A treatise on the nature of adventure (for what it’s worth)

As I wrap up my second year in Alaska, I spend a lot of time ruminating on the idea of adventure.

The word “adventure” suffers the same serious overuse as its cousins, “epic” and “amazing.” Everyone’s Instagrammed lunches are epic; any old sunset counts as amazing; every trip to an all-inclusive beachside resort is an adventure.

Tell that to Ernest Shackleton.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. There’s a middle ground between sipping piña coladas from a beach towel and spending two-plus years scrambling from one Antarctic ice floe to the next in the desperate pursuit of survival. I recognize that.

We (and I use the royal “we” here) spend a lot of time working and commuting and wandering around the grocery store, and the promise of adventure—be it a weeklong trip to Cancún or a slog to the South Pole in the name of science—is a vital incentive to keep at it.

That said, I acknowledge that not everyone’s idea of what constitutes an adventure is the same. Still, some things should be left sacred, and I’d like to take this opportunity to present a few guidelines for future use of the word “adventure,” for the sake of posterity.

To be considered an adventure, I propose, an event must:

  • Have an unknown outcome, or at least deviate from its itinerary in some way. Museum tours billed as “Adventures Through Time”—in fact, I would argue, any guided tour in a metropolitan setting—is decidedly not an adventure. This also applies to days spent at ski resorts and water parks, where you pretty much know how things will turn out.
  • Present obstacle(s) considered dangerous by most laypeople. Events unable to qualify for adventurehood in light of this rule include, but are not limited to: hour-long hikes on well-used trails, nights on the town, the planning of weddings, and nearly every other instance of “adventure” currently on your Facebook news feed.
  • Take place almost entirely—let’s say 90% or more—in the out-of-doors. Think of the great adventurers: Lewis and Clark, Teddy Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, and, yes, Shackleton. These people were not going out for a wild night of martini sipping with their friends and calling it an adventure. Exceptions to the outdoors rule: astronauts. The Final Frontier totally counts as an adventure, despite confinement to tiny spaces.
  • Require some skill, or at least a great deal of fortitude. Running and biking, though at some point they necessitate endurance, are not adventures. They are nice ways to spend an afternoon or even a whole day, but unless you are running the Continental Divide Trail, biking the Leadville 100, or some similarly strenuous activity, “adventure” is not an appropriate descriptor.

Perhaps the chief component of adventuredom, though, is that to be considered an adventure, an event must not be an everyday occurrence. That’s half the fun, right? We seek adventure to escape our daily trials and tribulations; it’s the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, those that come at a bad time but are taken anyway, that we remember.

If we’re not willing to sacrifice something, or at least suffer a little, do we deserve to be called adventurers?

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