The age of exploration is still with us.
When I was a kid, living in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, me and my friends would spend whole days during the summer going places we’d never been before, sometimes on foot, sometimes by boat, sometimes both. We called it exploring. Often, the adults in our lives hadn’t the vaguest idea—or seemingly much concern—about where we were at any given time. We dined haphazardly, kept haphazard hours and generally comported ourselves in ways that would have gotten modern parents arrested for child neglect in these perhaps more civilized times.
But hey, was it fun! During our “camping trips,” we’d simply disappear for days, like woodsy hobos, with not much more than the clothes on our backs and a few odds and sods tossed into a sack or a pack basket. Going anywhere back then was almost totally intuitional. Although somebody usually brought a compass, I can’t remember carrying much else by way of navigational equipment. No charts. No maps. No GPS. No nothin’.
Today, I remain essentially unreformed, although I do make certain concessions, like, for example, to the exigencies of having a wife and a job and to the glories of navigational electronics. So occasionally, with only a whiff of predictability, I fire up my little flybridge cruiser—the Betty Jane II—ditch stuff like Google, social (and anti-social) media, TV and all the rest of what’s supposed to be good for us these days, and simply take off for some place I’ve never been before, just like I used to do when I was a kid.
As a matter of fact, I plan on doing this very thing in the very near future. Heck, maybe I’ll go later this month, before the leaves of North Florida have all completely turned and fallen. Or maybe I’ll go next month and beat the holiday rush. Who knows? While the specifics of the trip are vague, the big picture’s solid.
Basically, Betty and I are gonna explore the headwaters of the St. Johns River, an untrammeled realm (I hope) with few marinas but oodles of jungle-fringed wilderness and crystal-clear springs, some supposedly navigable, some supposedly not. Most likely, my naturalist friend Mike will come along—he’s a guy who likes exploring as much as I do. And he knows the flora and fauna of Florida like the back of his hand. We’ll maybe be out of pocket for a week or so. Something like that. He’s already agreed to go.
Just thinking about this extravaganza sends the old, familiar tingle zooming up my spine. And there are mucho reasons for this, I suppose. But the main attraction, I’d say, is the unfamiliar country and the unfamiliar people I expect to encounter and the newness of perspective that such encounters entail. There is, after all, a certain sameness to life as it’s typically lived. Creatures of habit tend to behave habitually and, often, it feels like there’s no way around the fact. But periodically, I personally need a little relief from the sameness. I need to change things up a bit—see things from a watery point of view, if you get my drift.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if this isn’t a particularly American thing. On one of the walls of my office I have a framed photograph of my great grandfather, a man who in his youth forsook a Harvard education for several years in the Wild West and, later, settled down to raise a family on the edge of an Adirondack lake while making a living guiding and renting boats to sportsmen from the city.
In the old, black-and-white photo, Grandpa Charlie looks every inch the archetypal American. He sits amidships in a wooden inboard launch, under a broad-brimmed hat, just forward of a little open-air engine, smoking a crook-stem pipe, with a vast wilderness stretching off behind him. He was, according to family folklore, a straightforward man who was seldom hampered by convention. And he was also, I’d say, at least as much of an explorer as I’ve always been.