A Case Against Authenticy
How to have an adventure of a lifetime and live to tell the tale, not be the tale.
The life of a traveler is, to say the least, an interesting one. It’s full of plot twists and hard right turns on dirt roads while racing downhill at ninety miles an hour. Sometimes it’s full of magic and wonder, while at other times it can be incredibly boring and downright miserable. So, it’s no surprise that many travelers turn to books or social media to keep themselves entertained.
Such authors as Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, and Mark Twain are staples among the traveler’s compendium, and understandably so. They are full of crazy adventures and rash decisions that sometimes lead to amazing results. But there is a danger to the primary idea that traveling writers tend to preach, that of the “authentic experience.” Be it traveling solo without maps in countries where you don’t speak the language, or finding the “crappiest, most outdated” vehicle to “really explore the world as adventurers did x-number of years ago.”
The thing is that whatever adventure you choose to go on, will be an adventure, and it will be authentic. You will see real people, you will experience real events. It's hard for some to admit but even experiences that are produced by a third party simply for your enjoyment still have a story. For some reason people tend get caught up in a nonexistent competition with themselves to have the most authentic experience. Sadly, this desire gets downright dangerous and even deadly.
One of the most common things I read in the tales of other adventurers is their proud purposeful exclusion of safety equipment. Primarily that of maps, serviceable vehicles, and communication devices. I’m not sure where this desire comes from, but it seems to be a very modern phenomenon. A phenomenon where the word authentic has come to mean ‘old timey.’
Throughout history adventurers and explorers have traveled the globe in all manner of ways. They’ve ridden on the backs of camels through shifting sands, over trashing white capped waves in Viking ships, and through the jungles of India atop elephants. But they all did it with the most modern technology of their time.
The Vikings charted their paths on the stars and used sunstones for navigation while using the most advanced available methods of ship building to allow their vessels to be bend with the waves. North African camel traders took well-established routes and employed companies of well-armed men to guard them along the way. Zheng He’s famed Treasure fleet known for its massive size and extensive exploration only stuck to the coast and already established sea lanes which were already over a thousand years old while using the world’s then most advanced sailing ships.
Arguably the first backpacker Ibn Battuta, a 14th century Muslim Berber scholar that traveled more extensively than most modern jet set businessmen, even took every precaution money could buy to be safe on his journeys.
It’s possible that the “rugged adventure” stereotype famed by the wonderfully awful pulp dime novels of the late 19th and earth 20th century have helped form this modern backpacker predicament. Tales that created The Mummy, Tarzan, and Indian Jones while obvious fake still fostered that rugged desire for an untamed world. But, even in those tales, we often skip over the fact that the protagonist always beats the evil enemy by using then modern technology like seaplanes, hot air balloons, cars, rotary phones, or guns.
In my own adventures I always try and take every safety precaution which includes a serviceable vehicle that can be repaired by local mechanics if it breaks down, a tangible map as a last case resort, and a way to reach out to the world if something goes wrong. I’ve seen first-hand what happens when people don’t bring the needed equipment.
In 2004 I was on a rafting trip down the Greene River in Utah, the second most remote location in the contiguous states, when we saw a man that had pulled out of his tent by a bear. His crew didn’t have a satellite phone, and had it not been for our crew's satellite phone, they wouldn’t have been able to call for an emergency rescue helicopter that would still need to meet them around two days down river at a safe extraction point. Thankfully, that man lived and now has an amazing story of his own to tell.
This isn’t to say that to have an adventure you need to go and buy the most expensive vehicle, phones, and GPS, but it is to say that you should be smart about it. When traveling to far flung reaches to the globe be prepared. You’ll have an adventure. Things will happen when you don’t expect it, and you’ll meet people that challenge your world views. You aren’t guaranteed to come out a better person, but you will have stories to tell. Your family will think you’re crazy, your friends will find you eccentric, you’ll know people all over the world, and you’ll be alive.
For me the bottom line is that if I ever become famous for my adventures, I hope it’s because I lived to write about them, and not because I died on them.
For two examples of how to have a safe and crazy adventure check out the YouTube channels Itchy Boots and Pedro Mota. Both are amazing adventures that have trapesed the globe on motorcycles and are currently in South America riding north.
Wiley H. Jackson
Teacher, Writer, Adventurer
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