Search engines and the pursuit of true adventure

Adventure requires an embodied engagement with the unknown.

One morning last fall I woke up in a new world. The night before, some friends and I had driven from Washington, D.C. out to a cabin near Virginia’s Shenandoah mountains to spend a long weekend together. I was tired and fell asleep on the drive. By the time we arrived it was dark, and we contented ourselves with a late dinner around the fireplace before going to bed.

I had left the logistics of the trip in more competent hands and hadn’t even bothered to search the cabin’s address in Google Maps prior to the trip. I glanced at my phone for a second right after waking — just long enough to check the time. I threw on a jacket and slippers, grabbed a cup of coffee downstairs, and stepped outside onto the porch.

The first thing I noticed was the woods on the other side of the gravel road in front of the cabin. I had no idea where either direction on the road would lead me. I decided to go right, and soon found a path into the woods marked Deer Head Trail. I followed it a few hundred yards until it came to another gravel road. On the other side were rolling fields graced with clusters of hay bales and trees, along with a dilapidated barn. Behind them rose a mountain ridge, hazy blue-green in the distance, which I took to be the beginnings of the Shenandoah mountain range. There was a farmhouse not far down the road. I wondered who lived there, and what kind of memories they might have about the road and forest I presently stood between. I decided to follow the road as it rolled upward along the hilly pasture until I came to a gate that hemmed in a dozen cows.

The next day I would return to this route and follow the road to another path that turned into the dense woods and made a small loop around to the backyard of the cabin I was staying in. About halfway along this trail someone had placed a red metal bench, which my imagination immediately took to be the namesake of the road we were staying on: First Kiss Lane.

It was just a stroll, but there was something thrilling about discovering a world that was entirely new to me. Who knew that after a dark drive full of blind, Siri-directed twists and turns, I’d end up in this place — this particular gravel road, with this particular path and this particular bench? Who knew that I’d be standing here the next day with a grand view of idyllic pastures framed by some of the most beautiful mountains this side of the Mississippi? Who knew what still and subtle things I might find among these gray November trees? What places of retreat and hope and heartache of former days I might tread upon? I was beautifully unprepared. It was up to me to walk outside the door of our Airbnb and find these things out.

In that moment of raw discovery I saw how narrow and impoverished my own sense of adventure has become. As an urban-dweller for the past several years, I’d picked up a subtle assumption of the modern world, that digital platforms like Yelp and Google Maps can guide us to all the world has to offer. I have a sense that everything that can be known about the world’s many places is listed somewhere online, that every interesting nook and cranny out there has already been explored, and one only needs to punch a few keywords into a search engine to find out about it. In this digitally mapped and documented universe, a weekend “adventure” might consist of hitting up a new top-rated restaurant and an unmarked speakeasy (which conveniently offers advance online reservations).

It’s not hard to see the rationale behind this. Grabbing a craft beer or taking a new yoga class isn’t cheap, after all, so it makes sense to try out only those places that have been vetted, recommended, and reviewed. In urban areas (in my case, Washington, D.C.) one could spend years exploring new shops and neighborhoods and never exhaust Yelp’s recommendations. The number of ten-things-you-must-do-in-this-city/state/country listicles available online is inexhaustible, and many of the places in these lists do indeed offer new and fascinating experiences. It’s reasonable to want to improve your chances of finding a cool new spot by consulting those who have gone before.

My walk through this sparsely inhabited corner of the Virginian countryside, however, reminded me the world is bigger than that. It showed me that adventure in any meaningful sense requires an embodied engagement with an unknown world. As Gandalf explained to Frodo, it demands the dangerous business of stepping outside your front door and going to a different place and discovering something for yourself.

“Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands?” asks Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. “Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”

Dillard is giving advice to writers here, but I think her insight is for all of us. Where are those idiosyncratic places you’ve found? Those fascinating tributaries, trails, and alleyways that grab hold of you — and only you?

Later that weekend, a friend of mine decided to try his luck fly fishing in the Shenandoah River, which was just down the road. There were no parks or public lands nearby, so he knocked on the door of a house near the river. He struck up an acquaintance with the woman who lived there, and she agreed that he could come down to her riverfront property the next morning and fish in the river.

He spent an hour the next morning fishing on a beautiful slice of riverfront property. And at what price? The world is still full of paths and places that can’t be found in a Google search — the kinds of genuine adventures that actually leave an impression in the world and give voice to your own astonishment. Step out into the world and you shall find. Stand at the door, knock, and introduce yourself to a stranger. There’s no telling where you’ll be swept off to.

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