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Living and Writing in the Natural World

The Adventure / Foolishness Balance

“I wonder what’s in that hole up there?” It was an innocent question from my hiking buddy Al as we gazed at the gaping cavity about ten feet up the trunk of a massive valley oak at the bottom of Big Sycamore Canyon on the Tejon Ranch Conservancy. Like many a testosterone-poisoned male of our species, I took it as a challenge, and circled the six-foot wide trunk. A major branch took off, Canyon-oak-like, on the opposite side, about four feet from the ground.

With many a grunt and groan I hoisted myself up and wriggled onto the branch. So far so good. Another branch snaked out on the other side of the tree a couple of feet up, just below the cavity in question. Perfect. The only problem was, “other side of the tree” meant negotiating an “empty” gap of trunk some four or five feet wide. Valley oaks have reasonably furrowed bark, and there was a hint of a bulge halfway there, so I pretended I was on granite in Yosemite, and made it over.

The inviting cavity that inspired all this turned out to be empty of treasure, bees, or varmints, alas. But I felt pretty good at having reached it. The way back presented the same challenges. Except this time my hand-hold on the traverse of bare trunk failed, and in a twinkling I was falling. I landed flat on my back after a five-foot fall.

Now when I was young with strong bones, I laughed at such an event. At 66 I didn’t laugh. To my credit, I didn’t for a second contemplate making some bargain with a supernatural deity, that if He’d give me no broken bones, I’d go to church for a month. No, I gingerly wriggled a bit, tried an arm, another arm, and dragged myself up. No damage, other than scraped, sore fingers where my grip had failed--and my dignity!

I was lucky. Not everyone is. At the other extreme to my petty little risk-taking on the Valley oak is the practice of free solo climbing, in which the participant rock-climbs with no ropes or protection whatever—often climbing very high, and sometimes with fatal accidents. In between is every gradation of risk, coupled with every gradation of adventure and curiosity satisfied. Where you draw the line between adventure and foolishness in accepting risk is never very clear, and is an intensely personal decision.

What are the factors to take into account when you make a decision about risk-taking, as you assay the fine line between adventure and foolishness? The seriousness of injury, obviously. Are you falling 5 feet onto dirt or 2,000 feet onto rock? Your ability to pull off the risky maneuver, also. Are you young, strong, and experienced? Or are you older, your strength diminished, and trying something relatively new?

Is it just you that will take the consequences? Or do you have young kids whose loss of a parent will have huge repercussions on their lives? A young, single person risking their life for adventure is one thing; a young mom or dad is quite another, to my thinking.

And then, of course—the other side of the equation. How glorious will the adventure be if you pull it off? Also a very personal measurement, where some folks eyes will light up and a chuckle erupt from their mouth, while others will contemplate the same reward and turn away looking for a convenient spot to throw up.

What about involving your young kids in adventures? We’ve always felt that giving our kids rich experiences is part of our job as parents. Some of these rich experiences involve a bit of risk, of course. Traveling itself is a risk. Snorkeling in a hundred feet of water in the Big Island's Kealakekua Bay, open ocean close by, involves some risk. Backpacking into the Sierra Nevada wilderness involves some risk. But if you teach your kids about the risks and how to handle them, we’ve felt that the adventure and richness added to their lives is well worth the risks.

Indeed, the awareness and balancing of risk and reward is in some sense what life is all about, isn't it? Driving a vehicle 65 mph down a freeway with similarly-hurtling vehicles all around you is a risk. Walking across the street in a busy city is a risk. Keep your eyes open and your attention focused, we tell our kids. That’s not just for being in the ocean or the Sierra Nevada back country—that’s for every day and every hour!

To my mind, the great danger in life is not doing something foolish and being hurt or killed by it. The great danger in life is being so cowed and fearful of risk that you never get off the dull, beaten track and have some adventures. Start with some small, low-risk adventures to hone your abilities and experience. Then graduate on to medium-risk adventures to have some fun and enrich your life. Beyond that—your decision. But keep your eyes open and your attention focused.

My standard farewell to my kids as they walk out the door to go anywhere, which has long been parodied but still applies, is this: “Have fun, and use your head.” That about sums it up.
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