What's Alex Honnold got to do with Anthony Bourdain? Why are outdoor athletes so frequently also globetrotting world travelers?
I gotta admit, the last year or so I've been feeling a bit like a gordo, because our previous regimen of endurance running and thru-hiking has largely been supplanted by travel - both internationally in Latin America and at our home in the US, for Boldly Went events. While we still get out for a healthy number of runs, hikes, and paddles, most of our energy has been going to learning Spanish and planning road trips.
I know we're not the only ones who share both passions - for outdoor adventure and for international travel - and the question of whether stories from abroad are welcome at our outdoor adventure events comes up in pretty much every city. All of this has me reflecting a bit on why there is so much overlap in the communities: between dirtbag athletes and vagabonds.
What itch is being scratched?
The topic came up for me initially because, sitting on a plane, flying home from Mexico a few days ago, I was thinking about how this year I really want to get back into ultra shape (probably a 50k route we make up ourselves rather than a race) and complete another (shorter) thru-hike on the Colorado Trail after a couple years away from major athletic challenges. When I ask myself why, beyond wanting to stop feeling like an impostor when people ask me about my Cascade Crest 100 hat, I can think of at least 6 things that these kinds of outdoor adventures bring to one's life.
1) A regular, heady, emotional mix of fear, insecurity and excitement.
2) Fun logistical challenges that involve incorporating both mental and physical aspects.
3) A sense of accomplishment for having done things that are on the edge between possible and impossible.
4) A sense of identity that comes from being a part of a tight-knit community, and from doing something that not many people do. Feeling strange, and special.
5) A better sense of one's place in the cosmos - as a small, weak creature in the middle of a big, beautiful world.
6) A sense of being physically healthy, and strong. Feeling like, if you want to do just about anything, you will be capable of doing it (with a bit of training).
While we used to spend almost all of our leisure time on outdoor pursuits, we've gone through several phases, including during the last few years, when travel has taken over a significant amount of that energy and time. Sitting on a plane, thinking about why that's felt like a relatively even trade, it struck me that our drifting around has actually scratched a lot of the same psychological itches that the trails used to. For instance:
1) Stepping off of a plane into the middle of Guatemala City for the first time was a similar feeling to taking the first steps on our PCT thru-hike. It was the fear, insecurity, and excitement that comes along with setting out into an unknown environment to take on a challenge with some actual dangers that you're not sure you're up to confronting. Terrifying and exhilarating all at once.
2) The logistics of international travel are probably even more complicated than the logistics of running 100 miles through the wilderness. While the physical challenge is primarily to avoid putting anything in your mouth that will give you dysentery, when you're traveling every day is a puzzle to be solved - navigating foreign cultures, languages, and bus stations.
3) While social media makes it appear as if travel is just drifting around looking at pretty things (which, in some ways, it can be), in actuality it comes with a strong sense of accomplishment as you see yourself learning new languages and navigating formerly difficult situations more easily. On our recent trip to Mexico, it was still shocking to step off the plane into a foreign culture, but after 5 previous months of Latin American travel, it wasn't scary in the same way. It was a familiar kind of fear that we knew we were capable of navigating. Estuvimos listos.
4) There's also a strong sense of community and identity that comes along with meeting other international travelers. Beyond finding people who love the same places you do, there's a bond that comes with sharing the same types of experiences I've been talking about here, and of feeling like you're all the same kind of weird.
5) And there's no reality check that better helps you to understand your place in the world than being dropped into the middle of a foreign country, where you don't speak the language, and where you no longer understand how things work. You're small. The world's big.
Maybe those sets of psychological needs help explain why some of us are more drawn to adventure than others. But definitely, somewhere in that overlap is the reason that when we travel, we repeatedly run into people who are into the outdoors: as with our recent random connection through AirBnB with Edy, in Coatepec, Mexico, who has traveled widely and also happens to be a mountain guide. And when we meet people in the outdoors community, they are very frequently travelers as well - as when we met Chad Guenter in Canmore, Canada through a SUP boarding connection, and it turns out he'd previously lived in Jalcomulco - a town not too far from Edy's in Mexico.
So, I think that there genuinely is a shared psychology - a dirtbag DNA if you will - that defines people who are driven to explore, whether that's through outdoors pursuits or international travel. We're all after the same sorts of things in life - curiosity to see what's around the next literal or proverbial bend, sure, but also a shared desire for the types of growth that come along with both types of experiences. Maybe as a group we all get bored easily and need a challenge, or maybe we need to set ourselves apart as different in some way or another. Or, conversely, need to feel that even though we are a bit different, there are a lot of other people who are different in the same way.
And so, yeah, of course we let it slide at events when a storyteller wants to talk about a travel adventure that only peripherally involves the outdoors.
One itch travel doesn't scratch, unfortunately, is the need for physical fitness. So while the trip to Mexico that we just returned from was great, sitting around drinking cerveza and eating sweet, delicious mole poblano doesn't get you in ultra shape on its own. So I'm going to head out for a run. But we're going to keep it kind of short: we have a road trip to pack for tomorrow.
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Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.