It's the last week of summer, and that means one thing to me - Family Camp. For almost 15 years my family has been going to a YMCA camp on Bear Island in the middle of a pristine lake in New Hampshire. It isn't far from where I live, but it is a world away.
About 20 families move into cabins that have been inhabited all summer by a boy's camp; no TV, no newspapers, no Internet, the bathrooms are 100 feet up the hill, and there is true camp food (but hey, someone else is cooking, so I'm happy).
I didn't go to camp as a child, so for me, this is an amazing experience. The camp counselors stay for the week, meaning the families get to participate in all of the activities that the boy's camp offers: kayaking, sailing, riflery, archery, arts and crafts, swimming, and my favorite, the high ropes course.
Of course the youngsters appreciate these activities more than most adults, but the high ropes course changed my life. For 40 years I had always played it safe, always encouraged the kids to be safe, to never take risks, to not run too wild or be too crazy. I prized security over exhilaration.
Then I discovered the thrill of jumping into the void. On the ropes course, you climb trees (while securely attached to a rope). You climb high, 40 to 50 feet high, and then you jump off the trees on a zip line, or stand on a cable and cross from one tree to another while holding a rope, or you climb up logs that are dangling from a cable. None of this is dangerous, really, because you are always attached to a rope (called a belay line). But once you start climbing up a tree and are up, say, 20 feet, you get this funny feeling in your tummy, like, "Oh my gosh, what am I doing?" Then you keep going, and you get to a platform 50 feet in the air. The feeling is indescribable. The breeze stirs and because you're up near the tree's canopy, the tree gently moves. There's that funny feeling in your tummy again. Cool.
On the zip line, after you climb the tree, you are securely attached to a cable that runs out maybe 100 yards over a ball field. The cable starts up 50 feet high and drops to maybe 25 feet off the ground. You jump off a platform high up the tree. And you fly through the air with the greatest of ease. If you haven't done it, you simply can't imagine the feeling.
Year after year, day after day, kids line up to go off the zip line. And then there's me. I'm usually the only grown up who does it, the lone big kid in line for the fun. But slowly I've been talking other adults into leaving their beach chairs and joining me, and I have noticed the women my age (or approaching it) are the ones who have the most fun. The look on their faces and the screams of delight are accompanied by an "I did it" grin. One said to me this week, "I don't think I've ever felt so alive!"
I did one other thing on the ropes course this week. I climbed up a tree about 40 feet, to where the tree has been cut off at the top, The diameter is about 7 inches. I was attached to a rope all the way up, so if you fall, you only fall a few inches before the rope catches you. Sure you might skin your knee, but you won't die. The goal of the exercise is to stand straight up on the top of the tree, and let me tell you, it is really hard to do. You have to balance one foot on this little pole of a tree, then the other, and they won't both fit, so you have to balance really carefully, all the while looking at the ground 40 feet down.
The first time I couldn't do it; I lost my balance trying to step up on the top (the tree sways as you climb and while you try to stand on top). But the second time, I DID IT! I stood on top of that tree like I had done it a dozen times before and put my hands out in victory and all the 20-something counselors and kids applauded and said, "Great job!"
I don't think I had ever felt so alive. Or more empowered. Or more thrilled that I had taken the risk, small that it was, and felt the exhilaration of overcoming it.
Security is overrated. (Mind you, safety is NOT overrated). A book I read recently explained it well. You can go through life not taking chances and maybe feel safe and secure, and you know as well as I that your risk of being hit by a truck is the same as for someone who jumps out of airplanes. Or you can push yourself to overcome the pull of security, reach out and touch the void, do something safe that isn't necessarily secure -- go back to school and find a job that's more rewarding, volunteer to help out in a soup kitchen in a part of town that makes you uncomfortable.
You can jump or you can stay where you are. Your choice. Just make sure that as you age, you keep learning, keep trying new things, keep exploring. Exhilaration is not the exclusive right of youth. It's our right, too
Published On: September 02, 2008