What Does An Adventurer Do In His Time Off?

Between trips to Borneo, Kashmir/Ladakh and North Korea this summer I find myself with a month of otiosity. What to do?
08/30/2012 07:24 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2012

Between trips to Borneo, Kashmir/Ladakh and North Korea this summer I find myself with a month of otiosity. What to do?

So, recognizing that adventure travel is itself a subculture (to many, if not most, an adventure is flagging a New York taxi in the rain), and that stepping out of the comfort zone is a relative experience, I decide to sample two activities beyond my ken: The Oshkosh Airshow and California Adventure at Disneyland.

The Oshkosh Airshow is Burning Man for aviators, an annual gathering of a half million enthusiasts who come to commune, be wowed, shop and show-off. Some 10,000 small planes land in a field adjacent to the showgrounds, turning the airport's control tower into the busiest in the world during the gathering.

A few friends are addicted to the Oshkosh event, and nothing prevents attendance. Paul, CEO of large public company, won't take a board meeting, do an earnings call or meet with the Dalai Lama during the show. Priorities, he says. I agree, and he entices me to join the 2012 pilgimage. I enjoy a small plane ride... last year Paul and I flew in one of his planes from Johannesburg to Livingstone, Zambia, and it was a delightful passage over the bones of Africa. But it takes two days to fly from the West Coast to Oshkosh, so I jump on a commercial flight instead to Chicago, and drive the four hours north to the celebration underway, along the way remembering the time I flew as a journalist with the Blue Angels, and the pilot seemed to be incented to get me to pass out and vomit. He succeeded in one, duly recorded on the lipstick cam in all its messy magnificence.

I find my friends reducing in the North 40 field on folding camp chairs underneath the Goodyear blimp, and sit down to a welcome gin and tonic, and the sway of Lieutenant Colonel Paul Poberezny, the founder of what is known officially as the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. (Since Paul is from Africa, and is wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with EAA, I ask if EAA stands for East African Airways, the legendary airline operated by Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, but which folded when the trio began to bump heads in 1977. No, I'm informed, it stands for Experimental Aircraft Association). Poberezny founded the group in 1953, and staked out the pasture that is now the site of what he calls "The big Disneyland of Aviation."

It's more like Mecca for mature white guys with engineering bents and pecunious wallets, as private flying is not a cheap hobby, and the place is not suffering from an overabundance of diversity. But there are a few black Africans here, brought to tend the booth for Rainbow Aircraft, a South African-based manufacturer of microlights and trikes, which are large mosquitos that propel a human aerialist through the troposphere. With all the heavy metal here, including the last B-29 bomber, a fleet of F-16s, DC-3s and rows of warbirds, it is a bit of a relief to be served us something a little larger than the old Revell model airplanes I glued together as a kid.

It's a dark and stormy night beneath the wing of Paul's Piper Aerostar (it rained so much in 2010 the event was called "Sploshkosh.") and I neglected to bring a tent, but somehow sleep through the thunder and showers, as potent sensory input is the norm. Morning next my friends walk me through the parades of planes, usually knowing the Olympic-style backstories of each one, Jimmy Doolittle there, the Tuskegee Airmen here, the five-mile-high club there. We also wander through the flea market (here called "fly market"), where every gizmo and sunglass is being hawked, as well as massages, interior decorating and iPad apps, before finally making it to the flightline of the Wittman Regional Airport for the big show.

For the tyro it is a stunning display of aerobatics, with Canadian parachute teams, impossible precision formation flying with jets, helicopters and smoking props and the coup de grace, the Commemorative Air Force's Tora! Tora! Tora! Squadron, recreating the attack on Pearl Harbor, complete with bombs going off and the Battle Hymn of the Republic blaring. "That's the sound of freedom," a woman blurts in front of me. And eyes all around are misting.

My stay is but for a day and two nights, and the schedule is exuberant with lectures, bands, performances and food on a stick that I will miss. But it is the eve of the fifth birthday for my son, Jasper, and he wants to go to Cars Land at Disney California Adventure in Anaheim. So, off to another place not on my bucket list.

When I first visited Disneyland in the '70s I was living in Peach Springs, Arizona on Route 66, working as a river guide on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I took a holiday with a girlfriend and hitchhiked to Disneyland, where I was promptly turned away for wearing jeans, the only pants I owned at the time.

Another memory from the era was Hojos, the ubiquitous restaurants up and down the East Coast toll roads, where my family would stop on drives back and forth from DC to Connecticut to visit relatives. I haven't seen a Howard Johnsons in years, so when searching for places to stay in Anaheim I am delighted to see one right at the edge of the park, built in 1965 on a 10-acre orange grove, and still operated by the same family. I once stayed at the Grand Hotel Schᅢᄊnegg in Zermatt with a room that overlooked the Matterhorn, and though impressive, it bust my budget. But here, at Hojos, our room overlooks the Matterhorn, for a fraction the cost of Switzerland. The room is all blonde furniture, as I remember from a stay on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but with updated Keurig coffee maker, LG flat screens and Venetian lighting. Best of all, it's an eight-minute walk to Disneyland.

We make our way into California Adventure, which somehow seems to me to be a misappropriation of the word "adventure." When Ed Hillary spoke out against commercial climbs up Everest, his words rang with remorse for a season lost to time: "How thankful I was that I was active in a pioneering era when we established the route, carried the loads, all worked together for the ultimate objective. The way things are now, I don't think I would have bothered."

In the end, adventure is all relative, and my relative today is Jasper.

We skedaddle straight for the Fastpass line for the featured ride, Radiator Springs Racers Ride. But it's carmageddon. It's 9:15 am on a Tuesday, and we're informed we're too late. All the Fastpasses are gone. We can always just stand in the two-hour-wait line, which seems a bit much, even for Jasper, the fanboy. I download the free app, Disneyland Wait Times, and see we can make Mater's Junkyard Jamboree with just a 20-minute wait, so we scramble there, and soak in the neo-weathered surroundings, which looks so much as I remember Peach Springs, Arizona, as to be memory theft. There's the gas station, the junk yard, the motel with VHF antennae sprouting the roof (and 100% refrigerated air), the crooked Last Chance signs.

The ride is a juiced-up bumper car, but Jasper is thrilled, and I've worked up a hunger, so we cross the busy road to Flo's V8 Cafᅢᄅ. Now the good remembrances flood... my two closest river guide friends, Breck O'Neill and Pete Reznick, bought the Peach Springs gas station and restaurant on a whim, and tried to fix it up into something evocative. They called it the R&O Cafᅢᄅ, and it looked uncannily like Flo's. The comfort food menu is similar (except for the vegetarian options), and even the music on the juke box is the same. But unlike R&O, which went under for lack of patrons, Flo's is hopping.

I check the app, and it's now a three-hour wait for the Racers Ride. So, we cruise, Knights of Combustion, through the streets of Radiator Springs, population 1, passing life-size anthropomorphic vehicles from the Cars movies, troops of waitresses and attendants breaking out in song and dance, churros, cacti, balloons, pretzels and popcorn, and the looming backdrop of tailfin cliffs, redrock canyons and the Ornament Valley waterfall (eerily like Havasu Falls in the near Peach Springs), all fragments of my own memory living and working around "The Ditch," the guide's term of affection for The Grand Canyon.

One thing becomes evident after a spell. The demo of those in line is strangely familiar. Almost all pre-teen males, well-dressed (it's not inexpensive to visit Disneyland), not suffering from an overabundance of diversity, trying to capture a different age (adulthood) and all obsessed with the noise, speed and torque of high-powered conveyances. It's Oshkosh for boys!

After a few hours of roving and noshing I check the app, and the Racers Ride is back down to a two-hour wait. But the raft ride is 15 minutes. So, we hoof it over to another piece of California Adventure, Grizzly Peak with the eponymous mountain and a raft ride. I spent years as a professional river guide, and went on to make first descents of several of the notorious rivers of the world (the Yangtze, Upper Nile, Euphrates, Indus, Zambezi, etc.), so it is natural I want to introduce my son to one of my driving passions, the thrills of whitewater. The Grizzly River Run seems the answer. But Jasper has trepidations, and I have to coax him to step into the doughnut-shaped raft, and struggle a bit to buckle him in.

The run seems modeled after the South Fork of the American River, which purls past Sutter's Mill and is littered with Gold Rush remnants, another haunt in my early guding days. Soon we crank up the mountain, roller coaster style, and let loose for a worthy and wet ride through caves, down waterfalls, over rapids and past spewing fumaroles. Hey, it's hokey, it's not a Himalayan river, but I can't deny the pure pleasure of a giddy rush, a cool splash, on a hot summer day with my son.

Jasper, too, is thrilled, and I have visions of him going on to make the first full descent of the Great Gorge of Tsangpo in Tibet, a run that has eluded me. I ask if he wants to go again, and he says he wants to go swimming instead. Somehow he seems to have entirely forgotten the object of his obsession, the Racers Ride, which is now a 130 minute wait. So, I applaud Jaspers' swimming wish, though there is no public pool in the park.

So, we scoot back to the car, and drive down Harbor Way to the Hyatt Regency Orange County, which we read has two great heated pools. We drive over a wave-patterned mosaic of colored stones, a replica of Senado Square in Macau, park and check in at the lobby desk in an atrium as high as The Matterhorn. We change, and minutes later, with no lines, no waiting, no apps, we're doing our own springs racer ride, paddling furiously and merrily across the pool.

"The best birthday ever," Jasper whispers before falling into dreams.

It was great for me, too, I must confess. But now it's time for the Himalayas.

An Adventurer on Vacation