When the Adventure IS the Reward

by Lane Wallace on March 25, 2015

I‘m big on lessons. Anyone who’s read any of my writing knows that. For all the adventure writing I’ve done, over the past 25 years (including my “Flying Lessons” aviation column), the adventure itself was rarely the point. Typically, even when I’m telling an adventure story, I’m using the story to illustrate some bigger lesson or insight about life, humans, living or society at large.

Getting caught in deteriorating weather conditions while flying my airplane over the mountains of North Carolina, for example, was not, in and of itself, rewarding. Or any shade of fun. Its value lay solely in what it taught me about the danger the emotion of fear poses, and how to overcome it.

But there are times where the reward of an adventure isn’t some great piece of wisdom or insight, but the sheer richness of the adventure experience itself. As a friend of mine likes to say, “There are some experiences that are only available to those who are willing to have them.” (For a long time, I even had that particular saying posted up on the wall above my computer.)

I found myself thinking about this again, recently, when I traveled to Australia to check off one of the big “bucket list” items I still have on my adventure list: diving the Great Barrier Reef. Sport-level scuba diving isn’t nearly as complicated (or risk-laden) as flying, or high-altitude mountain climbing, BASE jumping, or other adventure opportunities that exist in the world. But even if you don’t go more than 90 feet below the surface, it’s still an adventure. Stuff happens. On one of my Barrier Reef dives, for example, my air tank came loose from its fittings some 60 feet below the surface. Fortunately, I had a dive buddy at hand (my husband) who was able to secure it again so we could continue. But securing an air tank underwater is still an abnormal checklist kind of event. Which is to say, any time we venture into realms where we cannot survive without artificial support (space, the sky, the ocean…), it’s an adventure. There’s an element of risk, and unknown challenges with potentially significant consequences, that we agree to take on when we leave the comfort zone of our natural habitat.

And yet, even looking back on those dives, and my time on the Barrier Reef, I can’t say that I learned or remembered any great life lesson from it. We traveled to the reef (which is further away from land, let alone civilization, than I realized) on a small sailboat, instead of a large dive boat. If someone were to ask me, I’d say I think that choice allowed us a far better experience, at less crowded or “touristy” destinations along the reef. But that’s just a personal preference, not a piece of wisdom.

The truth is, what I got out of taking on the effort and expense and mild discomfort of that adventure was … the experience itself. I’ve gone diving on reefs in a variety of places, including the Caribbean, Central America, and the South Pacific. So I even wondered, going into the trip, if this “Great Barrier” reef was so very special or different, up close, than places I’d already been. (From a distance, of course, there’s no reef quite like the Great Barrier - it’s so massive that astronauts have been able to see it from space). After only a few days of exploring it, however, I understood the fuss.

Most reefs where I’ve gone diving consist of coral formations you swim over, or along. Even wall dives–which feel a bit like exploring the Grand Canyon might if you had the ability to fly right over the edge and slowly explore the face of its cliffs all the way down–are something you view from the outside. The coral formations where we dove on the Great Barrier Reef, however, were so large and complex that we swam through them. Some, like the Three Sisters site, felt as if we were swimming through a forest of coral. When I looked up, there were broccoli-top formations of coral arcing gracefully over our heads, 60 feet up, like so many deciduous treetops forming a canopy on a jungle hike.

Sure, there were thousands and thousands of fish, and lots of cool lifeforms clinging to the coral. Huge clam-like creatures opening and closing their shells like something out of a Disney or Doctor Doolittle movie. And I’m sure, 15 years ago, the colors were even more spectacular, which kind of made me wish I’d gotten around to this particular adventure earlier. But it was the structure of the coral itself: massive, complex, and sprawling, that really set the reef apart.

Oddly, many divers seem less interested in the geologic forms and movement possibilities of the underwater world, and more focused on documenting the maximum number of fish and sea life. For all the photos I’ve searched of the Great Barrier Reef since my return, none that I’ve been able to find, in books or online, have focused on the forest structure of the reef. They’re either views of the reef as seen from above, or close-ups of fish or coral. Which is too bad, because I wish I could share a photo of that underwater forest here.

Next time, perhaps, I’ll take an underwater camera. But when I dive, I’m less interested on documenting what I see than I am on being completely present in the sensory details of the moment, and in this other-worldly environment. When I dive, I can fly. I’m weightless and free in a way I’m not in any other environment, including the sky.

Even on the surface, some of the Great Barrier Reef islands are pretty remarkable. I know there’s a scientific explanation for how the sand that makes up Whitehaven Beach, for example, gets so bright white you need sunglasses not to be blinded by it. But for the moment, I’m content to have had the opportunity to walk barefoot along it, in sand so fine it squeaked beneath my toes, astounded at how beautiful the world we live on is.

Is there a lesson in that? Oh, I could probably come up with one, if I really had to. But it wouldn’t really be the point. The point is that sometimes, the reward of adventure IS the adventure. It is getting to experience something, or some place, in the world that so takes your breath away that it stands out in your memory, enriching and adding vibrant color to your inner life, years after many other moments and memories fade.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John Vesey 03.28.15 at 12:22 pm

Your final paragraph reminds me of the sensation I got the first time I walked up to the edge of the Grand Canyon!!

2 Kim Fuller 03.31.15 at 6:09 pm

‘…the reward of adventure IS the adventure.’ Yep, that’s a good way of putting it.

3 Dan 04.16.15 at 3:44 pm

Hi, Lane,

First, I want to thank you for all the years you wrote for Flying magazine. I loved those columns (I read every single one) and was sad to see you go. You were very much a worthy successor to Gordon Baxter, whom I knew personally and loved.

Thanks for the beautiful description of the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve dived a lot of places since earning my c-card in 1973, but not yet that one. You reminded me that I once read an article about a guy with what would be, for me, the perfect job. He flies divers from the mainland out to the reef, piloting the plane himself, and becomes their dive guide for the duration of their stay.

If you haven’t yet done it, I highly recommend that your next Bucket List dive destination be the Red Sea, or, more properly, The Gulf of Aqaba (Israelis call it The Gulf of Eilat). In some ways it is the opposite of the Great Barrier Reef, because for much of the trip from Eilat down to Ras Mohammed (I dived along the western shore in 1985 on an Israeli live-aboard), most of the good stuff is within 30 feet of the surface. Your air lasts forever, none of the colors are filtered out of the sunlight, the water temp is in the 70s+, visibility is 100+ feet, and the currents are minimal, to say nothing of the negligible risk of the bends. I found that each dive in those waters was the equivalent of the best dive of any other trip I had taken.

Next up on *my* Bucket List: The Maldives!

Warmest personal regards,

Dan

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