This past year has found me reading a lot more books on epic and perilous journeys than normal. This ranges from the first Americans to establish a permanent outpost and colony on the west coast (in Astoria, Oregon) in the early 19th century to the unimaginable journey of the 16th century Spaniard Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca who wandered across the American Southwest after he escaped capture (multiple times). There is something that draws me deeply into these stories of painful struggle, sheer willpower to combat inclement weather and adverse circumstances, daily battles with starvation, lostness, and so much more. I often wonder, as I sit in the comfort of my living room in front of the cozy fire, what compels these intrepid souls to leave comfort behind and attempt the impossible? Even the story I'm reading now ... why would any modern day person want to leave "normal life" behind, hitch up mules to a covered wagon, and spend months retracing the Oregon Trail unsupported?
We are compelled. Regardless of our background, upbringing, education, privilege, or career we seem to be prone at times to jettison all sense of security to embark on a grand voyage. Other times these travails are thrust upon us against our own choosing. In each case we must confront our own fears and notions of safety and self-preservation.
Fear is something that accompanies us in the backcountry. This is a reality whether we're a stone's throw from the trailhead or so far deep that we haven't seen a soul in days (or weeks). There is always that lurking question ... "what if?" Here in Oregon in the warmer months it is seemingly a weekly occurrence where I read in the online newspaper of another hiker lost ... then presumed dead ... and then their remains found weeks later. Why the risk?
As I've shared previously, I worked for five year stretch as a mountain biking and hiking guide in southern Arizona. It was an experience that still has left a long impression on my life. Early on I had dozens of trails that I needed to become familiar with. On slower days with not very many sign-ups I would hop in the company van to explore one of these unfamiliar trails alone so that I would be comfortable and competent to lead a group on them. For those of you who know, the Sonoran Desert is a land of beautiful and unparalled extremes. Often times I would be out all alone for hours on end. In the desert it is as if all of nature is unified to scratch, claw, sting, bite, and poison humans for venturing too close.
While most of the time I'd be so enthralled with exploring new terrain that I wouldn't let my mind wander into the "what if" territory ... but sometimes I would. I found I could freak myself out pretty easily. Every loud thud or tumbling rock was a reminder I was in prime mountain lion territory (not that I would hear them). However, every ridge and switchback in the trail revealed treasures that most would never see. Pottery shards (thousands upon thousands of fragments), an undocumented Hohokam village site dating back a 1,000 years, an ancient metate, petroglyphs, and more were constant reminders of why I would trek into the backcountry.
I wonder if we live too sanitized of lives which compels us even more to take risks and venture deeper into the unknown. We all live comfortable lives compared to our forefathers of even 100-200 years ago. We have the latest and best equipment to accompany us, but regardless, it is the same impetus that has been with us for eons ... to leave the safety of our shores behind and venture into the unknown of tomorrow. In order to do so we need to become comfortable with our own fears and even become allies and familiar bedfellows.
"One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight, for a very long time, of the shore." (André Gide)
Words by Sean Benesh, Loam Coffee Founder and Brand Manager