Adventure Man

In my other life, I was him.

Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India. Photo by Ryan Bradley

It was in India, in Delhi, that I first saw Adventure Man in real life. Of course I’d imagined him and seen him in movies and read about him in books for years and years before that afternoon. Or was it morning? The time of day does not really matter and it was long enough ago (a decade? more than a decade!) that I remember it being bright and hot, hazy and noisy which, ha, take your pick: it was bright/hot/hazy/noisy almost every day I lived in Delhi except for when the fog-slash-pollution stuck low to the ground.

I was working there, sort of. I was an intern at India Today but they’d never had an intern for more than a few weeks. I was there for months and months and they didn’t quite know what to do with me. That afternoon (or whenever) I was meeting a classmate, my friend Dan, who was also an intern but not at India Today. India Express? Let’s go with that. Mostly what’s important was that we were two white guys in our young twenties semi-working in a semi-exotic city (to us), far from our midwest college and feeling kind of cool about it. Or, I was feeling kind of cool about it. Dan, it was hard to know. Then we saw Adventure Man.

You know Adventure Man because you know Indiana Jones. I mean not personally but you can imagine that look and expand it outward into an archetype and that is, more or less, what I’m talking about. That’s what Adventure Man looks like. A ruggedly handsome guy on the early end of middle age who appears entirely at ease in a land that is not his own. He is a traveler. Or, no: He is the traveler. Also he is wearing a hat that looks amazing on him, a hat that would look very silly on almost anyone else.

Adventure Man was walking toward me. I was staring at Adventure Man and, as we got closer, I saw that Adventure Man was staring back at me. Then Adventure Man nodded and touched the front of his hat as he passed me by. (I don’t think it was a fedora. It wasn’t the full Indy. Let’s say it was a Panama hat and he was in linen, a linen suit that wasn’t white, because that’d be too on the nose and sort of villainous.) In the moment, I wasn’t staring at Adventure Man because he was Adventure Man, but because he looked like me. He looked, like, eerily like me. Like I was seeing some vision of the future appear before me. A premonition. Maybe a goal, maybe a warning. Maybe that’s why he was staring back. What the hell was up with that nod?

“That was super weird,” Dan said. “That dude looked just like you.” I didn’t say anything. Several moments passed. The silence was prolonged enough that Dan eventually added something like, “I feel like I wasn’t suppose to see that,” and apologized for being there. Maybe you’re wondering how I know Dan said these things but can’t recall the time of day I saw Adventure Man. Well, memory is like that, and also I was at that point in my life keeping a pretty decent journal that included the entry: “Dan sees future self near Jantar Mantar. I see future self? Dan says: That was super weird. Then apologizes for being there.”

Needless to say Adventure Man burrowed into my concept of me and I embraced him wholeheartedly. Entire journal entries were all about following in this fella’s footsteps. I didn’t call him Adventure Man back then, though. But boy did I aim to be him.

Several months later I was traveling alone through northern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas and even into the real hills. For a week or so I backpacked outside of Dharamsala, longtime home to the Dalai Lama and many other exiled Tibetans. I was a traveler. I was the traveler. I was living as Adventure Man had showed me I was supposed to live.

One day I hiked to a misty mountaintop. Through the fog a huge griffon vulture glided very close to me, then circled back and came even closer, so close I fell flat to the ground to avoid it getting any nearer. That night it rained, and I slept in a little teahouse on the mountain. When I walked back into town at dawn through the drizzle I came upon a busload of German tourists who had an appointment with His Holiness. I followed them and sat in the back. The whole day I felt, somehow, unseen. Like I could go anywhere, experience everything, a stone skipping over a perfect reflective pond, hardly creating a ripple. I spoke almost no words to anyone that day. It was my twenty-second birthday. I’d never felt more free.

A year later, I was working for a magazine that had as its title the word Adventure. Yes, I was behind a desk most days, but still I was striving toward the image Adventure Man had nodded my way. I suppose you already know how this ends because the narrative arch of a young man living freely and adventurously then being, somehow, tamed or domesticated as he ages is a very, very cliched one. An entire genre of mostly mediocre books has guys like me reaching early middle age and then longing for escape. So they go in search of some explorer or lost city or whatever, and wow what do you know in the process they find themselves!?

Adventure Man looked like me and I wanted, for a long time, to be him and then all the usual things happened: I fell in love and got married and stuck around, saw people I love have kids of their own, saw relatives and friends — more people I love — die. Only all of those things except the first one happened over the past six months, a period that has contained the most joy and sorrow I’ve ever known in one ridiculously short period.

A few weeks ago, wanting to escape a little bit, I read a big science fiction novel about a group of humans traveling to a distant planet with the goal of settling it. The crew had been aboard their ship for generations, about 170 years from Earth. When they get to where they are supposed to be, it’s increasingly clear that it is not a place where they can make a life. Not, in other words, a home. So they try something dangerous and crazy: they decide to go back to a place that they’ve never known, back where they came from.

Settle is a very odd verb. Settlers are people who strike out into lands with the plan of making a life there, embracing something essentially insecure and unknown; but you can also settle down, into a life that insures security. To settle is be both risky and not risky at all, but the older I get the more I think the former is the truer sense of the word. To be present, a part of a place, to build a home and a life around that, to be there to see things that are joyful, yes, but also hard and very sad; to do all this maybe even with someone else, bundling up your life with theirs, this is far more adventurous than I once thought. This is to me right now the most adventurous thing imaginable.

Ryan Bradley is a writer in Los Angeles.

In My Other Life, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2016.