Sunday, January 26, 2014
Among the contents was two pages of "Visitor's Acknowledgment of Risk." We need to sign the bottom of the second page, both Walt and I, and return it to the company before we'll be able to set foot on a raft. Those two pages are full of words like hypothermia, mental anguish, trauma, death by drowning, injuries.
The word risk is used twelve times. There are seven categories of specific risks, each of which is carefully described. Possible death, trauma and injury figure in all of them. Except for the last category: Etc. The company went to great pains to spell every possible risk out, but covered whatever they might have missed in that one catchall abbreviation.
Toward the end there is this phrase: I assume full responsibility for myself. . . . I also certify that I'm fully capable of participating in this activity. The company promises to do its best to keep me safe, but ultimately it's all on me.
While I like to think I'm a risk-taker, most of my risks have been pretty safe. Most have not involved physical challenges, but emotional, spiritual or cognitive instead. Even as a child I was reluctant to do anything that had a chance to hurt my body. I was afraid of pain. I was afraid of somehow harming myself beyond repair. Maybe I was even afraid of death.
So while my youngest brother scrambled up trees and ran across barn beams that were at least twenty feet off the ground, I wandered and explored and waded—feet firmly on the ground. When all three of my brothers wrestled and pummeled each other in frustrated rages, I resorted to pinching and sneak kicks and ratting-out.
The biggest risk of physical danger in my life happened in adolescence. An adolescence spent in the free-love, joint-sharing, hitchhiking era of the 70s. Even then I think I had one eye on just how far I could go before there was no turning back.
Early adulthood, actually most of my adulthood, held the safety of homemaking and gardening and teaching. While my time in the cult was certainly risky, there was no physical danger. Marriage is a risk, but in most circumstances, not one involving physical danger. Teaching carries risks as well, but except in the most extreme cases, the biggest chance of harm comes from being over-hugged, or being sleep-deprived.
A few years ago Walt and I started hiking. We started fairly easy, but graduated quickly to hikes involving some elevation gain and longer and longer distances. My fear of heights dogged me on many of the hikes like a pack of hungry wolves. Vertigo nearly tipped me a few times. But I kept going. The sheer pleasure of being outdoors, my blood fully oxygenated and roaring, every bend offering the potential for some new wonder, all made the fear seem more annoying than threatening.
Then came the year we went to Zion and hiked Angel's Landing. Walt would have skipped it without complaint, but the thought of accomplishing such a risky trail wouldn't leave me. Despite being very clear that a misstep could easily result in serious damage, I was determined to climb. That was a day I still remember with astonishing clarity. The feeling of looking straight ahead (up), and putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually looking down into a valley far far below. The fear didn't really get loud until the trip down, but by then there was nowhere to go but down, and so I did.
After that it became fun to challenge my fear of heights. Still in pretty safe ways, but the risk was there nonetheless.
Two summers ago, when we were in Belize, I took the biggest physical risk of my life by hiking/climbing/wading Actun Tunichil Muknal. While we had an amazing guide, the danger was real. My fear, however, stayed home as I squeezed through impossibly tiny spaces, climbed straight up high ladders, and pushed myself to the point of shaking-leg exhaustion. It was the single most incredible day of my life so far and I would go again tomorrow if I could.
Instead, I will sign the Acknowledgment of Risk for rafting the Colorado. I believe everything it says, but I also trust the guides and my own inner voice. As I travel the roads toward the end of my life, I want to be absolutely certain I don't miss anything important or wonderful or magical just because I was afraid of the risks, stated or otherwise. I am determined to challenge the false sense of security to be found in inertia and wrapping myself in soft quilts of safety. I am ready to ". . . be jolted, jarred, bounced, thrown to and fro, and otherwise shaken about during rides through rapids." I'm excited to discover what is revealed after things settle from all that action.