The Art of the Miniature Adventure
How To Get Away From It All and Still Be Back on Monday
Overworked? Run-down? Need a holiday? But you can only spare a couple of days—or maybe just an afternoon? You don’t have to settle for binge-watching Peaky Blinders. You can get away from it all and still be back on Monday, and this week Farwell tells you how. It’s the first of a three-part exploration of the art of the “Miniature Adventure.”
by Farwell Forrest | May 15, 2018
Originally published in different form on May 24, 2005
There were four of us—George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were—bad from a medical point of view I mean, of course.
We were all feeling seedy, and we were getting quite nervous about it. … What it was that was actually the matter with us, we none of us could be sure of; but the unanimous opinion was that it—whatever it was—had been brought on by overwork.
“What we want is rest,” said Harris.
“Rest and a complete change,” said George. … “Change of scene, and the absence of the necessity for thought, will restore the mental equilibrium.” …
I agreed with George, and suggested that we should seek out some retired and old-world spot, far from the madding crowd, and dream away a sunny week….
George said: “Let’s go up the river.”
—Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)
Sound familiar? I’ll bet it does, even if Three Men in a Boat was written a very long time ago, back when a no-nonsense lady named Victoria ruled an empire on which the sun never set, and the American Civil War was very much a living memory. Yet the complaint voiced by Jerome K. Jerome’s anonymous narrator is still a common one. We all get a bit “seedy” from time to time—though today we’d probably call it “stressed out”—and now and then we all feel the need for “rest and a complete change.” And just like Jerome’s three worried gents, we hope to find the respite we’re looking for by going up a river. Of course, we’re more likely to go down a river nowadays, but then not every river is as tractable as the Thames above Kingston, and whether we travel with the current or against it, the object remains the same. We’re tired or bored with our day-to-day round and we need to escape, at least for a little while. In other words, we want adventure. Or—bearing in mind what Vilhjalmur Stefansson had to say on that subject—we want something that’s as close to real adventure as we can get without actually putting our lives on the line. There’s such a thing as too much change, after all.
That’s the Why of it. But the How can be hard to pull off. Employers don’t always understand our need to get away from it all, particularly if getting away means not being back in the office (or the plant) on Monday morning. Our spouses and partners may have other ideas, as well, or one of the kids may need to be taken to the dentist next Wednesday. And even if our children have all left home and our partner is understanding, the grandkids may be coming to stay for the summer. Whatever the reason, a great many would-be adventurers find the classic lose-yourself-in-the-landscape Big Trip to be an impossible dream, at least in most years.
Does this mean we’re condemned to spend our free time in front of the television, watching professional adventurers doing things we can only daydream about? Fortunately, no. There are thousands of outfitters eager to help paddlers get away, whether for a weekend or a week. We only need to put ourselves in their hands, and they’ll do the rest, tailoring a trip to suit any window in our schedules. And for well-heeled canoeists and kayakers this is the perfect solution. But what about those of us who find spare cash as hard to come by as free time? Parents with kids in college, say, or folks just starting out, or any of the millions upon millions of hard-working men and women who do whatever needs to be done for little more than the minimum wage. What can we do to scratch our itch for adventure? Is the Outdoor Channel our only option?
No way! The secret to low-budget escapes lies in thinking small—in the miniaturized adventure, to be exact. As far as I can tell, that happy phrase was coined by writer Richard Frisbie, whose long out-of-print It’s a Wise Woodsman Who Knows What’s Biting Him is the definitive guide to the art of getting away “to the ends of the earth between breakfast and dinner.” I can’t recommend this little gem of a book too highly, but for those of you who don’t find a copy in your local library-turned-cappuccino bar, I’ll offer my own somewhat idiosyncratic gloss on Frisbie’s brainchild. Remember, though, that my suggestions are just that—suggestions. In pursuing the art of the miniature adventure, as in so many other pursuits, the most effective prescription is almost always the one you write for yourself.
Let’s begin. First, and most importantly, lower your sights. It would indeed be wonderful to kayak in the Hindu Kush, but if you postpone your search for much-needed “rest and change” till you have both the time and the money to venture so very far from home, you may find you’ve left things a little too late. In an age when polar trekkers give phone interviews from camps within a few feet of the North Pole, it’s easy to discount the opportunities for adventure that lie right on your own doorstep. There’s no denying the lure of the exotic, of course. Charles Dickens wrote scathingly of “telescopic philanthropists,” well-to-do Englishwomen who ignored the poverty and squalor of nineteenth-century London while lavishing time and money on the “general cultivation” of far-distant tribes. And I suppose a similar impulse must be at work in shaping our dreams of travel and adventure. Our own neighborhood is simply too familiar, too commonplace, too everyday to be interesting. If we want to escape we have to travel far, far away. That’s a no-brainer, right?
Wrong. Some twenty-five years ago, I drew a circle with a radius of 30 miles on a map, centering it on my home in the Adirondack foothills. I picked 30 miles for a simple reason: It was the longest distance I could count on driving in an hour along narrow county roads and forest tracks, and two hours was the most I was prepared to spend in the car on any single day. A single day was often all I had, and I wanted my miniature adventures to be invigorating escapes, not frenzied highway marathons that compelled me to breakfast at o‑dark‑thirty in order to be sure I’d return in time for a (late) dinner. I also wanted to spend more hours on the water than I did on the road. So 30 miles was about right, I thought. One hour out and one hour back. Still, it seemed a very short distance. Even though I lived on the edge of what the chambers of commerce boast is the largest wilderness park east of the Mississippi—it doesn’t quite live up to this billing, I’m sorry to say, and it certainly isn’t a wilderness—I wasn’t at all sure I’d find adventure so near at hand.
But I was mistaken. I quickly discovered places within 30 miles of my home that were as foreign to me as the mountain torrents of the Hindu Kush. And the more I looked, the more I found. I had countless streams and numberless lakes and ponds to explore. Many of them—most of them, in fact—weren’t described in any guidebook that I’d seen, and every one of them was completely new to me. I don’t need to tell you how surprised I was, though I suppose I shouldn’t have been. After all, my modest circle contained nearly 2 million acres. That’s a pretty tidy piece of real estate. It wasn’t always easy going, however. Exploring, real exploring, never is. NO TRESPASSING signs often stopped my adventures before they’d begun, and many promising streams petered out in impenetrable tangles of alders within a few hundred yards of my put-in. It wasn’t all picture-postcard sunsets and idyllic pine-girt islands, either. I discovered a lot of things that were downright ugly. Whole hillsides stripped bare by the lugged tires of ATVs. Piles of carcasses left to rot by hunters and trappers whose notion of sport extended no further than the kill. Free-running rills choked into fetid stillness by disposable diapers, household garbage, and discarded automobile tires. The rainbow sheen of motor oil on the placid surface of remote beaver ponds. The stink of raw sewage wafting from the waterfront lawns of 4,000-square-foot vacation homes. Packs of jetskis racing in circles around lakes that I could paddle across in 10 minutes without breaking into a sweat. Fish too riddled with poisons to eat.
It was a long and melancholy catalog, and it got longer with every trip. Yet I kept on planning miniature adventures. I wanted to learn as much as I could about what was going on in my neighborhood. And like Oliver Cromwell, whose stern instructions to the artist who came to paint his picture are the stuff of legend, I prefer portraits that reflect the truth of the sitter, that show everything and omit nothing, with all the “roughnesses, pimples, [and] warts” accurately and exactly drawn. After all, the petulant whine of the jetski is now as much a part of the Adirondack “wilderness” soundscape as the call of the loon.
There were happy surprises, too, of course. Every new day brought the possibility of a crimson sunset, loons could still be heard wailing from time to time on quiet evenings, and a few towering white pines survived to awe and inspire, stubbornly defying both thunderstorm-generated microbursts and bulldozers. And then there’s the happiest surprise of them all: Although more than a quarter-century has passed since I started exploring close to home, I’m just beginning to fill in the blanks on my map. In fact, my circle’s recently gotten much bigger, even though the furthest point on its circumference is the same distance from my house that it was at the start—only 30 miles. Impossible, you say? Not at all. But the explanation of this seeming paradox will have to wait till next week. I hope you’ll join me then.
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