By the time you read this, I hope to have completed something as absurd as it is ambitious: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
I have invested considerable time and expense to accomplish this goal, which will involve flying for almost a full day from my nearly zero-elevation urban home to eastern Africa, where I will spend four days attached to a backpack and trudging toward the mountain's 19,000-foot summit, Africa's highest. There I will gasp the thinnest air I've ever breathed in temperatures that hopefully — I repeat, hopefully — will be in the 20s.
Which leads to a question: Why am I doing this? Wouldn't a beach be more relaxing? A visit to old friends in Portland, Ore.? Wouldn't those be cheaper and, frankly, more fun? Yes and yes. But I am climbing Kilimanjaro — with the help of porters who will make life much easier — for a simple reason that no other kind of travel can touch.
I realized it as soon as I committed. Once all that money was paid and the task lay ahead, the trip became part of me like few others. Fear and excitement had me lifting weights, eating and drinking a little better and climbing the 12 stories of my apartment building again and again. An all-inclusive resort can be a wonderful break from life's daily anxieties, but does it offer much more than the relaxation of the moment?
Anticipation is an important component of any travel, but a 19,000-foot mountain 8,000 miles away offers anticipation I haven't felt in travel in so long that I forgot what it was like. I'm not just excited; I have a mission. That made the Kilimanjaro trip start paying for itself immediately.
Before leaving, I explained the sensation to Josh Kling, owner and operator of Kling Mountain Guides (klingmountainguides.com) in Durango, Colo., who would be leading our group of seven up the mountain. It sounded familiar, he said.
"You're prepping for this huge exam," Kling said. "You could almost say it's pass-fail, and there's no way to cheat. I get vicarious pleasure in helping people go somewhere they might never go if I hadn't pushed them along. I see it a lot."
Maria Coffey, author of several books about adventure travel and co-owner of Hidden Places Travel (hiddenplaces.net), a boutique adventure travel company, said pushing ourselves in travel "is a link back to our ancient ancestors.
"I believe that in our hard wiring is a deep need for this 'in the moment' sensation," she said by email. "It's why people often talk about the most challenging, frightening or life-threatening experiences as their most memorable. We need intensity, and we need a connection to the wild world."
That said, such travel obviously isn't for everyone. But it doesn't need to be.
"You don't have to be an extreme outdoor athlete to experience this — it's about opening yourself to the wild world, and you can do that on all sorts of different levels," Coffey said.
Travel, simply, is what we make it: relaxation, exploration, visiting Aunt Phyllis — or pushing ourselves to unknown heights.
The Travel Mechanic is dedicated to better, smarter, more fulfilling travel. Thoughts, comments and suggestions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include "Travel Mechanic" in the subject line. Follow him on Twitter at @traveljosh.