“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.”
― Jack London
Most people who love to explore the outdoors are aware of some story about nature and tragedy. Into Thin Air by John Krakauer tells the well-known tale of the 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest, when a storm swept the mountain and killed twelve people, including experienced guides. The 2010 movie 127 Hours depicts the true story of Aron Ralston, a legendary Colorado climber, who became trapped in Blue John Canyon when a boulder crushed his arm. He narrowly escaped 6 days later, starved, and having had to cut his own arm off. The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer follows the historical struggles of the men who fought to conquer Eiger in the Bernese Alps. Within this book is the account of Toni Kurtz, a young climber who died on the mountain in 1936 while hanging, trapped from a rope a mere 60 meters from his rescuers. The list goes on, and on. For every story of triumph in nature there is always a poignant, tragic reminder that human life is fragile, and nature can take that spark as unfeelingly as ever.
So, why is it, in a world of Western comforts, complete with a universe of fictional worlds to explore from the safety of our homes, that people still go out to face the forces of the natural world? Why risk death to summit a mountain, or see the depths of an otherworldly canyon in the middle of the wilderness? In the past, when exploration was tantamount to national pride, the sacrifice of George Mallory perhaps made more sense, but in the modern world, in which nearly every corner of the Earth seems to have been explored, even this motivation has lost its relevancy. Yet, we keep exploring, and putting our lives on the line. Why? Why, when the planet has been mapped and we all know what can happen when we fail?
I believe that exploration is part of us, a siren call that led us from the heart of Africa to the rest of the planet. There is no other multi-celled organism that is as common and widespread as humans, and we cannot say that our modern technology is behind our ability to spread and adapt. Long, long before Columbus ever set out on his fateful journey to the “Indies,” North and South America were fully colonized by humans. There were intricate civilizations and a myriad of different cultures there; most of these women and men were descended from the brave people that dared to face the freezing weather of the north in order to cross the land-bridge between modern-day Alaska and Russia. Likewise, before Europeans struggled against the wind and waves of the Pacific, the ancestors of the Polynesian people faced the true unknown and ventured out into the water. Wave after wave, generation after generation, we humans have explored. We have put our lives on the line for uncharted vistas.
So, while people that still live by this code can be confounding, I think it is good to know that the spirit of the original humans lives on in us. We have thrived because we spread, we innovated, we adapted, and we explored. Perhaps continuing to tout the flag of our ancestors will help us, improve our happiness, and keep our minds open. Yes, the world has been mapped and named, but for each of us, Earth is a massive expanse of new people and places. Exploration is just as important as ever. It binds us to the real world, connects us to new cultures and perspectives, and keeps us feeling alive.