Opinion; Man´s Instinct to explore and its consequences

One often forgotten aspect of exploration or any type of a long time adventure or travel  is the difficulties of returning home. It has never been an easy issue for me. I feel kind of lost, out of place, a feeling that the return have been too fast and I carry so profound experiences with me which nobody really can understand. It gets easier if you have a understanding family, like I have this time, but if not, it easily turns into a living hell. I have friends who have become loners, ended up on the fringes of society and who didn´t enjoy life at all after having finished their Expedition. But on the other hand, most do cope. However, I asked somebody who knows all sides of life, Captain Joel S. Fogel to write an article on the subject. As always, a great read!

Man´s Instinct to Explore and its consequences 


Joel S. Fogel

The challenge of exploration is two fold: to survive the expedition during the field survey and following it’s return.

The expedition itself can be harrowing physically, emotionally and financially. Very often, the hardest part is just getting there. Then there is the funding that accompanies that task as was witnessed by the early expeditions of Admiral Byrd who sought money from friends and business associates in order to get the to North Pole.

More recently, our recipient for this year’s Lowell Thomas Award, Dr. William Thomas, fought for over 20 years to fund his expeditions to New Guinea and the Hewa Tribe. He would often return penniless with concerns for feeding his family and providing for their welfare. Bill would always succeed, however, working day jobs as an educator, carpenter, and city administrator. But it put enormous stress on him and his family both physically and mentally.

Of course, once he got to the field and began his research, he faced everything from possible malaria to snake bite and death by angry warring tribesmen. There were no guarantees in his work. It was long and arduous and very often misunderstood by everyone but his closest colleagues and family.

And sometimes, that was difficult as well.

Then there were the well funded space explorations. But they also had their difficulties.

The recent passing of  fellow explorer and astronaut Sally K. Ride gives perspective to the lagging timeline of accomplishment. She was the first American woman in space and a member of The Explorers Club, inspiring a generation of young women in a way few have since. It’s been nearly 30 years since that important milestone was recorded.

Little has happened since in space exploration to re-ignite the sense of awe that accompanied the first manned space adventures, when America was captivated by the mustering of the technological wherewithal to travel beyond our blanket of gravity. Nothing before or after can lay claim to quite the same level of human accomplishment.

Other astronauts have documented their mental anguish following their return from their mission. Everything from alcohol to depression threatened their survival once they returned home. Meriwether Lewis of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, considered suicide following his successful search for the elusive Northwest Passage and his discovery of the American northwestern territories.

Depression and anguish bordering on post traumatic syndrome experienced by returning soldiers from war zones, often wracks some of our most renown explorers. Doubt about the importance of their missions and their lives has nearly destroyed many.

 But why……why do their pursue these goals and dreams despite so much pain and suffering ?

 In the landmark 1970 study and book by John Richard Lane Anderson entitled ” The Ulysses Factor: The exploring instinct in man”, Lane hypothesizes that the desire to explore is built into the human DNA. And in fact, has been the reason that man has evolved and survived throughout the millenium. Some seem to have this gene more than others and those are the ones he says possesses ….. “The Ulysses Factor”.

To the outside world, these individuals seem almost like misfits, people seeking danger and risk when they could be conforming with the majority of the population and living safe, secure and profitable lives. The lifestyle of the explorer makes no sense to many people, or the explorer is conversely placed on some pedestal as some alturistic human  being with such lofty goals and aspirations that they become almost super human and beyond the daily worries of normal folk.

In reality, most explorers are very much like “normal folk” with the same desires for recognition and achievement as everyone else. They fight and bicker and envy and worry about all of the things that most  people do, but perhaps they do it with more passion than most.

Buzz Aldrin once told me that when he reached the moon, he stuck out his thumb and blocked out the planet Earth. He said that he promptly realized that this “tiny blue marble” which was suspended in space was completely alone and isolated. And that realization, along with the fact that mankind had no good reason for perpetuating famine, warfare and contamination …..prompted him to begin a 20 year association with alcohol.

He got over that and went on to become a much beloved legend and star in the exploration community.

In the meantime, it is good to know the human instinct to explore beyond our terrestrial bounds has not been abandoned.

Recently going from one extreme environment to another, we follow another Explorers Club member, James Cameron who is among the first to explore the deepest valley in the ocean since  Don Walsh and an Jacques Piccard made a 20-minute foray there more than half a century ago. He spent about three hours gliding through the icy darkness, illuminated only by special lights on the one-man sub he helped design.

 This deepest section of the 1,500-mile-long Mariana Trench is so untouched that at first it appeared dull. But there’s something oddly dark and compelling about the first snippets of video that Cameron shot. There is a sense of aloneness that Cameron conveys in the wordless video showing his sub gliding across what he calls “the very soft, almost gelatinous flat plain.”

“My feeling was one of complete isolation from all of humanity,” Cameron said.

“There had to be a moment where I just stopped, and took it in, and said, `This is where I am; I’m at the bottom of the ocean, the deepest place on Earth. What does that mean?'” Cameron told reporters during a conference call.

“I just sat there looking out the window, looking at this barren, desolate lunar plain, appreciating,” Cameron said.

He also realized how alone he was, with that much water above him.

“It’s really the sense of isolation, more than anything, realizing how tiny you are down in this big, vast, black, unknown and unexplored place,” the “Titanic” director said.

Cameron said the mission was all about exploration, science and discovery. He is the only person to dive there solo, using a lime-green sub called Deepsea Challenger. He is the first person to reach that depth – 35,576 feet – since it was initially explored in 1960 by Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard.

As previously mentioned, what the general public does not often hear about is the isolation and sometimes mental depression  of the explorer which often accompanies the return from these scientific expeditions.

First there is the challenge of their finances which is faced by the returning explorer who has sometimes borrowed funds and sold personal possessions or mortgaged his home if he  or she was not fortunate enough to have received a grant or money from another source. Professional exploration is expensive and more so today than ever before.

 Having this piled on top of them in addition to the feelings of cultural shock of having survived in a remote regions or having experienced emotions and challenges that have altered their personality can be overwhelming.

Following a 1973 EC flag expedition to Ethiopia during which I lived with a Stone Age tribe and witnessed horrible starvation of the surrounding tribesmen (see a previous post by Mika entitled ” The Chief’s Daughter”), I recall talking to the great Everest explorer, Barry Bishop, who was the first American to climb that mountain without oxygen in 1958. (He lost several fingers and toes to frostbite during that historic climb.)

Barry told me at an ECAD dinner just shortly before dying in an automobile accident, “Joel, you will go away many times in your life and you will return…but beware because one of those times you will return physically but not mentally.”

Of course, this could have been why one fellow author and traveler, the great Christopher Cook (as in great grandson of Captain Cook) Gilmore was prompted to tell me with a smile on his face that: “…..the only reason that you are here, Joel, is because you are not all there !”

Captain Joel S. Fogel, Member Emeritus, ’73

Board of Directors, Membership Development Committee

Since the 1970s, Captain Joel S. Fogel has led nearly two dozen major expeditions around the world, working with the Smithsonian Institute, National Geographic and The Explorers Club. He carried The Explorers Club flag on a 1973 expedition to Ethiopia¹s Omo River to film tribal groups for the documentary A Voyage to the Stone Age; on a 1986 archaeological survey along the Maroni River in the Amazon Basin; and on the 1987 Yangtze River Geological Expedition in China, which was documented in the book Riding the Dragon¹s Back. 

Captain Fogel is also the recipient of five national American Ironman titles from various competitions with the USLA (United States Lifesaving Association) throughout the United States in the Super Vet Division. (Visit www.usla.org for more information).


  1. Hi Mikael, a good article, and one that will resonate with many travellers and explorers. The article focuses a lot on great explorers, in the sense of say for example, members of the Royal Geographical Society, or the Ranulph Fiennes of this world. But many of the feelings described here, the sense of loss, being out of place, feeling like you have to squeeze yourself back into a box that no longer fits you, or the isolation from realising that you have changed while everyone else has stayed the same, these will all resonate with any person who has taken some kind of life-changing travel for any length of time, whether long or short. It needn’t necessarily be an “expedition” in the usual definition of the word either. A brief scan through the hundreds of travel blogs out there today will tell you immediately that more and more people identify with the great explorers in the desire to keep seeing and experiencing everything that there is to see in this small but beautiful world, never staying still, and never wanting to conform to society’s ideas of who we should be.

    My opinion is that the great explorers are simply the extreme end of the travelling scale, as your article says they are perhaps driven much more by a stronger desire for achievement & recognition. The legendary Freya Starck for example was usually driven by the desire to be the first person to reach a particular (and particularly inaccessible) spot, at the expense of her health and almost always with funding from generous and/or influential friends. But anyone who travels – gap year students, corporate life escapees, expedition members, etc etc – no one should be under any illusions that, to different extents, we all suffer the same disease, with the same recognisable symptoms, all to be cured by the same medicine. To keep travelling/exploring.

  2. Excellent comments from both Lorena and Kephasina. Thanks.

    This “cultural shock” can strike us all even war vets experience it. But it seems to be worse the more you immerse yourself in another culture and the longer you stay there.

    Anger, isolation and depression can result. Good friends, family and a daily routine will help bring you “back”.

    Good luck to all the travelers….never cease to move….you gotta go to grow !

    El Capitan

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