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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Taking it to the Extreme

I opened my email this morning to discover one from a travel company with the title blazing "Extreme Adventures Await".

Ooh, thought I, "extreme"! 

Of course my second thought was "what do they mean by Extreme"? This got me to wondering what the definition of extreme is when applied to travel. There is, of course, the commonly accepted viewpoint that somehow you'll be risking life and limb in the pursuit of some sort of intense physical activity. 

Yeah, understood, but is that really a fair perception of Extreme Travel? Or even accurate? Are extreme vacations the sole reserve of superfit vacationers who want to race down a mountain trail on a bike. 

Is the only challenge allowed on an Extreme vacation the physical kind? 

Not in my opinion -- and since this is my corner of the universe we're going to explore this a little.

The author in Hell.
(Town of Hell, Cayman Islands)
There is a tendency amongst travel people to associate extreme destinations with some sort of intense physical activity. I kinda chafe at that sort of thing because it really discounts so many of the -- to me -- some very extreme adventures that can be had without the physical exertion. Emotional and mental excursions can do very nearly the same thing to our being, not deserving the discount of not being "physically demanding" -- that sounds like some sort of sports-enthusiast's definition, not mine.

In normal, everyday parlance the term extreme means something that, well, Dictionary.com defines as "of a character or kind farthest removed from the ordinary or average". There are a handful of other, lesser definitions, but this is a good one to use. Webster makes it even more complicated so we're not even going to go there.

So, using Dictionary.com's definition, Extreme Travel must necessarily take us on a journey of "a character or kind farthest removed from the ordinary or average"

Sounds intimidating, no? And let's face it, everyone's personal definition would vary greatly depending upon their point of view. To a New York window washer, for example, rappelling down the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park wouldn't really be as extreme as it would be to, say, a pharmacist from Des Moines. And if you make your living shooting wildlife documentaries going in shark-infested waters for a swim might just be a day at the office for you.

An Extreme Situation
But for the rest of us -- those not in the "extreme" lines of work -- the personally challenging sort of travel holds an appeal if you're an adventurous sort. And there are degrees of moderation in almost every extreme endeavor that may still meet the criteria of extreme without risking life and limb to do so. (Yeah, I know. I used "moderation" and "extreme" in the same sentence. Get over it.)

Windstar Cruises, those sparkling white five-masted sailing cruise ships you see in some pretty exotic ports, uses the advertising slogan of "180 degrees from Ordinary". Which means, by definition, they are an extreme cruise line, right? (I'm kidding, but the point stands that you do not have to be dangling from a wire a hundred feet over Copper Canyon to qualify as an adventure traveler. You can't bungee from a Windstar sailing mast -- well you can, though I'm pretty sure they'd haul you away immediately afterward -- but in a way the trip itself really is very different from "the average". Not really extreme, since it in all likelihood doesn't take you out of your comfort zone. If anything it's more likely to shove you deeper INTO a comfort zone than take you from one.) If your intent on a trip is to challenge yourself, either from a physical or emotional level, it doesn't necessarily involve life-threatening situations. If you're Jewish, a visit to Auschwitz would be an extreme -- it's emotional for everyone, but it cuts directly into the heart of the Jewish community. Is it fair to assert that this sort of thing isn't extreme? Of course not.

One of the items on our Life List -- developed via Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan's terrific and highly recommended book No Opportunity Wasted -- is a cruise along the upper Amazon basin. There are those who would have you believe that this sort of a trip -- a weeklong cruise through a wild rainforest, featuring hikes and meetings with local cultures -- isn't extreme unless you include a day of ziplining and climbing the tallest trees as a wild boar circles menacingly at the base. You can probably already tell I'm going to dismiss that attitude with prejudice. Let's go back to the definition of the word Extreme. Tell me where it says I've got to risk breaking my neck?

Another of our goals is hot air ballooning over either Sedona or Napa. Years ago we had actually scheduled such an adventure, but Mother Nature decided an intense storm front had priority, forcing the ballooning company to cancel the booking. I am a serious acrophobic, so something as gentle and serene as a balloon trip aloft is about as extreme as you can get.  

Where No One Has Gone Before
Extreme means getting far, far outside your zone of experience. And well outside your comfort zone in all likelihood. If you're afraid of water, doesn't a snorkeling trip to Hawaii count as extreme in your circumstances? If you have a fear of heights such as mine, the Empire State Building's 86th floor observation deck may well be the sort of extreme you would just as well prefer to pass up. (My sister-in-law DeLois still ribs me about this. I've been to the top perhaps a half dozen times, but this last one, with DeLois and her husband Gary, my nerves overcame the view and I found lots of interesting things in the gift shop after a quick circle of the outside deck. To be fair, I HAD seen and photographed the view a number of times already. There's exposing yourself to your fears and then there's downright pummeling of your own psyche. My Id had accepted the previous lunacy, and I felt justified in sparing it one more dance along the edge. Literally.) 

It's getting outside of your comfort zone that embodies "extreme" in my view of the word and world. Despite my phobia, plans are still afoot for the ballooning trip, as well as a certain to be nerve-racking saunter over the Grand Canyon Skywalk in Arizona -- and insane horseshoe of a walkway 4000 feet over the Canyon floor featuring a glass floor (look straight down!!!) and glass-paneled railings. A three minute walk not extreme enough for you? That's about two and a half minutes longer than your typical bungee and I guarantee just as challenging.

There are relaxing vacations, such as a weekend in Palm Springs or a week at a resort in the Catskills. There are people who want excitement, such as New Orleans' Bourbon Street or the Las Vegas Strip. Still others find wonderful natural beauty in our national parks, Sedona or along the Maine coastline. Yet more who want to spend time with family and friends in places like Branson or your nearest campground.

Contemplating the options.
But when it comes to adventure travel -- or even the use of the term Extreme -- you really have to base your expectations on where you are as a person. What is the best kind of trip to get you, as stated above, "a character farthest removed from ordinary or average"? Challenge yourself. Make it something which you, yourself find exhilarating even if it doesn't involve upping your insurance premiums.

If you're a stockbroker on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, maybe a week relaxing on the beach in St Barth is your definition of extreme. 

And don't let anyone tell you anything different.

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