26 January 2009


this morning i received a lovely email from a woman in tubac, arizona. she was very kind (some might say deluded) in her compliments toward me and the colorful life i've led. at the same time she expressed reservations over several of the recreational pursuits i've enjoyed over the years (motorcycling kayaking, flying), which to her seemed dangerous. as a trauma nurse, she's seen the extremes of damage inflicted on the human body by sports which are pursued beyond the bounds of safety and common sense.

her concerns are valid, in this sense -- there is a continuum of mindset among physically active folk, ranging between (a) adrenaline-rush thrill-seekers (mostly young) who are pushing the boundaries of their own experience, without necessarily understanding what lies beyond (and often ending up as a statistic), and (b) those who thrill at the newness and sense of wonder, but take a more considered approach, with thorough training and safety highest in priority. i'm definitely in the latter group.

taking flying as an example -- to become a licensed private pilot, which is merely the first stepping stone (literally a license to learn, since all good pilots are always learning), one must complete 40-60 hours of ground and air training, pass a stringent physical exam, pass rigorous written and oral exams covering everything from navigation to weather to airspace classifications to aircraft systems to FAA regulations and much, much more, and then take the actual skills test in the air with a designated examiner. that's just for the license. after that, pilots must continue to hone their skills, understanding and experience, since they must retest every three years (every two years for older pilots). like most active pilots, i am a member of AOPA, the aircraft owners and pilots association, and receive both their monthly magazines (one for training pilots, one for those already certified), as well as AOPA's online newsletter. i can't begin to describe how many articles and recorded reminiscences i've read that cover the full range of pilot experience, always with an emphasis on education, skills and safety. before undertaking even the most mundane flight, every pilot is trained to know from moment to moment every factor that could affect the flight, including weather, the condition of the aircraft, and the pilot's own level of experience.

compare that to what people go through to renew their driver's license in most states -- a multiple choice written test, and a prefunctory eye exam. that's it. road tests are conspicuously absent, and something i've advocated for many years as part of every single renewal, regardless of the age of the driver. considering that most of us have a license to operate a guided missile ranging in weight from one to twenty tons or more, on streets and highways crowded with hundreds of other such missiles, the licensing requirements are scandalously lax -- as testified to by the number of highway fatalities and injuries that happen every year.

the continuum of thrill-seeking to safe operation i described above applies to all sports, including those considered extreme. skiing, motorcycling, kayaking, you name it. being responsible (and just plain looking to protect oneself from injury or worse) means seeking qualified instruction, and then learning the sport gradually, testing limits safely, coming to understand one's own abilities and limitations in a range of circumstances. the difference between kayaking the san juan river in southern utah during moderate flow, and kayaking the yampa river in northwest colorado during spring runoff, is day and night. one is fun and forgiving, the other is challenging and potentially deadly.

this is where the push-pull of "fear and lust" come in. most solo outdoor sports carry both -- the fear of getting in over one's head, with maybe a brush with injury or death on the one hand, and on the other hand the fierce gravitational pull, that ol' black magic exerted by an adrenaline rush. with training and forethought and self-control, it is possible to feel both, be influenced by both, and enjoy the experience while minimizing risk. the critical component is right between the ears -- thinking, not acting impulsively. the more advanced one's learning and experience, and the more respect one has for the forces of air and water and momentum and the absolute non-negotiable physics of solid objects, the easier it is to really enjoy oneself out near the edge, without fear of disaster.

so there !

NOTE: the above photo of me alongside a Diamond DA-20 was taken at Summit Aviation in Bozeman, MT. Summit is one of the few aviation schools in the country whose entire training fleet consists of Diamonds -- single-engine two-passenger, singel-engine four-passenger, and twin-engine four-passenger. my thanks to the training staff there for their enthusiasm, professionalism and courtesy during an hour-long visit to the school last spring. i still hope to get my own training there, one day.

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