The Envelope

I’m not what they call an adventurous traveler. I don’t have a particular hankering to hang from a cliff in a harness secured by rope. There is nothing thrilling about a pup tent or a sleeping bag. Sailing on a tramp steamer to Bora Bora does not tickle my fancy.

You might say that I’m overly enamored of my creature comforts, that I prefer a resort to any form of roughing it. Why wouldn’t I? Look up rough in the dictionary. There is not one pleasant or breezy definition. “Something in a crude, unfinished, or preliminary state. Difficult to travel through or penetrate.” Nope. Not for me.

There are many people who delight in facing the harshest challenges imaginable. Cable television offers up a huge smorgasbord of shows that feature such humans. Whether it’s couples walking around in the wilderness naked, looking for water or shelter, or tuna boat crews at sea, getting pounded by huge waves and nasty winds, or people in Alaska doing Alaska stuff (there are so many Alaskans outside in the cold in front of video cameras!), there is clearly a surfeit of folks who love to rough it.

But just because I may not have a taste for the challenge of the outdoors does not mean that I don’t appreciate the call of the wild. I am an explorer. “For all the different forms it takes in different historical periods, for all the worthy and unworthy motives that lie behind it, exploration—travel for the sake of discovery and adventure—is it seems a human compulsion, a human obsession even (as the paleontologist Maeve Leakey says); it is a defining element of a distinctly human identity, and it will never rest at any frontier, whether terrestrial or extra-terrestrial.”

This fact of exploration is in our bones, maybe in our DNA. It drives us not only to enter the woods or get in a space vehicle, but also compels us to delve into the human mind. The exploration of consciousness is a wild ride with so many twists and turns along the way, replete with tremendous implications.

Questions about being and nothingness and infinity and finitude are not imponderable. In fact, they demand we ponder. It’s not a cliché to ask about the meaning of life: it’s mandatory.

I watched a bit of Life Below Zero a few months ago. I don’t know why I did. It’s a hazard when you’re couch surfing. You find something so bizarre, so out of your normal range of interest that you’re drawn to it in all its weirdness. The segment I watched was about a guy who, on his own, was getting ready for winter and building an igloo. And if I tell you that he was in the middle of nowhere, it couldn’t convey just how remote a location he was settling in.

In a million years I would say no. For a million dollars I would say no way. But this man was extending himself way outside his defined box. He was pushing the envelope awfully hard, “for the sake of discovery and adventure”.

Does the show, Life Before Zero change the world? Probably not. But it certainly expanded the consciousness of the igloo builder. And it reminded me that an eagerness to explore is not represented by where you stay: exploration is about where you go. Look at Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norga, the first people to climb Mt Everest. Look at Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the modern age. There’s so much spacetime to cover between Hillary and Hawking. I hope we never stop exploring.

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