When Piranha Means Dinner: Thoughts on Goal-Oriented and Expedition-Focused Travel

by A Manly Guest Contributor on August 26, 2010 · 16 comments

in Blog

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Bryan Schatz.

Take a moment to imagine yourself here:

Across the bow of your raft stands your friend; he’s masked by the darkness and your headlamp only sees the more important details. His face is covered in mud, and his hands are crimson from the blood of the Cayman dead at his feet, its neck severed by the swift smash of an axe just after you drug it on board. The river, along with your spears, nets and rifles, have supplied you with everything you could possibly need. And though it has only been about three weeks, you’ve practically gone tribal out here on your jungle trip. You have furs from monkeys curing on the makeshift clothesline and you’re working the skin from a python you caught two days ago into a satchel to carry whatever treasures you may find. You haven’t seen anyone in seven days and the next village you’ll see may not be coming for another several weeks…

Now ask yourself: How would you feel in a situation like this? If the question raises the hair on your skin while simultaneously spreading a smile across your face, perhaps it’s time to start planning an expedition of your own.

Mankind has always sought to explore remote regions of the world, to discover rumored and sometimes mythological locations and in general to seek adventure even at the risk of great peril. It seems that today this form of travel is in desperate need of revitalization, or perhaps a modified definition that will encourage the travelers of this generation to go beyond the confines of society and delve into the outer fringes of the world.

Broaden the Term to Suit Your Interests

The dictionary definition of “expedition” is as follows: an excursion, journey, or voyage made for some specific purpose, as of war or exploration.

While I believe that this traditional definition of the word is both apt and inspiring, I have one caveat: that rather than the definition being specific to movement or covering ground as it suggests, it should also represent any activity for a specific explorative purpose–regardless of whether it takes place in one particular locale or over the course of many miles.

Modern day exploration–in my opinion–can be defined as any action that requires planning, is both mentally and physically challenging, and incorporates a goal that pushes an individual to his limits and makes him a better man for having done it. It means seeking self-discovery through extreme circumstances even if the region one intends to explore has already been “discovered” or the goal one desires to accomplish has already been “done” by others.

Of course, there are dozens of ways to travel. There are the weekend getaways to resorts, the occasional two-week vacations to beach locations with sparkling blue waters, the backpacking trips that start off as short jaunts and up extending for years. All of these are excellent opportunities to relax, to explore new cultures, cuisines, languages, etc… However, expedition-focused or goal-oriented travel is an art that seems somewhat lost. Despite brilliant films such as Planet Earth, we have a tendency to believe that the world has already been discovered, that the expeditions of old have covered all grounds and therefore there must be nothing new to explore.

Except that we can still discover ourselves, our abilities and our limits.

Say for example that you like to hike. Maybe it’s time to try hiking the Pacific Crest Trail which spans approximately 2,500 miles. Beginning at the border of Mexico, the trail traverses deserts, forests and High Sierra granite to ultimately culminate at the border of Canada. Yes, it’s been done. Would it still be a personal journey? Can it be considered an arduous and exciting expedition? Absolutely.

If you are into kickboxing and interested in travel, go to Thailand to train and fight at a Muay Thai camp where the training consists of two, three-hour sessions per day and are so grueling that exhaustion becomes your sole companion. You would have to prepare and commit to putting yourself through intense physical hardship and stepping into a ring with another man intent on breaking you. Can you grow from this experience? I would imagine so.

The Men Who Paved the Road

For inspiration we can look to men from history who plunged themselves into uncharted territory for the thrill of discovery and adventure. Think Francisco de Orellana, the Spanish conquistador who led the first successful descent of the Amazon River, along with various other expeditions in search of the fabled “El Dorado” (the city said to be made of gold). Then of course, there is Charles Darwin, whose travels and observations while aboard the HMS Beagle provided the basis for what later became On the Origin of Species. There was Lewis and Clark, pioneering the path west and Sir Edmund Hillary, tackling and besting the tallest mountain in the world: Everest.

These men could not be restrained by the confines of common life; rather, they sought to construct their own destinies through a series of harrowing life adventures.

There is no reason for travel of this sort to die simply because others have already trod the path before us. We all still have the drive to find something new and accomplish something noteworthy. Whether or not anyone else takes notice–as far as I’m concerned–is unimportant.

And Those Who Exist on the Fringes of Society Today

Riding the Spine

In regards to the benefits of expedition-focused travel, my friend and fellow adventurer, Travis Anderson, once wrote me this via e-mail correspondence:

Just as steel is forged from softer metals in intense heat, so too can men be formed through personal hardship.”

This comes from a man who has been chased up trees by grizzly bears, their murderous claws swatting at his legs. He has been plunged into the northern Pacific as his fishing boat sank beneath his feet in a storm. He has globe-trotted all over the world, constantly seeking to challenge himself, to find what I’ll call his “grit.” I agree with the sentiment of his statement; while there are many ways to grow as an man, it is my belief that being thrown into an unfamiliar world with challenges to both mind and body can stretch you like few other things can.

To draw attention to a group of modern-day explorers, I’d like to highlight an expedition that was completed in January of 2010; one that few may ever hear of yet is still remarkable nonetheless. In July of 2006, a group of friends thought about three things: their bikes, a map of the Americas, and the greatest trip they could conjure up in these times.

They came up with this:

Avoiding paved roads as often as possible, their fingers outlined a route on the map that began at the northern-most point of Alaska, following the entire continental divide (the longest continual mountain range in the world) all the way down through the United States. They continued on past Central America where, in order to cross the Panama Canal and the Dorian Gap, they found a way to strap their bikes and equipment to kayaks and proceeded to paddle to South America. Once they landed, they returned to their bikes for countless ascents through the Andes mountain range. The trip finally ended at the tip of Patagonia in Ushuaia, Argentina. Their journey was aptly titled “Riding the Spine” and can be further read about here.

Within the first four days of the trip one of the members had been chased by a rabid wolf. They had to ride through snow, endure frostbite and severe weather, carry their bikes out of deep canyons and triumph over mountain ascents of thousands of feet. It took them approximately three and a half years to complete their journey. How’s that for challenging?

I also just recently came across the story of Ed Stafford, who, refusing to believe that every explorative feat had already been accomplished, set out to become the first person to walk the entire length of the Amazon River. He understood how to combine adventure and philanthropy, and dedicated his journey to raising awareness of the Amazon region. It took him 859 days of dodging piranhas, jaguars, and exhaustion, but he reached the Atlantic Ocean a couple of weeks ago. Finding an adventure these days isn’t impossible-it just takes a little imagination and a lot of guts.

A Brief Guide for Planning Your Own Expedition

There are very few of us who can dedicate years of our lives to far flung expeditions, but they don’t necessarily require that either. The first thing to do is to outline some time that you can devote to accomplishing a goal that you have always dreamed of doing, whatever that time period may be.

Step 1

Decide on the activity and a place. This could be anything from a caving trip in a neighboring county to scaling the tallest peaks halfway around the world. The point is that it should push your boundaries.

Step 2

Do your research. It can be easy to get in over your head, to get caught in a situation that can be severely detrimental to your health and safety. So know exactly what you are getting into before heading out.

Step 3

Develop the necessary skills. Let’s say you’re an avid equestrian and you decide you want to ride your horse across Mongolia to visit nomadic families, drink fermented camel milk and gaze upon an endless horizon; make sure you know your stuff when it comes to navigation, horse care, the availability of food and the treatment of water.

Step 4

Outline a plan and a goal. Where do you want to start and where will your journey end? Under what circumstances will you view the goal as accomplished?

Step 5

Plan for the worst and have a back-up plan. What are you going to do if you accidentally take the wrong tributary on a raft trip? What if your horse dies? What if your expedition requires weapons to survive and they break? Figure out the answers to those questions before leaving.

Step 6

Buy a plane ticket, a train pass, a bike, a canoe, or whatever else it is you need in order to see the journey through. With the proper equipment, the necessary skills and some serious bravado, you are likely to come out the other side triumphant…or at least, alive. And remember that staying calm and using common sense when things go wrong saves lives when in the wilderness.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Serge August 26, 2010 at 5:49 am

@thomas
if you get the guts to follow the above article’s guidelines, you will have no problem with the thing you are talking about in your ad. Man up!

2 Gianpaolo Pietri | Simply Optimal August 26, 2010 at 9:44 am

The only way to travel if you ask me. Every time I go on a trip I do so with a specific purpose in mind. I’ve been on some great journeys, but none have been anywhere near the level of risk and ambition as the examples you cite.

I plan on changing that in the near future. Just have to figure out what the precise nature of the exploration should look like.

Stories like the ones you refer to seem to be becoming more prevalent these days with people taking on seemingly crazy ideas like biking the great wall of china, motorcycling across continents, swimming the length of the english channel, and sailing around the World. Let’s hope the trend continues to grow.

Beats going to Cancun for Spring Break, no?

Great post.

3 Justin August 26, 2010 at 11:23 am

Awesome…love hearing about ‘epics’.

A friend of mine did a similar trip (albiet, on enduros) from the states through all of Latin America. 10k+ miles over 7months. Will be the best experience of my life until the next one. I met 2 separte Japanese guys that were doing peddle excursions. One had gone across Australia, shipped his gear and himself to Patagonia, and had ridden up to (at that point), Panama City, Panama. His final destination was Northernmost tip of AK. Wow!

For many more trips like this, visit http://www.advrider.com. Also loads of information and friendly folks if you’re looking to plan similar adventures.

4 Charles August 26, 2010 at 11:41 am

Great post! As one who has done some downright stupid things in the wild and lived to tell about it: #2 and #3 are very, very important. (Read “Into the Wild” as a cautionary tale.) Make sure your knowledge, skills and abilities are up to the task and expect that you will be tested beyond them. For example, Ralph Plaisted made a bar bet that took him to on two expeditions to the North Pole. He prepared, assembled a team, sponsors, logistical support and failed. This did not discourage him. His team tried again becoming the first undisputed expedition to reach the North Pole over the ice.

5 bob August 26, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Two other things you will need:

1) MONEY. Lot’s of it
2) Willingness to give up on career, family and relationships, assuming you have any of these in the first place.

This is a nice fantasy, but completely undoable for 99% of people

6 Thomas P Connolly Jr August 26, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Great article, but don’t forget urban expedition. Getting through one of our historical cities, exploring the places that made our country what it is can also be an adventure with all the same issues you find in the other wild. Granted, you may need to add a flak jacket to your gear depending on the area, but trust me it’s worth it.

7 Brucifer August 26, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Roger that, bob

at least for some of the bigger expeditions you need money, or a corporate sponsor, or a sugar-daddy/momma or maybe milk it by ostensibly raising money for a charity …

for some of these “explorers” doing their thing under corporate sponsorship, etc. *is* their career

8 Travis August 26, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Great article. I especially like the quote from your friend comparing man and adventure to steel and heat.

@bob

I have to disagree with you on both accounts. An adventure doesn’t necessarily have to eat up a lot of money. Plenty of charity organizations around the world need help (such as the peace corp, invisible children, habitat for humanity, your local church’s outreach missions) and working with these charity organizations can often times lead to great adventures that cost little or no money.

On your second point I think you forget that many, many, many people don’t choose to have careers that happen from 9 to 5 five days a week.

As a screenwriter and filmmaker my industry exists entirely on the idea that for several months we will work intensely, receive our pay and then choose the next instance we want to continue working. Many of us make career choices that allow us to take time to pursue our other dreams and vocations. The important thing is being able to find a career that is fulfilling but also allows you the time necessary to expand yourself as a person (whatever that may mean for the individual).

In any case, I remain confident that adventure is out there for every man if he is creative with his time and commitments. Best wishes.
-Travis

9 Kevin K August 26, 2010 at 1:51 pm

@ Bob

I think you miss the spirit of the article. Yes the people who accomplished these amazing expeditions did have to have money and they had to leave their friends and families for the duration of their trip. These are, however, only examples of adventure.

The article is trying to convey that there is adventure for people of every level. Yes we often only hear about these crazy 3 year intense expeditions, but the spirit of adventure is in all of us. Maybe adventure for you is taking a week off and backpacking through the rockies, or riding your bike 300mi along the Oregon coast, or traveling to Ecuador for a trek in the Andes. The point is that adventure is personal.

It is always sad to me when I hear opinions like yours because it means to me that there are people that have given up on seeking adventure. ‘It’s too hard’ ‘It costs too much’ ‘I just can’t do it’ These are all excuses. If you desire adventure all you have to do is look. I took my bicycle to Japan and my girlfriend and I biked and worked on farms for 10 weeks in Japan. Did it require money? Yes, but maybe not as much as you’d think. Did it require me to give up on my family friends and career? Hardly. Imagine 20 years from now when you are talking to your grandkids, would you rather tell them how you never decided to seek adventure because it cost too much and took to long, and that your greatest stories are about that one office prank?

Adventure is something that should be important to everyman it is part of what makes life worth living. Adventure is personal. Each person has a different opinion of adventure and what it means to them. Just don’t give in to the excuses that come so easily. You can find the adventure of your life anywhere, you just have to look.

10 Charles August 26, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Bob (and others),
For a good chunk of my 30′s I spent my time living out of a pick-up truck and traveling throughout North America. It cost relatively little money and I found jobs working in various lodges, shops and government positions. I always had clothes on my back and never went hungry.These jobs in turn got me in touch with pilots, rafters, fishermen, hunters, dogsledders, and adventures of all sorts who let me tag along. Admittedly this was not a planned expedition, more of a “let’s see what is out there” type of traveling. My point is don’t think you have to spend a lot of money or sponsors to go on expedition. (Although I am beginning to learn about sponsorship.) Kevin K is correct is stating that often we find excuses. As the old adage goes, “you make time (and put in the effort) for what is important”. If you truly want to lose weight, you will make the effort. If you really want to travel to the North Pole on snowmobiles, you will make the effort that Ralph Plaisted did. These tasks may seem Herculean, but by having the drive and vision (and using some good ol’ fashioned project management skills) they will reward you beyond your dreams.

11 Atlas August 26, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Kevin, Charles, Travis, etc,

It’s easy to come down on Bob for his remarks but his remarks have merit. We can’t all be screewriters and drifters because society is a machine that requires productive people to run it and no offense a society composed of those components would be a lot of things but productive is not among them. Teachers, police officers, nurses, etc can’t take off for months at a time and just drift around. Men with families shouldn’t just drift around. Responsibility can be the antihesis of adventure but a responsibility must be honored because your responsibility to your family is more important than your need to play Tarzan.

Does that sound harsh? Perhaps but it’s an honest assessment. I would say if you want adventure join the military, few things will help you discover who you are faster. If the military is not your bag than try to get this urge out young, nothing sadder than a listless 30 something still trying to find himself. If you choose to abandon responsibility and drift or walk across the country what have you more power to you, each person is free to choose their own path, but do not belittle those who have chosen a more responsible path of working and raising a family who simply do not have the resources or time to drop everything.

Just yesterday I saw a man at our local sandwich shop talking to one of the workers about how he had just quit his job “with no backup plan” and was going to see “where life took him”. He seemed quite proud of his irresponsbility whereas the worker seemed put off by it as I was. Is that an adventure? I suppose it is. The problem is with society as it is now his “adventure” is likely to lead him to unemployment, Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, or homelessness and lead him to becoming a burden on us all. So yes have your adventure but do not abandon responsibility for it.

To Bob I say this. Look for everyday adventures as so many of us in the working world have too. It could be something simple like joining a local sports team, hiking or camping with friends over an extended weekend, take up hunting, or as Elanor Roosevelt once put it “do something every day that scares the hell out of you”. Your adventure doesn’t need to uproot your life as the ones discussed here would but don’t give up on finding adventure because you don’t feel the adventures are big enough.

12 Tryclyde August 26, 2010 at 9:55 pm

The exent of my adventures consists of hitting my favorite fishing spots and exploring new streets when out for a run. Nothing big, but when you have a wife, kid, and job they’re about all the things I have time for.

13 Martin August 27, 2010 at 11:51 am

The criticism by Bob is strange to me. Fine, this particular article does not work for your lifestyle, whether due to family and work obligations, a lack of funds, or its just not his particular cup of tea. That does not mean that the article should be discounted as “fantasy.”

This kind of adventure is not important enough to everyone to make it a priority, but that doesn’t make it any less so for those of us who do. The comment about needing a lot of money is overstated. Plenty of adventure to be had for next to nothing.

Finally, even if someone reads this and doesn’t want to rush right out and buy a plane ticket, that shouldn’t keep you from enjoying it as an armchair traveler.

Nice article, Bryan.

14 Bryan Schatz August 27, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Thanks to all for the comments.
A little clarification:
My point–which I may have not sufficiently portrayed–is that adventure exists for those who want it. I agree that a lack of time, finances, as well as having responsibilities such as family and careers can certainly hinder expeditions of the larger variety. But really what I wanted to get across was that as long so the activity is challenging and you grow from it, then in my book it is an expedition. Whether it takes place over a weekend or a year is irrelevant. It is of a personal nature and something that perhaps only the person who goes through it may understand. That being said, international endeavors can cost way less than what many would think, it just means budgeting and being willing to put up with less comfort.

15 Bryan Schatz August 27, 2010 at 7:43 pm

P.S. Atlas–good advice.

16 Stuart February 24, 2013 at 5:40 am

@Bob
Mate, the drive to find adventure, if you have it, exceeds all. If you’re worried about leaving your commitments, have a look at this: http://www.alastairhumphreys.com/microadventures-3/

As was mentioned in the post, expeditions/adventures need not be temporally long nor geographically far.

As for needing lots of money, I rode a bicycle from England to Armenia over the course of 10 months for the total cost of ~5 K, including airfares from and back to Australia. Pretty cheap.

Those who wont, find reasons they can’t.

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