity has reached a “critical” mass is when insurance companies take notice. Call it“extreme actuarialism.”

 

Just what motivations impels these “dare-Nature-devils” to there derring-do?   Well, there is that drug of self-productions and self-absorption, adrenalin rush . the body’s way of shooting up when it is stressed.   Adrenalin junkies is what some of the extreme adventurers proudly call themselves.   Then there are the bragging rights among the peerage of peril.

 

Maybe everyday life in the burbs and offices and on freeways is too tame for a growing number of contemporary travelers.   It is possible to have an “adventure” while traveling without intending to.   Travel always has risks, ranging from accidents, to political violence, to the perils of unfamiliar food and medical problems.   Most travelers prefer to return home carrying their bags, not being carried in one.   This was not the case with eleven would-be summiteers of Mt. Everest who are now permanent residents of the icy slopes, a couple of gorilla voyeurs killed in Uganda on a high-end adventure tour (bringing the Uganda total to eight), and six dead in the waters off Australia, among other losses.   Trekkers and adventure travelers have been abducted in Kashmir and killed in Yemen.   To these most be added the un-tolled numbers of injuries from coral stings to snake bites and bear attacks.

 

Despite the fact that a certain amount of danger is present in many travel situations the new trend is to intentionally raise the risk quotient.

 

Crossing a fast running river is not enough, the extreme traveler has to get in a rubber raft or kayak and “show that river who’s boss.”   Climbing a mountain is not enough of a thrill, hauling oneself up the most precipitous face by one’s fingernails, now that’s “extreme”.   Skydivers have tried everything in their from the unimaginable to the unmentionable, to increase the flow of adrenalin.   Canyons, cliffs and waterfalls are no longer wonders to be passively viewed, but challenges for bungee-jumping, base-jumping, or kamikaze kayaking.   Hence, one gets the impression that, while these are great risks to the person, there is little chance that the quality of the gene pool would be diminished if Nature decided to extinguish a few of these endorphin-soaked brains

 

The popularity of extreme adventure travel might be the seeking after “life-changing experiences.”   Testing oneself, going higher, faster, further, deeper, sets one apart from all those stay-at-home softies and weenies who don’t get bragging rights at the local fitness club or sports bar.   It is a form of travel that, like leaping on a sleeping lizard, seems to be challenging Nature with sports-bar bravado. If for some Nature is a playground, for others it’s an existential event; for some it is to be ‘communed’ with, for others Nature needs to be :”bitch-slapped” to assert Man’s self-exalted place in the cosmos.

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©2004, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.23.2004)

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