by Everett Potter
If you ask me to define adventure travel, I will likely skip a description of a Moab single track trail, Class IV rapids on the Colorado River or a Via Ferrata in the Dolomites. Instead, I’ll cut to the chase and say that after three decades of writing about adventure travel, the best way to describe it is a physical experience that takes you out of your comfort zone.
Thirty years ago, remarkably few people traveled to get out of their comfort zone, a phrase that had yet to enter the lingo. They traveled to hang on a beach or visit museums in Europe or visit their aunt in Indiana. The concept of a sports-oriented vacation where you would try something new and test yourself physically, with like-minded comrades, all the while drinking in the magnificent scenery around you, was in its infancy.
My immersion into this world began in Costa Rica in the early 80’s, when I found myself paddling down the Reventazón River. I had never been on a raft in white water and the outfitter, a true pioneer, was the first guy I ever heard use the phrase “adventure travel,” putting a fine point on getting soaking wet and having a lot of fun as the jungle slipped past. Not long after, that buzz phrase infiltrated our language and our lives.
It’s a big world out there, and I discovered that getting out of my comfort zone involved trying many new sports that I could never have dreamed of from my home in Manhattan, where “comfort zone” was defined by how many deadbolts you had on your front door.
I found myself doing things that not only stretched my muscles but my imagination as well. Like all day hikes in the Tetons, stepping through rock-strewn meadows that were a pointillist composition of columbines, punctuated by the surreal and unmistakable rack of a bull moose at rest. Or snorkeling in the Galapagos, watching white-tipped reef sharks circling in the depths below me. Or kayaking the milky, glacial melt waters near Mendenhall Glacier, knowing that if I tipped I had maybe five minutes or so for a rescue, despite the dry suit I was wearing.
I gamely rode an Icelandic horse, that sturdy all-terrain creature gifted with a fifth gait, during the “rettir”, when sheep and wild horses are brought down from high mountain pastures some 60 miles from the Arctic Circle. It was the first week of September and it was snowing and raining sideways, so we drank Brennivin, the Black Death, in the saddle to stay warm. GoreTex was in its infancy and the flu that I contracted was a small price to pay for hanging out with Icelandic cowboys.
The adventures continued. I went sea kayaking in British Columbia and walked 16 miles a day on England’s famous Coast-to-Coast walk, nearly too tired to hoist a pint at day’s end. There was my introduction to single-track mountain biking in Yellowstone, trekking in the Annapurna region of Nepal and a week on a hybrid through the dusty, Biblical roads of Morocco. Of late, it’s paddle boarding and zip lining that have grabbed my attention, at the behest of my adventurous 13 year old daughter.
A tourist tours Tuscany in a rented Fiat, remembering churches and eating at trattorias. Fair enough. But a walker adds wildflowers, wild boars, and the song of the cuckoo to that list. At day’s end, the meal at the trattoria feels earned, not merely scheduled.
This is a vital part of getting out of your comfort zone—having a new experience that’s not only physical but sensual, auditory, visual and in the best cases, transporting. You may well forget the name of the magnificent horse you rode through Wyoming’s Wind River Range but you won’t forget his snort or his smell as he propelled you across the sagebrush. Only by walking or trekking or riding a bike or kayaking or rafting do you find yourself in places that everyone else fails to see, too busy racing from point to point in their comfort zones.