Dancing on the Edge

Adventure can be deadly, but it keeps alive what it means to be human

When I was in high school I saw a black-velvet painting of mysterious ghostly ships sailing off what appeared to be the edge of the world. I’m pretty sure there were some buxom sirens and a couple of horses swirling in the velvet mists, too, but to my teenage mind the message was stronger than the art: Adventure can take you to the ends of earth, and beyond. I completely missed the implicit warning in the painting.

At the time, the idea of falling off the edge of the world seemed laughable to me. I didn’t yet understand that while the limits of our knowledge and comfort may be an edge only in the metaphorical sense, physical reality is easily sharp enough to behead those who cross its boundaries. Sailors vanish, polar explorers perish in agonies of starvation and cold, Amelia Earhart disappeared while attempting to fly around the globe in 1937. If our only goal was simple survival then we would all avoid the edge and embrace the regular, the ordinary, the daily warm bath of existence.

Yet every family that packs up for a summer canoe trip or even a minivan ride to an amusement park is responding to the call of adventure, the impulse to look over the next ridge and see what’s hidden there. People often ask why anyone would feel the need to take the risks inherent in mountain sports, but the same compulsion fuels activities as ordinary as having children or drinking unhealthy quantities of alcohol. The urge is in all of us, only different in degree and expression. Even my eight-month-old daughter automatically heads for the edge of her world when I put her on the couch; she carefully looks over (with her butt preposterously high in the air), rocks back, rocks forward and eventually falls off onto the pillows I’ve placed on the floor to catch her.

If a longing to explore the edge is ingrained even in babies, then there must be a reason for it. Yet those who never knowingly risk their lives are considered “normal,” while those who do—however slim the risk or careful the precautions—are labelled “crazies.” Whenever there’s a mountain accident, the pundits in the comments section decry the “unnecessary” risks that the dead or injured took; the victims went off the map in most people’s minds, and got what the armchair observers imagined they would. The calamity reinforces the correctness of the “stay at home, it’s safer here” viewpoint. There are few news stories about the joy of skiing perfect fresh powder to balance the reports of people killed in avalanches.

But it’s a basic pattern of evolution that even the most ridiculous-seeming behavior has some reason behind it, and the fact that there are crazies in every culture tells me that every culture must periodically need them. Our very survival—as individuals and as a species—does not depend entirely on “safety,” but also on exploration and adventure. Every person reading this owes their existence to a crazy who set off from southern Africa one day to see what was over the next ridge. (Our mitochondria say it was a woman, although there had to be a man around, too.) I’m sure that if there had been an Internet when the first families headed across the Bering land bridge between Asia and the as-yet-unknown Americas, the discussion forums would have been filled with grim predictions on their future. “They’ll fall off the edge of the world and be eaten by sabre-toothed tigers. Or worse.” And yet those long-ago adventurers pushed the limits anyhow, just as waves of people from Europe would do later when they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Every so-called extreme sport, from ropeless rock climbing to BASE jumping, preserves their spirit for the next time we truly need it.

When I physically pull on my boots each day, I’m mentally setting off toward the edge of the earth. Even on the most routine local loop I ski while carrying my daughter, I look forward to seeing what’s around every corner. Maybe it will be a startled fawn. Maybe it will be a grizzly. Maybe it will be nothing.

It’s good not to know.
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This essay first appeared in explore.

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