Up until recently, I was afraid of flying. I refused to believe that I wasn't gambling with death, even though the odds are clearly in my favor.
My view of life wasn’t always this anxiety-ridden. At age nine I climbed Mount Washington, and by age 13 I was a licensed open water diver. Jumping off boats in the middle of the ocean? Bring it on.
Somewhere between my early years and my current status as a young professional, I got a little more cautious and a little too aware of all the things that can go wrong. While I know I'm not alone in my tendencies to worry; I can't help but feel sad for the adventure seeking girl I used to be.
My story is not unique. The older we get, the more the adrenaline seeking side of our brain recedes, and we tend toward the safe and known. Open water diving? I'm sorry, have you heard of sharks? Mountain climbing? No cliffs, please.
From promotion to prevention
It’s a classic shift, as social psychologists would describe it, from promotion motivation to prevention-minded. An article by Heidi Grant Halvorson in The Atlantic reports on findings from a research study from Northwestern University, suggesting “that promotion-mindedness is most prevalent among the young, because youth is a time for focusing on your hopes for the future, what you ideally want to do—you don't have much in the way of responsibilities, and you still believe you can do anything you set your mind to. That and you think you are immortal.”
And yet, amid my growing up and growing prevention-mindedness, I maintained my love of a good adventure story. Perhaps, because my own life, while not exactly dull, lacks some of the pizazz of my late teens and early twenties. So instead, I read Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer and imagined the panic of climbing Mount Everest. I read Deep, by James Nestor, which had me almost dig out my wetsuit and become one with the ocean again. And, lest you think there are no female adventurers, may I recommend The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey, a former Outside magazine journalist.
Amid my growing up and growing prevention-mindedness, I maintained my love of a good adventure story. Perhaps, because of my own life, while not exactly dull, lacks some of the pizazz of my late teens and early twenties.
I love these books for their courageousness and their insider look into a life I'll never have. And that's okay. To be honest, I crave a different adventure story now; one that's more relatable. But what is it about adventure stories that affect us so profoundly, and, just for a moment, make us consider ditching our desks and calendars and heading out into the unknown?
The comfort of adulthood
As humans, we fear the rut. You know, that place where everything is the same; the same meals, the same schedule, the same bar or drink after work. I know I've reached my trench of monotony when I find myself on auto-pilot Netflix only to have the TV ask if I'm still there. Yes, I'm here—killing time and staring into space. But, I digress.
In an interview with Fast Company, Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University who studies money and happiness says, “One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation.” This is one of the reasons people who travel more and spend their money and other resources on experiences have more of a spring in their step than those who opt for the latest gadget.
Experiences make us who we are, says Gilovich. They become part of our personal narrative in ways that material goods just can't. One of the best ways to do that is to travel.
But what about why we like to read about adventure and travel?
Perhaps, it’s because, according to Outside magazine, “experience needs shape and wisdom and behind every great adventure are the stories that inspired it.”
When we read stories of people who explored places we didn't know existed or that we wanted to explore, they resonate with us in ways other stories cannot. We experience the journey the writer (or protagonists) went through to get to the top of the mountain, ski down a dangerous path, or take a risk in their professional or personal life.
But not all adventure takes place in a remote desert or a mountain range. I notice the older I get, the more I crave narratives about people taking risks and gaining experiences in a recognizable territory.
I notice the older I get, the more I crave narratives about people taking risks and gaining experiences in a recognizable territory.
Sometimes the biggest adventure is quitting your job for a new career or moving to a new state (or country) to be with your partner. Or maybe it's figuring out how to buy a house. Whatever the dream, the journey there can be strange and wonderful.
Adventures that don’t require cliff-diving
Here are stories of interesting people going on even more interesting adventures. No overloaded hiking backpack or ice picks required. And I bet you'll find moments of connection with the protagonists; I know I did.
Two Towns in Provence by M.F.K. Fisher
This book is a compilation by Fisher; the first is "Map of Another Town," followed by "A Considerable Town." Fisher, most famous for her food writing, narrates her experiences living in Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles during the 1950s and 60s with her two daughters.
While residing in Aix, Fisher writes about the difficulty of living as a boarder, which she did many times. Fisher writes, “I have lived with several families in France. More often than not while I was with them I fretted and even raged at the strictures of sharing my meals and my emotions and my most personal physical functions with people almost as strange to me as spiders or nesting egrets. In retrospect, I understand they shaped such strength as may be in me surely as ever did my inherited genes….”
Having a roommate in college, and for a few years after was enough for me. I can’t imagine doing it in a foreign country at the age of forty. Fisher’s stories provide a window into places both familiar and foreign, but completely arresting.
Fraud by David Rakoff
Fans of David Sedaris' dry, observational wit will enjoy Rakoff's collection of essays that range from climbing Mount Washington (hey, I did that!) to going to Iceland and interviewing its residents about their belief in the "Hidden People," or elves. (Fun fact, roughly 54 percent of Icelanders believe in elves.)
Rakoff's wry but respectful take on his experiences makes the book feel like you're going on a trip with that friend who always makes you laugh—even when not appropriate.
Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
I read this book on a plane ride (great distraction), and it made me rethink everything I previously thought about hard work and friendship. Patchett chronicles her intense and admittedly codependent friendship with the late author and poet Lucy Grealy. The book follows their struggles to become writers in their own right while battling self-doubt, health problems, drug addictions, and success. After all, sometimes the most difficult adventure is figuring out how to live with the cards we have.
Each of these adventure books helped me understand that being comfortable is not an end goal. If things seem too easy, the chances are good, that they are. As we age the adventures that stick with us are the ones about starting over, trying new things later in life, and finding people who can put up with us. Reading about these relatable moments is pretty damn enjoyable, too.
Rachel Henry is a Chicago-based editor at a communications firm. She spends most of her time reading her way through a giant stack of library books and trying to find the best vacation deals online.