|When I think of risky journeys, the first that springs to mind is the time my little sister and I crawled into our grandparents’ bedroom to see if Grandma and Granddad were wrinkled all over. We were so scared that when our progenitors finally woke up, we couldn’t even look out from our hiding place, so the expedition ended in failure.
Since then, I’ve swum with piranhas in the Paraná River, gotten fogbound in trackless valleys and stuck halfway up rock faces, touched dead people’s bones, slept in a hut in Peru’s Cordillera Central where a terrorist was thought to be hiding, nearly drowned in a river in the Rockies, and generally faced far greater objective dangers than on that early six-yard crawl. If I’ve never again felt so willing to stake everything on a single purpose, perhaps it’s because it’s no longer as easy to delineate what I’m asking of life. But taking a trip remains a way to make profound inquiries.
What is freedom? (I hitchhiked from Wyoming to Texas.) Is there a formula for truth? (I went to Burma and was ordained as a nun for a while.) Have my friends been lying to me? (India.) Should I marry him, and if not, how can I ever leave him? (I hiked so far into a cloud forest that no one could find me, including myself.)
Obviously, The Answer didn’t arrive on each journey, like some kind of transcendentally packaged surprise (except once or twice). Nor does every trip spring from a question. Sometimes I just have this wild desire again to feel that shift when all baggage becomes secondary, eclipsed by the rigors and wonders of this world. To see the cupping of a woman’s hand as she dips water from the Ganges, or how cheetahs and gazelles hang around the Masai Mara in plain sight of one another, waiting to eat or be eaten—such things are ecstasy. I lust to touch what’s real. Dirt paths trailing off to nowhere. The full moon over a black sea, the grief-stricken stillness of Sundays in the Andes, and the limb-tearing exuberance of the water games on Hindu Holi. I even confess a fondness for cringing street dogs, lurching buses, and ill-lit restaurants where it seems an evil dimension is trying to reach the surface. Anything that makes me say, “So this is how it is!”
With the arrival of the year 2000, I’m tempted to go someplace I’ve never considered, just to be as thoroughly amazed as possible. That seems a proper celebration. I believe that certain things cannot be learned, or seen, from the midst of one’s ordinary routine. Travel was once the grandest form of education. It still can be so if we recognize that we aren’t just passing through, that we can’t pretend to be alone. We affect every place and person that we visit. We might even make a pact to stay away from certain destinations entirely: The crystal gardens atop Auyán-tepuí in Venezuela. Uncontacted tribes in Amazonia. Bhutan’s unclimbed snow peak, Gangkar Puensum. Inviolate places are important for our imaginations.
Yet it’s no crime to exult in standing above a glacial valley, feeling wind in one’s hair and seeing condors. We need to know this world; our presence isn’t inherently destructive, and our embrace of wildness can actually help. Rivers regenerate when we quit dumping junk in them. Visiting poor, remote villages, we tend to leave cash behind; maybe we can also encourage folks to maintain their traditions. Tigers are sneaking back from the brink of extinction, conservationists report with cautious enthusiasm, because a new kind of human intervention is gradually replacing the old kind. And so, if I love wilderness, if my soul needs nature, and wild beasts, and people unlike myself, what choices will I make, what actions take?
First things first. Get out, while I still can! Leave the house, the rut, the routine. Take the 144-year-old advice of Walt Whitman, and get moving: “Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d! Let the tools remain in the workshop! Let the money remain unearn’d!” If all I can do today is walk the dog, I’ll run with the dog. There are ways of pushing limits in small ways, every day. Any trip is an adventure. I’m making this my millennial resolution, though: No later than today, I will make concrete plans to get to someplace wilder or dreamier than I’ve ever been before. No lie—I’ve already called my travel agent. I know where I’m going. Do you?
Kate Wheeler’s novel When Mountains Walked will be published next month by Houghton Mifflin.
Everybody dreams of great adventures…
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the Water Keeper Alliance, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, and avid falconer: “My dream trip is night hawk-hunting for spring hare with African hawk eagles in Zimbabwe.”
Ruthie Matthes, 1991 world and three-time United States national mountain-biking champion: “New Zealand—I’ve heard great things about the rides and the people there. I’ve seen pictures, and the variety on the two islands is incredible—mountains, tropical forests, oceans. It’s just an amazing place.”
Tao Berman, extreme kayaker and holder of the unofficial world record for the highest waterfall kayaked: “I’d want to go to Colombia. About everything you do there is first descents. I’ve talked to locals who say Colombia has waterfalls that people would die doing, and whenever you hear something like that, you know it’s time to go scout ’em.”
Lars Ulrich, Metallica drummer: “I’ve done probably 1,000 dives in the last ten years. The one place I haven’t been yet is called Scapa Flow in the inlets up in Scotland where the whole German World War I fleet went. In the space of five square miles, there are 12 German ships lying at the bottom in totally crystal-clear water with 200-foot-plus visibility. It’s apparently the Mount Everest of wreck diving.”
—INTERVIEWS BY JOE MCCANNON