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I would have no pay in money for hurling my body into space. There would be no crowd to watch and applaud my landing (there was later). Nor was there any scientific objective to be gained. No, there was a deeper reason for wanting to jump, a desire I could not explain. It was a love of the air and sky, the lure of adventure, the appreciation of beauty. It lay beyond the descriptive words of men—where immortality is touched through danger, where life meets death on equal plane; where man is more than man, and existence both supreme and valueless at the same instant.

SO wrote an authentic American hero of the moment he contemplated his first parachute jump. As the star of a barnstorming aerial circus, he became known as “Daredevil Lindbergh” long before he flew the Atlantic. In his writing he came close to describing the indescribable spirit of adventure that is instinctive to mankind and has been intensified in America, which was discovered and explored and grew to greatness under adventure’s drive. De Tocqueville translated adventure into “individualism,” and suspected it would lead to despotism. But Count Adam Gurowski, a Pole who settled in the U.S., wrote in 1857: “Excitement is one of the most powerful springs in the American. It is so contagious that newcomers, after a comparatively short residence, are affected and carried away by it.”

Against the Commonplace

Adventure impelled Daniel Boone, in his eternal quest for a solitary fire near a fountain of sweet water, to move ever westward. Lord Byron, who had more than a passing acquaintance with adventure, eulogized Boone and his breed:

And tall and strong and swift of foot were they Beyond the dwarfing city’s pale abortions Because their thought had never been the prey Of care or gain; the green woods were their portions.

Adventure was Tom Sawyer—and every adventurer has in him a bit of the runaway boy. Adventure was “Bigfoot” Wallace, the Texas ranger who went East “to see how people managed to live without the excitement of an occasional Indian fight, or a scrimmage with the Mexicans, or even a tussle with a bear now and then to keep their blood in circulation.” Adventure was that incorrigible traveler and taleteller, Richard Halliburton, whether swimming the Hellespont or crossing the Alps à la Hannibal on an elephant.

Adventure, perhaps the greatest of all time, is the astronauts—even though they function as part of an intricate human and electronic network that supports them. Indeed, they deny that they seek the stars in adventure’s name. “We are test pilots,” says Astronaut Charles Bassett. “And the job of a test pilot is research.”

Adventure today? There are those who say that adventure’s day is done in America. The West has long since been closed to the pioneer, and its closing was mourned more than a century ago by Francis Parkman, a sickly Harvard law student who became a Western adventurer: “We did not dream how commerce and gold would breed nations along the Pacific, the disenchanting screech of the locomotive break the spell of weird mysterious mountains, women’s rights invade the fastnesses of the Arapahoes, and despairing savagery, assailed in front and rear, vail its scalp-locks and feathers before the triumphant commonplace.” Or, Parkman might add today, how a security-minded society and government would seek to remove all risk from the life of the citizen. Have prosperity and a plenitude of leisure softened the American, converting him into a creature fit only for paper shuffling, patio living and petunia potting?

Indeed not. The instinct for adventure and excitement remains. In Victorian England, with its relative wealth and opportunity for the leisured, complacent life, the compulsion for adventure was far from stifled; rather, it flared forth in a golden age of English exploration and mountaineering. Similarly, but even more so, many Americans of the 1960s refuse to react to prosperity as though it were the smoke from the poppy seed, and instead feel it as the thorn that goads them toward the bold, dangerous and somehow immensely satisfying fundamentals of existence.

Admittedly, the very fact that adventure nowadays has to be searched out can make the whole thing self-conscious and artificial. When the lights went out along the East Coast last week, city dwellers were almost pathetically glad to be released from their routine and from their machines, finding adventure of sorts in the simple business of walking down stairs or directing traffic in darkened streets. Adventurers are driven to figure out ever new, ever more outlandish forms of excitement, from using jet engines to shoot up, not down, the wicked rapids of the Colorado River, to musk-ox wrangling. The latter was said to be impossible since the musk ox is a strong, quick animal with a very short temper. But John Teal, a Harvard man who did graduate work in anthropology and geography at Yale, captured 67 musk oxen on Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea, mostly by driving them into the freezing water, then swimming after them and wrestling them ashore.

Statistics cannot sum up adventure, but they do give a notion of the American thirst for excitement. Take skindiving. There are now some 8,000,000 U.S. skindivers, about 1,000,000 of them skilled with scuba. Merely to minnow about underwater is no longer enough, and such sports as octopus wrestling are coming increasingly into vogue, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where the critters grow up to 90 Ibs. and can be exceedingly tough customers. Although there are several accepted techniques for octopus wrestling, the really sporty way requires that the human diver go without artificial breathing apparatus.

Or take parachute jumping. About 100,000 sophisticates of the sport call it sky diving, and they have progressed (if that’s the word) from two-man, free-fall wrestling matches, in which one tries to open the other’s parachute before the other can open his, to six-or eight-man “hookups,” in which all forms of hand-holding and baton-passing take place. Or take gliding, which its enthusiasts prefer to call “sailplaning.” About 1,000 glider aircraft, costing between $2,500 and $10,000 apiece, are presently used by some 5,000 people. The glider pilot glories in his solitude and in the pitting of his personal skills against nature itself; if the breeze fails he may very well end up with a broken neck.

More Than Idealism

De Tocqueville was surely right in his definition of the adventurer as an individualist. Today an adventurer is quite likely to be a successfully self-made businessman or entrepreneur. Insofar as he desires to do for himself without the ever-helping hand of government, he is apt to be a political conservative. He may of course be a she, and female daredevils range from Alaska bush pilots to a 75-year-old tiger tamer. The adventurer need not be of high moral character. As Author William Bolitho once wrote, adventure’s “adepts are rarely chaste, or merciful, or even law-abiding at all, and any moral peptonizing, or sugaring, takes out the interest, with the truth, of their lives.”

The prospect of personal profit is not disqualifying. Thus, Sam Collins, 52, an ebullient Texan who knows his carats, has made millions as the world’s first floating diamond miner, working off Southwest Africa; yet anyone who sees the glow of adventure in Collins’ eyes as he rigs his own gear to follow one of his hired divers would realize that he would be doing the same thing if he were going down after clamshells. On the other hand, making money—which can be an adventure in itself—may spoil some men’s excitement. Craig Breedlove, a former fireman from Costa Mesa, Calif., decided to win the title of “fastest human on wheels,” and two years ago, he did just that, speeding over Bonneville’s Salt Flats in a three-ton, three-wheeled jet car at a record 407 m.p.h. That was an adventure. But only a few weeks ago, Breedlove made the same run at an incredible 555 m.p.h.—and as he was the first to admit, the kicks have gone out of it all. For in the interim his speedcar-making company had become a successful corporation and he its president. Says his general manager, Stan Goldstein: “What used to be a hobby with us is now a big business. You know that first year that Craig got the record? It made him an old man.” Breedlove is now 28.

Adventure lies not in the deed itself, but in the spirit of doing it. The little boy who overcomes his fears to explore the black unknown of a cave may be more the adventurer than the public figure who is flown halfway up a mountainside, then gets pushed and hauled to the peak by expert climbing companions. The youngster who travels to Mississippi or Alabama to participate in a civil rights demonstration may well be subjecting himself to danger; but it is less than adventure if done because it has become fashionable —or even if undertaken solely out of a sense of moral duty.

Adventure does not preclude a lofty aim. There is a whole new breed of Americans who seek adventure in politics or war abroad, including a small, constantly changing, necessarily anonymous group of American youths who have joined with European contemporaries to spirit East Germans through the Berlin Wall. Adventure is also constantly produced in the name of scientific exploration, but whatever the admixture of other causes, the true adventurer is an idealist only by the way; he is really after adventure for its own sake.

Cast of Characters

Plainly the only way to understand the adventurer is to hear him as he attempts to put his motivations into words:

∙ Richard Peck, 44, is a Princeton graduate, the father of three children and the owner of a Cincinnati advertising agency. He has spent the past 16 months trying to find the famed Lost Dutchman gold mine in Arizona’s barren Superstition Mountain range. “The more I read about the Lost Dutchman,” he recalls, “the more I kept coming back to it. Finally, I was sure I knew where the Lost Dutchman was. I was going to tear this thing open. I thought I was going to have it wrapped up in two weeks.” So far his search has cost him $80,000. “I had to try something like this because it was so impossible. But if this mine is ever found it’s still going to hurt in a lot of ways. Something is going to be lost out of this world.”

∙ Dr. William R. Halliday, 49, is a chest surgeon by profession; by avocation he is a spelunker in the caves of the limestone belt that stretches from Ohio and Kentucky to New Mexico. “Curiosity takes you underground in the first place,” he says. “And once there, you’re hooked. You discover one thing, and that’s never enough; you’re always pushing back, and then back beyond that. Everything underground seems to ask a question. I’ve seen this challenge change a motorcycle punk in Los Angeles into a Ph.D.” A cave’s size or depth is not what attracts the spelunker. “There can be a hole behind any rock,” says Halliday, “and often we get as much satisfaction in going 400 feet as we do in a much more impressive distance.”

∙ John Zink, the millionaire owner of a furnace company, finds adventure atop a 100,000-lb. bulldozer, clearing timber and building roads on a 12,000-acre tract near Tulsa that he is turning into a Boy Scout camp. That’s not adventure? Well, it is when one considers that Zink is 72 years old, and that he has more than once had to throw himself clear when his huge dozer overturned in the rugged country. “Of course it’s dangerous,” snorts Zink. “But I haven’t any time for country clubs or flitting off to Europe. I’d rather build roads for Boy Scouts. I feel sorry for the lame, the weak, the ill and the stupid; they aren’t going to run the country for you. What I’m trying to do is make a place where the smart will get smarter, the strong stronger, and the swift swifter.”

∙ John S. Crawford, 36, spends weeks at a time as a wildlife photographer in the remote reaches of Alaska, Canada and the Pacific Northwest. He has suffered eleven bone frac tures, and frostbitten toes are a commonplace. Once, when stranded for eight days at the tip of the Alaskan peninsula, he survived by fishing safely while a grizzly bear pack lurked near by. He rarely carries a rifle. “A rifle,” he says, “is a crutch. If you’ve got one, there are likely to be times when you break down and use it. If you just say, ‘Hell, I’m going to take pictures no matter what happens,’ there is a mystic rapport, somehow, between you and the animals. At that point, I am just as high as a human being can be.”

∙ Linn Emrich, 34, was a commercial-airline pilot, but quit because “it took all the satisfaction and joy out of flying. You always had to fly where they wanted. You sat there in this big plush seat with your earphones on, the radio chattering, and the engine noise drowning out almost everything.” Now, in the lovely lake valley near Issaquah, Wash., Emrich operates an airport devoted exclusively to sky sports—flying, sailplaning, parachute jumping and ballooning. He is his own best customer, and was the first pilot to fly a sailplane across Mount Rainier. “I see so many people who are in ruts and aren’t having fun,” he says. “One of them is my own brother. He’s still an airline copilot, and he grinds away in bad weather, smelling smoke from the captain and not complaining, because he doesn’t have the rank.”

∙ William J. Gordon Jr., 47, left Virginia Theological Seminary 22 years ago on assignment to Alaska, where he is now Episcopal bishop. He lived five years in an Eskimo village, once made a 35-day trek from Point Hope to Point Barrow by dog sled; he flies 50,000 miles a year, much of it in bad weather and to isolated areas. “Most people,” he says, “wait on their islands of insecurity for the world to overwhelm them. In most of the U.S., no one has to take risks. Up here, you feel challenged. When I fly in bad weather or when I rough it, I feel that I have beaten something that was my adversary.”

Conflict of Interest

Because the adventurer has deliberately removed himself from the stream of society, society is not always friendly toward him. Few hostile critics have gone so far as Denver Poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril, who was sure that “if a mountain persists as a challenge to a man over 26, it implies some psychic deficiency or sex frustration … I am further convinced that the adult who feels under compulsion to lick formidable mountains invariably enjoys as unsatisfactory a love life as a lady harp player.” The obverse of that notion is that sex itself is the real, perhaps the last great adventure, the “last frontier” that permits modern man, hag-ridden by civilization, to explore, to dare and to conquer.

Most of those who deliberately seek adventure have their moments of selfcriticism. For all his enthusiasm, Alaska’s Bishop Gordon sometimes wonders whether “the really heroic people are not the ones who travel 10,000 miles by dog sled, but those who stay 10,000 days in one place. I believe that all of us have the capacity for one adventure inside us, but great adventure is facing responsibility day after day.” That view is echoed by Amherst’s Historian John William Ward, who sees something “pathetic and sentimental” in the American adventurer. “Today,” he says, “the man who is the real risk taker is anonymous and nonheroic. He is the one trying to make institutions work. What we need is not to go West, but to return eastward, to create excitement and adventure in things that are no longer solitary. If a man can only find adventure by going to Alaska or running wide open across the salt flats, then society is in bad shape.”

Fair enough—up to a point. No one would argue that a society’s strength increases proportionately to the number of adventurers in its midst. But it is equally true, and much more relevant, that America is the stronger for its adventurers past, present—and future.

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