Many years and girlfriends ago, I was canoeing on the Colorado in Black Canyon just below Hoover dam. The girl I was with was freaking out being in a canoe with towering limestone cliffs around us. A gruff compatriot on the trip scolded me for taking her. “This isn’t a ride at Disneyland” he snarled as he floated by. I was faced with almost the same question today as I was waiting in line at an unnamed southern California amusement park. How do roller coasters and outdoor adventure really stack up? Only one way to tell… let’s start stacking!
Lines and Waiting
It’s hard to think about theme parks and not think about standing in line. Still, I think there is just as much waiting and patience involved in technical outdoor sports. Long approaches, bouncing down forest service roads, jugging ropes, building anchors, and all the accouterment takes time. I have spent countless hours sleeping in caves waiting for somebody to do something. If you really want to wait in a cave, do a project that requires ropes and radios. Patience is very much a part of outdoor adventure.
What is more thrilling than racing down a metal rail at 120 miles an hour? How about sitting on the edge of the Tonto Plateau in the Grand Canyon wondering if you should rap off and swing into a cave that is rumored to be just below you? That’s how I learned my half-life of fear. Just like isotropic decay, fear and bravado have a half-life. When I reached the rim and looked over, I knew I was doing it. My friend went first, while I watched one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen over the inner canyon. The “Off Rope” call never came. Fifteen minutes later my buddy was back and said the rope was just a little short, but I could drop and frog up if I wanted. It wasn’t happening for me. Somewhere in between, I reached my half-life of fear. Therein lies the first major difference. In outdoor sports, you are supposed to overcome your fear, while on roller coasters you’re supposed to scream, put your hands in the air, and fully submit to the fear.
It’s OK to get lost in the emotions on a ride because you are not in charge. You pay good money for some young kid to strap you in and make sure you are safe. Outside, you pay good money to have the gear (and know how) to take care of yourself. One classic example from this weekend involved watching a husband yelling at a ride attendant because his wife fell off an inner tube on a water slide. She literally only had one job, to hold on, but that apparently was too much to ask. If in the same situation, say on a rope, the outcome most likely would have been far more tragic.
There is an amazing clarity when you are on rope. All the distractions and clutter leave your mind and it is just you, mother nature, and your gear. Amusement parks require the exact opposite. They need you to detune from the mass of humanity around you and just roll with the flow. Walk on green. Stop on red. Stand in line and wait for adrenaline candy.
I don’t understand the people at amusement parks. Actually, it’s more than that. I don’t understand where these people go. There are kids everywhere doping up on dopamine. Why aren’t there just as many adults getting their thrill on? It seems like all kids like having fun, but adults… not so much. There are far more adults sitting spectating, snapping pictures and eating than riding rides. If all these kids on the rides grew into outdoor adrenaline junkies, REI would be bigger than K-Mart. The kids at the amusement park seem like a standard cross-section of society. Outdoor sports, the adrenaline ones at least, seem to be dominated by the white middle class 20 or 30 somethings. That is until you are hiking in National Parks where everybody seems to be much older.
Growth and Learning
Perhaps the answer to the demographic question is wrapped into growth and learning opportunities. Amusement parks are pretty much enjoyed at face value. You come in and get your fix. Once you are tall enough to ride, it doesn’t really change. The outdoors is an empty canvas. Your adventures are only limited by your skills, fitness, imagination and tolerance for misery. You might even have the chance to find your Zen place. Maybe kids outgrow the simple thrills without finding a replacement. Maybe they find the wrong replacements. Maybe a few kids are lucky enough to be exposed to the outdoors and continue the journey.
Kids aren’t the only ones who need exposure to the outdoors. One of my favorite parts of being outside is teaching my craft to apprentices or learning from a master. The give and take of information and underlying friendship, trust, and teamwork is hard to come by in the modern world. Some of the best conversations I have ever had have been around a campfire after living through another wild adventure. Teamwork at the amusement park is usually nothing more than a buddy to hang with while waiting for your paid help to work your safety gear.
I was pleased and surprised with this article. I didn’t know where it would take me when I started writing and sharing this journey with you. My first thought is adrenaline in all its forms is fun and good. I still can’t complain. I love a good pizza with melted cheese and spicy pepperoni. It’s simple food I have enjoyed all my life and I am not going to give it up. Outdoor adventure is more like a gourmet meal of filet mignon. It can be enjoyed on many levels, nourishing both your body and your taste buds. I hope I am never too old to enjoy pizza, and I hope kids grow up and get to try filet mignon at least once.