The Art of the Everyday Adventure

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


| July-August 1999



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.