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  • Tim Mathis

Why do people go on adventures? It's so simple that even a child could understand.

Updated: May 28, 2023

In this series, we've been discussing the concept of a GAP Month as a reliable framework for transformational travel. In short, it's a month of goal-directed adventure or pilgrimage with the following characteristics:

If you follow those rules, it'll probably change your life.

In this post we’re focusing on the benefits of adventure.

In summary, adventure is important because it’s just playing around.

a lone hiker on the slopes of Mt Rainier.
Adventure is fun-damental

I’ll spare you the long version of this story because I babble about it all the time, but even if you’ve heard it before, bear with me. There’s a unique point and I swear I’ll get to it quickly.

When I turned thirty, I got really into adventure. It progressed quickly, but first it was relatively small stuff: signing up for a short triathlon and learning to cold water swim in Lake Washington in Seattle (hated it). Then it was a trip to Victoria, BC in order to run a five mile race (loved it). Then a half-marathon. Then Angel and I impulsively committed to fly to Rome to run a marathon. After that we picked up trail running and headed out every weekend with the Seattle Running Club to see if we could go further than the week before. That progressed into ultramarathons, and then running across Spain on the Camino de Santiago, which led to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, paddling the Hudson, backpacking around Latin America and more.

In all of that, the fundamental thing that kept (and keeps) me going was that it was fun. Adventures, big or small, are almost always a good time. Pursuing adventures regularly made life feel a lot more enjoyable than it had been during my previous lethargic and career-driven eras. It feels like dumb, pure hedonism at times. By pursuing adventure, you’re just pursuing joy and fun.

At the same time though, I could see that integrating regular adventure was rapidly and objectively improving my life. It made me much healthier physically, but I was also getting more assertive, making new friends, and sorting out how to deal with old issues and insecurities without even really trying. I was getting better at work, thinking more creatively, and feeling more motivation to do important things in the world. I didn’t get into adventure because I was looking for personal transformation per se, but it came naturally. That gave me even more motivation to keep going. It felt revelatory. It seemed impossible almost - something that was pure fun that also made me happier and healthier and a better human being.

Simply stated, that’s what I’m trying to help you experience by talking through the GAP Month concept. No matter the duration, when you’re trying to create a transformative travel experience intentionally, you’re aiming for that magic. You’re aiming to create a fun experience that will also shape you into a better person.

So, you’re aiming for an adventure.

What is an adventure?

Adventure is like obscenity, right? It’s one of those concepts that’s difficult to define, but you know it when you see it? It’s Indiana Jones, or rafting the Grand Canyon, or climbing a mountain in a snow storm. It’s not watching Netflix or working in an office or spending the next four hours binge reading all of my blog posts.

True, sure, but I do think that you can define adventure relatively concisely if you want to. I stole this from this article in Big Life Magazine, but you can say that an adventure is a time-limited experience that involves risk, effort, excitement and the unknown. It’s a hard, fun activity that you engage in where you aren’t sure about the outcome, and where there’s at least an off chance that something bad might happen as a result.

It’s an enticing challenge during which you might accidentally break your arm.

But what’s the point of adventure?

Concise definitions can be useful, but also boring because they don’t really tell the whole story. They don’t get to the meaty bits.

Sometimes analogies are better, so maybe a better way to think about adventure is that It’s just play for adults.

Stepping back for a moment, why do kids play? There are a lot of reasons, but it boils down to the fact that it’s how they learn to be humans, right? It’s true that when you’re a kid, you play because it’s fun and intuitive. But it’s not just about the fun, functionally speaking. It involves managing danger and socialization and creativity and physical movement and all of the things you need to be able to do in order to survive as an adult human. Play is how you learn all of that important stuff.

If you ask the experts at places like the British Government about what play accomplishes for children, they’ll say things like:

“Play improves the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and young people.

Through play, children learn about the world and themselves.

They also learn skills they need for study, work and relationships such as:

Confidence, self-esteem, resilience, interaction, social skills, independence, curiosity, coping with challenging situations…good physical fitness, agility, stamina, coordination, balance and… [complex social skills.]”

When we’re kids, we enjoy playing, and that’s probably because evolution wired us that way. The things we need to do in order to survive have to be more enjoyable than things we don’t, or we’d die. As kids we’re hardwired to enjoy play because we’re hardwired to learn and grow.

Adults play less often than children presumably because we have less to learn, but the need is still there. There are still times when we run into obstacles that we don’t know how to navigate, or our confidence in our ability to manage new challenges diminishes. There’s always plenty to learn about how to be a human.

I would like to humbly submit that this is what adventure is for.

Play and adventure - they’re both fun, but they’re also about pushing boundaries and learning new skills and learning what you’re capable of. They help establish social status, build relationships and new degrees of confidence. Ultimately they keep you growing and help you function as an adult human.

They’re both about risk, effort, excitement and the unknown.

That’s why it makes complete sense, if you’re looking for personal growth, to organize an experience that involves adventure.

Or if you like, to do something that’s basically just a long period of playing around.

What does an adventure actually look like, concretely?

When people write adventure stories, they often follow a structure called The Hero’s Journey, and a good way to visualize what an adventure might look like in your own life is to briefly consider this structure.

It’s complex, and there are long, dense, academic books written about it, but you can simplify a Hero’s Journey story into five steps if you’d like.

  1. You’re living your normal life.

  2. Something happens that sucks you into a challenge.

  3. You face down the challenge, identifying personal strengths and supportive people that help you overcome it along the way.

  4. Eventually you make it through, and learn a lot in the process.

  5. Afterwards, you go back to your normal life changed by the experience in some way or another.

Simple, right?

Here’s a real life example from my own experience - a kayaking trip we took down the Hudson in 2018. It’s a dashed off Hero’s Journey in very brief.

Normal life: I was browsing at Barnes and Noble and came across a book by a guy who’d paddled from the Great Lakes to New York CIty via the Erie Canal and the Hudson River. We’d just bought folding kayaks but hadn’t taken them out yet, and had very little paddling experience in general. I didn’t buy the book but it piqued my interest. I moved on with life.

Call to adventure: A few weeks later, an East Coast friend invited us to run the Ragnar Relay in Cape Cod. That’s not that far from Albany, NY, which is essentially the start of the flat portion of the Hudson. My brother was living in NYC. “Hey Angel, want to make a real adventure of this?”

Facing the challenge: In a few months we found ourselves at the start of the Hudson, putting in our brand new folding kayaks loaded with all of our gear. We were sent off by a local who we’d met on Warm Showers who was excited about our adventure and committed to meet us down the way. He gave us advice on the journey and took the photo you see above.

Within an hour, I’d managed to smash a foot-long hole in the side of my kayak. We’d gotten off the river to let a massive shipping boat pass and take a quick break. I stepped out of the kayak onto a water chestnut (which looks like one of those spiky things ninjas throw on the ground to thwart their enemies). While I was cursing and prying it out of my foot, the wake from the ship picked up my kayak and slammed it into a nearby log. It popped like a balloon. Foot long gash below the water line right in the center of the boat.

We were a mile’s bushwhack from a road, and we would’ve been humiliated to have to call our new local friend anyway. So, we hatched a ridiculous plan and created a DIY patch for the massive hole using Gorilla Tape and superglue. I held my breath and we put back in, expecting to have to swim the Hudson’s polluted waters back to shore at any minute.

Overcoming the challenge: The patch held. We met our friend halfway and told him the story. He thought it was hilarious. After 10 days battling wind and tide, bandit camping in bushes, sheltering from lightning storms, and exploring the Hudson’s historic villages, we finished our trip at Croton-on-Hudson where we packed our folding kayaks and caught the train into the city, victorious.

Going back home: Back home in Seattle, we wrote a message to the the manufacturer of the kayak about the situation. They didn’t care or offer repair or replacement. We wrote a separate message to Gorilla and they sent us a big box with hundreds of dollars worth of tape and glue and shared our story around. I guess we know who our friends are. I got a weird rash from the Hudson but we also learned a lot about both paddle excursions and the history of New York along the way. We fell in love with the Hudson Valley. We felt much more confident in our water skills and used them sea kayaking with humpbacks in remote Alaska a year later. We felt victorious for having executed a successful marine field repair with duct tape. We never fully trusted those folding kayaks again though. We were changed.

Your adventure will be different from ours, but that’s roughly what I’m getting at. That arc is what you can aim to replicate in your own experience.

(Maybe this dumb post is your call to adventure?)

How do you design your own adventure?

The idea with the GAP Month concept is that if you follow the basic rules of the game, everything will work together without requiring an inordinate amount of thinking on your part.

So, simply enough, in order to experience your own Hero’s Journey, all you really need to do is take a bit of time. Start where you are and pick somewhere else to move towards. Ideally, figure out how to get there under human power. Ideally, integrate some rituals and personal goals and friends. The universe will provide the challenges for you to overcome along the way. All that’s required of you is to commit to moving through the process.

If you want to make sure that you suck the marrow out of the experience, be intentional about incorporating some of the things that make adventure transformative: risk, effort, excitement and the unknown.

Test your boundaries and try something that you’re not sure you can accomplish. Go somewhere or do something intimidating. Don’t take it easy on yourself, physically or emotionally.

Incorporate some degree of physical or financial risk, to the degree you can stomach.

Go somewhere that you don’t know well, or take on a type of activity that you aren’t expert in.

And make sure it’s fun. Make sure it’s something you actually want to do.

Maybe that’ll mean flying to Patagonia to navigate an off trail wilderness circuit, or maybe it’ll mean creating a walking route that starts and finishes in your own backyard. There’s no real bar to clear other than to push yourself and make it fun.

Play like a kid and learn to be an adult.

In conclusion, what should you expect to result from an adventure?

As a concise description of what results you can expect from taking on adventure, there’s a great quote in that article I noted above in BigLife Magazine:

“Through intentionally pushing us out of our comfort zone, adventure demands we stand at the edge of who we think we are…and look out over the exciting new territory of who we could be if we learned to embrace risk, embrace effort, embrace the unknown. Adventure inspires us to be more, do more, live more, while sowing the seeds of those changes within us.”

It’s dramatic, but it’s nice. Through adventure, you’ll grow, you’ll experience life, you’ll gain confidence, and you’ll be confident to take on even bigger challenges after you’re done.

It’s great.

It’s fun.

It’s the same sort of stuff that you used to get as a kid by playing outside with your friends.

All you have to do is identify the goal and attempt to tackle it. Life will provide you with the rest.

Back to the GAP Month homepage.

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