The Art of the Everyday Adventure

Searching for the extraordinary? You'll find it in the ordinary

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Get out now. Not just outside, but out, beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of our century. Go outside, move deliberately, and then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run. Forget about blood pressure, arthritis, cardiovascular rejuvenation, and weight reduction. Instead, pay attention to everything that abuts the rural road, the city street, the suburban boulevard. Walk. Stroll. Saunter. Ride a bike and coast along a lot. Explore.

Flex your mind, a little at first, then a lot. Savor something special. Enjoy the best-kept secret around, the everyday landscape that rewards any explorer, that touches any explorer with magic.

The whole concatenation of wild and artificial things, the natural ecosystem as modified by people over the centuries, the built environment layered over layers, the eerie mix of sounds and smells and glimpses neither natural nor crafted—all of it is free for the taking, for the taking in. Take it, take it in, take in more every weekend, every day, and quickly it becomes the theater that intrigues, relaxes, fascinates, seduces, and above all expands any mind that's focused on it. Outside lies utterly ordinary space open to any casual explorer willing to find the extraordinary. Outside lies unprogrammed awareness that at times becomes directed serendipity. Outside lies magic.

More than 20 years ago, I began teaching the art of exploration at Harvard University, and I have been at it ever since. My courses and the books I have written focus on a variety of subjects: the creation of a national landscape as the treasure common to all citizens, the built environment, the suburban landscape after 1820, the ways that modernization reshapes traditional spaces. But the real focus of all my teaching is the necessity to get out and look around, to see acutely, to notice, to make connections.

Late in the 1980s, I stopped distributing schedules of lectures. Undergraduate and graduate students alike love schedules, love knowing the order of subjects and the satisfaction of ticking off one line after another, class after class, week after week. Confronted by a professor who explains that schedules produce a desire, sometimes an obsession, to “get through the material,” my students grow uneasy. I explain that the lack of a schedule encourages all of us to explore a bit, to take time to answer questions that arise in class, to follow leads that we discover while we're studying something else. Each of my courses, I explain, really concerns exploration, and exploration happens best by accident, by letting way lead on to way, not by following a schedule down a track.

My students resist because they are the children of structured learning and structured entertainment. I explain that if they are afraid of a course on exploring, they may never have the confidence to go exploring on their own. I encourage them to take a chance—and many do. One student has just noticed escape hatches in the floors of intercity buses and inquired about their relation to the escape hatches in the roofs of new school buses. Another has reported a clutch of Virginia- and Kentucky-style barns in an Idaho valley and wonders if the structures suggest a migration pattern. A third has found New York City limestone facades eroding faster on the shady sides of streets. A fourth has noticed that playground equipment has changed rapidly in the past decade and wonders if children miss galvanized-steel jungle gyms. Another has been trying to learn why some restaurants attract men and women in certain professions and repel others, and another (from the same class years ago) has discovered a pattern in coffee shop location. Yet another reports that he can separate eastbound and westbound passengers at O'Hare airport by the colors of their raincoats.

Learning to look around sparks curiosity, encourages serendipity. Amazing connections get made that way; questions that never would be asked otherwise are raised—and sometimes answered. Any explorer sees things that reward not just a bit of scrutiny but also a bit of thought, sometimes a lot of thought over years. Put things in spatial context or arrange them in time, and they acquire value. Even the most ordinary things help make sense of others, even of great historical movements. Noticing dates on cast-iron storm-drain grates and fire hydrants suggests ideas about the shift of iron founding from Worcester and Pittsburgh south to Chattanooga and Birmingham. The storm-drain grates and the fire hydrants are touchable, direct links with larger concepts, portals into the history of industrialization.

I emphasize that the built environment is a sort of palimpsest, a document in which one layer of writing has been scraped off and another one applied. An acute, mindful explorer who holds up the palimpsest to the light sees something of the earlier message, and a careful, confident explorer of the built environment soon learns to see all sorts of traces of past generations.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, for example, experts advised men to have their kitchens painted apple-green. The experts believed that apple-green quieted nervous people, especially wives beginning to think of suffrage, of careers beyond the home. Today, the careful explorer finds in old houses and apartments the apple-green paint still inside the cabinets under kitchen sinks, as well as in the hallways of old police stations and insane asylums. But did apple-green once cover the walls of urban schoolrooms? The explorer who starts to wonder at paint schemes in apartments, houses, and schoolrooms may wonder at the pastels that cover the walls of police stations today and the bold, primary colors painted everywhere in public elementary schools but absent from private ones. History is on the wall, but only those willing to look up from the newspaper or laptop computer are able to glimpse it and ponder.

Exploration is a liberal art because it is an art that liberates, that opens the observer away from narrowness. And it is fun. Ordinary exploration begins in casual indirection, in the juiciest sort of indecision, in deliberate, then routine fits of absence of mind. Follow the sidewalk, follow the street, turn right or left as the wind and sunlight or driving rain suggest. Walk three-quarters of the way around the block, then strike out on a vector—a more or less straight line toward nothing in particular. Follow the down grade or the newer pavement, head for the shadow of trees ahead, strike off toward the sound of the belfry clock, follow the scent of the bakery's back door, drift downhill toward the river. Bicycle to the store, then ride down the alley toward the railroad tracks, bump across the uneven bricks by the loading dock grown up in thistle and chicory, pedal harder uphill toward the Victorian houses converted into funeral homes, make a quick circuit of the schoolyard, coast downhill following the sinuous curves of asphalt covering the newly laid sewer line, tail the city bus a mile or two, swoop through a multilevel parking garage, glide past the firehouse back door, slow down and catch your reflection in plate-glass windows.

The world is fundamentally mysterious and often maddeningly complex. Exploring it awakens the dormant resiliency of youth, the easy willingness to admit to making a wrong turn and going back a block, the comfortable understanding that some explorations take more than just one afternoon, the certain knowledge that lots of things that exist in the wide world just down the street make no immediate sense.

Exploring not only awakens attitudes and skills dulled by programmed education, jobs, and the hectic dash from dry cleaner to grocery store to dentist, it also makes people realize that all the skills acquired in the probing and poking at ordinary space are training for dealing with the vicissitudes of life. Exploring ordinary landscapes sharpens all the skills of exploration.

It also intensifies all the senses, especially sight. Seeing intently means scrutinizing, staring, narrowing your eyes, even putting your hand across your forehead to shade your eyes in one of the oldest of human gestures. The hand over the eyes shields them from some sideways, incident light; cupping your hands around your eyes works even better. Spruce, pine, hemlock, and other coniferous trees become suddenly greener because you see their colors as saturated, free of the blanching caused by dispersed light. And since the human eye evolved to see saturated color, cupping your hands around your eyes makes possible more precise scrutinizing even of distant things. Shielded eyes pierce the haze that afflicts most places nowadays and reveals distant slopes not so much as brownish or gray, but as darker blue, and the trees as blue-green. Any explorer learning how to look soon discovers the astounding interplay of light, shadow, and color.

Exploration encourages creativity, serendipity, invention.

So go without purpose.

Go for the going.

Excerpted from Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places . Copyright 1998 by John R. Stilgoe. Reprinted with the permission of Walker and Company.