180 South and the quest for adventure

On January 15th, 2016

JOKTON6CY9“The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when adventure starts.” -Yvon Chouinard

Quick, think of your most memorable travel experience.

Judging by the stories I hear from other travelers and the ones I tell, what sticks out for most are the moments when things went wrong, when for a little while things became uncertain and perhaps even risky.

Such moments may not be noted for their “fun” at the time, but later they stick out. The reason they stick out is because they seem more real. When things stop going as planned there is nothing to look forward to, there is just the moment your are in and that is where adventure starts.

The Chouinard quote above comes from a new film, 180 South, which is itself a tale of mishap and adventure. What makes 180 South worth seeing is that the mishaps, failed plans, and resulting adventure is conveyed in a way you seldom see when camera crews are there to record everything.

180 South is refreshingly raw, allowing a genuine sense of adventure to come through even in spite of all the filters of time and space between that adventure and in you in your armchair, watching. What makes the movie different is that it doesn’t have the slickly manufactured adventure you’re used to from Anthony Bourdain’s producers or the editors of Survivorman. Nor is there the manufactured adventure you find pedaled by volcano tour operators, scuba dive shops or jungle guides the world over.

There is nothing wrong with any of those things, but to paraphrase Chouinard, until something goes unexpectedly wrong, none of those cultivated experiences will fulfill the reason you left home in the first place — some universal longing for a genuine experience, a real adventure.

Such things are hard to come by these days. There are no dark spots left on Google Earth. Travel itself has become so easy you hardly notice it happening. There is a scene in the movie Snatch, which illustrates today’s travel in less than five seconds — a cab door closes, the character throws back a highball, a jet engine roars, another cab door closes and the next scene begins.

That’s not too far off how most of us travel. The door to your house closes behind you, an airplane engine hums and you’re there, where ever there may be.

Which isn’t to say there are not upsides. It’s wonderfully convenient to be able to fly around the world and cheap travel is a more democratized travel, available to people that would have never dreamed of traveling in previous centuries.

But there is also a price. We have removed most of the risk from travel. We have eliminated one of the original appeals of travel — to rediscover the authenticity of life through hardship, adventure, mishap and survival.

Without risk we have no chance for things to go wrong, we allow ourselves no challenges to overcome and end up returning home the same as when we left. Perhaps a bit more culturally aware, perhaps having met interesting people, but fundamentally unchanged in our existence, lacking the suffering and hardship that shapes our character and makes new people out of the exhausted molds we’re desperately trying to leave behind on the road.

When our travels rarely take us out of range of Twitter it’s hard to feel like we have been anywhere. We have gone nowhere inside, merely swapping the background music for a slightly different tune.

Without risk we miss the chance to fail, we miss the chance to see what happens when the mast breaks, when the rudder is lost and the ship starts to go down. It is rare these days that any traveler risks death, and yet, on some level, we travel precisely in order to risk something — to survive our own adventures, persevere when our plans go wrong and follow those detours until we arrive somewhere. There.

Most committed vagabonds, myself included, harbor some dream of buying a boat and sailing around the world. Most of us probably will never have the money, but the dream is telling. It’s partly the freedom of it perhaps, but it’s also I think the risk of it. After all travelers still die at sea all the time. It’s the appeal of risk that draws many to sailing, it requires a constant attention to the now, making you forget your plans entirely and that’s increasingly hard to find in your travels.

On some level I think we all feel this loss of risk. We’ve even invented ways to add that risk death back to our lives — bungee jumping from bridges, hang gliding from peaks or taunting Great White sharks from a cage.

We create artificial risks when we arrive because we have removed the fundamental risk of the journey.

Rolf recently posted a quote from Marian Botsford Fraser, part of which reads:

The heroic is no longer compelling. There are few places under the sun that cannot be found with the help of global positioning technology. Almost anyone can get to the top of a remote glacier and send a photo home via satellite phone.

There is in fact nothing heroic or compelling about getting on a plane and then finding yourself atop a glacier. Just close the cab door, have a drink and you’re there.

However, I do not think that just because travel is easy that that means the heroic is no longer compelling. It may not be compelling in travel writing, which is what Fraser is referring to, but it is certainly compelling to each of us on an individual level.

Like many things — religion, politics, etc — the heroic has, for better or worse, shifted from the public sphere to the private. We have internalized our sense of the heroic and we must live up to it alone.

It may be that these days no one finds an unadulterated and wild land teeming with adventure in Patagonia. In the film 180 South the characters are not even seeking an uncharted, wild land; they’re after their own uncharted, wild experiences.

In that sense, the Patagonia of 180 South becomes not place, but a journey searching for the personally heroic. Travel has never really been about getting “there.” No matter how burned into our imagination the destination may be, it’s never the place that matters. If it were just the places that mattered we could all save a lot of money and watch the highlights in HD on the National Geographic Channel.

But we don’t. We have this need to see it for ourselves, a need which I believe stems out of desire to see how we react to it, turning the “there,” the places, into a way of traveling within ourselves.

In 180 South “there” is ostensibly Patagonia, but there is no cab door closing, no highball tossed back, no plane ride. The film moves slowly, one scene sliding into the next until things start to go wrong. The there of Patagonia begins to fall away. The there becomes Rapa Nui, the there becomes Pichilemu, Chile, the there becomes Santiago, until finally, as Gertrude Stein wrote, “there is no there there.”

By the end of the film Patagonia is just a word for what we are all looking for, but it says nothing of where you actually arrive, if you will arrive at all or who you will be when you get there.

Ready plan a Round The World adventure?

Image: Manuel Inglez (StockSnap.io )
Image: Nick Karvounis (StockSnap.io )