"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, January 26, 2014


The return address said Flagstaff. The envelope was thick. Our summer rafting trip through the Grand Canyon became real with its arrival in our mailbox last week.

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.


DJan said...

Boy, it sure sounds like fun to me! Pure, unadulterated fun! I look forward to your adventure because I'm going along, too, even if it's only virtually, Deb. Yay! :-)

lily cedar said...

You're a braver woman than I am. But it sounds wonderful. When I do face my fears I find it freeing.

Teresa Coltrin said...

I'm thinking I would sign my life away, too, for the experience. :)

yaya said...

Go for it! Enjoy every second! We rafted on the Denali when we went to Alaska and I had never done it before. I'm so glad we did it and I know you won't regret it either. Life is all about the ride!

Deb Cushman said...

I'm happy for you, Deb! And will be worried, but thrilled, that you make it through safely with a wonderful tale to tell!

BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Hmm. Next thing we know, you'll be jumping out of airplanes! Congratulations, and thank you for describing your journey so vividly. I will experience that particular kind of fear and elation through you. My current pinnacle of physical fear is climbing up to my granddaughter's top bunk--and getting down again. :)

Richard Hughes said...

Hope you have a good time. I thoroughly enjoyed my white-river rafting excursion a few years back. In fact, I wrote a travel article about it. Maybe I'll post it to my blog soon.

patricia said...

Everything about this post makes me think of the book we are both reading, which I have finished, by the way. YOu are a true adventurer!

Linda Myers said...

Sounds interesting. Send me the information about your trip?

#1Nana said...

Go for it! I have a fear of Wal-mart and I try to avoid going as much as I can, but sometimes, in a small rural town, there's no place but Walmart.

Stacy Crawford said...

That sounds like a risk worth taking.

Retired English Teacher said...

I'm sure you will be fine, but it is good to be aware of the risks and to stay in tune with what is going on around you. As you know, I've made a few of these trips in my youth. Now, my biggest fear would be of overheating. Make sure you stay hydrated, and maybe you should take along one of those neckerchiefs that cools you off. My close friend had a heat stroke on the mule ride to the bottom of Grand Canyon. Thankfully, there was a doctor on the mule behind her. He literally saved her life.

Have a wonderful time. You will love it.