Little doses of danger

Parenthood scares a fearless outdoorswoman

  • Rafters on a calm stretch of the Snake River through Hells Canyon on the Oregon-Idaho border.

    Sarah Gilman

In my effort to get to the Snake River for a raft trip, I was required to fly. On my flight, I met a family, who, after learning that travel by Greyhound was also in my future, insisted that I ride with them to the remote Oregon town to which we were all headed. I happily agreed, sat in the back of a small rental car between their two children for four hours, stopped for a chicken dinner with the woman's sister, and accepted their kind offer to stay the night with their parents, who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. And that is how I found myself having breakfast with strangers, going over old photo albums.

Such was the happy beginning of an adventure that had me nauseated with fear. Later in the day, when they dropped me off with the rafting company, my duffel and sleeping bag in tow, I said goodbye to my newfound friends and almost started looking for another set to take me right back to the airport. As I sat there -- next to Chief Joseph's grave, hoping that some of his bravery would enter my spirit -- I realized that motherhood was the problem here.

On one hand, I doubt that a family with young children would have given a lift and a night"s shelter to a man -- and I suspect one reason they trusted me was because I told them I was a mom. (Sure, I could've been lying, but what serial killer can talk in detail about every series of children's books ever published?) And on my end, I trusted them because of their children -- who"s going to kill me with children in tow?

I think it"s fair to say that it was motherhood that landed me in a sweet and inexpensive way in this Oregon town.

But the flip side was much darker: Motherhood was making this trip horrible.

Prior to pregnancy, I was willing to sleep on benches in Barcelona and take flight lessons in small wobbly planes; I slept alone in cars and walked alone in blizzards. But the moment I gave birth, an unwelcome and fundamental shift occurred, a freakish chemical reaction that turned me into a slightly anxious human, and even worse, an anxious outdoorswoman. After having children, I liked my feet (whether in skis, snowshoes or hiking boots) on safe ground. Sure, I take my kids camping across the West -- but these are the safe excursions. And although I still hike alone, I can"t help but absorb the stories of women being threatened, such as the two women held at knifepoint near my home last fall. (They fought off their attacker, and he's now in jail.) Such stories make me shudder, simply because I don"t want my children to grow up without me. It's become a weird neurosis, a strange and perhaps egomaniacal obsession -- the need to stay alive for two reasons named Jake and Eliana.

And yet, when I got asked to teach writing on a rafting trip, I reflexively said you betcha! It seemed like such an obvious answer.

And now that I stood at the edge of the Snake, listening to the "safety talk," my stomach gurgled. I spread my arms and let the guides grunt as they yanked on my life jacket, because I am too small to have it fit safely. I practiced my Death Mantra, acted like the friendly and put-together writing instructor I was supposed to be, and I put my foot into that damn raft while fighting back the vomit lodged inside my throat.

No turning back now. I cursed the Eleanor Roosevelt quote on my computer: "Do one thing each day that scares you." I pretended serene calm as rafts approached each Class IV rapid; I feigned interest as we got out of the boats with the guides, hiked up the mountain, and scouted each rapid for the best routes through. From this vantage point, I looked at the great heaves of water and the hard rocks -- and the force with which they met. What a stupid reason to leave my children motherless, I thought.

I will admit that I did not find all the rapids fun. But in the end, I probably cracked a wobbly smile. I loved the calmer water, the bears, the poison ivy, the rattlesnakes, the fast current, the kayaking. I loved the nighttime sky and sleeping outside by myself and the canyon wrens. It's possible I even laughed as we went down the last Class IV, and that"s when it occurred to me that playfulness can come through fear. Perhaps it is even born of it.

I knew that when I returned home, my children would hang off my waist and yelp, "Was it a very grand adventure?" (a phrase they picked up from Peter Pan), and that I would start thinking of other adventures to be had. Trips change us, and this one changed me: It's time, I think, that I let small doses of danger re-enter my world as mother and woman. I want to be grateful for the fact that I can get rides at the airport, for the fact that I have something to live for; and I want to acknowledge the physical and emotional danger inherent in living. That's why, on my last night of sleeping under the stars, I found myself looking at Cassiopeia, the huge W in the sky. I simply hoped that, when I die, she would embrace me like a mother, and perhaps even let me look down from time to time at a green-eyed boy and a blue-eyed girl as they set out on adventures of their own.

Laura Pritchett lives in northern Colorado. She is the author or editor of five books, her most recent one being Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers.

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