An Easy Way to Push Past Your Comfort Zone
My wife, Kelly, drives away down the dirt road that winds along the wooded slopes of Mount Hood. When the taillights disappear, I’m left in the dark — just me, a sleeping bag, pad, a small bag of kit and my handcycle. My tent and wheelchair I’ve left at home, some 50 miles away. It’s been a long time since I’ve spent a night under open skies, and longer still since I’d been so far away from my wheelchair.
The thought makes me a little nervous. But the air is fresh, the night silent save for the faint rustling of branches in the breeze, and directly in front of me the moon peeks through the forest canopy. I click on my headlamp, crack a can of wine — yes, in Oregon at least, this is a thing — and open up my book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Who cares if I don’t have a wheelchair? This is my happy place.
My life, pre and post disability, has not been short on adventuring. I like testing my limits, being outside and trying to get from point A to B under my own power. And even though the word may conjure thoughts of large expeditions and far off lands, adventure, at its essence, is far simpler than that.
In his best-selling book, Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes, the British author and adventurer Alastair Humphreys describes adventure as, “A state of mind, a spirit of trying something new and leaving your comfort zone. Adventure is stretching yourself mentally, physically or culturally. It is about doing something you do not normally do, pushing yourself hard and doing it to the best of your ability. You do not need to be an elite athlete, expertly trained, or rich to have an adventure.”
Humphreys developed the idea of microadventures, for which he was recognized as National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year in 2012, as a way to break down the barriers — whether monetary, time, fitness or experience — to adventure. He spent a year in his home country only doing adventures that left from his front door and could be completed in, at most, a long weekend.
The concept is especially appealing for the disability community because it shows that adventure is relative — your level of function, personal finances and how much free time you have don’t really matter. What matters is that you break out of your normal routine, whatever your “normal” is, push yourself a little, and find a little fun and maybe even some extra confidence in the process.
My idea of a microadventure is to spend a night wild camping and then ride home in the morning. It’s also to sleep a random night in the backyard, or to pack up and do our normal morning coffee routine in a park close to home. Sound silly? Probably, but that’s the point. Having silly little adventures forces you to overcome obstacles and unexpected detours. That they’re contrived doesn’t really matter, the process still builds self-assurance and resourcefulness, and the change in routine often brings small, unexpected joys.
Below are a few ideas for microadventuring, based on where you might do them — in the city, wilderness or wherever. Try one. If you have fun, that’s the point. Try another. If you’re exhausted at the end, that’s also the point. If it’s terrible, blame me. At least you’ll have a story to tell.
It’s a warm night and I’m in a button-up shirt, racing my handcycle down city streets, trying to keep up with Kelly as she toys with me from ahead, “Ten seconds left on the light, you better make it!”
I make it through the light, arms a little tingly and breathing harder than I should, but a smile on my face. We’re moving at speed, and dinner awaits. Kelly and I have ridden our bikes across a large expanse of the earth, but lately, with a 16-month-old son, it can be difficult to even get out to dinner on our own. So, as we have a babysitter for the night, we decided to combine date-night with a microadventure. We both put on some grown-up clothes, I got on my handcycle and Kelly bungeed the frame of my wheelchair to her rear bike rack and off we went.
The ride isn’t difficult — only three miles each way, but a welcome break from the typical nightly routine of cleaning up and trying to be in bed in time to get eight hours of sleep. We park our bikes on the curb in front of the restaurant, Kelly unhooks my chair and removes the rear wheels from my handcycle to use while we’re dining. My shirt isn’t even dirty. We sit at the outside bar and sip glasses of wine as we wait for a table.
This isn’t my typical idea of “adventure,” but it’s out of the ordinary and a fun, easily accessible challenge that we can do in the city. Wilderness doesn’t hold a monopoly on adventure. Here are a few more ideas for city slickers.
The Random Map Point
Unless you’re already a keen cyclist, this one works better for city dwellers. The idea is as simple as it gets: Grab a map (you control the maximum scope of this adventure by how big of an area the map you use covers), close your eyes, wave your hand around and then jab a finger or knuckle down. Wherever it lands is your destination. Now roll there in your wheelchair, ride there on your handcycle or whatever, just get there by some conveyance that leaves you exposed to the elements and doesn’t move faster than cycling speed. You’ll be amazed at how many unexpected discoveries you’ll make along the way. Need something to eat or drink along the way? Stop somewhere you’ve never been, without looking at any online reviews. I’m 95 percent certain it won’t be worse than Applebees.
The Multi-Course Meal
Drinks, appetizers, main course, dessert. You probably know places that do one of these components better than the others, so why not make an expedition out of dinner and do each component at a different place? Foodies do this all the time, so the adventure part is pushing — or taking public transit, really anything that puts you out in a position to interact with the world — between stops.
I pick Kelly up from work on a random Tuesday night. I’ve packed the car with our camp box and an extra set of work clothes. I haven’t told her we’re going camping, but when she opens the car door to put her work bag in, I see a quizzical smile come over her face. “Um, what’s happening here?” she asks.
We drive to the woods, slowly leaving more and more commuters behind, until it’s just us, the dog, a few fellow campers at a Forest Service site, the trees and a babbling stream. We sit and breathe in the mountain air. When the sun slips behind the hillside, we heat Frito pie on the camp stove. Not long after, we fold the car seats flat, unfold our foam mattresses and tuck in for the night.
In the morning, we make coffee, cold fingers wrapped around warm mugs, and then pack up. An hour later, Kelly is at work and I’m ready for another day, both of us unwound to a degree that is rare for a Wednesday.
From a workday camp trip to waking up before the sun, getting outside into a little patch of wild doesn’t have to be a big process. Here are a couple ways to make it happen.
The 5-9 Camp Trip
Worried about going camping for a weekend because you don’t know how you’ll manage a bowel program in the woods? Don’t like the idea of being away from running water and electricity for multiple days? Go for a single night. Apart from any disability concerns, finding time for adventure can be difficult, especially if you’re in the thick of adulting. That’s where the concept of 5-9, or the time in between two work days, comes in handy. It’s not difficult to find a weeknight free, you just have to use it. There are few places in the country that don’t have some form of camp spot within an hour to an hour and a half’s drive. If you have a camp box ready [see below], pick a day that works, and you can be gone before you think of a reason not to.
This requires waking up really early. I’m not a morning person and understand the pain but, even so, anything is manageable for a single day. Pick a favorite scenic spot with a view to the east and set your alarm. If your morning routine takes a while, do whatever you can the night before. Check Google for the sunrise time, and get up at whatever time is needed to get out the door and to the spot before the sun peeks over the horizon. Then, sit there and watch the sunrise. One early morning for half an hour of peace and beauty? I’ll take that trade.
It’s a typical workday morning. Ewan let us sleep in until 6:15 today, so we’re feeling lucky. We start the normal routine — getting a pot of stovetop espresso boiling for Kelly and me, and a bottle of milk warming for Ewan. Except when our preferred fuels are ready, instead of going into the living room, we load up the wagon and head to the bluffs.
A few blocks from our house, there’s a small green space, a bowl cut into the hillside overlooking Portland’s industrial port and the Willamette River. People take their dogs there to run around, but at 6:45 in the morning, we are the only people. I hold Ewan and we watch a bird play in the breeze so Kelly can drink a few sips of coffee. When he gets fidgety, Kelly walks Ewan around and Kona gets the urge to do some fast running for no apparent reason. Even with a boxer tearing through the grass, this is as quiet as our neighborhood gets. There’s a cool breeze blowing through overcast skies and I sip from my steaming to-go mug. Sure, this puts the micro in microadventure, but some extra fresh air is never a bad idea.
The Bike Tour
Like the idea of bike touring but worried about your fitness and carrying a whole bunch of gear? Conscript a nondisabled friend (or a para with enormous arms) to throw your wheelchair in a bike trailer and ride to lunch. If that goes well, do the same thing, but book a room at a place that’s on the far edge of what sounds like a reasonable day’s ride. Some food, water, catheters, meds and a change of clothes are about all you need. You’ll end both days exhausted and can eat whatever you damn well please with no guilt.
Feeling old-timey? It’s dumb that picnics are no longer a custom. On a nice day, there are few things better than eating a good meal outside. Breakfast, lunch or dinner — you don’t even need a basket. You can get an insulated reusable grocery bag for $10 or less that will keep any perishables plenty cold until you’re ready to eat them. Find a nearby park, the top of a mountain, even a marina dock, whatever seems right and is easily accessible, and bring a bag of delicious. Maybe somebody will see you, decide it looks like a good idea and all of a sudden, picnics are back.
These ideas are obviously not intended to be a compendium of all possible options, just a few ideas to get the juices flowing. We would love to hear your ideas. If you go out and try a microadventure, we want to know about it. Tag NEW MOBILITY on social media, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write me an old-fashioned letter to United Spinal Association, 120-34 Queens Blvd, Suite 320, Kew Gardens, New York 11415. Let’s continue the conversation. And remember, there’s always time for adventure.
The Gear Box
Making it easy to get away
I keep a camping box in the basement of the house that has most everything needed for a night of car camping. On a more minimalist adventure, I simply pull out the box, grab what I need, and put it in bags. On my night without my wheelchair, I kept my gear super minimal, knowing I would be riding every ounce of weight home with me. That pack list included:
• Sleeping bag: Down mummy-style for warmth and packability
• Sleeping pad: Ultra-lightweight air mattress
• 4-liter water bladder with drinking tube
• Warm clothes: A synthetic beanie, wool sweatshirt and thin down jacket
• Riding clothes: A tank top and a thin long-sleeve for the morning riding
• Food: Calorie-heavy and long-lasting snacks
• Duffel bag: To stuff everything into in the morning
• Sun block
All of this gear, minus the clothes, food and duffel bag, typically resides in the camp box at home, with these additions:
• Tent: Most modern camping tents clip onto their poles, making them way easier to setup. If you need to be able to setup from a wheelchair on your own, make sure to get one with a low head height.
• Stove and fuel: A Primus two-burner for car camping and an MSR Pocket Rocket for bike touring and back packing.
• Cookware and dishes: Two each of pots, plates, small bowls, mugs, forks, spoons and butter knives. One small spatula and one sharp cutting knife.
• Pack towels: three microfiber towels of varying sizes.
• Water bladders
• Coffee makers: A simple plastic French press.
• Sun Block, Bug Dope, Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soap
• Utility knife: A ton of options, we use a Leatherman
• First-aid kit