I dug my feet into the sides of the orange, inflatable kayak I’d been sitting in for the past six hours. The water lightly undulated beneath me, and my hands cramped around the paddle as I gently stuck one end into the water and pushed it forward to keep myself in place. A breeze brushed over my face, cooling the sunburn that braised my cheeks. I heard wings of what I hoped was a Bald Eagle flap above me, but I didn’t look up. I looked straightforward. Listened to the rushing of rapids ahead.
Breathing deeply, I stretched my fingers, gripped the paddle even more firmly, curled my toes around the orange nylon, and paddled – full force ahead. I had minimal arm strength – something necessary when paddling a kayak through rapids – but I hoped the current would provide the boost I needed. Hoped that, for whatever reason, nature would be on my side that day. That the wind and the water and the formation of the rocks would work together to help me through the obstacle. The wavy, swirling, unknown riddle that was the Rogue River.
* * *
My mom tells me I inherited some type of adventure gene from my dad. Growing up, I thought normal family vacations were camping trips filled with boating, swimming, and hiking excursions. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized most people don’t like sleeping on the dirty floor of a tent in 30-degree weather. But I grew up a nature girl – loving to squish mud between my toes at the shorelines of lakes, loving to hop into a canoe with some turkey sandwiches and paddle miles down a lazy river, loving to strap on skis and struggle (more like tumble) down a steep face. I loved being adventurous. I loved taking risks.
Then I went to college. Los Angeles seemed provocative, mystifying, a complete change in pace. The first few weeks of my freshman year were thrilling. I got excited by the incessant buzz of cars whizzing down Lincoln Blvd., passionate about the array of people bustling through Santa Monica, inspired by the way the sun pierced through the smog while setting behind the horizon. I felt older, sharper, more mature.
But with time, the buzz muffled, the people blurred, the sun didn’t burnish the blood orange hue it once did as it set behind the horizon. This new place that had once caused my heart to leap at every beat was becoming safe. Predictable. I was starting to feel at home. And I was starting to lose my zest.
* * *
Anything could’ve happened. The kayak could’ve flipped. My paddle could’ve gotten stuck under a rock. A wave could’ve knocked me out of the kayak. I could’ve drowned. But as I ploughed my paddled into the water, shoving my kayak into waves, leaning my body side to side to distribute weight, I didn’t feel fear. I didn’t think “what if.” I felt present. In the moment. Undistracted. Focused on the water, my kayak, the paddle, the formation of boulders, the pattern of the current. And before I knew it the rapids spit me out into an eddy, safe, calm, and victorious.
It was then that I felt a wave of euphoria crash over me and burry itself into every fiber of my being, firing each cell of my body. The water became bluer. The air became crisper. The grass on the shore was pointier, more vibrant. I felt wings flap above me and looked up. It was a Bald Eagle. I heard a familiar voice call my name, but I couldn’t find it. My surroundings were too perceptible.
“Come on!” I finally found my brother paddling a few feet in front of me. It was time to move on.
* * *
When I lost my gusto for L.A. – the place that had once filled me with adrenaline just by existing – I started to look for more. More bite. More liveliness. How could I become more motivated? How could I see with more clarity?
I started to fill my time. Get more involved. Get over involved. I looked for the life I felt I lost in classes and student groups and human rights issues. I started to read more. Dance more. Run more. Do more. More. More. More. The less time I had to do homework, the faster my heart beat and the more I could feel my blood vibrating. I felt as if I was constantly walking on a tight rope, never knowing when I was going to fall. Or if I was going to fall. If I was going to get to class on time. If I was going to finish a paper. If I was going to make it to a meeting.
Again, life became vibrant. I felt older, sharper, more mature.
* * *
I felt my hands – no longer cramped – wrap around the paddle, and the rhythm of the water danced around it when I started towards my brother. I noticed every drop of water magnifying the orange of the kayak. Every gust of wind grazing the hairs on my arms. Every mosquito buzzing into my ears. Everything felt alive.
Later that night, I sat on a wooden deck outside of the cabin we stayed in for the night, sipping hot chocolate and watching stars appear. The wind howled and mosquitos bit me every chance they had, but I didn’t notice them like I did on the river. They had malformed back into annoyances. Nuances. I felt strung out, dry from the lack of effervescence surrounding me. Every minute, new stars showed themselves, speckling the black sky. Every second, a cricket started singing a new song, adding harmony to the existing melodies. It was truly beautiful, but I didn’t see it, didn’t experience it like I did early that day. And I realized that I could never go back. I could never live contently in the safety and predictability of everyday life like I once had. I had been pinched by adrenaline. Stunned by risk.
* * *
It’s a weird thing – risk. I think you either love it or you hate it. Or in my case, you need it. I don’t know why, or how, it happened, but ever since that day on the river, paddling solo through my first whitewater rapid, I’ve seen life through a different lens. Or rather, I see life as lifeless unless there is some aspect of risk in my surroundings.
When I didn’t have the space or ability to plunge myself into risky situations, I created them. More so, I created a monster of stress that eventually came crashing down on me. Crashing into friendships. Crashing a job. Crashing into my physical and emotional health. I found myself sitting on my living room couch, having nothing to do because I had crashed, staring risk in the face as it taunted me. “Now you have time to take on more,” it said. “Don’t you miss my jitters?” “You’re just sitting there; get up.” “Your life is boring.”
And, like an addict in the crux of his withdrawal, I had a choice to make. I could give in, shake hands with risk, and build a fortress of uncertainty, again getting high off the improbability of getting everything done on time. Or I could stand up, turn my back, and decide to change. To see life as exciting without risk. To find different ways of letting risk influence me. And for whatever reason – maybe it was because I was feeling extra desperate that day, or maybe it was because, like that day on the river, the universe was on my side – but I took one of the biggest risks I’d ever taken before and turned my back to it. To risk. To the control risk had over my life.
If you asked me if I’m still addicted to risk, I’d say yes. I’m not sure addictions are ever completely conquered. But they do transform. And they can transform from their controlling destructiveness to something positive, constructive even.
I’ve learned to see risk differently. See that even small encounters that happen daily can have elements of risk. Just because I’m not jumping out of a plane with a parachute strapped to my back doesn’t mean the wind isn’t powerful. Just because a flower is poking through the cracks of concrete and not boasting itself against a backdrop of eternal wilderness, doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful. Even talking with a friend about homework is risky in the sense that you don’t know if that friend will judge you, or mock you, or even listen to you.
I’ve come to realize that life itself is a huge risk, and that realization has changed everything. I still love being adventurous. I still love taking risks. But sometimes, the most exciting risks are the ones hidden in the everyday. Peeking through the cracks of the predictable. Floating around the security of safety. And with a splurge here and there, that’s enough for me.