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How to become an adventurer


Posted by Leon McCarron of Leon McCarron under Adventure Racing, Cycling, Walking on 24 November 2013 at 12:00 AM

Leon McCarronIn 2008 I graduated from university. It should have been one of the happiest days of my life, but all I remember is a horrible sense of fear and a sinking realisation that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. As a film studies graduate during a global recession, I was near the bottom of the heap in the job market. 

My applications for work in the film industry yielded zero positive results. After no short amount of soul searching I came to realize that maybe this was a chance to see obstacle as opportunity. I had a little money, not much - just a few thousand pounds in savings, but what I had in abundance was time. I wondered what I could do with that combination, and thought again of the wonderful Howard Thurman quote: “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” 

My passions, I knew, were storytelling and adventure. I’ve always loved the idea of sharing ideas and stories through the visual medium, and adventure has been in my blood since I was a child: running and hiking and cycling and camping in the hills and forests of Northern Ireland. So how to use the recession to my advantage and embrace my passions? How to come alive? The answer seemed obvious: I would try to cycle around the world.

After a further year of working and saving and planning and dreaming I set off from New York City on an overloaded bicycle. I wanted to start thousands of miles away from home to minimize the chance of instant failure; beginning from my front door in the UK, it might have been all to easy to give in to the fear and call it off. As it was, the start was tough. I had no idea what to do except keep turning the pedals and hope the world was kind. In the midst of particularly rough East Coast winter, I spent my first few days as a sweaty, stressed, exhausted mess and my nights shivering off to sleep. “Brave explorers don’t cry,” I reminded myself.

Leon McCarron Explorer

The first two weeks were the toughest of the whole journey. Often I suppose there is a lot of abject misery to be found in following our dreams. I could still just about sense the greater purpose - the reward I’d gain from pushing through and lessons I might learn - but it was hard, so hard, and every fibre of my being wanted to give up and go home. Go back to being warm and happy and content and stationary. 

I didn’t go home. I reminded myself how lucky I was to have this chance in life and convinced myself to keep going. Eventually, the good times came around. I eased into the lifestyle and became comfortable with it. I got fitter than I had ever been before and cycled 100 miles a day without a second thought. I saw the USA change from the ocean to the prairies to the desert to the mountains and all the way across to a different ocean. I met an amazing cast of people with lives so rich and experiences so varied that I felt permanently humbled and fortunate to have had such an adventure.

The journey took me (rather than the other way round) on all sorts of twists and turns. In Mexico I made a snap decision to go to New Zealand, and from there onwards to Australia. I then worked my way up through South East Asia and into Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China- countries and cultures I knew nothing about until I was there, having an adventure on my bicycle. After 14,000 miles and 14 months of pedalling, my savings ran out as I rolled into Hong Kong and the journey was over.

Except, it wasn’t. There was a pleasant twist. I’d filmed much of my trip and now I edited together a short trailer to showcase some of the stories I found. A friend of a friend saw it, and wondered if I might like to accompany him on his next expedition: walking the length of China and making a TV show. I said yes (of course!) and after 6 months of planning and pitching we got a commission from National Geographic and flew to Mongolia to begin.

For six months we walked, covering roughly a marathon a day, six days a week until 3000 miles had passed beneath our feet. We felt the country develop, saw a landscape and a people and a culture develop and transform at the slowest speed possible. Every day our life was as simple as this: walk as far as you can, appreciate what is happening around you.

By the time we arrived back into Hong Kong, the end of our journey, I was exhausted but markedly different from the person who left Mongolia. I’d learned a lot about China, a lot about myself, but most of all a lot about the essence of adventure.

My revelation was that this idea of ‘adventure’ is key to our lives but, and here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to involve big expeditions. Adventure, I decided then, ironically while on a big expedition, is much more simply, just a mindset. It is the decision we make when faced with an easy (but probably dull) option and a harder (but ultimately more rewarding) option. It is taking the latter every time.

Adventure does not require walking 3000 miles. It’s certainly fun to do epic, ridiculous expeditions if you get chance - I still love doing them and can highly recommend setting off on a lengthy trip as a great experience and tool for self-development. My point, however, is that those big journeys are not the only route to find adventure. 

It can, thankfully, be found everywhere - it is in doing something new every day, even something small. It is taking a new route to work, going for a run before sunrise, jumping on the train at the weekend and seeing where you end up. Adventure is everywhere. It is in physical and mental challenges, and it is most definitely something that will help us ‘come alive.’

So let’s go back to the question. How does one become an adventurer? Well, one must have adventures. And luckily, those are not hard to find.

Leon McCarron is a Northern Irish adventurer and cameraman. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and specialises in long distance, human-powered expeditions. 

In November and December 2012 Leon crossed 1000 miles of the Empty Quarter desert, roughly following the route of explorer Wilfred Thesiger and pulling a cart loaded with supplies. In May 2012 he concluded a 6-month, 3000 mile expedition walking the length of China, from the Gobi desert in Mongolia to South China Sea in Hong Kong. National Geographic produced a 4-part TV series of the journey. Other journeys include a 14,000 miles solo and unsupported on a bicycle from New York to Hong Kong, and a folding bike trip around the British Isles to climb the Six Peaks.

The 4-part TV National Geographic Series 'Walking Home From Mongolia' and the feature length film 'Into The Empty Quarter' are now available to buy via