OVER THE YEARS, having read hundreds of adventure stories, interviewed many wilderness survivors, and experienced my own near misses with waterfalls, avalanche chutes, and venomous snakes, I've delineated a few major reasons why things go wrong out there: (1) Hubris. The ancient Greeks knew this as insolence toward the gods. I call it the "Dude, I can handle this, no problem" problem. (2) Ignorance. Some people should simply stay home until they know better. (3) Treachery. Rare, usually found only on high-stakes expeditions, but disastrous when it occurs. Examples: arsenic in the coffee, abandonment on ice floes, cannibalization of expedition mates for nutrients. (4) Shit happens. One of the essays that follows is a fine tale about human feces literally falling from the sky, which goes to show that some events are impossible to predict. (5) Miscalculating the risk. I find this last reason most interesting, containing as it does complex and ambiguous human motives. Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, famously said that the whole point of an expedition is to avoid adventures, which are the result of poor planning. But Amundsen, who was a mechanistic, plodding kind of guy, had it wrong. I believe that some of us—many of us, maybe even all of us—head into the wild secretly wishing for things to go wrong. We're all seeking a worst moment—up to a point.
Think of the great stories you've heard. No one remembers much about Amundsen's trip to the pole, except that he arrived with icy efficiency and, as carefully planned, his team ate their sled dogs on scheduled days during the return. In contrast, what helped immortalize Sir Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance is that he failed in his goal. His genius lay in his skill at escape.
Likewise Livingstone. No one in Victorian England hankered to hear the mundane details of his endless slogs—lasting up to four years—across Africa. Rather, the doctor dined out in London (and raised scads of money) by recounting how a charging lion shook him like a rat in its teeth—this because he'd stupidly approached the hiding beast after wounding it. Or take Lewis and Clark: In two years and four months, they safely traversed about 8,000 miles of the American West, but what we recall best from their countless journal pages are the mishaps: when grizzly bears kept coming despite fusillades of bullets; that night along the Two Medicine River when the Blackfeet attacked. The misadventure is the story.
Granted, it's doubtful any of us will embark on such epic trips, but we all want stories to tell. What makes a good adventure tale is the unexpected. Most of us are not Amundsens, prepared for the tiniest eventuality. Rather, we place ourselves in spots where the unexpected can ambush us. We've all had this conversation: "Carry a compass, map, and matches? Oh, come on, we're not going to get lost on this little trail."
On a subconscious level, we need these mishaps. We understand that they pack powerful medicine. They're antidotes to the quiet desperation of modern life, reminding us that we—as individuals, as a species—are survivors, showing us how truly extraordinary it is what humans can endure, how much we can outwit, outflank, or, with clenched teeth, simply withstand.
We need to know that, lifted out of our bubble-wrapped lives, we aren't the delicate, ineffectual creatures that governmental institutions and toilet-tissue ads would have us believe. Sometimes we have to set out—presumably innocent of our interior motives—and go have a really bad time.
Peter Stark's book Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival will be published in March 2014 by Ecco.