by: Thomas Hayden

F or 67 days, the five British explorers trudged on ski and foot, hauling dwindling supplies on sledges across the icy Antarctic highlands. Robert Falcon Scott and his companions persevered through mountains, crevasse fields, blizzards and 35-below temperatures, determined to be the first men to reach the South Pole. And then, Scott wrote on t4 Jan.16, 1912, “The worst has happened.” The expedition’s most telling photograph shows not triumph but dejection; four men grimly contemplating a small tent topped with a Norwegian flag. “Great God!” Scott wrote upon discovering that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beat him to the pole “This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.” Nine hundred miles of just about the worst conditions on the planet, and all you get is the last guy’s trash.

Humanity has been on the move for at least 50,000 years, when DNA evidence suggests early people first migrated out of Africa. We’ve been spreading across the globe ever since, in a steady push of exploration that culminated, to the Scott team’s deep chagrin, just a few weeks before they arrived at the Furest South. (They would later perish on their return, pinned down in a blizzard less than a day’s walk from a supply depot that could have saved them.)

WHAT’S LEFT? Today, says Taras Grescoe, author of a captivating, if some-what discouraging, history of travel called The End of Elsewhere, Scott’s distress has become universal. With some 700 million travelers hitting increasingly well- worn trails every year, Grescoe says, “there’s “nowhere left on the face of the Earth to get away from other tourists.” We are an exploring species, faced with a distressing question. With one final frontier after another conquered, cataloged, and neatly described in travelguides, is there anywhere left to explore? At first blush, there isn’t much hope for would-be Magellans.

In this age of nothing left to do, the Portuguese explorer’s magnificent 16th-century circumnavigation of the globe has been reduced to one more in a seemingly endless series of adventure races. It still takes endurance, technical mastery, and considerable bloody-mindedness to sail around the world, but when French sailor Francis Joyon soloed the globe in a record-smashing 73 days recently, he saw nothing new, and his 26,000-mile journey was slowed when his 90-foot trimaran rammed into floating debris. Even in the most remote stretches of open ocean, researchers have shown, the sea surface is littered with floating garbage, the universal human footprint.

Britain’s Ranulph Fiennes, dubbed by the Guinness World Records book “the world’s greatest living explorer,” has played a considerable part in spoiling the sense of the new for the rest of us. Yet, despite decades of “firsts,” including reaching both poles and trekking across Antarctica without a support team, Fiennes once admitted that on only one trip, through an isolated area of Antarctica in the 1970s, did he indeed go where no man or woman—had gone before.

There are still mountains left to climb for the first time,most of them in Antarctica or in China and former Soviet bloc countries where western climbers have had a hard time gaining access. But it’s just a matter of time before they, too, are conquered, either by climbers or by advertisers, looking for one last unspoiled promontory upon which to plop an SUV to film a commercial.

With all the really good landmarks taken, one enterprising adventurer is literally crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s of exploration. In 1996 Alex Jarrett of North-ampton, Mass., began traveling to geographical also-rans. Portable GPS device in hand, he set out to visit as many “degree confluence” points—spots on the map where a whole-number line of latitude crosses a whole-number line of longitude----as he could. The quixotic project caught on with other cartography buffs, and Jarrett’s Web site now boasts photos of almost 3,000 confluence points, submitted by thousands of volunteers. Jarrett has given new hope to wanna-be explorers; more than 60,000 confluences—some in the open ocean, some perhaps in your neighbor’s garage—remain to be “discovered.”

There is, of course, still outer space. But the sad fact, revealed in the tepid response of space scientists to President Bush’s push to send astronauts to Mars, is that fragile humans are a liability to space exploration, not an aid. The real work of exploring the solar system will be done by robots, with any humans who tag along adding billions to the cost but not much by way of discovery. Besides, the golden days of exploration were far more democratic; any Spanish sailor with a case of wanderlust could sign on with a conquistador; a Canadian voyageur needed only a strong arm and a sack of pemmican to hop in a canoe and make the kind of first contact with native tribes that would make an anthropologist swoon. Today’s astronauts have Ph.D.’s and M.D.’s, and marathon times that would have shamed the tough guys of the past. Space may indeed be the final frontier, but it’s one that few of us could ever hope to see.

Closer to home, marine biologists and oceanographers often complain that their natural domain, the deep seas, is even less well known than the moon or Mars, which have been surveyed in detail by satellites. The international Census of Marine Life is discovering new fish at a rate of about 160 species a year, along with thousands of other new plants and animals. “We’ve only looked at about 5 percent of the world’s oceans in any kind of detail,” says marine biologist and National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence Sylvia Earle; clearly, there are plenty of exotic ocean ecosystems and underwater mountains, which dwarf any on dry ground, left to explore.

Still, little of that will be done by divers or manned submersibles; robots and sophisticated imagers are the mainstays of deep-sea exploration. In science, probing the unknown more often means peering into a microscope than cruising the world, and “discovery” can mean finding a guppy with an extra spine in its dorsal fin.

 FORGING AHEAD. So what remains for the rest of us?

Even repeating famous journeys of exploration feels hackneyed these days. Google the phrase “retracing the steps on the Web, and you get more than 5,000 hits Lewis and Clark? You can do it in a Winnebago. Some guy named Norm posting to a travel Web site tells of paddling solo in a canoe along the 2,000-mile route Alexander Mackenzie followed 200 years ago in search of an Arctic North west Passage. “An amazing journey,” he reports but Norm of the Arctic nails the current state of exploration with the thought that comes just before But the trip was really more significant for the inner journey it entailed.”

And yet, perhaps even a journey over relatively well-traveled ground—or water--- can still be true exploration. This March, a crew of scientists will retrace the voyage around Baja California that John Steinbeck and his marine biologist friend Ed “Doe” Ricketts chronicled in their 1951 classic The Log From the Sea of Cortez. “I think there is discovery in seeing the world through new eyes and exploring what has changed with new tools and ideas says science writer Jon Christensen, who will play Steinbeck to Stanford marine biologist Bill Gilly’s Ricketts.

In an ever changing world, perhaps there will always be new ground to cover. Even if others have trudged there first, there is still joy, after all, in making the first new footprints in a fresh field of snow.

 —With Angie C Marek



February 23 / March 1, 2004. (pgs.85-6)

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