Monthly Archives: August 2014

Into the Unknown

Me and Sonja

In the days leading up to a vacation, be it spring break, fall break, beginning or ending of summer break, and occasionally during winter break, you can find me hunched over maps spread out on my floor, planning a route into the wilderness which will take me and my lucky companions beyond established trails and as far away from anything man-made as possible. The preparation for such a trip is always exciting to me. For days leading up to the excursion you will find various pieces of gear strewn about the house, being checked and double checked to make sure everything is in working order. I live for these excursions. Being deep in the wilderness I find peace. When I am in the wilderness I know what to expect; if I do not pay attention to the map and compass I may get lost, if I do not hang my food appropriately animals may get into it, if I do not dry out my feet after hours of trekking through streams and/or snow, I may get trench foot. When I am not in the wilderness I never know what to expect. I find dealing with humans and modern society highly unpredictable and confusing. I have often wondered, “why do I feel this way, is it something I inherited, is it something that may be/has been adaptive?” According toTinbergen there are four different reasons concerning why an organism does something. Below, I will use these four reasons to attempt to explain why I love these excursions into the wilderness so much.

The first reason can be termed “historical,” my ancestors did it and I inherited it from my ancestors. In this case, I can go all the way back to Homo erectus, a species predating modern humans which migrated throughout the old world. This is also the case with modern humans, who also migrated out of Africa and eventually populated the entire world. I can also point to my less distant ancestors, the Vikings, who are also known for extensive exploration and migration.

Tinbergen’s second reason can be termed “proximal,” in which an outside cause triggers the behavior. Here I suggest that the hustle and bustle of the modern world and the constant stimuli which we are surrounded with is overwhelming to me and I often seek to escape it. The best way I know of escaping from the stresses of the modern world is to go on extended trips into the wilderness.

Me, brother Scott, and BFF Josh on West Elk Peak
Me, brother Scott, and BFF Josh on West Elk Peak

On these trips there is no TV, radio, cars, or other people. Being alone in the wilderness, I often am able to enter an altered state of consciousness, in which my senses are more in tune with my environment, and instead of trying to block stimuli as is the case when I am not in the wilderness, I find myself paying attention to everything; the colors, sounds, movement, temperature, etc. Usually on these trips we spend our evenings sitting around a small campfire, which is another way to enter an altered state of consciousness and is usually very calming.

Tinbergen’s third reason for behavior is “developmental,” simply the appropriate thing for the organism to do at that stage of its development. Having now spent 50 years alive on this planet I find my excursions into the backcountry much less strenuous than they were 30 years ago. I look back with fond memories on those 10 mile days in which we ascended two or three peaks. Nowadays, I am lucky to put in 5 or 6 miles trekking and spending more time at base camps relaxing.100_0886 I still always see these trips as an adventure, part of the hero’s journey, which Joseph Campbell describes as the “monomyth,” in which a person leaves his community, experiences a magical adventure, learns and grows, and returns to share his new knowledge with his community. Usually this idea of the monomyth applies to people who are leaving the phase of childhood and entering into adulthood. But for some of us, this need to explore and partake in new adventures obviously lasts into middle-age.

The fourth of Tinbergen’s reasons for behavior is “functional,” in that there is an evolved capacity to do the behavior. In this case, I suggest that some people have inherited a genetic pattern which may lead to novelty seeking in general and migration in particular. It has been found that people who have either the 7R or 2R versions of the DRD4 gene, which is connected to dopamine centers in the brain, exhibit impulsive and exploratory behavior as well as the ability to adapt to new situations.

Whatever the reasons for my behavior, it is my sincere wish that my body holds out as I get older and I can continue to take extended trips into the wilderness with my favorite companions; my son Miles, my brother Scott, and my best friend Josh.

Scott, Josh, and Miles. Grand Staircase/Escalante
Scott, Josh, and Miles. Grand Staircase/Escalante

Perhaps my companions and I are following in the footsteps of distant ancestors who led their extended families out of Africa, throughout the old world, and eventually into North and South America. Often as I am leading my companions over a mountain pass and into a verdant valley, I feel a connection to those past explorers who were not afraid to leave behind the comforts of their home and hearth to venture out into the unknown.