In the world of outrageous, hang-from-a-precipice adventure, one thing is certain: Going “extreme” means extremely different things to different travelers.
Some adventurers have told me that really testing yourself on a trip is all about dealing with temperatures that your body isn’t used to. “What do you mean, exactly?” I asked. “Oh, you know,” they said. “Really hot. Super cold.” I couldn’t argue.
A few extreme travelers are radicals when it comes to the use of equipment. They won’t bring any. To others, the trip itself is secondary to getting a chance to stock up on interesting new ropes and helmets — the latest in lightweight, semipermeable, sun-reflecting and snow-ejecting gear.
Then there are those who insist that real adventure means having encounters “with people or animals that you can’t engage with at home.” This made perfect sense, I thought. “Something like meeting villagers in Tibet?” I asked. “Or hippos near the Nile?” “More like snorkeling with penguins,” they said.
Since I’ve written often about adventure travel, I sometimes visit libraries to give a slide talk about these kinds of trips. What’s interesting for me is the canyon-wide range of opinions that crop up during the Q&A.
There was the man who reported that seeing roadkill made a car trip complete for him. And the woman who suggested I shave my eyebrows before a trip to Japan, because they looked “uncivilized.” (They are on the bushy side, I have to admit.) But during one library talk, a comment really brought me to a stop.
An audience member in the back raised a hand after I’d asked everyone to toss out ideas on what made an adventure trip truly challenging. Expecting something about mudslides or dust storms, I heard this instead: “It’s not about gasping for breath,” a woman wearing a wool hat said. “It’s about putting your emotions to the test.”
She added softly, “Have you ever tried going back home after a long time away?”
Off went the projector. Down I sat.
After some weeks spent thinking about this, I made up my mind. Sure, I’d read Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again.” But how dangerous could this be? I would make some reservations and give the thing a try.
Not only would I boldly revisit the New York City neighborhood where I grew up (Chelsea on Manhattan’s West Side), but, taking care to investigate roadkill along the way, I’d also drive up to Montpelier, the Vermont capital where I’d spent many vacations as a kid.
Two extreme, albeit homey, destinations in one week. I’d go the woman in the wool hat one better.
Back in the day, Chelsea was a place that nobody had heard of. Sandwiched between the Hudson River and Fifth Avenue, and stretching from 14th Street northward to the Empire State Building, it was a mix of pleasantly undecorated brownstones, small-time manufacturers and corner coffee shops that wafted toasty, burger-y smells out to busy sidewalks.
That was then, I discovered. This is now. As soon as I started to walk around, I felt lost. The street signs said the same things they always had — “Seventh Avenue,” “16th Street.” But there seemed to be nothing else I could recognize.
Where, for instance, was the local landmark officially known as Eugene’s Dry Cleaner? Operated by a man named Al, Eugene’s had become famous for its spectacular fish tanks — tanks that, Al would assure, had nothing to do with his French dry-cleaning process. A plaque on the counter attested to the store’s role as the setting for a long-forgotten episode of “Candid Camera.”
Next, I hunted around for Kabob & Brew, a little restaurant that had deeply impressed me as a kid by spelling its name three different ways on canopy, overhead sign and window. Instead, I found a gallery displaying silver gel photography. Hi and Mel’s Corner Luncheonette, which had carried more different kinds of gum than I’d seen anywhere, used to be just down the block from here. But right about on that spot stood an outlet of West Elm contemporary home decor.
Even though it was April, I found I was sweating. Someone had been messing around with memories that I relied on. It was as if my mom were alive again, but dressed in skinny jeans. My heart began drilling into my rib cage, excavating and emitting blasts like a Chelsea construction crew finishing a job. I felt as if I was about to bungee jump from the balcony of my old apartment, 20 stories up. I might have, in fact, if I’d had access and a cord.
This was the moment I made up my mind to head for Vermont right away. Maybe the Green Mountains, which curl up all around Montpelier, could calm things down a bit. Maybe a maple tree or two would make revisiting feel like a trip back in time.
I loaded the car and pointed it north, toward a town that had always worn its history as casually as a flannel shirt. State senators and sap producers knew each other all their lives. Shopped at Somers Hardware. Ate at the Brown Derby on the edge of town.
Then, right near the granite, gold-domed state capitol, I started to notice the tattoos.
Colorado. Canada. Brooklyn. On biceps. On necks. On the back of somebody’s knee. Montpelierites, I realized, had allegiances to other places. Many license plates weren’t the state-standard green. I began to ask around. Was anyone a native Vermonter, like in the ’60s or ’70s? It didn’t seem so.
“Well, but I feel like one,” a bartender said when I barged in, desperate for a beer. “Originally from New York,” he added. “Chelsea district, if you know that. Way too edgy now. Way too stressful. Can’t even go there anymore.”
Sipping the first of my microbrews, shaking the guy’s hand, I came to realize an extreme thing.
I felt at home.
Peter Mandel is an author of books for children. His website is petermandel.net.
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