Monday, May 23, 2011

Wild Ideas

So many young men have a barely controllable urge to bugger off into the wilderness. Of these, the real head-cases do it alone. I did it myself – more than once (Figure 19.1) – and now accept that it qualifies as unhinged behaviour. Consequently, it demands careful explanation.

Figure 19.1: To travel, anywhere, was better than to arrive

Copyright 2011 Paul Spradbery

Disaffection, opportunism and an overriding sense of adventure make a potent mixture. This is especially true between the ages of 18 and 25 years, often to the point of believing that walking on water is possible with sufficient willpower. Young men just want to ‘get off the leash’, frequently without paying attention to the direction in which they are bolting. Perhaps such desperation screams volumes about the oppressive nature of our authoritarian, oversocialized society.

A few of my own former escapades bear all this out. During the mid-nineties, I spent quite a bit of time in the Far East, and my ‘caution-and-safety’ genes had yet to be expressed. I wanted to run some modern-day gauntlet (preferably with my eyes closed) and, if lucky, experience the thrill of cheating God-knows-what on my own crazy terms. This is not an unusual trait; I was neither naïve nor particularly brave.

A persistent daydream I had back then was one day to disappear up the jungle on an elephant. (Why ever not?) The opportunity fell at my feet in 1994, so off we went – just the two of us (Figure 19.2) – into the big, green yonder. It was the most memorable experience of my young life, bar none. Eventually, we made it to safety – and on speaking terms. I spent the first half-mile of the trek laughing like an idiot, so absurd was the entire enterprise. OK, a whole array of misfortunes might have got the better of me, but none did. And there’s the rub. In my defence, I was always meticulous in my research of far-flung places before I reached them. Having sufficient money for food, knowing the map inside out and being able to speak the native language were self-imposed prerequisites. Nothing else, however, mattered a damn.

Figure 19.2: Somewhere near Kanchanaburi, Western Thailand, near to the Burmese border. My kids adore this picture.

Copyright 1994 Paul Spradbery

At approximately the same time, on the other side of the world, another confident graduate, Christopher McCandless (1968-1992) (Figure 19.3), became a posthumous cult hero after going it alone in wild Alaska and starving to death within four months. His lack of preparation and basic survival instincts were astonishing. I have wondered whether he had some sort of death wish in taking recklessness to a level far higher than that of most men, including mine.

Within months, McCandless’s cautionary tale was published by Jon Krakauer in Outside magazine, then, in 1996, in book form. The subsequent film, Into The Wild (2007), directed to perfection by Sean Penn, received enormous critical acclaim. Much intense debate has followed, some claiming McCandless to be a romantic hero, others an impetuous fool. My own view is about midway between the extremes.

If all naturally adventurous young males throughout history had adopted the ‘safety first, second and third’ mentality, so prevalent today, the names Edward Jenner (1749-1823), Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922), Neil Armstrong (1930-) and Muhammad Ali (1942-) would mean nothing to us. In fact, humans might never have ventured out of caves. Risk-taking, even to the point of lunacy, is inherent to the male temperament. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you get hurt, or even killed. McCandless must have known this before he set out, as I myself did. In fairness to him, he gambled with only his own well-being, no one else’s, and had every right to do so. Tragically, he lost and paid the ultimate penalty. C’est la vie.

Figure 19.3: Christopher McCandless, somewhere near Lake Wentitika, Alaska, USA

Copyright undetermined. Fair Dealing asserted, as defined under Copyright Law, Art. 32 (Spain) and 1988 Copyright Designs & Patents Act (UK)

Today, a 20-year-old intern at the laboratory in which I am currently working is considering writing his own chapter in the annals of life-off-the-leash. J le B, you have my blessing; but, for God’s sake – and, more importantly, your own – just do your homework first.

Copyright 2011 Paul Spradbery