And then you die?
Did you see the recent stories and pictures of climbers stuck in a human traffic jam trying to get to the top of Mount Everest? I saw them while on my recent trip to Scotland and England.
At least 11 people died attempting to scale Earth’s highest peak this year. Some of the “mountaineers” clambered over dead bodies in their desperate attempt the “bag” summit. I hesitate to describe all of these folks as mountaineers because I’m convinced that at least some of them pay tens of thousands of dollars to be largely dragged to the summit by their Nepalese guides.
One of the casualties, an Austrian, was survived by his wife and children. Another, a 62 year old Coloradan, died on the way down from the top. He thus became a short lived member of the “7 Summit Club”-a group who’s members have scaled the highest peak on each continent. Surviving family members were uniformly quoted as saying that the deceased “died doing what they loved.”
Adventure? Or mere dilettantism?
There can’t be much question that climbing Everest is an “adventure” in the dictionary sense: “a bold, risky undertaking with an uncertain outcome.” But is that really enough? Is it really enough just to be frightened half to death? Or even fully to death? Doesn’t real adventure require that there be a higher purpose? A reason other than cheap (or very expensive) thrills?
It’s not, after all, that Everest hasn’t been climbed before. What’s going on there now isn’t remotely connected with “boldly going where no man (or woman) has gone before”. Since the first serious efforts to scale the peak were made in the early 1920’s, over 300 people have died on its slopes. Which means who knows how many thousands of others have successfully or unsuccessfully made the attempt-but lived to tell the tale.
By contrast, think, for example, of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yes, Huck had his share of heart thumping, life threatening adventures rafting down the Mississippi. But it became more than that; it was a quest for nigger Jim’s freedom (don’t blame me, blame Mark Twain). Think of Harry Potter. Or the Biblical accounts of Abraham or Moses. Or Homer’s The Illiad and The Odyssey. Jesus. The list goes on and on. Sure, plenty of narrow escapes. And sometimes lethal failures to escape.
But success or failure really isn’t the point. To put your life at risk, shouldn’t there be something really important at stake, a quest? Adventure for it’s own sake is just amusement. Go to Disney World for tittilation; it’s a lot cheaper and you’re not going to leave behind a widow.
“But,” you might ask, “how can someone like me get involved in real adventure?”
Well, try this. Join the Army or Marines and volunteer to go to Afghanistan. I’ll bet you’ll get to see and do some things that get your adrenaline going. And, depending on your point of view, you’ll be involved in a something that has a higher calling.
Or how about this? Some old friends of ours, Roger and EvaJean Dockum, have been missionaries with tribal people in Bolivia for many years. Some of their predecessors, a group of five men, pioneered the work in Bolivia with what they knew to be a dangerous and virtual stone age tribe in the 1940’s and ’50’s. During one of their first encounters, there was a misunderstanding and the five men were murdered. Like the Everest climbers, they left behind wives and children. But their calling was much higher than a mere mountain top.
Education? Or amusement?
Of course, this was all brought to mind by my recent trip to England. “What,” I asked myself, “is the point of a trip like this?”
First, let’s be honest, this is nothing more than amusement. Sure, we went to museums and saw ruins beyond counting. We dutifully read many of the countless explanations of the displays we saw on exhibit. Hadrian’s Wall. What’s left of the Roman Baths in Bath. Bewildered and overcome by the sheer volume of information, I listened to the audio guide of Windsor Castle. (Where I was dismayed that I saw exactly none of the Royals!)
But educational? Sorry. I ain’t buyin’ it. You might as well claim that the best way to build a strong body is to do nothing but eat. And never work out. Sure, you’re going to build flab. But muscles? Not unless you somehow make the information your own.
Adventure. Without leaving home.
One of the ways I tried to make things my own was by attending church services. See how people in England worshiped. Or, even better, meet some of the locals.
We attended an Evensong service at the ancient York cathedral. But my sense was that most of the other attendees considered it yet one more stop on the de rigueur tourist circuit. I got a similar feeling when I attended mass beneath the dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London. Both structures spectacular. Both services solemnly beautiful. But with tourists wandering around, chattering, and snapping pictures on their cells, something, including anything like a true “local,” was missing.
But that wasn’t the case in the lovely little town of Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds where, one Sunday morning I attended a service at the Campden Baptist Church. They meet in a school gymnasium. No, the building wasn’t ancient and beautiful. In fact, it was nondescript. But neither were there tourists wandering around yakking and taking pictures. Instead, I met locals whose hearts were in the service-and who seemed to be pleased that I was there. The sermon was something I needed to hear: “Pray as you can, not as you aught.” I met a guy who’s a shepherd and his young family. And a CPA on the side. Don’t ask me exactly how that works. But that’s my story-and I’m stickin’ to it.
Campden Baptist has a great history. In the ’70’s, the “congregation” had shrunk to three elderly folks sitting in a chilly back room praying for new members. But, as James puts it, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” Now, the church has grown to three different locations. And for my money, that’s a real quest.
On the road again?
So, would I do a trip like this again? Probably not-and certainly not for three weeks. Too many museums. Too many ruins. Too many sheep. Too many miles. Too much living out of a suitcase. Too many undigested experiences piled on too many undigested experiences.
But don’t get me wrong. It’s’ not as if there weren’t positives. It gave me the opportunity to see the world from a very different perspective. And, on a few occasions, to write about them. But, for this dreadfully slow writer, it was like drinking at a fire hydrant; heck, here we are two weeks out from jet lag and I’m still pecking away!
But, I promise, you’ve heard your last about “This Scepter’d isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars . . . This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”