Off the Map

When Adventure Pushes Limits and Opens Doors

I was riding bikes with two friends 15 miles up a narrow chipseal road north of Yaak, Montana, when we intersected the Pacific Northwest Trail and saw a sign for the Garver Mountain Fire Lookout. We were on a four-day bikepacking tour of fire lookouts in Big Sky Country and although we had purposely planned a short ride for the first afternoon, the sight of the brown Forest Service sign was welcoming.

The trail was barely visible as it snaked through the tall grass, but as we climbed, the grass thinned and we hit a scraggly, rocky hillside that was so steep we had to hike our bikes, weighted down with 40 pounds of gear. As we picked our way along the primitive trail, we played “I Spy” trying to locate rock cairns marking the route. One friend became concerned after 30 minutes of hiking. She had downloaded the route into her GPS tracking device, and the little arrow on the screen that represented us was pointing 180 degrees opposite the dashed line that was the trail. We were on a faint foot path, but she was convinced we needed to backtrack. The other friend was tired of pushing bikes and refused to move until we were 100 percent sure of our location.

After weeks of prepping for the 170-mile tour on a mix of 4WD roads, remote pavement and dirt trails, my adventure had begun. I was in country I’d never seen, close to the Canadian border. It was grizzly bear terrain. I was carrying all my gear and food on my bike and back. We were in a largely uninhabited area of the country. Wildfires were burning nearby. It was late in the day, and we were stymied by a route-finding challenge.

When faced with moments like these, we really only have one option: deal with it. That might mean crumbling into the fetal position and weeping. It might mean retreating to the start point. It might mean plodding forward. But nothing will make you feel more present and in the moment than those experiences. Adventure can grant reprieve from daily stressors, provide perspective, and grace you with humility.

Adventure doesn’t have to mean climbing El Capitan, bagging every 14er in Colorado, or getting lost on a bike tour in the Montana wilds. Experts in the field of adventure therapy describe “adventure” as any experience through which a person is challenged.

I contemplated this recently while volunteering at my third-grader’s campout at Rock Bottom Ranch. The nine-year-olds were to ride six miles from Carbondale on the Rio Grande path to Rock Bottom. Before they departed, I heard a few children say: “I don’t know if I can make it. I’ve never ridden that far.” While pitching tents, some parents arrived with roller suitcases and brand new tents that still had tags. For some, a bike ride on a flat surface or spending a night in a tent (even if on the grassy grounds of a local outdoor education center with electricity and flush toilets) is an adventure.

Adventure puts us outside our comfort zone, which can be positive. According to Glenwood Springs experiential education leader and adventure therapy counselor Paul Hassel, “Adventure works for change because: 1) through adventure, a person stretches past perceived limitations in order to reach a goal, and this process can then be transferred to other areas of change or challenge in the person’s life; 2) adventure lends itself to all sorts of life-affirming feelings accompanied by dopamine, adrenaline, and endorphin production; and 3) adventure is often social, and there’s psychological power to be found in the bonds and support received through adventure with others.”

During my Montana trip, I felt all that and more. I wasn’t always comfortable, but that adventure put the present moment right at my fingertips. After my riding buddies and I rested and had a snack on that Montana hillside, I pulled out a paper map and compass, and we got oriented. We simply needed to switchback up the hillside a few times in order to get “back” on route. A bit more hiking led to a beautiful trail contouring through the lodgepole pine and Englemann spruce. We pedaled a fast two miles before a quarter-mile hike up a strenuous rocky trail. When the blue Montana sky showed through the trees, I knew we were close. As the sun dropped near the horizon, we made the last turn of the trail and the Garver Mountain Lookout came into view.