“The true spirit of the explorer is a primordial restlessness” wrote Robert Dunn in The Shameless Diary of an Explorer in 1907. Explorers were “men with the masks of civilization torn off.” This is an image of the explorer that has continued to resonate with us today: the go-it-alone explorer who seeks to escape the artifices and contrivances of modern life. Yet Dunn’s escape from civilization never took him so far away from the modern world that he would be unable to capitalize on his success back home. Dunn quickly published an account of his journey (in this case, a failed attempt to scale Denali) on his return. In this, Dunn is not exceptional but representative: all of the major 19th and 20th century explorers were deeply connected to the modern world, even as they spoke about their great urge to escape it.
It seems to me that modern attitudes towards exploration also come with deep paradoxes and inconsistencies. The “escape from civilization” resonates deeply in Western culture a century later, even as the world offers fewer and fewer opportunities for real escape (was there ever an escape, really?). For wealthy adventurers, there are trips to Antarctica, the North Pole, and the Himalayas (though after reading Michael Kodas’s recent book High Crimes, I wouldn’t look for my escape on the slopes of Mt Everest). But for most of us, I would imagine, the escape is mostly vicarious: reading the books of explorers like Dunn and viewing documentaries on Shackleton. The idea of escape is built deeply into the fabric of modern life. Flight from society has become its own marketing niche, a “call-of-the-wild” from the heart of consumer culture.
Feeling that primordial restlessness? No need to head to the Arctic. Bushwack your way to your local car dealership, unholster that credit car, and buy yourself a new Nissan Frontier. Not available? Try the GMC Safari or Toyota Tundra. Lead your own voyage in the Ford Expedition, Chevrolet Trailblazer, or Lincoln Navigator. Looking for a place to go? Visit the Sahara in your new Volkswagon Touareg. Or if hot climes are not your thing, head North in the GMC Yukon (or, if not available, the GMC Denali).
Can’t summit Denali?
Drive one instead.
What ever you do, don’t go near the Lincoln Versailles or the Pontiac Parisienne. These are just the kind of effete, civilized products an explorer like you is trying to escape.