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Life among adventurers

In the midst of a presidential election when the highest goal of the
nation seems to be comfort, ease, and security, it is hard to recall all
those earlier centuries when men were most admired for their daring and
courage. There are still reminders of the earlier periods in “action”
movies and, before the cinema, tales of men who discovered unknown seas
and even continents. “Adventurers” they were called.

But adventure isn’t to the modern world what it was to Teddy
Roosevelt. The “rugged individualist” is no longer much admired. Boys no
longer dream of adventures in the Great West, in a chain of South Sea
Islands, or while discovering the sources of the Nile. They dream
perhaps of being passengers on an interplanetary rocket flight, but the
realization is slowly spreading that there’s nothing out in space —
nothing, in any case, that it’s worth sacrificing a man’s life to

The great explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson was fond of arguing that
“adventure” was what happened when you “screwed up.” This state of
affairs can’t be helped. Much as it takes interpersonal conflict to
animate a novel, so it often takes danger and even failure to turn a
routine journey into a historic adventure — sometimes a tragic
adventure. It’s hard to forget Scott’s last words jotted in his log as
he fought the freezing cold on his way back from the Antarctic:

But perhaps such a passage’s function is not to be read in
comfort by a warm fireplace. Perhaps at least a tiny bit of its stoic
courage will carry over into the reader’s life for use at some other
point, perhaps in a dread calamity. This, in any case, is the hope one
feels when reading “Points Unknown: A Century of Great Exploration,”
jointly published by Norton and Outside magazine, which has became a
dazzling new success in the magazine business — and whose stock in
trade is bravery. The volume is an anthology of some 40 tales of
heroism, the two best known perhaps being excerpts from Sebastian
Junger’s “The Perfect Storm” (the subject of the hit movie starring
George Clooney) and from Tom Wolfe’s justly celebrated “The Right

The tales are highly varied: “The Story of Shackleton’s Last
Expedition,” “The Man Who Walked Through Time” (an account of the first
man to go on foot through the Grand Canyon). Other tales of desperate
daring range from the Amazon to Mount Everest: “Sailing Alone Around the
World,” “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush,” “Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost
at Sea” and “Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors.”

One of the most stirring stories is one told “from the other side,”
as it were — the tale of Massai, an Apache and one of Geronimo’s
warriors who escaped from a prison train en route to Florida. He
wandered at large for an incredible 25 years to avoid the hated “White
Eyes” (as the Apache called Anglo-Americans). Massai’s wife knew that,
encumbered by their children, she could not escape from the prison
train, but urged her husband on.

By himself, as he wandered after his escape, Massai was lonely until
he came upon some Apache women, who, to his surprise, were not afraid of
him. The Apache did not molest women, they told him. Even white women.
When he heard three Apache girls splashing in a pool, he decided to
carry one of them off with him for company. After they had traveled
together for a week, without her speaking a word, Massai lost patience.
“You must choose,” he told the girl. “Either you will continue the
journey to my people willingly, or I will give you a horse and food and
turn you loose. Choose.”

“You are a good man,” the girl murmured. “I will go with you.” She
mounts the horse. They rejoin his mother and her family. The family
feasts. And thus they are married.

Years pass. They have children. And all this time the White Eyes
pursue Massai, and finally kill him. The night Massai’s wife learns of
his death she sets out with her children and scouts a village near San
Marcial. There are men in every house but one, which contains one old
lady. They tap on her door and a voice from within asks: “Who’s there?”

Massai’s widow answers in Spanish, and “A woman and children, cold
and hungry.”

The old woman welcomes them with a warm “come in.”