I am not an adrenaline junkie. Despite surviving a childhood of scrapes, scars, and concussions from helmet-less BMX biking and helmet-abusing football games, I am now a fairly cautious middle age man. I prove this by writing an essay praising the “dangers” of simply walking in the woods. I cannot deny, however, that one of the aspects of hiking and backpacking I find most satisfying is that bodily injury is sometimes risked. Admittedly, the risks involved with my typical hikes are minimal to begin with and easily mitigated with even a shred of common sense. Even still, in a world so overly managed to avoid lawsuits and control bodies, it is easy to feel like pampered chattel having forgotten what free will feels like. This is why I welcome, on occasion at least, slippery, hard surfaces underfoot; sharp, pointed edges; uncomfortable temperature shifts; and worrisome relationships between gravity and elevation. Simply contemplating physical danger, even modestly, is liberating.
Our risk-averse social conditioning is evident in the very thoughts I find populating my head when standing along the edge of a mountain overlook, for instance. My initial thought is, “Where is the guard rail or the warning sign? I could step to my death with just another pace or two…” Sometimes I even feel like I’m breaking some rule or regulation. I suppose I am so surprised to experience any element of danger or risk in a space designed for public use that my brain wants to cite an “offense” taking place somewhere, somehow. "Surely, someone must be held accountable for this oversight!" some part of my brain seems to think. Of course, this “de-conditioning” of our over-regulated modern life is precisely what makes time in wilderness so deeply nourishing.
If only for a fleeting moment or two, we are reconnected with our ancestral wiring. Occasionally, we might even experience fear and stress in a legitimate, primal way. That sinking feeling in the stomach or elevated heart rate we too often experience from late fees, intimidating legal letters, or awkward faux pas at a cocktail party are put in perspective when compared with thoughts of tumbling off a mountain side or negotiating a grizzly bear encounter. Such moments remind us just how easily we construct, honor, and rarely question the false and artificial boundaries against risk that have become an exponentially replicating phenomenon of the 21st century. Experiences like barely avoiding a sunning rattlesnake, traversing wildly pounding river rapids, or staring down from a steep cliff not only give us pause to value the safety and security of contemporary life, they hopefully inspire a bit of healthy disdain for such a timid existence, too.