Now, the following may seem like too much of a digression. But, it’s fascinating and pertinent to this narrative.

There were two Great Ages of Discovery. At least, that is what an author named William Goetzmann argues in a book called New Lands, New Men, which is a phrase taken from Emerson’s essay “Nature.”

Let me explain.

The First Age of Discovery started with the Portuguese. Their intent, in the 1400’s, was to sail the Atlantic southward, where men feared boiling temperatures would burn their ships, and sea monsters would eat them.

However, as those master navigators of Lisbon went further south along the west coast of Africa, where temperatures did rise, they discovered seas did not boil. There were no monsters either. Down that west coast those spry men established forts and supply depots. They were establishing the world’s first overseas empire. They passed the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. They established colonies in India and Indonesia by the 1520’s. The First Age had begun.

Then came Columbus. Then came the Conquistadors. Regardless of their brutalities, which not all Spaniards were guilty of, those Castilian Warriors, whose skills had been sharpened by eight centuries of fighting Muslims, were a finely tuned war machine ready to be unleashed upon unaware continents for God, Gold and Glory. Indians in Mexico and Peru and New Mexico were about to have the worlds forever changed.

Truly, the 1500’s was a Golden Age for Iberia.

However, seeing immense wealth flow into Spain and Portugal aroused the desire of English, French and Dutch to carve out their own empires in the 1600’s and 1700’s. The English became pirates plundering Spanish silver and gradually graduated to colonialism. The French vied with the English in the Caribbean, North America and India. The Dutch, well, they essentially stole Portugal’s Empire, and came to invent sophisticated financial institutions like the modern corporation and central banking to make their endeavors solvent.

Essentially, the First Age was marked by conquest and commerce and riches.

Then came the Second Great Age – again, according to Goetzmann. The purpose was not God, Gold and Glory. Its purpose was scientific exploration. It was to get a better understanding of the world in which we live. Men cataloged flora and fauna across the globe, and noted the weather patterns, and studied the stars, and created longitude, and mapped the interiors of the continents, so on and so forth, with the ultimate intention of discerning deeper patterns of God’s Creation in order to elevate mankind.

I’ve mentioned the name Alexander von Humboldt a couple of times. He epitomized this epoch. Without going into all the details of his explorations, his curiosity of natural phenomena, and his written observations of the wilds of Central and South America, were powerful to a point where he inspired a generation of explorers whose life mission was the advancement of scientific knowledge for its own sake. And one of the most fascinating places on earth for this new breed of man – of scientist, explorer, and adventurer – to know was the American West.

On Tuesday I explained how Goetzmann argues this conception of history – the Second Age of Discovery – fomented the Romantic Era of the 19th century. There’s a chapter in New Lands, New Men called “Humboldt’s Children.” This chapter is one of the best chapters in any book I’ve ever read. To quote his damn fine book…

The adventures of American mountain men and the exploration of the plains and Rockies attracted worldwide attention. To Europeans, the American West was a wild and exotic country full of strange animals and strange people. Though mountain men and U.S. government expeditions were exploring the region in practical terms, Europeans wished to fit it into a romantic horizon in the manner of the great Alexander von Humboldt…

They were in search of new experiences in a remote and faraway place – as if knowledge of the remote land and its mysterious peoples would annex it in mind and spirit to the ever-widening domain of the emergent culture of pure science…”

Ultimately, these men were seeking, as Goetzman continues in his eloquence…

…to grasp the profound unity in nature – to be master of some overarching, transcendent, romantic secret about the whole earth and cosmos that seemed to give a final meaning and direction to those efforts that began in the eighteenth century to know the mind of God through knowledge of His every manifestation in nature.”

Those words are neat. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson first taught me that such perceptions exist. Again, their words didn’t turn me into a Child of Humboldt, but, they did set me forth on intellectual and physical journeys across literature and landscapes that have brought deep joy and satisfaction. They aroused within me a curiosities you’re reading about right now.

However, this is the 21st century. What unknown lands are left to explore? What new thing could I add to the greater knowledge of mankind?

And, would I really want to? I mean, such 19th century treks were often lethal. Months under the sun and stars yielded many men dying in gruesome ways. Lounging my fat butt on some king-sized bed while watching Jesus mow down the Alien with a machine gun was a comfort I definitely appreciated.