New heights 

Mark Jenkins’ excellent adventures

Earnest adventurers and explorers are misrepresented most everywhere these days.

Television “adventurers” waver from kamikaze show-offs to posh tenderfoots, with no in-between. “Real” adventurers are either comic blowhards who set insane and inane world records (“Nudest man to climb Everest solo!” or “Most consecutive miles Zorbed!”) or mincing well-to-dos whose entire travel experience is a beachside resort with a charming patio café and superb cuisine (where the locals are “so friendly!”).

Neither group sees their travels as more than a lark—and, thus, neither is respectful or, really, respectable. The people who actually go out and see this world are so few in number that they’re almost entirely overlooked, likely because they can’t be easily mocked or envied.

And so we come to Mark Jenkins, author and former Outside columnist, who stands in the face of his clownish peers as an authentic adventurer. It’s not that Jenkins can’t be envied, though: The man leads the maddeningly enviable life of going anywhere he chooses and doing anything he wants, so long as it’s thrilling and unique.

In his new collection of travelogues, A Man’s Life: Dispatches from Dangerous Places, he recounts tales of bashing through the Tasmanian bush, exploring ice caves in Greenland, biking fjords in Norway, sneaking into Burma and climbing new routes in Uganda and Mexico (and just about everywhere else). But instead of hating the man for his privileges, you can’t help but love him for his gumption. After reading a Jenkins travelogue—much like after reading Into the Wild or The Snow Leopard—the reader wants to get out and explore every square foot of this world. Or at least plan his next life-list destination.

What Jenkins does is remind the reader of the world’s basic immensity. On an Earth that’s far too large to take in completely, we should try to see as much of it as we can while we’re on it, for it’s all worth our wonder. Even though many of his adventures end in mishap—if not disaster or near death—Jenkins shows the spirit of the wanderlust of adventurousness, in plain relief.

To be fair, Jenkins isn’t a terrifically lucky man; his adventures often find him courting trouble. In “A Short Walk in the Wakhan,” perhaps the collection’s centerpiece essay, Jenkins travels through the highly volatile mountains of northern Afghanistan, following a Marco Polo route. He’s met with both blind hostility and unbiased kindness from villagers offering him help and curses.

Along the way, Jenkins quotes Ulysses S. Grant in saying, “I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun.” But, really, Jenkins more captures the spirit of a gentle Hemingway—ready and willing for any excursion, and prepared to engage in his environments, instead of conquering them.

He can come off as a bit dreamy in his perception of his fellow man, but only because he’s been shown the kindness of strangers so many times, and lacks the wariness that breeds cynicism. He meets folks who are friendly, standoffish, taciturn and solicitous. And more frequently than not, he’s rewarded for his pacifism and engagement, his willingness to access and accept a place beyond being a cultural voyeur.

Yet, despite his readiness to do anything at any time (and his essay collection’s unfortunate title), Jenkins is no outdoor ultra-man. The overwhelming theme of A Man’s Life comes in the narrative arc he presents: The more harrowing adventures he embarks upon are first, and as he progresses, he gradually takes fewer risks, which shows his aging process and his acceptance of becoming a more careful—though still active—adventurer.

The cause is clear: Whenever he leaves, he has a wife and two young daughters back home who await his return, knowing the danger into which he puts himself. Eventually, though, Jenkins balances his itchy feet and his family, a dilemma that has thrown many similar adventurers into lives of stubborn autonomy.

This extremely delicate balance is essentially the same one he’s found in adventuring itself, by seeking out the wildest places and preparing himself for anything they may throw at him.
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