Generally speaking, I am not what you would call a thrill seeker. However, there have been several times in my life when I have experienced such an adrenalin rush when I did something physically outside of my comfort zone. They stand out as moments when I felt so in my body, so filled with happy energy, and so glad to be fully awake and alive to life.
As a girl, I wasn’t adventurous though I liked change and was usually game to try new things. I went away for summer to YMCA Camp Ralph S. Mason camp in Northern New Jersey and did two amazing activities that pushed the envelope of what I would normally do. The first was rather modest—yet important. That summer I really found my water-legs and learned how to swim like a fish. In fact, the names of our levels were names of fish. Minnows, flying fish are two levels that I recall. I had always been fairly comfortable in water, but that summer I learned the real strokes—crawl, breast, back and butterfly. When I became one with the water, I felt so thrilled and calm at the same time. The calm came from feeling comfortable and completely safe even though I was in deep water and using new strokes. And because I passed a certain level of swimming skill, I was automatically entered into a drawing for an activity that only a handful of campers would participate in towards the end of the camp session.
Wouldn’t you know it, my name got pulled out of the hat to go for a day-trip rubber rafting on rapid waters. Just thinking about it now makes the hairs on my arms stand up. It was a good thing that I didn’t have to put my name in the hat on my own or I might not have gone on that important trip.
I was really scared. I was with a group of kids I didn’t yet know—none of my friends from my cabin or other camp activities were on the trip. And I couldn’t quite imagine what rubber rafting was. And then when we arrived at the rapids at a section of the Delaware River, I couldn’t imagine getting into those waters. We learned that we were to straddle the side of the raft. “What,” I thought, “we aren’t even safe inside the boat?” The day was long and I got a little less scared as I got more acquainted with the raft and the paddle. Mostly I was feeling the adrenaline rush of fear and less of the calm exuberance of excitement, but even so I had moments of feeling happily thrilled beyond my imagination.
Several years later when in High School, I took gymnastic classes at Alts in Princeton Junction, NJ. Although I had been taking gymnastics for a number of years on and off starting at the Y with Peri during the Olga Korbut Gymnastics craze (see Streaming Memories—Flea Markets), at this point I had a young adult body and a young adult mind with a little less fear. I remember vividly the moment I finally was able to do a back-handspring without spotters. Any activity that requires you leap backwards requires a huge amount of blind belief. Your mindset must be comfortable believing that when you leap backwards your hands will land on the floor because your legs are already in the air and you really are blind to the ground. There is that moment of letting go and knowing that your body will indeed catch yourself. That is the awesome moment of calming, thrilling, amazing liveliness!
I can count on one hand the number of times since that day at the gym that I have felt that rush that is less fear and more exuberance. I hadn’t been able to express what I felt when I did that back-handspring. I was proud of myself and I showed my parents what I learned to do, but I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling. I am certain that I was glowing after that class when I finally did the back-handspring and I am sure everyone around me saw my glow. A more recent adult experience helped me to clarify where the juice of these experiences comes from and why I loved the thrill.
As part of a yearlong intensive personal and leadership development training, I went on retreats to Northern California that included a number of high-flying tasks. We did rope courses of all sorts that required we climb up tall redwood trees. Sometimes we walked across tight ropes and sometimes we jumped. We leaped to grasp other ropes, we jumped to get down with the help of belays, we did trust falls where you fall blind backwards and we jumped off while connected to a swing (see Free falling and improv up on high). I was very nervous at first but I learned that the fear was all about my mindset. Once I experienced being able to accomplish something, I could relax and let go into the bodily sensations on the next turn. I couldn’t get enough of the activities when I finally found my air-legs. Just as when I got my water-legs in summer camp, a certain amount of physical and mental mastery was all I needed to enjoy and even crave the adventure. I understood from that moment why skydivers and trapeze artists and other thrill seekers in the sky are junkies for their death defying highs. The instant of aliveness has never been so intense as it has been for me when I am in the air—suspended for a moment in my body and mind, present to life.
I just looked up Camp Mason and it still exists. In the 70s camp was to a certain extent about personal development and conquering fears, but there is so much more available these days. The camp now has a whole category of activities under the umbrella Adventure: Teambuilding, high ropes (zipline, giant swing and more), climbing wall, survival, nature hikes, aerial silks, outdoor cooking, day trips into the surrounding area. Would I have taken up skydiving as an adult if I had the opportunity to do all those high-flying feats as a kid? Perhaps…