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25 Journeys, 1,000 Miles Each : Dave Cornthwaite’s Quest

This is a quest case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

Dave Cornthwaite’s quest has been called “One of the most ambitious adventures of the 21st century,” and in the process of his journey he has broken nine world records. Here’s his story:

Introduce yourself and your quest.

A decade ago I spent two weeks learning how to skateboard, and promptly quit my graphic design job to spend the next year skateboarding further than anyone else had ever skated. I traversed the length of Britain (as a warm up) and then skated Australia.

Now, I’m working on what I call Expedition1000: 25 journeys of 1,000 miles or more, each using a different form of non-motorized transport. I’ve completed eleven of these to date (breaking nine world records on the way!). I believe that if you don’t wake up happy on any given day, it’s time for a change.

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Why did you decide to undertake your quest?

On the morning of my 25th birthday, my cat was sitting on my chest. As I looked at her, I realized she was about to have a much better day than I was. That kicked me into high gear. Sure, I had the trappings of a successful Western adult: a job, a house, a long-term partner.

In reality, I was depressed, bloody miserable and en route to totally wasting my potential as a human. It was a choice between making a huge, drastic change and chasing that potential… or not, and being unhappy for the rest of my life.

What are the costs associated with Expedition1000 ?

I live on an average budget of less than $10,000 per year. It’s actually cheaper to live simply and expedition via stand-up paddling (SUP), swimming, riding a bike car, and the like than it is to stay in a city and rent year-round. My average cost per 1,000 mile expedition is just $1,360, including flights.

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What memorable experience is fresh in your mind?

I was halfway down the Mississippi River, which I’d been paddling for two months on a stand-up paddleboard. I was exhausted, struggling with poor weather, and enduring the general, brilliant bashing from the river. Twenty miles upstream of Memphis, a group of people surrounded by canoes, kayaks, and SUPs waved at me from the bank. They’d heard about my journey—to paddle 2,404 miles down the river through nine states and 49 dams—and each one of them hugged me before we paddled together into Memphis.

That group has remained great friends ever since and I continue to visit them in Memphis regularly. Friendship, companionship, support, community: these are things that I miss in many senses when on an expedition. Seeing them on the shore lifted my spirits and gave me the fuel to continue to the Gulf.

How did you overcome a low point in your quest? 

My biggest challenges have been recovering from the post-expedition gloom and depression of my big journeys. I knew that if I wanted expeditions to be my lifestyle, I’d have to find a solution to those regular slumps. Dealing with them meant filling the gap.

It was a slow process of combining what I cared about, deciding how I could best spend my time, and figuring how I could use my stories or skills learned from the journeys to generate an income. I eventually developed a keynote talk based on my experiences so far. I now spend post-expedition downtime going straight into a speaking tour, instantly working on a film, or just recuperating in an unfamiliar place and keeping busy.

I’d say the attitude and qualities you need to succeed on a hard adventure are very similar to what you need afterwards: perseverance, a long-term goal, the ability to phase out negative influences, and a willingness to be a little bit different. I haven’t suffered from post-expedition depression for two years now, certainly not to the extent that I’d become used to. I actually look forward to the in-between phases as much as the journeys themselves now, because I love everything I do and believe in the cause, whatever it might be.

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How have you changed since embarking on Expedition1000?

Going from a 25-year old who thought he knew it all to a life to who I am now was a pretty big change. I think the biggest change has been how I feel in the mornings. There’s something about being exposed to conditions that can kill you, having your innate motivation and soul totally sucked away by fatigue or hypothermia or heatstroke, then realizing the power of a sip of water and a few minutes of sleep.

Everything feels better when you wake up, and I feel like I’m living.

What kind of support did you receive from others? 

I’ve got hundreds of stories about being taken in on a trip. The Vidner family in Gothenburg who heard about my kayaking across Scandinavia and wrote to me with an invitation for a meal and a bed.  Amber at the Minneapolis rowing club, who let me store my board for two days when I passed through the city and gave me a spare bed. Donn Ganim, who I bumped into at a cafe in Cape Girardeau and within three minutes he’d bought me breakfast and offered me a bed. The Cleator family, who loved the fact that I was skateboarding across Australia and looked after me for two weeks once I completed that five month journey. 

I couldn’t do what I do without others. Every one of my journeys is about people.

Many times quests feel personal, not about others. How are your expeditions about people?

You actually get to spend time with people by choosing to travel slow and accept opportunities and kindness like those I mentioned. There is a degree of self with all of these trips, and I love the chance to spend time by myself and think. But if there was nobody to share the stories and thoughts with, what would be the point?

I’ve spent years of my life on the road and I’ve nothing to prove to myself in that regard anymore, but I’ve learned more from people than I ever have from books and films and can’t ever see that changing.

Do you have any advice for someone who might be starting a quest?

The bravest thing any of us can do is become comfortable with the fact that we’re different from everyone else. Do don’t worry about what anyone else thinks, just go and be awesome in your own way.

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Did we miss anything?

2014 was the first year that I finally earned more than I did in my last job, and I’ve gotten to the stage where I only earn money doing things I love, and by giving myself time to develop those skills means I’m now pretty good at what I do, love my life (literally wouldn’t change a thing) and earn good money at the same time.

What’s next? 

I have no idea about the next expedition. I try not to plan ahead more than a month in advance, and it means I’m flexible and available in case an opportunity should arise – which often happens. That’s the big adventure for me, just being able to take things on in an instant.  

I’m currently pulling together a global project called Origin, which is an ever-growing community of adventurers doing journeys and fundraisers to raise enough money to plant one million trees. Once we plant a million, we’ll do it again. Funny… I quit my job and life got busy!

Keep up to date on Dave’s quest at his site, Dave Cornthwaite or via Twitter @DaveCorn.

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