The Wild, Wild Quest 

Adventure has a whole new meaning in a crowded, careless, cruel world.

Seizing a tubful of dishes from a busboy, Pete Jordan hefted it back into the dishpit. Stacking plates into the huge Hobart washer, he "struck pay dirt: some garlic bread and remnants of crème brûlée. I smeared the crème brûlée onto the garlic bread and scarfed it down. Scrumptious, said my taste buds."

What he called the Bus Tub Buffet sometimes yielded strudel, sometimes schnitzel, because this was a Vermont ski chalet. Around closing time — "wine o'clock" — Jordan and the waitstaff swilled cooking sherry together from jars.

Gross grunge-wallow, or what? Was this the nadir in the life-so-far of Jordan, a twentysomething SF Catholic-school grad?

Well — no. It was high adventure, or what amounts to that in a paved-over, explored-already world. We can't load pack mules with mosquito nets and pemmican anymore and strike out across the Yangtze (factory emissions, poisoned meat), the Fertile Crescent (abductions, IEDs), or the Ozarks (country-music theme parks, meth labs).

We can hunt MIA soldiers' bones in Burma with Earl Swift in Where They Lay (Mariner, $14). We can build the world's biggest and highest-tech yacht — as long as a football field, its masts and fifteen massive sails computer-operated — with David Kaplan in Mine's Bigger (William Morrow, $25.95). We can pop Valium and distribute humanitarian aid in Sadr City with Ray Lemoine, Jeff Neumann, and Donovan Webster in Babylon by Bus (Penguin, $15).

For thousands of years — like, since Herodotus — explorers' exploits jazzed our ancestors, reassuring them that somewhere far beyond the chickenpox and gruel lay wondrous lands whose residents wore funny hats and didn't know what thermometers were. Such tales fueled hopes and dreams, even for readers who knew that they would never leave Springfield.

But that vicarious buzz dulled with every new highway, every hotel chain. Frontier is a word we use mainly now about technology. And the fact that one must be ever more careful when describing cultures other than one's own is great for sensitivity — but it screwed the adventure-book genre.

Yet whatever inspired explorers before still inspires them. Which is why Jordan, whose loathing for authority kept him from the sorts of jobs society expected him to hold, took up dishwashing. It was foul, but it was important. Kitchens depended on him. And as his coworkers traded tales about past gigs, the mention of Ypsilanti, Michigan, sparked an idea. He'd always loved poring over maps.

Twainishly irreverent, Dishwasher: One Man's Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States (Harper Perennial, $13.95) trawls the dishpits of an Alaskan salmon-fishing station, an Oregon Oktoberfest, a Mississippi Chinese restaurant. Jordan's descriptions of cigarette-butt-studded pasta and of roach-streams that resemble roiling brown leather are indeed gross and reveal what unseen workers face as we unfold napkins onto our laps and raise our forks in restaurants. But that's only part of the point. Mainly this is a new version of an age-old mission: "Traveling the country, seeking out intriguing workplaces in exotic locales, enjoying the freedom of living a life consciously devoted to a lack of responsibility."

If Jordan's quest was to stack, slack, and skip, then Chad Pregracke's was the virtual opposite. And still is, because while Jordan's quest lasted from 1989 to 2001, Pregracke's continues. Armed with barges, chains, and hazmat suits, he aims to clean up every river in America.

Halfway through college, Pregracke was camping on the shores of the Mississippi, where he had worked and played all his life. "I became disgusted with the garbage," he remembers, via his coauthor Jeff Barrow, in From the Bottom Up (National Geographic, $26). "Everywhere I went was littered with trash."

A commercial fisherman, he saw water and shore "carpeted with bright plastic bottles — the yellow of oil containers, the red of antifreeze jugs, and a rainbow of brightly colored laundry bottles." Huge steel barrels clogged passageways. Cars and large appliances, sunk as a way to avoid junk-hauling fees, rusted on the river floor. At an Illinois campsite, Pregracke woke one morning to see the ground strewn with countless washed-up lightbulbs.

"That was the moment I knew what I had to do." But he didn't know how, so he contacted state agencies. All responded the same way, asking: What garbage?

With a twenty-foot motorboat, Pregracke launched his mission bottle by bottle, hauling "Mount Trashmores" to dumps and recycling centers. Word spread. Helpers arrived. He formed a nonprofit, Living Lands & Waters, and cleaned the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Illinois, and the Potomac. Boating terminology bogs down the narrative sometimes, but Pregracke's passion and big American vistas jolt you back into adventure mode.

With McDonald's thriving in Valparaiso and Tianjin, the nature of adventure has changed forever. Pregracke and Jordan set out not to marvel at humankind's handiwork but to scrub its effluent, its spew. Observing the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal from his boat, Pregracke "renamed it the Chicago Sanitary and Shit Canal."

By virtue of being crowded and careless, we are cruel. That's what postmodern Marco Polos see. That's why Daniel Kalder, a Scotsman living in the former Soviet Union, undertook the industrial-badland forays described in Lost Cosmonaut (Scribner, $13) according to his own antitourist code, a self-imposed obstacle course: "The antitourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable. ... The antitourist prefers dead things to living ones. ... The antitourist values disorientation over enlightenment."

Prowling deserted museums, assailed by toothless alcoholics in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El, and Udmurtia, Kalder sought remnants of vanquished kingdoms and ethnic minorities "condemned to a long twilight" that is "the ultimate colonization" in a society determined to erase them. Grimly hilarious, Kalder recommends that four years be spent reading his book, "which is not so ridiculous when you consider that four years is approximately how much of our lives we spend shitting."

Effluent, again. Because the Seven Wonders were scoped out so long ago, and reshuffled and written about so many million times, that these are hard strange times, for sure, for finding marvels.

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