Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What is Adventure?

What does it take to make a motorcycle trip an "adventure?" If you look around the motorcycle market, there's no shortage of "adventure" or "adventure touring" motorcycles. In the three years since I bought my Wee-Strom, Yamaha has introduced the Super Tenere to the U.S. market, Triumph down-sized the (arguably sport-touring, rather than adventure touring) Tiger 1050 into the Tiger 800 and the Tiger 800XC, and even Honda is trying to get a piece of the action with two new "cross-over" models, even though they are more street bike than even the Strom.

All of this interest in "adventure" bikes begs the question, however: what exactly is "adventure touring?" Is a ride an "adventure" if you are only on a day trip, or must you at least be gone overnight? A weekend? Two weeks or longer? What about road conditions? Perhaps you must spend the night under the stars somewhere before you can honestly call the ride an "adventure?" Is the length of the ride the determining factor? Maybe one can only claim an adventure ride if it involves at least one international border crossing? All of these, I would think, have a bearing on whether or not a ride is an adventure.

Consider two extremes: "Jupiter's Travels" and "Dreaming of Jupiter" are two books written by bonified adventure tourer Ted Simon, documenting his two trips around the world by motorcycle. By any measurement one might care to use, these two trips are undoubtedly "adventures." At the other extreme, in "Alaska by Motorcycle" Dr. Greg Frazier tells the story of a couple who load their Harley-Davidson's onto the Alaska Ferry in Seattle, then try to buy "I Rode My Harley to Alaska" t-shirts at Anchorage House of Harley. That's not exactly the type of trip I dream about, but hey, whatever floats your boat. So where does the scale tip from an ordinary ride to an "adventure?"

Consider duration of the trip first. Earlier this year, I took a morning ride to a nearby 4x4 trail. This trail is steep, rocky and rutted. Furthermore, when I took my V-Strom up the trail early this year, I was stopped less than a half-mile up the trail due to snow:

The entire round trip from my house, up the trail and back, was less than an hour in duration, but I was pushing myself, and my bike, as hard as I dared. Was this trip an "adventure?"

Speaking of road conditions, is it possible to have an "adventure" on macadam, or must you ride on dirt at least once during the trip? If so, does a well-maintained gravel road count? Two-track? Maybe a ride doesn't count unless you are on single-track? If road conditions are the only qualification, then the hour ride I described above must surely qualify, but are road conditions the difference between an adventure and an average ride? Are road conditions even relevant? Even though most of the Alaska Highway is paved now, it seems to me that anyone riding from the lower-48 to Alaska on a motorcycle has certainly earned the right to use the "adventure" label.

But is that only because there are still gravel portions on the road, or is it that a trip up the Al-Can is a multi-day trip? Does a trip up the Al-Can even qualify? How much of an adventure is it for a couple on a GoldWing, sleeping in a nice hotel every night, eating three squares a day in restaurants and pulling a trailer with all of the necessities that they cannot live without behind them? To me, that sounds more like luxury touring than adventure touring!

Then again, maybe the same couple, on the same GoldWing would have more of a claim to the adventure moniker if they slept under the stars, eating freeze-dried camping food? In that case, does a pop-up trailer count, or must you sleep in a tent or bivy sack? But again, this definition fails to satisfy. A couple of weeks ago, I took my Wee-Strom for a season shake-down overnighter to Burma Landing. Although bad weather made for a rough trip -- I was pretty cold by the time I got home, despite heated grips and Thinsulate-lined gloves -- I would be embarrassed to call the trip an "adventure." I was still in my own back yard, figuratively speaking, even if I had to drive an hour and a half out of the way to get there!

One might claim that a trip isn't really an adventure unless you make at least one border crossing, in which case, the hypothetical couple on the GoldWing are set, and my trip to Burma Landing is not remotely an "adventure." However, even that definition is open to argument. Certainly riding from Deadhorse to Ushaia qualifies, but what about a ten minute ride from a German border town down the Autobahn to a French border town on a BMW S1000RR? Is such a ride more an "adventure" than my overnight trip on the Denali Highway in Alaska last year simply because of a single border crossing? (Okay, yes, simply riding an S1000RR on the Autobahn would be an adventure in my book, but that's not the kind of adventure I am talking about in this context ;)

Maybe the problem is that, in all of what I have written above, I am speaking in absolutes. That is, I am asking the question, "What factor determines whether a trip is or is not an 'adventure'" when instead, I should be discussing "adventure" in terms of degrees. Can I honestly say that the couple who ferried their bikes to Alaska didn't have an adventure, at least by their standards? Even if I would, would I still argue that point if I found out that they were 70 years old, and had spent their entire lives within 20 miles of the place of their birth?

Perhaps there is no line in the sand where one can say "this side of the line is adventure; that side is not." Perhaps it is all a study in shades of grey, instead. While I probably would not call my hour trip up the 4x4 trail nor my shake-down ride to Burma Landing "adventures" both trips certainly had characteristics of an adventure. To me, last year's Denali Highway trip seems to qualify, but would I stack that trip up as an example next to Ted Simon's, Greg Hedstead's or Alissa Clickenger's travels (answer: "no")?

Finally, does it even really matter? Ultimately, I don't ride for bragging rights. I ride to enjoy being out in nature. I ride to put away the cares and stress of my job, of daily life. I ride to go places I have never been and see things I have never seen. Not one of those things is in the least bit affected by whether or not the motorcycling community slaps the "adventure" label on any particular trip.