“Adventure is allowing the unexpected to happen to you. Exploration is experiencing what you have not experienced before.”
― Richard Aldington
If you've found your way here, that likely means you've also found your way to the depths of the wilderness at one point or another, almost inexplicably, following the enigmatic currents of curiosity.
Maybe an unrelenting need to re-calibrate, maybe the desire for some quietude amidst pines and crickets.
It's a fickle thing to understand, no doubt - all the workings that lead us onto the trails and atop the peaks, into the lakes and all over the expansive spans of nature. What is it that drives us there?
Last fall, I had this realization, in the midst of one last mountain biking trip to close out the season. The autumn weather dreary and dull; the bugs just incessant enough to keep me from stopping; an unrelenting cold hung damply in the air. It was the kind of late season excursion that felt like it would would send me home with something I didn’t ask for, maybe a tick bite or an injury. Something ominously uncomfortable. This particular bike included a field of tall grass that, on the ground, had been littered with obscured branches that occasionally unsaddled me and, higher up, had been riddled with yellow slugs that glued themselves to my arms and shoulders and began dyeing me in yellow spots.
Add to this the unending uphill slope, the cobweb-infested woods, the slippery portions of rocky trail, and again, that wet cold which eventually brought with it a stinging rain — it’s safe to say that one way to possibly sum up this adventure would be with synonymous adjectives like wretched, dismal and forlorn.
But I’d never do that.
No matter how miserable of an excursion I’ve experienced — and I’ve experienced many — I can never look back on any one of them with any semblance of melancholy or regret. One of my best outings had been the time I had broken my collarbone; one of my most stunning swims had been in some questionably weedy water on the hottest day of the year with a thunderstorm rolling in over the mountains, the water sought in a desperate attempt to gain a minutes reprieve from swarms of deer flies.
The fact of the matter is that I’m not necessarily happy in these moments — rather, I put myself into a position where I’m experiencing the exact opposite. And I know I'm not alone. But why do we find ourselves in these moments and places of absolute discomfort and unease? Why do we escape comfort so?
For some, it may be adrenaline. For others, they may want a worthy physical challenge, eminence or adornment. Maybe some just seek stillness and solace, others perhaps a good selfie atop the apex of a climb. A common factor, underpinning all of these instances, seems to be our innate desire to live and, accordingly, pursue moments of liveliness. That seems to be the crux of it all.
“All that I ask out of life is that it be constant and unending euphoria.” ― Roman Payne
It borrows from Eric Fromm's concept of Biophilia - that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature because they are drawn towards all that is alive and vital — solar scintillations carried upon the crests of waves, the swaying of pines, the howling winds; the flurry of organisms and microorganisms all embracing their respective place in the cycles of life.
It also takes from the concept of Eudaimonia - a philosophy that originates with the Greeks (often credited to Aristotle) and encompasses a state of having a good indwelling spirit or existing in a state of healthfulness, happiness, and prosperity. It attributes intrinsic value to this concept of liveliness and vitality, going so far as to promote a way of living that carries such a philosophy as though it were a compass, guiding the venturer towards this desired state of euphoria.
In essence, the underlying reason behind our wanderlust would look something like this: to immerse oneself in the waves of natures influence is one way by which we may practice eudaemonism; that there’s an innate force of well-being that materializes (either in body or mind or both) from our presence in the wilderness and from following our natural inclination towards pursuing liveliness.
Add in the physical exertion, the actual and self-perceiving health benefits, and the personal ambition shredding apart a challenge and we have a perfectly irresistible cocktail of adventure.
“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home” — Gary Snyder
Despite the murkiness of the physiological effects, the psychological influence of nature is abundantly clear — our perception is tremendous in this discussion. And as Eric Fromm has revealed our predisposition towards chasing after vitality, we have all the pieces of the puzzle coming together to reveal a message of importance that underpins everything: that nature is an environment which is incredibly conducive towards our well-being.
Think of it this way: if we surround ourselves with good, calm and happy people, we’ll undoubtedly reflect those characteristics in ourselves — to a considerable extent, anyway. If we surround ourselves in chaos and bedlam, we’ll develop to accommodate the ideal responses to that environment. Is it, then, so far fetched to say that if we surround ourselves with flourishing life, the vitality of the wilderness and the innumerable swirls, forms and cycles of vivacity and existence, that we benefit ourselves beyond observable measurement?
For me, anyway, I don’t need to read study after study to know that something changes in my physiology or my psychology when I'm in the wilderness, trying to chase after the limitations. I feel it. It’s far beyond the endorphins that come with exercise; far and away from some placebo effect or a matter of self-delusion. Mountain biking through swamps or snow-shoeing up hills isn’t something I do to stay healthy, to get away, to achieve serenity, to test my limits, to get a thrill. And yet, it sort of is — if it’s all grouped under the umbrella of eudaimonic liveliness that calls me out in the first place.
So the answer, ultimately, is two-fold: we follow our wanderlust into the wilderness because a) nature is ever-lastingly alive and full of vitality which we're naturally drawn to and b) we create our own liveliness through our own pursuit of well-being, of challenge and adventure.
All this to say that nature is the perfect arena for us to feel completely alive.