On December 27, 1831, the HMS Beagle set sail from Plymouth England on a two year voyage to survey the coast of South America. On board was a young Cambridge academic – Charles Darwin. He was just 22. Few adventures could be ranked as so profoundly altering our view of the world as that of Darwin’s on the Beagle.
The voyage of discovery lasted not two but five years. Darwin kept a diary, Voyage of the Beagle, published in 1839, one part serious scientific observations, one part travel journal and one part incredulous discoveries on an encyclopedia of subjects. The diaries are filled with wonder and joy; Darwin’s curiosity on overdrive, the bombardment of his senses leaving him bug-eyed, confronting sacred beliefs, upending dogma, destroying conventional wisdoms.
In the concluding paragraph of his diary, he summed up his thoughts on the voyage:
“But I have too deeply enjoyed the voyage, not to recommend any naturalist, although he must not expect to be so fortunate in his companions as I have been, to take all chances, and to start, on travels by land if possible, it otherwise, on a long voyage. He may feel assured, he will meet with no difficulties or dangers, excepting in rare cases, nearly so bad as he beforehand anticipates. In a moral point of view, the effect ought to be, to teach him good-humored patience, freedom from selfishness, the habit of acting for himself, and of making the best of every occurrence. In short, he ought to partake of the qualities of most sailors. Traveling ought also to teach him distrust: but at the same time he will discover how many truly kind-hearted people there are, with whom he never before had, or ever again will have any further communication, who yet are ready to offer him the most disinterested assistance.”
It’s a masterpiece of English understatement and self deprecation. Ah, the Brits…
I’ve been reading these sorts of adventure books lately, it’s been a dull, dreary, lethargic winter.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, famous for The Little Prince, his whimsical philosophical book disguised as a children’s storybook, wrote one of the most literate, poetic autobiographies in Wind, Sand and Stars. He was a pilot for the French Postal Service, Aeropostale, in the early days of aviation when, as he describes it, engines would fall out of planes – in flight. He survived most challenges, even a forced landing in the Sahara Desert, but was lost on a Free French Air Force reconnaissance flight in 1944.
The Endurance by Caroline Alexander recounts the incredible experience of Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance on their expedition to Antarctica in 1914. Arriving in Antarctica, the ship became stuck in ice and eventually crushed; the crew abandoned the Endurance and engaged in an unparalleled struggle to survive and return to safety. The last of the 29 member crew were rescued in August 1916 – two years after the start of their ‘adventure’; a saved treasure trove of original unwieldy glass plate photos grimly testifies to their ordeal.
Adventures such as these are not reserved for men alone. Isak Dinesen, Out Of Africa, based on her memoir of 20 odd years in Africa, is an icon. A little less well known is Beryl Markham, a 1920’s pilot and African adventurer, who wrote an evocative, literate and profoundly insightful chronicle of her life, West with the Night.
Why the orgy of adventure reading? The truth is, I’m slowing down. As I sit in my easy chair, contemplating the imminent launch of my 75th year around the sun, No more backpacking in the wilderness. No Nahanni canoe trips, no Kilimanjaro summits, no months-long solo walks on the backroads of rural Japan, no pilgrimages to Rome. I need a new concept of what adventure means. I’m searching for some guidance through Darwin’s epic adventure, Saint-Exupery’s flights of prose/poetry, Shackleton’s resilience, determination and persistence, Dinesen’s gender shattering courage and Markham’s casual bravado. I’m lost and I need to find the north star to find my way.
I know change is inevitable. I can embrace, accept or bitterly reject these changes. Time is agnostic, it doesn’t care how I feel; time is coming for me – relentlessly and resolutely.
I reminisce; what were some favourite moments of past adventures? I try memories on like old clothing – what fits, what’s useful, what’s out of fashion, worn out, past it’s best before date, not required on the voyage ahead? I’m mindful of my practical duty; a keener eye to personal safety, a recognition of physical limitations, a growing willingness for company, and a greater desire for a few comforts along the way.
Two memories popped into my head as I stared out my window. I went on a Scottish Highland walk with Kristen a few years back. not surprisingly, we had a particularly Scottish highland day; rain, drizzle, mist and mud had soured my demeanour and curdled my enjoyment. I was not happy.
We happened upon an elementary school class on an outing; boys and girls in their colourful raincoats, their wellies, their cute little rain hats – a bubbling jumble of noise and energy and pure joy – the rain was making things more fun for them, not less. They jumped in puddles, lost a wellie to the sucking mud, slipped and fell down and wallowed in the sheer messiness of the experience. Teachers herded them but didn’t suppress their exuberance. It was pure joy! It was also infectious; they changed my attitude in an instant.
On my latest pilgrimage, Blair and I were climbing the Great Saint Bernard Pass, a hard slog over the Alps and into Italy that I was not enjoying. A vague hope hovered in the air, Blair had promised a surprise when we reached the summit. Nearing the pass, I collapsed, a rest before the final 100 metres of push. We sat on a rock, the sun broke and Blair pulled two freeze-dried, astronaut-certified ice cream bars out of the bottom of his bag to celebrate our success. he’d thought of this weeks ago, bought them knowing they might be needed and offered them up to celebrate our achievement. My bad attitude disappeared, my joy emerged like the sun, I came to life.
It occurred to me that I have been looking through the wrong end of life’s telescope. Life wasn’t shrinking, it was, if I let it, expanding. Walking slower meant more time for observation and reflection. Walking in the company of others allowed sharing, an intimacy that seems more valuable these days. Jumping in puddles can be a metaphorical talisman, if I allow it to fly free from the sad wet blanket I’ve thrown over it.
Adventures await. much of the joy is their unpredictability.
I’m not cut out to Vladimir or Estragon waiting for Godot. I’d prefer to be a joyful puddle jumper and astronaut ice-cream eater. I’m pretty sure there’s no age restriction on either.
Proud of you, pa! Love ya!
Brilliant as always Bob, and full of wisdome ❤