Adventures for Autumn, Global Province Letter, 1 September 2010

The Grand Tour.  Once upon a time, wealthy Europeans and Americans took a long trip abroad to round out their education:

The Grand Tour not only provided a liberal education but allowed those who could afford it the opportunity to buy things otherwise unavailable at home, and it thus increased participants' prestige and standing. Grand Tourists would return with crates of art, books, pictures, sculpture, and items of culture, which would be displayed in libraries, cabinets, gardens, and drawing rooms, as well as the galleries built purposely for their display; The Grand Tour became a symbol of wealth and freedom.

The Grand Tour added patina and eloquence to young ladies and gentlemen.  Now leisurely travel is put off to late in life, though college students cram in fitful study sessions abroad and do other fast takes on the world at large.  It’s fair to say that Americans no longer have an easy conversation with the world outside our borders and have become prisoners instead of virtual worlds ginned up by their notebook computers.

Asia Minor.  We’re getting together our own Marco Polo thoughts at the moment, hoping to cast off our own blinders. Asia Minor is in the offing, so that we can take a look at the seams connecting East and West that hold this explosive world together.  We’re jealous of Jack Weatherford who makes frequent trips to Mongolia, even in retirement.  We’ll get halfway to Mongolia, journeying to the edges of the empire of the Khans, the most amazing kingdom the world has ever known.

Over the years we’ve included some marvelous expeditions on the Global Province, unforgettable trips that urge us all to get moving again.  In this we are like Ishmael in Moby Dick who knew it was time to be getting to sea again when erratic thoughts boiled up in his head.  Below is a sampler from some travelers who have recounted their excursions for us:

Christmas in Rome. Years ago Colin Goedecke chronicled how he went home again—to his wife’s home in Rome:

“Christmas in Italy unfolds with an unmarked bottle of frascati fresh from the pine-coned hills of Rome, and a haircut from a barbiere di Sicilia named Gianpiero, and a smiling man playing music on water glasses in the round afternoon shadows of the Pantheon. 

At this time of year, Rome feels not only eternal, but maternal, clasping you to its breast in every shop and caffé. And while there are people about, there are no throngs; things are calmer; unhurried.

When you step into Trattoria Tritone on the via dei Maroniti, you’re met by the wide eyes of many fish, looking out from a glass case in the middle of the front room”

Goedecke’s a New Yorker, yet his essay convinces us that in some previous life he worshipped with the Romans.

Rowing around the Hebrides. Then there’s Maxwell MacLeod who understands well the psychic enormity of retracing the sea-borne footsteps of an ancestor:

In 1777 a Highland minister called John MacLeod made an epic 100-mile journey, rowing himself in an open boat from the north of Skye to Fuinary, on the Morven Peninsula. He did so on the instructions of the Duke of Argyll, who wanted him to oust the Jacobites in Argyll through the power of prayer.

Some 230 years later the minister's direct descendant has successfully retraced his forebear's route by rowing through the Hebridean islands in an 18ft skiff, crossing large stretches of open sea.

Maxwell MacLeod, 56, set out on his sentimental journey in May and took four months to complete.

To us, some parts of the Hebrides would have the look of an Icelandic desert or the desolate Encantadas about which Melville wrote in moments of despair.  But for MacLeod, whose forbear put together the modern Scottish community at Iona, this is all sacred ground, replete with meaning.

La Carrera Panamericana.  We first knew of Stephen Page as an executive recruiter.  Along the way, he’s founded an enterprise or two.  But, in his vintage heart of hearts, he’s a car racer.  Such that he heads a vintage racing league and is working the Texas Automotive Museum of History.  No wonder then that he took a bumpy trip across Mexico, well away from the comforts of Dallas:

I remember the admonition during the initial Navigator’s meeting before the race started. Fifty percent of all accidents in La Carrera Panamericana happen during day one in the morning speed trials along the winding and treacherous “Rizo de Oro” from Tuxtla Gutierrez to Oaxaca. I’m sad to report that we added to this statistic.  

I am the “co-piloto” for one of the race’s great characters – Rusty Ward. Rusty has attended the race for eleven years and brought the car home in all six years that he has competed. His chariot of choice is a late model Studebaker, painted to resemble a Mexican Federale Police car, siren and light included. The thing is built like a tank. Magnificent roll cage. 500 bhp short block Chevy engine. Lovingly prepared and supported by the greatest unpaid “Tin Cup” race team on the planet.

As with Goedecke and MacLeod, we could say that Page in his race acts out a dream. But maybe, just maybe, it is only in these adventures that the whole of a  person emerges.  That is what  adventure is all about. It is only as we go well beyond career and the safe ground of everyday routine that the complete self finally takes shape.  Adventure, we think, sculpts the individual.

The Seeds of Innovation.  There’s some talk now that innovation is faltering in America.  The best example of this shortfall is the pharmaceutical industry.  The giants in that field are spending billions to uncover new products, but have little to show for it.  It would seem that we are not getting that good a return from our R & D dollars.  The drug companies themselves need a different kind of medicine.  What can we do to get the pot boiling?

Perhaps money does not have much to do with breakthrough innovation.  Success may turn on character, on nurturing individuals with breadth and depth.  That is, we know that we have a horde of people in blue jeans and polo shirts winging about with iPhones, and ThinkPads, and Kindles, dutifully managing the digital streams coursing in and out of their lives.  But do we have enough adventurers trying to leap over the horizon looking for a new Shangri La?  Do we have people of energy who fire up every cylinder in their bodies by undertaking grand journeys?  Arguably it takes big dreamers to make big dreams happen.

We’re told that we need a heap of global knowledge to manage our lives in a global economy.  If so, we will get the most worldly knowledge from creative adventurers who do a lot of walking around.

P.S.  Theodore Roosevelt, the great president of the 20th century, did not know how to stand still.  His last hurrah was a trip with is son up the Amazon. All along the way, he read poetry.  He returned to New York victorious, even if the trip nearly killed him.  There had been a few defeats after he stepped down from the presidency, but once again in this journey he could feel a largeness of soul.

P.P.S.  Captain Joshua Slocum was the first to sail solo around the world, which he recounted in his 1900 book Sailing Alone Around the World.   He disappeared but a few years later in 1909 while in his boat the Spray.  That happens to adventurers, but oh, do they live, while alive.

P.P.P.S.  More than a few fellows who make things happen belong to the Explorers Club.  They dive rather deep in to the sea and make their way up all the Everests of the world.  Supposedly they’re doing things for science, but we know they just want to sample rare atmospheres.

P.P.P.P.S.  Ours has become a very high stress society.  Research pretty much shows that chronic stress leads to a population ever more risk averse, ever more fearful of lurking dangers.  We discuss this on the Global Province under “Stress and Everything Else.”  The risk averse are not inclined to tackle big innovations or perilous adventures.


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