exploring the backyard

While a grand trip might offer novelty and excitement, there’s adventure to be found in territories much closer to home.

For more than 20 years, the British adventurer Alastair Humphreys roamed the planet. He rowed across the Atlantic, traversed India on foot, cycled around the world. In his lovely essay “A Single Small Map Is Enough for a Lifetime,” published last month, he writes that climate change and familial commitments have caused him to narrow his horizons of late, to seek diversion in his own backyard, “on the fringes of a city in an unassuming landscape, pocked by a glow of sodium lights and the rush of busy roads.”

To begin this exploration, Humphreys orders a map of his neck of the woods from Britain’s Ordnance Survey, which, for a fee, will create a map of any 20 square kilometers of the country at 1:25,000 scale, where four centimeters is the equivalent of one kilometer on the ground. Each hyper-detailed map includes not just roads but footpaths, vegetation and variations in terrain.

(I’ve looked for a similar mapping service in the U.S. but the closest I’ve found are the topographic maps from the U.S. Geological Survey, which aren’t nearly as intricate. If you know of anything better, drop me a line.)

Humphreys commits to deeply exploring one small segment of his map per week, to getting intimate with his immediate environment, by walking or biking every millimeter. “I wanted it to be serendipitous, not governed by my preferences,” he writes. “I hoped to see things I would not ordinarily come across. I decided to treat everything as interesting.”

The first kilometer he undertakes to explore is purposely devoid of any exciting landscape features. He wanders a former marshland, contemplates the seasons, communes with crows and, with the aid of a smartphone app, geeks out on common reeds. His journey is quiet, and contemplative, but still riveting, even in the absence of any drama.

Although Humphreys has made a career of traveling on a grand scale, locating magic in the miniature comes easily. In 2012, he popularized the idea of the “microadventure,” a short, local outing that nevertheless provokes a shift in perspective (picture, for instance, camping under the stars in a nearby wood.)

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