Scappoose Bay

What We Talk About When We Talk About Adventure

Last spring, I took a kayaking lesson through Next Adventure’s Scappoose Bay Paddling Center.

Over the course of three peaceful hours, I saw herons soar above the tree line and dive for lunch in the bay; watched Chinook salmon leap for bugs just above the waterline; paddled through marshlands and fields of cattail; got stuck in a mud bog trying to find an osprey rookery; saw beaver dams lining the water; and, all in all, got to enjoy the kind of 80-degree that signals to winter-weary Portlanders—yes, summer is coming.

A mall walker on their second lap would have left me in the dust—and if I ever broke a sweat, it’s only because I forgot to apply sunscreen. My pace could have (accurately) been described as “bumper-to-bumper, rush-hour traffic,” even if only a few stray paddlers patrolled the waters that afternoon.

To many, this laid-back paddle on a quiet bay off the Columbia River would have hardly counted as “adventure.” The outing didn’t require multiple REI trips, involve connecting flights or passport stamps, demand I plunk down most of my paycheck, or come after months of training and dieting. Heck, my 72-year-old father could have been out there on the water that day.

Kayaking on Scappoose Bay

Kayaking on Scappoose Bay

But to me, this was an almost spiritual adventure—the osprey soaring overhead, its 7-foot wingspan casting a shadow on the water below; crooked tree trunks, crowding the channel and hiding the shoreline behind them; feeling the waves roll under my kayak—all of it was magical. And the experience got me thinking about what “adventure” means—and, maybe, what it should mean.

Over the past two years, I’ve researched and written an Oregon hiking guide for Moon Travel Guides (due out in June 2020, now available for pre-order!). In researching the book, I did more than 75 hikes—everything from easy, two-mile strolls to thigh-busting ascents of 2,500 feet. And as I’ve talked with people about the project and their own hiking experiences, I hear a pretty common refrain: “I’ve done some hikes, but nothing like what you’ve done.”

Inside, I wince whenever I hear that. After all, some of the most memorable hikes I did for the guide were among the easiest; one was a mostly flat, two-mile stroll that afforded wide-open views of the snow-capped Wallowa Mountains, for instance. I didn’t so much as break a sweat on that trek, but just thinking back on those views takes my breath away, almost two years later.

Wallowa Mountains – From Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Site

The Wallowa Mountains, as seen from Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Site

But that’s not what people imagine when they think about all that adventure; they imagine me climbing mountains, scaling peaks, wrestling with bears, singlehandedly battling armies of angry mosquitoes with just my wits and a Hydro Flask, building a three-bedroom, ranch-style emergency shelter with just a space blanket and pine needles. (And, okay, I’m not always quick to disabuse folks of that notion.)

Anyway: What they see in their minds differs from how I usually felt on the trail (awestruck—but tired, so damn tired) and what that experience was actually like (awe-inspiring—but exhausting, so damn exhausting). So they fill in the blanks by instinctively comparing our adventures. And by framing their own outings relative to mine, they inadvertently devalue their experiences and create a comparison that doesn’t hold up for more than a second.

We (sometimes subtly, almost always subconsciously) compare our dinners to what we see on the Food Network, our travels to what we double tap on Instagram, our living rooms to what we’ve pinned on Pinterest. And it’s easy to fall into this trap, especially when it comes to adventure. Someone might see me hiking 450 miles in a 12-month stretch and think that’s impressive, but I could find plenty of people who hiked more and climbed higher over that same stretch. So am I a failure or less of a hiker because I didn’t hike 451 miles? Do my 450 miles invalidate anyone who hiked less in that time?

So where’s the line between “adventure” and “not adventure” or “epic” and “not epic”? (That’s a trick question, because there is no line; it’s all adventure, and it’s all epic.) Adventure is what we make of it, no matter how much we spend or how high we climb, and it’s up to us to find value in whatever that looks like.

(As an aside, this brings to mind a website you should visit and subscribe to: My friend Jennie is a beacon of pure stoke who runs Ordinary Adventures, which posits that no adventure is too small to be enjoyed and celebrated—from visiting a cranberry bog on the Long Beach Peninsula to finding the best eats at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. The website’s “About Us” section sums it up perfectly: “We believe the outdoors and adventure in general are for EVERYONE.”)

I would argue there’s just as much value in walking around a neighborhood park—watching the leaves turn in fall, seeing chipmunks scurry up a tree, relaxing with a picnic—as hiking 450 miles over a 12-month stretch. The fact that we get outside at all is valuable, and we shouldn’t minimize those experiences or see them as “lesser” just because we’re not going harder, better, faster, stronger. What makes one natural space any more or less majestic than another? And why set aside green spaces and turn them into, say, neighborhood parks if they aren’t meant to be enjoyed and explored?

All this to say: We’d all be better off finding value in whatever experiences and adventures we do enjoy, rather than thinking we could or should do more. We could always do more, so where does that line of thinking ever end? 

If we take adventure on its own terms, we shift the mindset that marginalizes our experience and, in turn, stop comparing ourselves to others. Because every step on the trail, every minute in the kayak, it’s all worth celebrating. Whatever we do, it’s more than “doing nothing”—and isn’t that worth something?

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