Calling distance. Do you remember that? It was the distance your parents' voices could be expected to carry when you were playing. “Don’t get out of calling distance” meant you were to stay within earshot so you could hear your mom or dad if one of them called you.
Our family camped a lot as my three brothers and I were growing up, and whenever we arrived at a new campground, “Don’t get out of calling distance” was the customary (and virtually only) limitation on our freedom. The four of us boys would pile out of the car or Jeep, and as my parents set up the campsite, our primary assignment – our sole responsibility, really – was to not get in the way. We were expected to play and explore, avoid serious injury, not drown, poke no one’s eye out and, more than anything else, make ourselves scarce so that my parents could set up camp without us getting in the way. And we were to do all this while staying within calling distance.
The funny thing about calling distance is, you don’t know when you’re out of it. I mean, how could you? Think about it. Being called while outside calling distance sounds precisely the same as not being called while in it! How’s a kid to know he or she is out of calling distance if it sounds just like being in it?
Soon after arriving at any new campground, I would be out in the woods scouting the area and doing my normal reconnaissance of trails, hiding places, shortcuts and climbable trees, and I’d get farther and farther from camp, of course, as way led to way, and if I didn’t hear my mom call, I’d invariably attribute it to her not calling rather than to me not being within calling distance. I wouldn’t know that I’d been out of calling distance until I got back to camp and heard the unpleasant greeting, “And where have you been, young man? I’ve been calling and calling. I told you not to get out of calling distance.” And my self-incriminating excuse would be that I hadn’t heard her.
In today’s post, I want to apply the idea of “calling distance” to an entirely different type of call – the internal call to adventure that I listened to in my late teens and early 20’s but somehow stopped hearing as the years rolled by. You might remember that my last blog post ended with me standing at the side of Highway 101 resolving, like James Taylor, to “never stop my wandering.” I promised myself that I would stay within adventure’s calling distance, and for a few years, I made good on that promise. I listened to the call of adventure and even amplified it through an eclectic mix of books I read: Peter Dixon’s Men Who Ride Mountains (surfing); Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (road/drug tripping); Thor Heyerdahl’s Fatu-Hiva (back to nature on a Marquesan island); Paul Gauguin’s Intimate Journals (disdain for, and eventual flight from, the hypocrisy and fakery of civilization); Jack Wheeler’s The Adventurer’s Guide (a normal guy tells about his fabulous adventures all over the world); a dozen books about pioneers, frontiersmen, mountain men, prospectors and the California and Klondike gold rushes; and of course, Kerouac’s On the Road. In the latter, I was especially struck by Sal Paradise’s description of a fellow traveler as
. . . crossing and recrossing the country every year, south in the winter and north in the summer, and only because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere . . .
There was nowhere to go but everywhere – that notion lodged itself in my heart and called me to go. As a wannabe surfer, I heard adventure’s call and took off for Southern California upon high school graduation. I woke up from that dream when most of my belongings were stolen in my first week in Malibu, but still, I was listening to adventure’s call. Thumbing my way back to Washington, I heard adventure calling me to do more of that, and I hitchhiked the west coast half a dozen times in the subsequent few years. Hearing the call of adventure, a friend and I hatched a plan to go to Snowbird, Utah, where we envisioned ourselves becoming ski bums and working our way up to sweet jobs. He broke his leg that fall and we didn’t push through with the plan, but hey, we were listening to, and making plans based on, adventure’s call. Responding to the call of adventure, I took extended camping trips to the Na Pali coast of Kauai, trying to replicate Heyerdahl’s life on Fatu-Hiva. Adventure was calling and I was responding. There was nowhere to go but everywhere, and that’s where I was headed - everywhere! Or so I thought.
The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it.
J.M. Barrie, The Little Minister
Sometime between ages 18 and 59 (and a lot closer to the former than to the latter), I strayed out of calling distance and abandoned my resolve to never stop my wandering. I went to college instead of the Marquesas, met my wife, we got jobs, and we started living a life in which me taking off on a hitchhiking trip or spending months in a cave on Kauai just didn’t fit. "Life happened," as they say, and as a result of living outside adventure’s calling distance, here I am almost 60 years old and I haven’t circumnavigated the globe by sailboat, taken “the long way around” on a motorcycle, climbed Kilimanjaro, hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, run with the bulls in Pamplona, rafted the Irrawaddy or seen Machu Picchu. I haven’t had any of the adventures I once dreamed of.
Then again, now that I am thinking about it, I'm realizing that I've had some adventures after all. While it’s true that I haven’t done any of the exotic adventures that I envisioned as a young man, I’ve had some pretty cool adventures nonetheless. I’ve looked into the eyes of orangutans in Kotakinabalu; been robbed of bananas by monkeys in Ubud; watched the famed surf-break Uluwatu breaking in perfect barrels; scanned the horizon of Mongolia from the Great Wall; gazed at the Todai-ji Daibutsuden; watched a few months' worth of glorious sunsets from Boracay (and from Amanpulo); climbed Mt. Pinatubo and swam in its lake; rung the bell at Kimnyong Maze (not so adventurous, but a pretty cool little place); almost fainted from heat and claustrophobia in the Chu-Chi tunnels; shopped in the warren that is the Chatuchak market; walked the length of the Wye Valley; motorcycled Big Sur . . .
Come to think of it, I've had a pretty adventurous life. Maybe not so adventurous as the ones I once imagined, but I've had some adventures - lots of them - including some that I didn't even recognize as adventures until after the fact. I had somehow convinced myself that I had wandered out of adventure's calling distance, yet the fact is I didn't.
Hey, adventure, call me anytime! I'm listening!