“Wow. That’s crazy.”

I was somewhere in the middle of my annual haircut and the question had arisen as to why my hair had gotten to the length it had. This inevitably necessitated a conversation regarding my travels and expeditions throughout the year in Alaska and Chile. The hairdresser, a friend of a friend, seemed slightly in awe.

“That’s really cool,” she told me. “I don’t want to travel though. I like being at home too much. It’s comfortable.”

At this point, I felt an unbridgeable chasm yawn between us. Our goals, our lifestyles, the very nature of our individual existences were so savagely juxtaposed that it left little room for middle ground in my mind. More to the point, the situation triggered a curious blend of exasperation, bewilderment, pity and a hint of loathing to rise within me. It got me wondering how two people with ostensibly similar backgrounds can be launched upon such vastly different tangents. We had both begun life as middle-class suburbanites in the same city, yet had totally different attitudes in respect to the opposing virtues of adventure and security. Why should this be so?

Matanuska Glacier, Alaska.

Matanuska Glacier, Alaska. Photo: Ryan Siacci.

Intrepid Influences

I feel that the romanticism of films has a lot to answer for in regard to my unrealistic expectations in life. I grew up on adventure films and books which dangerously skewed my perception of certain professions. With the brutish clarity of adult retrospection, I realised that archaeology would never be as awesome as Indiana Jones, that espionage was unlikely to be as thrilling as James Bond and that life as a journalist would pale in comparison to the adventures of Tintin. Nevertheless, these and many others left an indelible mark on my impressionable young mind, which I then carried over into adult life.

But linking the spirit of adventure to the influence of Hollywood is something of a stretch. In my case, I feel like the two are  linked, but as any good scientist or economist will have you know, correlation does not necessarily mean causation. After all, millions of people around the globe have grown up with those same influences. Many of these rarely, if ever, venture into the wilderness. Perhaps the answer lies not in that isolated aspect of my upbringing, but within the broader tapestry that was my childhood as a whole.

My greatest fear as a young adult was conforming to the status quo, the pre-ordained Australian Dream of home-ownership, parenthood and a stable career. It was my most earnest desire to experience a different life to that which my parents had not so much lived as endured. To be clear: I have the utmost respect for my parents and the sacrifices they made to bring myself and my two siblings up in the best way they could. In providing a stable atmosphere for children on a modest income, it was difficult for them to escape the bubble of domestic life. Essentially, they were never at play. Life was work, and that scared the absolute shit out of me. The idea of working the same job in the same location for forty years seems insane to me, though that’s largely a perspective derived from the experience of my generation. As the previous century progressed toward its anti-climactic finale, each generation has been afforded greater freedom, flexibility and range of choices in regard to the paths their lives would take. If it is true that many people are exercising this freedom, then it is also true that a greater majority are waiving the ability to do so. Many seem willing, if not content, to eke out an existence based on the tedious and the mundane. So if restlessness can be attributed neither to cultural influences or childhood experiences, from where does it stem? Could the answer lie in genetics, a question of nature versus nurture?

Wanderlust: In the Blood

‘…a combination of circumstances collaborate to produce the ideal conditions for an adventurous spirit.’

Adventure, it seems, may be simply a quirk of genetics. Studies have identified a mutation within the DRD4 gene, which sounds like a droid from Star Wars but is indeed responsible in part for the control of dopamine, a chemical which is associated with reward. This mutation, labelled DRD4-7R (or 7R for short) is found within approximately 20 per cent of humans and is commonly linked with curiosity and restlessness. It seems itchy feet have their own specific genetic marker.

People who possess 7R are typically more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour, including but not limited to: exploration, eating spicy food, engaging in extreme sports and the darker temptations of drug or alcohol dependence, or risky sexual behaviour. Essentially, 7R brings with it a propensity to move and to experience new things. Not only does it encourage movement, it inhibits stability. According to a 2008 study of Ariaal Tribesmen: “those who carry 7R tend to be stronger and better fed than their non-7R peers if they live in nomadic tribes. However, 7R carriers tend to be less well-nourished if they live as settled villagers. A restless person may thrive in a changeable environment but wither in a stable one.”

This research appears to neatly explain the reason for my insatiably itchy feet. However, experts are quick to comment that the behaviour of humans as exploratory creatures cannot be simply explained by an isolated gene. Once again, we’re at a crossroads without any clear indicator of what makes an adventurer tick. My guess is that it’s no one reason that drives people to travel, to rock climb or to explore the uncharted regions of the globe. Rather, a combination of circumstances collaborate to produce the ideal conditions for an adventurous spirit.

Our Earth is a perfect distance from the sun, a perfect size and weight, and happens to be possessed of water and a breathable atmosphere. All these variables, despite the infinite combinations possible, combine to create a habitable venue for life. On a smaller scale, each adventurer is an analogy for the Earth. They are a human born in a certain location, raised on specific values and possessed of the genetic disposition for adventure. This similarity brings a sort of synchronicity and poetic grace to the explorer who seeks to find in the wilderness a more potent, more poignant and more perfect expression of his or her own nature and that of the human race.

Sunrise over Cerro Hyades, Northern Patagonian Icefield, Chile.

Sunrise over Cerro Hyades, Northern Patagonian Icefield, Chile. Photo: Ryan Siacci.