The Art of the Miniature Adventure
Getting There and Back Again: Life in the Slow Lane
No chance of a Big Trip this year? No problem. You can have just as much fun close to home. Take it slow and easy. Make every minute count twice. You won’t cover many miles, but you’ll never get a better return on your investment of time, and isn’t that what recreation—re-creation—is all about? Farwell thinks so, and in his second article on miniature adventures, he tackles planning and logistics.
by Farwell Forrest | May 22, 2018
Originally published in different form on June 28, 2005
Last week I invited you to consider the virtues of the “miniature adventure,” a phrase I borrowed from writer Richard Frisbie, whose delightful little book It’s a Wise Woodsman Who Knows What’s Biting Him introduced me to the concept. But if you’re not familiar with the idea, a miniature adventure is the antithesis of a Big Trip. Big Trips involve weeks—sometimes months—of preparation, they often take you thousands of miles from home, and they’re hard to do on the cheap. In short, Big Trips require both deep pockets and a lot of free time. Which is why they’re rare treats for many of us. Yet most of what’s written about canoeing and kayaking gives pride of place to the Big Trip, while almost completely ignoring the miniature adventure. Tamia’s and my modest efforts are no exception here. We’ve devoted hundreds of thousands of words to the planning and execution of Big Trips. In part, this reflects the Romantic-with-a-capital-R conventions of the genre. After all, what “outdoor” writers are really writing about is Escape: escape from the workday world of hour-long commutes, impossible deadlines, and unreturned calls. When you need to escape, Big Trips more than fill the bill. On a Big Trip you really can get away from it all.
Or can you? As I just said, Big Trips require a lot of preparation. You can let someone else do the work for you, of course, but you should expect to pay for the service. And there’s a high cost even if you make all the arrangements yourself. There’s just no such thing as a free launch. In reality, preparing for a DIY Big Trip is a lot like tackling a big project at work, with all that this can mean. Plans, checklists, and deadlines. Budgets and delivery dates. Late nights and long hours. Even the choice of companions becomes an exercise in human resource management. Your buddy Jeremy may be great company for an afternoon on the local river, but are you sure you’ll still be friends after spending a month together—particularly when you’ve heard his story about the big one that got away repeated for the sixty‑fifth time? Then there’s Tessa. What about her? Can she survive for two weeks without The Wall Street Journal and a daily double latté? And don’t forget Jason. He phones to “check up on the kids” at least twice a day. (Who are the kids? One of them is twenty‑five and an investment banker; the other’s a stained-glass artist whose last piece sold for $50K. He’s thirty.) You’ve even seen Jason whip out his iPhone while parked in an eddy at the bottom of a drop. What’s he going to do when he discovers that cell-phone coverage is pretty spotty in Cahulawassee Canyon? It’s anyone’s guess.
You get the point, I’m sure. Making a Big Trip happen can be a big job, and sometimes—not always, but sometimes—it feels just like the job you’re trying to escape from. Yet if you hand all the hard work over to someone else, it can cost you a good chunk of your next paycheck. Talk about hard choices! That’s where the miniature adventure comes in. Think of it as a sort of escape clause in life’s contract of obligations. It’s easy. It’s cheap. And you don’t need a lot of free time. Do it right, and you’ll be back at work on Monday, rested, refreshed, and ready for anything. Even your boss may notice the change.
Then again, nothing’s perfect. Miniature adventures also require that you plan ahead. The difference? This is the type of planning you can do on the run, and a lot of things will only need doing once. Ever. After you’ve stocked your getaway pack, for instance, you’re good to go at a moment’s notice. And if you replenish staple foods and make any necessary repairs at the end of every trip, you’ll be good to go again and again. Getting away from it all doesn’t get any easier than this.
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Like I said last time, the miniature adventure requires that you lower your sights. Does this sound too much like giving up? OK. What do you say to …
Sound better? In any case, whatever label you give it, it’s the First Principle. We’re talking miniature adventures here. You may only be gone for an afternoon. Three days is probably the outside limit. So you’ll have to leave that trip to the Hindu Kush for another time. You’ll be exploring close to home, instead. How close? My more-or-less arbitrary limit is 30 miles. But your mileage may differ. Depending on where you live, five miles can be enough. This doesn’t apply just to folks living in the middle of a National Forest, by the way. If you call a port city home, you can often find a lifetime’s worth of paddling adventure as near as the waterfront. On the other hand, if you live in a sprawling suburb, don’t be surprised if you have to drive as much as 60 miles, or even further. (That’s why it’s called “suburban sprawl.”) The bottom line: If you can get where you’re going and back in a day, and still spend more time on the water than you did on the road, you’ve got the balance about right.
But where should you go? That’s up to you. Unless you live near a popular recreation area, you probably won’t get a lot of help from guidebooks, blogs, or Farcebook posts. Instead, you’ll have to do some real on-the-ground exploring. But don’t throw up your hands in despair. It’s just a matter of looking around you. One thing you’ll learn right at the outset, though—it’s not easy to do this at 60 miles an hour. That’s why the Second Principle in the miniature adventurer’s creed is …
Slow Down and Live
That’s live as in “live life to the fullest,” by the way, not live as in “survive”—though I’m willing to bet there’s a connection between the two. In practical terms, slowing down sometimes means leaving your car in the garage when you prospect for paddling destinations close to home. Sometimes. But not always. One of my first miniature adventures began while I was stuck on an overpass in a traffic jam. I took my eyes off the bumper stickers on the SUV in front of me (“Think Globally–Act Locally,” right next to “I♥My Hummer”) and saw a stream that I’d never noticed before, flowing through a few marshy acres between a factory and an office complex. That was enough. Next weekend I came back to the spot with my canoe on the roof of my car. Of course, you can’t always count on a traffic jam when you need one, can you? So you’d better have a Plan B. My Plan B? It’s simple: Ditch the car.
I can see a question coming: If you take my advice and leave your car behind when you scout for new places to paddle, just how are you going to cover the distance? There are three easy answers. On foot. On a bike. Or on a map. Take the last first. Maps—particularly topographic maps—give you a pigeon’s‑eye view of your neighborhood, and now that you can download free PDF copies of USGS quads, you can explore at will. Don’t just glance at your quads, though. Study them. Zoom in (or use a magnifying glass, if you’re using paper copies). Zoom out (or hang the maps on the wall over your desk). Give your quads the same close attention you’d give the small print on a contract. It’s a great way to learn the earth’s secrets. Even after a half century spent exploring my surroundings on topographic maps, I’m still making new discoveries.
What’s next? After you’ve identified a few promising destinations on your maps, get out of the house and take a look at them. Scout for put‑ins and take‑outs. Identify parks or other public lands. (You can’t rely on quads to show every county forest.) Check out access roads. Search for any fishermen’s trails and bridges that give you a good view of the drops. This is where slowing down really pays off. And there’s no better way to go slow than by walking—though cycling is almost as good. On foot or on a bike, you’ll notice dirt roads that you’d probably miss while driving past at 60 mph, and you’ll spot the gaps in the tree line that mark bogs and beaver ponds. You can pass the time of day with the guy washing the mud off a cedar stripper in his front yard—and maybe learn something about the local river while you’re at it. You’ll even be able to read the names of the property owners on the NO TRESPASSING signs. Occasionally a phone call can pay big dividends here, opening up an area of private land that’s closed to the rest of the public.
But what if—as can easily happen—your chosen destinations are too far from your home to walk or cycle? Just get in your car and drive to a convenient parking place. Then get out and complete the final leg of the trip on foot or on your bike. If you do this often enough, you’re certain to make a few happy discoveries along the way. When I first started exploring my two‑million‑acre neighborhood, I did my scouting from our truck. Then I rediscovered cycling, and I began building up my legs and lungs. Now I make all my local prospecting trips in the saddle, from doorway to destination. It’s a win-win situation. My scouting trips have become miniature adventures in their own right. In fact, I’ve sometimes strapped a diminutive inflatable on the bike, allowing me to “dip a toe,” so to speak, in any promising waterway. And there’s another bonus: My two million acres are a lot larger than they were when I traveled to and from put‑ins by car. Sound crazy? It’s not. A 30‑mile trip by car takes me about an hour. It takes two or three times that long by bike. The result? My neighborhood’s just gotten two or three times bigger. Moreover, the trip to and from the put‑in is now part of the adventure, rather than a dreary preliminary chore. Hurrying down the highway makes no sense when pleasure’s your goal, and in doubling my travel time, I’ve doubled my enjoyment. I see and feel and hear and smell much more than I did when I was a prisoner in a steel cage. I can stop to train my monocular on the bald eagle circling high over my head. Feel the sting of wind-driven rain against my face. Hear the cheerful Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody of a white-throated sparrow. Smell the perfume of sun-warmed pines drifting over the road from the encroaching forest. I also enjoy the simple animal pleasure of using my muscles to move my body from one place to another. It’s a thrill that never fades. That’s why I paddle a canoe rather than drive a bass boat, after all. When I bike or walk, I get the same exhilaration from trips to and from the put‑in.
Slow down and live. It’s the miniature adventurer’s war cry in the battle against the maddening demands of everyday life. But now that you’ve found your way to the water, what comes next? It’s time to wet your paddle and enjoy the fruits of your labor. And that’s the subject of the final article in this series.