I’m writing today from the very weird world of Las Vegas. My thoughts on this most bonkers of places are down below.
I hope you enjoyed my newsletter last week. If you didn’t receive it, please would you check in your Spam folder (title = “Shouting from my Shed”) and mark it as ‘Not Spam’? Thank you for all of your opinions and advice on the format.
Here’s what I’d like to share with you this week:
• A good book to read: Don’t aim at success, wrote Viktor Frankl – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. But fear not, this isn’t some motivational hocus pocus. It’s a tale from the Holocaust. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself…. But fear not, it’s not a miserable Holocaust book: it is actually very uplifting and encouraging. I re-read ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ every couple of years. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.
• A new adventure to keep an eye on: Another week, another newsletter, another adventure, another all-female kayaking adventure. I very much like the idea of this one because it offers a novel perspective on a well-worn theme, and should be interesting to follow. For those of us who live in Europe (or “Britain” depending upon your Brexit point of view*), we tend to undervalue just how varied, beautiful, historical, and downright interesting our little peninsula sticking out of the wet west edge of mighty Eurasia actually is.
• A lovely Instagram to follow: I really enjoy the down-to-earth, bonkers, life-affirming photos of Ella wild swimming her way through winter, drinking tea in cold rivers, eating pies in ponds, posing in town fountains. Amidst the polished shallowness of Instagram, this tickles me every time Ella jumps in.
• A superb outdoors film to watch: If you think your hyper-busy life cannot find space for 18 minutes of film, with no speaking, from some bloke in Latvia, then I’d urge you to find the time. I think that if I took the time to turn a tree trunk into a canoe then many of my worldly woes would evaporate. But mine would almost certainly sink, and then I’d just be cross all over again!
• An intriguing article to ponder: In the United States, climbing mountains is quickly becoming this generation’s family trip to the baseball stadium. Hurrah! But this raises questions, too: Where, and when, can we take life-threatening risk? Should we continue to see mountains as wild and dangerous natural places, or extensions of our urban environment?
• An even better newsletter than mine to subscribe to: Join me down this rabbit hole of interesting links and gentle life wisdom with Austin Kleon’s 100 Things review of his year. If you like it, sign up for his newsletter.
• Deep and meaningful wisdom to ponder: “Why is Henry’s wife covered in tooth marks? Because he’s Tudor.” Adele Cliff
• A You’ve Been Framed “fail” to amuse you: Watch the heroic adventurer recline heroically amidst the majestic Giant Redwood trees… One of my genuine ambitions in life is to get on You’ve Been Framed. I thought this was a dead cert. But they rejected me!
• An inspiring event to attend: The London charity Night of Adventure has been running for 7 years now. Tickets have nearly sold out. Come along to listen to BASE jumpers, polar explorers, a family who travelled round the world together, some hardcore mountain running women, und so weiter. Bring a friend.
I travel the world and I explore for many things. Looking for the Spectacular. To be surprised. To stand in wonder and stare at the scale of wonders. For excitement, to be energised, to leave the small and ordinary world behind. The wonders of the world are so limitless, and the range of human nature is so broad, that we can all find these thrills in different ways and in different places.
It was my first visit to Vegas and I came feeling curious. I was here to give a talk, and that went well. But within 24 hours I was ready to leave. If nothing else, Vegas made me realise that I fall in love with virtually every place I ever visit. But not Vegas. The miles of hotel corridors, the smoky dayless casinos, the sense of compulsory fun (but always at a price) made me yearn for the sky and something real.
And so, at the urgings of an American friend, I set my alarm for 3am and hit the highway, heading east for Utah.
Zion National Park was truly magnificent and a privilege to see for myself. To my British eyes, the scale of the canyons and vertical walls was overwhelming. Peering down at the hundreds of metres of vertical drop on either side of the Angel’s Landing lookout horrified and mesmerised me. Any under-estimations I may have had at Alex Honnold’s free ascent of El Capitan disappeared. I held, very tightly, to a pine tree, gnarled and curved and reassuringly solid, and thought with astonishment about someone climbing a vertical wall much higher than this without any ropes! With my knees sufficiently wobbly for one day I made my way gingerly back to safer ground and hiked up to the canyon’s west rim to camp for the night.
Had Prince and I swapped lives (rather an unlikely thought, I know), he would surely have written a song about his Little Red Tent. ‘Tent’ doesn’t fit the scansion as nicely as ‘Corvette’, and I don’t suppose it would have sold quite so well, but I reckon Prince would have enjoyed it up there as much as I did. I camped on a wide expanse of pale slick rock dotted with stunted pine trees. The canyon fell away beneath me. When the moon rose the night was so bright I had to pull my woolly hat down over my eyes to get to sleep. The steep walls behind gleamed in the moonlight and I felt the immensity of a night alone in a massive landscape.
All this, all of this, for the price of a backcountry permit. The money helps protect this wilderness so would be worth giving even if I received nothing in return. But what I did receive so exceeded the small fee that the payment was almost risible. What price could I put on such beauty, such quiet, such permanence, such austere simplicity? I did not need more than this. No flashing lights, no ostentatious cries for attention, dancing water fountains or VIP-only access. That this undiluted wonder is accessible to any person with a humble little tent made it even more regal.
To move from nighttime in Vegas to nighttime atop the Zion Canyon felt comical. Whilst Vegas made me despair for humans in the 21st Century, Zion left me assured that the planet is perfectly safe. Not in the next century or two, perhaps, or for however long we hang around. But in a billion years or so everything here will be just fine, just like this, just perfect.
The equation for fun out here in the wilderness isn’t quite as simple as Vegas’ bright lights and excitement (turn up, spend money). There’s the price of cold nights, rocks in your back, a stinky jacket bundled for a pillow, wind rattling, thoughts of bears. There’s the tiring aching trudge of hiking, the adrenaline fear of precarious perches and scary drops. In fact, it’s not always fun! But that’s part of the fun. It’s an experience, a change from normality, a chance for perspective. That in itself is enough for me. The fact that fun occasionally shows up too is a bonus.
I travel and I explore for many things. Looking for the spectacular. To be surprised. To stand in wonder and stare at the scale of wonders. For excitement, to be energised, to leave the small and ordinary world behind. I found all that here, thanks to my little red tent.
*please don’t email me if you are cross about Brexit, whichever side of the fence (or le fence) that you sit on. My email will drown. Everyone is angry for one reason or another: reason surely to enjoy following Anna’s adventure.