Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Pressing Question

Yesterday, I went for an hour-long hike through the woods behind the University of West Florida. Nothing intense, nothing fast; just a leisurely stroll enjoying Mother Nature at her finest.

After parking the car, securing my ID card and car key fob on my person, I set out on the sandy path through the woods.

The temperature was a mild 72 degrees, and the late spring afternoon sunshine shone weakly through the cloud cover and upper layer of forest. But tiny specks still shone through, here or there. The sand was soft beneath my running shoes, and I had to step over several obstacles that the mountain bikers who frequent the trails placed on the path.

They weren’t unpleasant, nothing too challenging. They merely broke up the trail at various points, and I found myself enjoying the challenge of climbing a few long planks, of clamoring up and over piles of stones.

As I huffed my way over one, I noticed a large sign posted prominently on my trail. In all my past trail runs at this location, never have I ever seen this sign. Perhaps before I was going too fast to notice, too caught up in the challenges directly before my feet to notice anything at eye-level. But the warning on the sign caught my attention immediately. It said:

Beware: You may encounter poisonous snakes and/or alligators on these trails.

Excuse me?

You mean to tell me, that in the past year-and-a-half I’ve been doing these trails, I’ve been in alligator territory? Holy Cow! Snakes are one thing – they don’t normally eat people. But alligators…. That’s a different story.

I’m a lot bigger than the average snake. But alligator – well… That’s not good. I’ve seen enough Animal Planet to know the story doesn’t end well for the Gazelle drinking water at the edge of the creek… No... bad images crossed my mind, and I worked feverishly hard to erase them as quickly as they came in. Ick.

I could feel myself begin to perspire. And I was only walking. Great! (Can they smell sweat???)

And then I tried to remember the news report that I heard only a few weeks ago. Something about a huge alligator walking (do they walk?) along the side of a major Florida Interstate…. Hhhhmmmmm

Perhaps that was further south of Pensacola. Not in the Panhandle. Not anywhere near the Panhandle?

Yes, I convinced myself – no alligators here.

And onwards I pressed.

As I walked, I thought about the sign and then my mind wandered to my crash. They were both similar, in the sense that with both activities – biking and now walking on Florida’s trails – had the potential to be harmful.

And then I continued thinking; my mind continued whirring away (dangerous, indeed).

I thought back to last winter, during a few of my longer trainer rides. There were several times where I watched downhill skiing, skeleton, snowboard racing, moguls, and other extreme sports. In their own right, each sport seemed nuts, dangerous, full of risks.

Additionally, as I passed a trail sign that was named “The Can Crusher”, I remembered back to when I Nordic skied in high school. During one winter ski trip my sophomore year, our team was lucky enough to stay at the Telemark Skii Lodge – located at the trailhead of the American Birkininer Ski Race. The “Birki” as we fondly called it, is an annual (but challenging) 45K ski race (in addition to fantastic ski trail), through the heart of rolling Wisconsin backcountry. There were several other trails that intersected with The Birki, and our team had lots of fun exploring and challenging each other on different trails.

Additionally, the Telemark Lodge would post warning signs over very steep and long hills. To warn stupid know-it-all kids, and like-minded young adults, of the steepness and danger in store. You knew you were coming to a biggie when you saw the black diamonds painted into the trees, and a crude sign at the top of each drop off – the most notorious being “The Elevator Shaft”, “The Roller Coaster”, and “Murphy’s Revenge.”

“Murphy’s Revenge,” in particular caught my attention, as it was named after a ski coach who broke her leg at the bottom while missing a sharp left handed turn.

I snowplowed down the sucker with no shame.

Yes, me and a few of the other girls choose to play it “safe” on the hills – and as I had no intention of leaving my ski training in a cast, or body bag, I didn’t mind the teasing. Especially when the main perpetrator of the teasing crashed and lost his water bottle on The Elevator Shaft. Ha! He pretty much kept his mouth shut for the remainder of the trip.

As I pressed deeper and deeper in the woods on my own hike, my mind struggled to make sense of why I, why downhill snowboard racers, why the ill-fated “Murphy” did and do the things we do. Each and every sport was dangerous. Heck – there I was on a walk, and I was still in danger of being consumed by an alligator, a nice, tasty treat to wash down the remains of said Gazelle.

So why do we do the things we do – especially if they’re unsafe, if we have a chance at risking injury, possibly death?

I certainly didn’t plan on crashing on March 17, but it happened. It was a risk I was willing to take on that day, and quite honestly – any other day I’ve gotten on my bike and pedaled my heart out. And I still will continue to ride, as long as I can recover….

So why?

And all throughout my walk I thought about this question.

Wouldn’t it be simpler to not worry? To not downhill ski, to avoid biking fast, never get on a snowboard? If people didn’t do dangerous things, then, it would stand to reason that they wouldn’t get hurt….

I pressed onward, and still I thought.

I thought about Danielle and Lelia, going through their very own bottom bust a few days ago, when Lelia took a 6-foot tumble off a playground set. Thank goodness she was okay, perhaps slightly bruised…. But thinking about playground sets, well – Karyna (The Younger Sister), fractured her wrist on a slippery set of Monkey Bars when she was 5. She fell and hurt herself…

Should we avoid playground sets?

And I thought about the complete ridiculousness of this argument.

Naturally, the only way we can lead a “safe” life is to never do anything. And what kind of life is that? Sheltered – yes. But, my friends, that’s not really life at all.

People participate in sports, in games; play on playgrounds because they love it. They have fun. They enjoy themselves and take pleasure in certain activities. For the love of the game, for their own benefit, or simply “just because.” People do things that bring them happiness, things that they enjoy. They do it for the sake of living, because by doing these things they are ultimately enhancing their own lives.

For the life of me, I can’t imagine doing flips off a ski slope (I already experienced what flipping off my bike could do, thank you very much!), but it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy other potentially dangerous things. I swim in the ocean (sharks!), I bike outside (crash, gnats!), and I run through trails (ankle sprains, snakes, alligators, poison ivy!) – but the fears that I have don’t hold me back, they don’t preclude me from doing the things I love.

An Olympic Ski Jumper doesn’t think about the negative before they start a jump – no! They love what they do, they enjoy the challenge, they like meeting new goals, of setting their own personal bar a little higher – they take pleasure in their sport.

And I admire that, as crazy as it may seem. It makes me happy to see other people doing what they love, even if it is dangerous (within reason, of course!).

Because, as I found out at my own expense, we can’t always be safe. We can’t always control what happens to us, which events transpire one way or the other.

But we do control the type of life we live, how we choose to act, what we decide to do. And how much fun, enjoyment, happiness, and satisfaction we attain. We ultimately decide how we choose to live our own lives. And that’s the key.

I know that I’ll always be a little fearful of sharks, I’ll be wary of gnats while I’m biking, and I’ll watch for snakes when I’m running. But I’ll still continue to do these things – because I love them. They make me happy; they help to compliment my life.

And while I’m’ grateful that Lelia is okay, I hope that she gets back on that playground set, climbs as high as she wants, and enjoys those moments of childhood bliss. Because it’s not just about falling down.

It’s about falling down, picking yourself back up, and pressing on; that’s what truly counts.

I’m just happy an alligator didn’t eat me, and I lived to tell the tale.


Terri said...

Conversely, as you said, we all have the line in the sand that we draw - and I believe when I saw the sign about alligators - that would've been a good place for me to draw that line and steathily return to my car....glad you did not become a snack.

Kellye Mills said...

I'm very happy that you weren't eaten by an alligator as well! Life is dangerous, and as a parent... oh that is tough because we're supposed to protect our children, but at the same time let them enjoy life as well. It's OK for me to go out and try crazy things, but Cooper and Gracie??? I guess we just have to be careful but realize that we're not in control, and what will be will be!

Ryan said...

The warning sign on the entrance to the trails from Chemstrand road reads:

Beware of the Redneck Yahoos on ATV using Busch Light Cans as projectiles !

Give me alligators of Rednecks any day. At least an alligator has logic?

Sarah said...

That was great. I think we all have our own 'threshold' of where we get just the right balance of excitement and a tiny bit of fear. Those guys that do their BMX tricks on crazy jumps and half-pipes? Their threshold is higher than mine.

I think about being hit by cars all the time when I'm on my bike. Still, it doesn't stop me. I exercise caution, ride first thing on a weekend morning, try to stick to roads less-traveled, but at the end of the day, if my life is ultimately shortened or I become injured, I will at least know I was living my life the way I wanted to live it. I completely agree that we just cannot live life sheltered and in fear.

It's all of our experiences combined, the good, the bad, the harmful, the pleasant, the difficult, the happy - that all contribute to our journey in life. How boring would that journey be if it were always safe?

I exciting would that post have been if we wouldn't have all been sitting there wondering if you might tell a tale of an alligator encounter?

Though...I'm glad you didn't have one. Much safer that way. :)

Greg Remaly said...

A life of fear is no life at all.

(just keep your eyes open)

Pedergraham said...

I am so glad that you got to go "off-track" for your walk. Sometimes a slow pace in the woods soothes my soul in a similar way as a fast, sweaty run on the track. (Without the need for a shower afterward, too!)

I like what you wrote about fear and safety. As I've gotten older and gotten a family, I think about that a lot more. In a way that I have a hard time putting my fingers on, I feel like it ties into respect for ourselves and the ones around us. have really given me something to ponder.