Sports column: Lessons from Steinbeck and U-Hual

Roughly two and a half decades ago I got married, finished graduate school, and moved to Vermont for a job teaching at Middlebury College. That was a time when U-Haul, a company synonymous with cross-country moves, had the motto: “Adventures in Moving.”

Now let me say that “Adventures in Moving” is a terrible motto for a moving company. The last thing I want when packing up and relocating my life is anything resembling adventure. I want my move to be as unadventurous as possible. Moving adventures may make good — or at least humorous — stories when told years later.

They do not make good moving experiences. Marriage and a new job are adventures enough without broken furniture, lost dishes, midnight drives in the rain on unknown roads, creepy motel rooms, and the sudden appearance of flashing blue lights in the rearview mirror.

Actually, I can take this principle a step further. I have two conflicting impulses. On the one hand I enjoy visiting new, wild, and scenic places. I love fishing in these sorts of places, along with hiking, camping, and canoeing. There is an indescribable pleasure to be found in looking out my tent flap at a 10,000-foot peak, or at an alpine meadow in which I might see elk and through which runs a lovely little river.

It’s also not too bad to look up from the surface of the water where I have just dropped a fly and to see these views — though I admit to having lost no small number of trout because my eyes were on the distant peaks instead of my fly.

As of June of this year, I have caught trout in 25 states, three Canadian provinces, and two European countries. Some day I’d like to get this up over 40 states, and I wouldn’t mind adding New Zealand, Chile, Ireland and Iceland to the list of countries. There are also a few more Canadian provinces I would like to fish.

On the other hand — and this may surprise my legions of regular readers, especially given the previous paragraph — I prefer to avoid what might be called “adventure.”

My good friend David O’Hara, who has been on many fishing trips with me, and on a few occasions has even found himself on a fishing adventure with me, recently gave me a copy of Steinbeck’s book “The Log from the Sea of Cortez.”

Steinbeck is best known as the Nobel Prize winning author of “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.” But in 1940 Steinbeck took a two-month trip in a sardine boat with his close friend Edward Ricketts, a marine biologist. The two wanted to collect and catalog invertebrates from the Gulf of California, known also the Sea of Cortez.

Though the term “known” is rather an exaggeration when used to refer to that water. At the time it was mapped only in a rough sort of way. There had been little comprehensive and systematic study of the invertebrate life that could be found along the beaches.

Dave gave me a copy of the book because we were in the midst of co-authoring our own book on brook trout and the ecology of the Appalachians. He thought that Steinbeck’s narrative approach toward describing what for Ricketts was a scientific venture was a good model for our project.

In order to finish our book, we were also spending two weeks together in a cabin in the wooded coastal mountain range of Oregon. Though a comfortable cabin, it lacked cell and Internet service. There was also a cougar living somewhere nearby. It had been seen a few weeks earlier from the window of the cabin. Its scat decorated the nearby trails.

Steinbeck, in the opening chapter, writes of the “urge toward danger” called “adventure” — an urge that is present in many members of our species. Though in the oft dryly-humorous style that characterizes this work, he points out that danger itself is not enough to satisfy the adventure-urge:

“Your adventurer feels no gratification in crossing Market Street in San Francisco against the traffic. Instead he will go to a good deal of trouble and expense to get himself killed in the South Seas. In reputably rough water, he will go in a canoe; he will invade deserts without adequate food and he will expose his tolerant and inoculated blood to strange viruses. This is adventure.”

I was just invited to visit Alaska for a couple days this October in order to lecture on my research. After giving a Friday afternoon talk and tutorial, I will then spend the weekend with my brother. We hope to get down the Kenai Peninsula to spend Saturday fishing for steelhead in the Anchor River near Homer, and perhaps Sunday going after either big rainbows or sea-run Dolly Varden char feasting on rotting salmon.

That, anyway, is the plan. However my brother, sister-in-law, and nephews who live in Anchorage are usually cross-country skiing on a foot of snow by early October, navigating around the moose that move into the city parks for the winter. When they are out in the wilderness fishing for trout or salmon they carry pepper spray and a handgun because of the bears. (My favorite Alaskan t-shirt reads: “Alaska, where there’s nothing to fear but fear itself. And the bears.”) Not that my brother needs any of that. Adventure has a way of finding him.

I noticed some time ago that U-Haul wisely changed its motto. Likewise, after describing the urge to adventure found in others, Steinbeck notes very simply, “We had no urge toward adventure.” I couldn’t agree more. But sometimes, as was the case with Steinbeck and Ricketts on the Sea of Cortez, and with countless cross-country movers, and apparently even from time to time with an angler or two, adventure happens.

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