Article from FaithWorks magazine,
November/December 1999,
pages 4-7



     By Robert Parham and Greg Warner

FROM ADRENALINE-PUMPING mountain climbing to comfortable car camping, a record number of Americans are hearing the call of the wild.

People are turning off their computers and driving away from their secure suburban neighborhoods to experience the adventurous outdoors.

An estimated 98 million Americans took an adventure trip in the past five years, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. Of that number, 31million opted for "hard adventure activities" – whitewater rafting, scuba diving, mountain biking and the like -- over "soft adventure" outings like skiing and horseback riding.

The nation's 378 national parks will record 300 million visits in 1999, an increase over the record 286 million in 1998. More than 8,000 adventure outfitters operate in the U.S., according to Runner's World magazine.

Why do we crave escape?

In pursuit of better health and adventure, Americans apparently are no longer content to trudge to the health club regularly and cart the kids off to Disney once a year. They want to combine vacationing and conditioning with a rush of adrenaline. Driving this trend, some say, is America's adventurous spirit. Others say Americans court risk--a la extreme sports--to counteract their otherwise sterile, predictable lives. Still others see a spiritual dimension --a longing for a spiritual connection with nature and its Creator.

In the premier issue of Adventure magazine (Spring 1999), the editor said "the time is right" for Americans to return to the wild. "Over the last several decades, the wjldest corners of the world have opened up. Almost any of us, with a little time to spend a little savings to spend, can travel to places and do things that no previous generation could. Every couple of years, we can have an adventure of a lifetime."

The RUSH is on

Americans are answering the call of the wild for many reasons and in a variety of ways, from the sublime to the extreme. For some it's simply an image: They may drive the sports utility vehicles, wear earth-tone clothing and watch the Discovery Channel. But they seldom venture beyond their suburban homes. The others, those who truly engage nature, differ greatly in their intent and intensity. Some want to break the monotony of modern life. Others long to reconnect with nature. Still others crave the adrenaline rush. How deeply they plunge in often depends on their age, gender, physical condition, family status, affluence and value system.

What's driving us out of doors?

Americans, some say, have wilderness travel in their cultural DNA. After all, this is the nation named for an Italian navigator (Amerigo Vespucci), settled by Pilgrims and colonized by pioneers. American adventurers are simply following the path of their explorer-ancestors.

Some see a psychological explanation --a flight from technology. The artificial reality of technology disconnects people from nature and from human nature. Americans seek escape, even if temporary, from a world of computers, cubicles, cell phones, beepers, voice mail, security systems and hermetically sealed homes and cars. We search for a connection with the natural world.

Americans embark on wilderness adventures to escape boredom, according to another theory. They are bored with the suburbs --commuting to work, school and church. They are weary of prepackaged foods and synchronized traffic lights. The predictable convenience of modern life creates a longing for the unpredictability of nature. They suffer "vacation fatigue," bored with the standard middle-class excursions to the lake, beach, theme park or resort hotel. ...


Some extreme adventurers are not courting nature as much as they're courting risk, says environmental activist Peter Illyn. "These are people who are really wanting to get in touch with their adrenal glands. I don't necessarily have a problem with that. A lot of people feel more alive when they aren't in control." Illyn, who leads Christian groups on backpacking trips, says danger can be a learning experience, such as when campers encounter bears in the wilderness. "When people aren't at the top of the food chain anymore, that changes their perspective."

But there are more important lessons to learn, he adds.

"Your soul needs the wild."

Illyn and other Christian environmental activists promote a kind of ecotourism for the soul -- wilderness experiences designed to connect Christians to the spiritual dimension of creation.

"The Psalms say, 'Speak to the earth and it will teach you,"' explains Illyn, who lives in Washington state. "There is the beauty and peace in the wilderness. But there also is almost a spiritual transcendence about it."

Most Christians believe creation shows God 's handiwork. But few make a practice of seeking spiritual truth by interacting with nature, says Illyn. "For many, this is the first time they've gone out into nature intentionally as Christians.


Don Wallace of Aurora, Colo., says seeking God in the wild changed him. "It's about letting go. There is a freedom and a renewal that takes place when you are out there. We experience a richness in our relationship with God that changes our values. ...I'm less materialistic and more concerned for the greater whole of creation, rather than just the part that I control.

Wallace, a former missionary and now a landscape architect, says he has always lived in the suburbs and was "not much into creation care" before going on a wilderness outing three years ago.

Fred Krueger, who led Wallace on that first excursion, has been teaching about creation for twenty years, but more intentionally for the last four years through a program called Opening the Book of Nature. Krueger and other leaders take groups of up to 20 people on weekend treks into the wild. "We’re not learning about the wilderness. We’re learning about God, about the centrality of Jesus Christ," says Krueger, an Eastern Orthodox Christian from Santa Rosa, Calif.

Rather than teaching spiritual truths, however, the leaders simply ask questions and let the participants discover the lessons of the land on their own. "All of a sudden they are having remarkable breakthroughs in their insights. …Sometimes participants break down and cry.


Krueger insists this is nothing new. Early Christians understood the spiritual power of nature, he says, but that discipline was largely abandoned after the Reformation. "All we are doing is recovering a legacy."

Finding God’s presence in nature, Wallace says, provides "a healthy balance to the rationalism that dominates much of society. It also is a way to relate to those attracted to New Age religions, he adds. "By giving a place to this doctrine, we are witnessing to them."

Peter Illyn says wilderness adventures not only promote spiritual growth but can heal relationships. He has seen divorced fathers reconciled with their children while in the wild, for instance. "Something happens in nature."

He agrees learning from nature is a very traditional part of Christianity. "We’re not worshiping nature, we’re worshiping with nature," he says. "Nature is a part of the choir of God. When we are in nature, we become part of that choir.

"It’s time for Christians to fall back in love with nature."

Christians aren’t the only ones rediscovering wilderness.

Endangered Spirit promotes itself as a "Jewish outdoor adventure program." Its goal is to provide "an opportunity for Jews of all backgrounds to experience the connection between Judaism and nature."

One travel agency offers "a spiritual journey of holistic therapy" in Nepal. The trip includes nature tours, yoga treks, meditation, and guided sightseeing of the Buddhist and Hindu temples.

Those who seek adventure with a spiritual purpose probably are riding the back-to-nature wave in the broader culture. Analysts say that trend will only pick up speed in the next century as more and more people grow disenchanted with the antiseptic world wrought by technology. That means more and more people likely will be looking for meaning "out there."

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Robert Parham is executive director of the Nashville-based
Baptist Center for Ethics (;
Greg Warner is executive editor of FaithWorks.


FaithWorks magazine is published by the
Associated Baptist Press, Jacksonville, Florida