(Reading time: 5 minutes, 1000 words)
Adventure is a strange form of entertainment. In fact, most don’t regard it as entertainment at all. We like to think it’s something higher, almost noble. Adventurers themselves especially think this. But I wonder if this is right.
We all seek entertainment in various ways. Inspiration, comedy, education—these are just a few forms of pleasure. And adventure, when it comes right down to it, is a form of pleasure too—a source of entertainment. Adventurers, though, are unique in one way. They derive pleasure from the very antithesis of pleasure: struggle.
I think about this while pedaling my bike three miles up a particularly steep mountain pass. Thirty miles are already behind me, and I’ve 30 more to go for the day. I’ve loaded up a longbike with basic bike tools (for repairs), a few thousand calories in the form of camp food and nutrition bars, and essential camping gear—sleeping bag, lighter, rain jacket, thermal. I’ve also got four liters of water on board and a water filtration device so I can fill up at rivers and streams.
The longbike, a Surly Big Dummy, aptly named for the scoundrels and numbskulls that should saddle it, is a military-grade street machine with pedals. Designed to cart hundreds of pounds across continents, it’s taking my mountain escapade all in stride.
But it’s not all easy going. Despite the smooth rolling chassis, the basket up front, which holds my sleeping bag, is like a billboard against the wind. And the stuffed saddlebags at the rear act as parachutes.
Darkness reaches me before I reach my destination, so I complete my journey by way of a headlamp. Around 11pm I choose a campsite, build a small fire, and make my bed on the ground after eating chicken and rice. The black sky is speckled in electric dots. Lying on my back, I watch it seethe.
For breakfast I make oatmeal with maple syrup, milk chocolate, and mushrooms—the magic kind. It's the camp breakfast of every true visionary and wonder glutton. And the combination of carbs and whatever mushrooms are made of provides good energy.
I had believed that my 65-mile return journey from 9500 feet elevation to 4500 feet would be marked by 60mph slaloms down empty mountain roads. No such luck. I reach a top speed of only 42mph, and there’s too much traffic to be holding my feet off the pedals while zigzagging. In some areas, I have to pedal downhill to reach a whopping 4mph against the 30mph headwind.
But I still have a huge smile, and this is cause for concern. It’s one thing to see a shirtless man riding a bike in 90 degree summer heat through the mountains with backpacking gear tied to his frame, it’s another to see this same man smiling ear-to-ear. Such a sight can evoke concerns of lunacy.
At first I hide my smile when motorists pass. I know they are looking, because everyone looks at a man on a strange bike in the middle of nowhere; it’s interesting scenery.
And then I own the smile. What’s wrong with being happy, and why should I hide it? Then I take things further. There’s a little bell on the Surly, you know, in case people don’t see you coming, and it makes the most wonderful chime. It became, for me, an anthem of achievement and self-amusement—a way to celebrate my joy.
I first rang it when feeling rather triumphant after pulling the 60lb rig up a long, steep pass. I felt like the Little Engine tooting his horn. The bright, brilliant note made me smile, and I realized how hysterical the whole scene was: I’m on a bike, in the mountains, alone, heading nowhere, and ringing my bell at god knows what.
I would then ring the bell any time I felt impressed or amused with myself. I even began to click my tongue in unison, as if to wink and give a thumbs-up in the manner of saying, “This is swell!” I was fully aware of the idiocy of this gesture, and that’s why I did it.
It's important to impress and amuse yourself, to be your own source of entertainment, especially as you get older. I think too often people want stimulation through entertainment because they aren’t living an entertaining life. Maybe that’s what sets adventure apart: you have to be an active participant in the entertaining. Entertainment through consumption lacks the creative and physical components. And those who love to be entertained, to enjoy the show, to get pleasure from their riches and things, fail to realize this one truth: If your own thoughts and actions aren't wildly interesting—to you, personally—then neither is your life.
But this is all high-mindedness about adventure again. In reality, we’re all just chasing pleasure. Adventurers just find it in odd ways. Psychologists even have a name for this. They call it ‘sensation-seeking’. Marvin Zuckerman says sensation-seekers get off on novel experiences and risky behaviors. He also thinks this might be due to low levels of serotonin and dopamine. The diminished amounts of happy juice in the brain cause sensation-seekers to search for ways of increasing it, whether through drug use, uninhibited sex, or mountain climbing.
But I don’t think passersby were referring to my apparently low serotonin levels when they yelled, “You’re fucking crazy!” These catcalls weren’t admonitions to get to the psychiatrist; they were cheers. They were cheers for the things on our bucket lists, for the unconquerable human spirit, and for the paradoxical truth that we derive pleasure from struggle, even if it does mean we’re stark mad.