January 07, 2014

by Paul Rosenthal in New York, NY

Some folks strap wooden boards to their feet and shoosh down mountainsides. Others buckle on similar gear and tromp through the woods. These downhill and cross-country skiers may look similar, but they’re quite different breeds.

(You’re wondering what skiers have to do with Last Responders, and getting nervous that maybe I’ve mixed up my various blogs. Bear with me.)

The downhill skiing crowd is in it for the speed, the thrill, the danger that they might smack into a tree and wonderful sense of accomplishment when they don’t. Cross-country skiers, meanwhile, love to leave the trail and see the countryside from a new vantage. They’re in it more for the sights than the speed.

A similar difference divides adventure travelers.

I realized this after our stay in Fairfax, Virginia, where we enjoyed the hospitality of Joe Pyrek (and his parents, who put us up). He’s an experienced traveler, with awesome stories about outwitting border guards, coping with catastrophe, improvising on the road, and generally ensuring that he got from point A to point B intact despite the obstacles. (He also explained what all the mysterious buttons in the cab were for—a great boon, since I was reluctant to start pressing them randomly while barreling down the highway, fearing that my last recorded words would be, “Hey, I wonder what this does.”)

Joe Pyrek is definitely a downhill skier traveler. His wonderful stories were seldom about what he saw or ate, and mostly about outwitting rebel checkpoints, adapting to the unexpected, and reaping the rewards of meticulous planning. They were riveting, but I realized that I’m more of a cross-country skier traveler. I’ll go mano-a-passport with a border guard if I have to. I’ll open the hood of the ambulance and twiddle with the engine if necessary (though my fellow voyagers are too smart to put me in charge of engine twiddling). But that’s not what I came for, and I’ll be perfectly happy if every border crossing is uneventful, no coping is required, and every narco-terrorist we pass just smiles and wishes us, buenos días.”

I just want to see and experience things I’ve never seen and experienced. I want to eat stuff that isn’t available on Columbus Avenue. I want to see peccaries poking about the rain forest and hobnob with Bolivian ladies in those wonderful Andean derbies. I want to hear llamas bark, or snuffle, or whatever llamas do. If it turns out that I have no opportunity to display my daring, my nerve, my mechanical skills, or my resourcefulness, that’s fine.

(Truth be told, I’m only in this expedition for the Panama hat.)