The sky was a perfect cerulean blue, as was the river down below. My feet were securely connected to the cord. I waved merrily at the guy in the boat below, took a deep breath, then launched myself in a perfect swan dive off the highest bridge in Croatia.
I love being in the air. I love the feel of free fall, flight, and the unencumbered sense of whistling breeze past my ears. At 65 I still do. Anything that gets my heart racing, I’m in baby. Skydiving, paragliding, cycling, horse back riding- sign me up.
Don’t Say Anything to Mom and Dad
When my parents were still living, I learned never to tell them what I was doing. Mom didn’t learn that I was skydiving until long after I’d done my 100th jump. She wasn’t aware that I’d been cycling all around Australia, or flying ultralights over the low mountains of Geelong, southwest of Melbourne.
It was usually long after I’d completed some major scuba trip involving Great White Sharks that I chose to fill her in on the details and share photos. My dad would grin, my mother would nearly faint.
She died in 2001, happy to see the new century in, blissfully unaware of my Kilimanjaro climb years later and the adventure trips I’ve done since. I’ve got friends who tell me she’s watching. I hardly think so. First of all I think she’s got far better things to do than sit around and watch me live my life. Second, some poor angel would always have to be fanning her with wing feathers.
Following Our Bliss
My photographer, Laura Luhn and I went to the top of Mt. Evans recently to take photographs for my new website. Cycling, bouldering, hiking, the lot. She’s an ultra marathon runner. I trained with her on my bike for Kilimanjaro, she’s about half my age. We have a lot of laughs about the people who are constantly telling us not to do what we do. Laura attempted the 100-mile Leadville run, almost made it to the top, and bonked. But she’s already signed back up again. That’s who she is. Those people who try to convince her to stop neither understand her nature nor how carefully she prepares, reads all the materials, rests, refuels, and conditions. They assume they know better.
When Laura first told her mother she wanted to run a marathon, her mother said to her flatly, “you’ll die.” When Laura completed her first marathon and her mother (who, to her credit, was at the finish line) said to her, “Well at least you didn’t die.” Thanks Mom.
They don’t know better, any more than my mother or anyone in my life knows what’s best for my life.
Or yours, for that matter.
It’s intriguing how much time people — including those who love us- spend trying to convince us not to take chances, follow a dream, train for a marathon. While in some cases it really might be an insane effort, the truth is that in most cases, those folks are operating out of their own fears and limitations. Sometimes they say they’re concerned for our safety. Okay, but then, we also really want to learn how to fly. Or skydive. Or whatever it is we have in mind. That’s OUR choice.
The Price We Pay to Play
While it’s perfectly understandable that those who love us don’t want to see us injured, the simple truth is that potential injury is the risk we take to play at a very high level. My mother once declared that I had a “death wish.” That’s the classic judgement for those who aren’t drawn to extreme sports or adventure travel. You ask any of us who do these activities. Nobody trains harder or is more safety conscious than we are. I have no intention of becoming road kill. What I do want is to experience life at its outer edges, and experience what there is to experience. Sometimes we pay a price, as my list of epic injuries will attest to. However, I injured myself far worse falling down a set of concrete stairs than I have in most of my sports. It’s just life.
Especially as I age and am mindful of the limited decades available to me, I shove myself out the airplane door, ride feistier horses, and climb harder mountains. First, because I can. I train for it. Second, because I will not become a sad statistic, one of those old people who coulda shoulda woulda. There is no bucket list. There’s only the list of what I am doing or will do very soon. No dreams. Plans.
The Role of Parents
While it makes sense that as parents people should ensure that toddlers don’t try to be Superman off the couch and bonk their delicate noggins on the nearby table, it is also terribly important that we encourage risk taking, so that our kids develop courage and confidence. Helicopter parents do the opposite. A parent who says “Go ahead, I’ve got your back here” is more likely to have a brave little girl than someone who inflicts gender bias on her and restricts her activities to keep her safe. Well-intentioned or not, our fears all too often drive what we say to those we love, rather than the enthusiastic “I’ll be at the finish line with margarita!!” that would swell the heart.
My father set this in motion when, growing up on a farm, he expected my brother and me to precisely the same chores. Toss heavy hay into the pasture. Lift 100-lb feed sacks into the barrel. Shovel chicken poop. Not only did that make me damned strong but it also taught me that the boundary lines drawn for women of my era- growing up in the 1960s- didn’t apply.
Living a Dream
My mom dreamed of going to Africa but never did. I’ve been five times now, and in conditions that would have terrified Mom had she known in advance. She’d have done all she could to convince me not to go. The wildest thing my mother ever did was hold a tame koala in Australia. I’ve massaged tigers and elephants, learned to be an elephant mahout, and ridden camels across Tanzania. My mother would have died a thousand deaths had she known. Yet she would have secretly envied me. And I’m just getting started.
Statistically, in most cases we are all at far more risk of injury and death from drivers who drink or text than the adventures we contemplate. Yet most of us don’t bite our nails when our loved ones head out onto the highways. We should. Some 660,000 drivers are on our roads texting every day, and that’s just in daylight, and relatively sober.
All I’m suggesting is that when we have the urge to say “Don’t do that-it’s dangerous!!” Let’s think first. Of course it is. That’s why we want to do it. Life is risky. It’s a far riskier place when we don’t push ourselves, expand our boundaries and experience our mental, physical and emotional courage. I’d far rather hear us say, “Go for it! I’m proud of you!”
Bringing up brave kids means allowing them to fall, hurt themselves, and learn to do better next time. That builds confidence. Shouting at them about the dangers teaches timidity and dependence. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Jailed by fears, desperate for approval, terrified of taking chances, convention keeps too many of us from discovering everything life has to offer.
Let’s Not Be Stupid
That said, let me be clear. As someone who has written about the appalling loss of life here in Colorado involving grotesquely unprepared people trying to “bag fourteeners” without proper training or preparation, if you or someone you love wants to take risks, prepare for them. There’s no earthly excuse to head into high country in cotton clothing and sneakers (one young man did just that) and argue with a more experienced climber that you know better. That hubris cost a young man his life. You want to do epic things? Then do the epic training and preparation that ensures you come home not only with great stories, but not in a pine box. Developing the competence is part of the experience, because that commitment spills over into every other aspect of your life. The seven hard months I put into training for Kilimanjaro, which I summitted easily at sixty, put me on a whole other life trajectory. Risk-taking teaches a lot of life lessons.
What Is Your Bed of Hot Coals?
Tony Robbins made a huge name for himself inviting people to walk across hot coals. For many, if not most, it was the very first thing they had ever done which allowed them to experience bravery. Walking coals didn’t appeal to me. Hitchhiking around Australia, New Zealand and Fiji for four years did. While there I learned to fly ultralights, scuba dived the Barrier Reef, and explored thousands of miles of Outback and coastline alone. I was barely 30. Every aspect of that trip redefined who I was, could be and would be the rest of my life. That’s what stepping outside your comfort zone can do.
Allowing, supporting, and encouraging your loved ones to take wing also takes courage. It might even inspire you to take a few risks of your own.