Americans have always been adventurers, and adventure travel remains an indelible component of our national identity. In a sense, the process of adventuring continues to define the character of our citizens.
Our forebears first came to this continent to explore new lands, and finally they tamed even the Wild West. Eventually, as there became fewer and fewer places to adventure on this planet, they turned to space, first to the moon and more recently to Mars.
While only a few select individuals ever ventured to the great beyond, the country traveled with them as we huddled around the television. As a society, we continue to watch liftoffs, which in some inexplicable manner satisfies our desire for adventure. Vicariously, we can all be astronauts, if only for a moment.
Despite our increasingly busy lives, or possibly as a result of them, the American public continues to seek wild places to adventure for both recreation and solitude. Annually, it has been estimated that more than 150 million Americans regularly participate in outdoor recreation activities such as hiking, hunting, rock climbing, bird-watching, mountain biking, skiing, snowshoeing, paddling and fishing. We continue to climb the cliffs, paddle the rapids, ski the glades and stalk the bucks because these activities satisfy our innate need for adventure.
Similar to other wild creatures, the human animal is inquisitive and curious in nature. We have an innate need to discover what's hidden around the corner, or just beyond the far hill. Key components of adventure travel are the opportunities the process often provides to allow us to discover or recover a unique element of ourselves.
Recreation means to recreate, and adventure travel enlivens our senses, challenges our abilities and, most importantly, reveals a sense of self. In the process of taking risks, tackling obstacles and seeking out the unknown, we are faced with the opportunity to restore and explore our own primitive needs, fears and desires, which may lie hidden within.
Ask any adrenaline junkie about their purposes for seeking adventure. Adrenaline is a seductive and addictive chemical both physically and mentally, and it is one that is constantly tempered by our natural fight or flight response.
We travel to wild places to find natural adventures and to obtain the solitude necessary to satisfy an indescribable, yet undeniable, craving that still lingers in our soul. Humans have a biological urge to test themselves, to discover strengths and expose weakness. It may actually be a throwback to the times when we existed as hunter-gatherers. Despite the basis of the motivation, there remains no doubt we possess a desire to travel to primitive places in order to engage in wild adventures.
Traditionally, the forest products industry has provided the primary fuel that fired the economic engine of the Adirondack region. However, in recent years, tourism, specifically adventure travel and eco-tourism, has increasingly become the driving force behind the region's economy. According to a recent report issued by The Outdoor Industry Foundation, the current economic contribution of active outdoor recreation bicycling, camping, fishing, hunting, paddling, snow sports, wildlife viewing, trail-running, hiking and climbing pumps more than $730 billion into the US economy annually.
Additionally, the report indicates outdoor recreation supports nearly 6.5 million jobs, generates $88 billion in annual state and national tax revenue and generates $289 billion annually in retail sales and services nationwide.
Adventure travel and ecotourism, which are currently ranked among the largest industries in the world, remain dependent upon the availability of wild places, and in a rapidly urbanizing world there is a bull market for such environs.
Fortunately, the Adirondack region is especially well suited to satisfy this demand. Although it may still be considered blasphemy for an Adirondack resident to applaud the continued state purchase of forested lands within the Blue Line, I believe the recent state land acquisitions from The Adirondack Nature Conservancy will prove to be a wise investment in the future.
Essentially, the new state lands will open up new and interesting venues for outdoor enthusiasts, especially since a major portion of these lands have remained in private hands for generations.
Certainly, the expansion of wild lands for public use will be of great benefit to many local communities, and they will also prove valuable in ongoing efforts to assure the economic sustainability of the region's adventure travel and tourism-based economy.
A fine fall climb
It's been more than 20 years since I made the climb, however the occasion is indelibly etched in my memory. It often serves to remind me of the human value of public lands.
It began with a handwritten letter from a prospective client who wanted to know if I would be willing to guide her to the top of an Adirondack High Peak. Her name was Ora Thompson, and she explained it had been her life's ambition to summit one of the 46ers.
She assured me that she had taken on many similar adventures, and traveled to all of them by bus, from her home in Nashville, Tennessee.
Two months later, I was waiting in the parking lot of the Golden Arrow Hotel in Lake Placid on a cold October morning. As it began to spit snow, I was glad I had two Thermoses of hot chocolate and an extra down parka.
I saw a lady exit the hotel lobby, but I didn't pay much attention, until she approached my truck. I rolled down the window.
"Hello Joe," she exclaimed. "It looks to be a lousy day for a hike, but I've got to get it done. I've got to take the bus back home tomorrow."
Standing before me was the sweetest, tiniest lady I had ever met. Dressed in jeans and a parka, she wore a brand new pair of hiking boots and stood just 4 feet tall.
I must have stuttered a bit when she asked, "Do you want me in the front seat or the back?"
"Oh, please! Hop in the front," I remarked while stuffing her small pack into the back of mine.
As we set off, Ora explained that climbing a High Peak had been a life's ambition, and now at the age of 82, she wanted to get it done.
"Eighty-two!" I thought. "What did I get myself into now?"
However, after learning of all the wild places she had been, I was determined to get her up Cascade.
Soon we were on the trail and the climb turned into a stop-and-go affair, with mixed snow and rain that turned into a driving rain on the summit. It had taken nearly four hours to reach the top, and as we sat in the shelter of a small ledge to eat lunch, the rain turned to snow.
I advised Ora that we would have to get started back soon, yet as I began to restuff my pack, the clouds literally parted and the sun burst out. It was an incredible moment, as we enjoyed expansive views of the surrounding territory and I snapped a pile of photos.
But, in an instant it was gone and as the winds picked up, clouds descended on the summit again. It was a fine hike and we made it back down safely.
The following morning I took Ora to the bus stop and sent her on the way back to Nashville. Over the years, we regularly exchanged Christmas cards, until my card was finally returned as undeliverable. But I know where she is, and I remember her every time I climb a mountain.