A week earlier, sitting in the living room of my nice, heated, comfortable house, it had seemed like a wonderful idea. There was a restored B-17 bomber sitting in Minnesota, and it needed to be ferried to California. It was a terrific opportunity. This was a rare and coveted chance to fly in one of the old glory planes—behemoths of victory that still came to life belching clouds of smoke and oil from monstrous radial engines hanging off their time-worn wings.
The bomber had been meticulously restored to its original military configuration, including accurate re-creation of all the crew stations and the installation of hollow-barrelled machine guns at all the combat positions. It was as close to the real thing as any of us would ever get. It would be a chance to touch the past—to maybe even hear, if we listened hard enough, some secrets or stories from a crew long ago that still lingered in the memory of its aluminum body and wings.
True, the trip would take place in the middle of winter. And true, Minnesota knows how to do winter like few other places on earth. But at the time, those seemed like mere details. Filled with the enthusiasm of Lindbergh, Earhart, Dolittle and Byrd, I packed joyfully for the journey. The trip would be magical. It would be special. And it would be … a grand adventure.
But as I sat shivering in the sub-zero skies over Nebraska, I wasn’t actually thinking of adventure, magic or poetic connections with the past. My mind was far more preoccupied with thoughts of hot coffee, taking a long vacation somewhere in the sub-tropics, and even a peculiar sense of longing for my heated, comfortable living room back home. I was also thinking some rather unkind thoughts about those wonderful, authentic machine gun barrels, which had turned into high-velocity air scoops blasting sub-zero air on me at 150 miles an hour.
“Whoever touted all the wonders of adventure,” I muttered to myself as I looked around for rags to stuff in the offending gun barrels, “neglected to mention how ungodly uncomfortable the stupid stuff is.”
It’s a truth I’ve had cause to remember on more than one occasion since. A couple of years later, I decided it would be a great adventure to chase the Baja 1000 off-road race in Mexico. “How exciting!” I thought. Yes, well, it certainly was that. Five hours of low-level maneuvering in bumpy air at the edge of a stall with four or five other airplanes in close proximity is definitely exciting. So is spending another five hours circling in pitch-black darkness, trying to keep one particular set of truck lights in sight below while avoiding other chase planes and one particularly nasty 10,000 foot mountain that the charts say is lurking somewhere in the vicinity. All this while trying a McGyver-type repair of the plane’s race radio by flashlight and Leatherman tool. Exciting? You bet. Comfortable? Not by a long shot.
I’ve come to the conclusion that this may even be one of the rules of the universe, along with “Whatever line you get in at the grocery store will be the slowest” and “The chances of getting caught in a traffic jam are directly proportional to how late you’re running for an important event.”
Adventure is many wonderful things. It’s exciting to think about beforehand, and great stuff to talk about after the fact. It can be fun, scary and exhilarating all at the same time, and it’s almost always educational. But buyer beware. Adventure is also rarely comfortable.
Generally speaking, in fact, if you’re in the middle of any full-blown, real-life adventure, you’re not dwelling on how much fun you’re having. You’re wondering what in the world possessedyou to think this was a good idea. In my experience, this thought is also usually accompanied by some level of anxiety about how I’m going to get through it or how it’s all going to turn out.
This is true whether the adventure is great or small, physical or emotional. For adventure isn’t limited to Indiana Jones-type excursions in old bombers or the mountains of Mexico. It can be found in a student pilot’s first solo, a difficult crosswind landing, or a simple cross-country flight to a new airport. It can be found in rejecting a secure paycheck that offers everything but fulfillment, or in leaving a comfortable relationship that contains everything but love. Adventure, in short, is what happens anytime I step out of routine and comfort into a place where my footing is a little uncertain, the outcome is a little unpredictable, but the possibilities are suddenly wide open.
But if it’s so uncomfortable, one might ask, why on earth do we do it? Why would anyone willingly, without coercion or threat, put themselves in situations that entail such potential for discomfort? Perhaps because life, as Helen Keller said, “is either a daring adventure or nothing.” The most valuable payoffs that life offers—growth, learning, love, or even feeling 100% alive—don’t happen on a comfortable couch in front of a TV screen, battling only for control of the remote. The laurels go not to the spectators, but to those willing to run the race.
Adventure may not be comfortable, but it’s an awfully good breeding ground for growth. Anthropologists say that it was only when the early ancestors of the human race were forced to leave the safety of the trees and descend to the less secure grasslands that they began to develop the skills that would differentiate them from the animals. By the same token, it’s only when I leave the warm, binding security of a comfort zone and venture into the unknown that I stretch myself and, in the process, learn and grow.
It’s also a place where my senses sharpen and life comes into clearer focus around me. I may not have been comfortable for those long hours to California, but I still remember almost every thought and feeling the trip inspired. I can still feel the sharp blast of cold air on my shoulder and touch the thick comfort of the sleeping bag wrapped around my waist. I still laugh when I remember how long it was before we finally took off our parkas when we arrived in Palm Springs, even though the temperature there was 85 degrees.
Crossing the country in a drafty B-17, flying into a particularly challenging airstrip, or piloting a new airplane alone for the very first time may not be entirely comfortable experiences. But when I look back on my life, I think it will be these moments I’ll remember the most. For it’s in moments of personal or physical adventure that I’ve found myself feeling the most alive.
In the end, I think we undertake adventure because we’re looking for something more meaningful than a life spent marking time and accumulating possessions until we die. We do it because we want to learn about ourselves, and perhaps expand our understanding of the world. We want to wake up our senses and find out what we’re really capable of, if we reach down inside and pull out everything we’ve got.
The French novelist Emile Zola once wrote, “If you asked me what I came into this world to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.” I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect his life was full of adventures. For whether it entails exploring a new continent, learning how to fly, making a successful approach to minimums when it counts, or leaving a job or relationship that’s draining your heart and soul, adventure is about being alive.
Some people might wonder why I would fly in an old bomber or fighter, or why I would undertake the time and expense and risk of flying at all. In truth, there have been times, trying to wind my way out of worsening weather or peering with anxiety for traffic or an airport that should be right in front of me but I cannot for the life of me see, that I’ve wondered the same thing myself. As the knot in my stomach tightens, I hear that familiar question pounding in my head—”Why in the world are you doing this?”
Yet even as I ask the question, I know the answer. I do it because, as uncomfortable as it might be at times, I’m doing what I want to do most in life. I’m living. Out loud.
The Price of Adventure
© Lane Wallace
First appeared in FLYING Magazine, April 1999
The thought came to me at about 9,000 feet, somewhere over Nebraska. I was huddled in the navigator’s station, dressed in all the long underwear, wool sweaters and socks I could layer on myself, wrapped in a sleeping bag I’d dragged out of the back of the airplane, and I was still colder than I’d ever been in my life. The pilots flying the plane were equally miserable, rotating between flying duties and stomping around the old B-17 bomber trying to get enough feeling back in their feet to feel the rudder pedals.