It’s the simplest question, but one with a hard answer – I could give the answer that Mallory gave when asked why he wanted to climb Everest; “because it’s there” – but that’s only part of it. On one level, that’s a facetious answer – a non-answer. On another level, it’s quite deep – exploring is, perhaps, what defines us as human. If we weren’t explorers, we would never have left the grasslands of East Africa to reach every continent – it’s in our genes.
Freedom of movement is our second most fundamental freedom; freedom to exist is, of course, the most fundamental. Our freedom of movement is very restricted, however – we don’t really live in a three-dimensional world, we live in a mostly one-dimensional world of corridors, roads, paths and other lines, bounded by places we mustn’t go. In our modern world, we are no longer wandering over the grasslands, we are bounded by fences, walls, borders and signs. Mostly by signs – “No Entry”, “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted”, “Danger Of Death”. But, above all, we are bounded by expectations.
It’s expected that we will stay in our place, that we won’t investigate or be nosey. It’s expected that we will obey instructions, orders and signs no matter how silly they are, or how much they treat us as children. So, in some ways, exploring is rebelling – as much with urban exploration as with exploring the Amazon basin, both are rebelling against expectations of what “normal” people do.
It’s also a statement of adulthood. This may sound strange to people who associate messing about in derelict buildings with children and irresponsibility, but in reality the opposite is true. In everyday life, we give away a lot of responsibility over our lives – train guards, bus drivers and pilots are responsible for our lives, only after lots of training. Even the most simple activity is surrounded by safety notices – “Warning! This coffee may be hot!” We are treated as children, incapable of making decisions about our lives. By exploring, we are retaking control – walk past the warning signs, and you take responsibility for your actions, for your life. You become an adult, unable to blame anyone else if something goes wrong.
Risk is a good thing. We are surrounded by risk every day, as soon as we get out of bed (and don’t forget bed-bug-induced asthma), yet we are remarkably bad at quantifying risks. We worry about terrorism or swine flu, yet don’t bother about car accidents, DIY or cancer – all much, much more dangerous. My favourite warning sign is the enigmatic “Beware of Danger!” – as if danger is something that can be entirely avoided.
These are all selfish reasons – that’s not a reason not to explore, of course, as exploring is much less selfish than many other activities – no-one else is harmed. Then, there are the places we explore – often, we are the last people to care about these places. Once, people lived, worked or played here, but now the place is forgotten – doesn’t it deserve to be studied, recorded, loved? Of course it does, just as much as a landscape or ancient monument. This is another reason to explore – because, if we don’t no-one will.