I read a lot of books and listen to several podcasts about the outdoors. It seems that in order to get any attention in the world of adventure storytelling, you have to be epic. You have to climb Everest one-handed with no oxygen tank and lose two toes to frostbite, or ice skate across Antarctica during storm season in order for anyone to want to interview you. It seems that being a bad ass these days means pushing the envelope toward severe bodily injury and even death. If you didn’t almost die, does it even count?
I enjoy these types of extreme stories but they are far outside of my ability. They represent a kind of outdoor adventure that I will never participate in, mostly because I like my toes and don’t want to risk them freezing off. I need my toes to walk and, if I lose them or severely injure any other part of my body, then I will be stuck in a hospital and unable to enjoy the outdoors at all. I also have a job and family that depend on me, so rehabbing in the hospital is not ideal for my life circumstances. It’s the same reason I don’t ride crazy horses anymore. Extreme adventure isn’t for me, and I’m okay with that.
Outdoor stories that resonate with me are the ones where some ordinary bloke takes a week off work just to spend it in at a remote trout stream in the mountains, or a woman hikes the Appalachian Trail with her teenager before she sends him off to college. I like stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, because it is extraordinary when someone who isn’t sponsored by Red Bull plans, organizes, pays for, and executes an adventure. Most people don’t bother. It’s a hell of a lot easier to stay on the couch.
I like to hear stories of people with alternative lifestyles as well- someone who converted a school bus into a home and lives a nomadic lifestyle, or someone who lives off grid in a yurt. This is extreme in one sense, because it rejects the bloated, consumerist American lifestyle that gives you a white picket fence and a very large television in exchange for your soul. In contrast to the near-death outdoor adventure though, the alternative lifestyle is healthy and restorative. You will probably not die of frostbite whilst living in your yurt. You might grow tomatoes and raise baby goats though, and those are both excellent ideas.
The point of the stories that I like isn’t that you proved your bad ass-ery by some epic struggle against nature in which you barely crawled home alive after planting your flag on some distant peak, but that you got out there and participated. You hiked a trail, fished a stream, kayaked a river. You went outside and you had fun! You communed with nature versus conquering it.
The “conquering nature” narrative has been around since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summitted Everest, since Roald Amundsen’s expedition first set foot on the South Pole. Many others died trying. The epic stories get a lot of play because they do tell us something about the steely determination of the human will, the ability to overcome near impossible odds, and our eagerness to endure exceptional hardship in exchange for a spot in the history book. Most of us, though, will never warrant a page in the book. We will hike our local trail, canoe the river that dissects our town, and climb whatever mountain we can drive to. We will come back with all our toes.