Somewhere Between Analyzing and Instinct Lies the Answer to Risk Taking


You are walking alone in a strange city at night, feeling slightly uncomfortable but thinking that if you just go a little farther you will find the perfect place for dinner. Or you're hiking alone in the mountains, unsure how far you ought to go before turning back. Or you're driving on a treacherous dirt road in Mexico's Yucatan, wondering whether you'll get stuck in the jungle before you reach the beach. As a woman traveler, I've been in risky situations countless times. When I push ahead, I am usually rewarded for taking the risk. More often, though, I've turned back out of cautiousness. So I never find the restaurant, finish the hike or reach the beach.

Like many women, I was brought up to avoid risk. On the road I still hear my mother's voice in my ear, telling me to be careful. My older brother, John, is different. He goes off alone, hiking, camping, backpacking and off-road driving in remote parts.

I went along on one such trip to the Maze, a part of Utah's Canyonlands National Park on the rugged west bank of the Colorado River. My brother and I had plenty of food, water and equipment, and we were in a sport utility vehicle with four-wheel drive and a clearance high enough to take us to the Maze, reached from the south by about 40 miles of unpatrolled, rough dirt roads.

We were 30 miles into the drive when I got scared. The road was a nightmare, indistinguishable from the surrounding countryside. It was rocky and potholed and frequently dropped off several feet. Occasionally we built rock ramps to ease our passage.

It took us half an hour to negotiate one particularly gruesome 100-yard stretch.

What if the car tipped over and John got hurt? I'd have to walk 30 miles back to the highway by myself, which I didn't think I could handle.

So I told John to turn back, and he did. Later, we figured that we'd stopped at the far edge of the worst patch, meaning that just as I ordered a retreat, the Maze was within our grasp.

John still teases me about chickening out, and in my travels since, whenever I'm faced with a decision about backing off or taking a risk, I remember that I never made it to the Maze, though John did later, by himself.

Is he a daredevil or a gifted envelope-pusher? Am I the sane sibling or a wimp? And when is it right for a woman traveler to take a risk?

"It depends on how you define risk," says Margaret Backman, a clinical psychologist in New York. "For some, just talking to a stranger feels risky."

Other women, like Kathy Ponting, who has spent 16 years enforcing the law in the back country for the California Department of Fish and Game, have a much higher tolerance for risk. A few times, alone on horseback in the wilderness, she has chosen not to cross a stream bloated by spring runoff, for instance.

"But a lot of women stop before they ought to out of fear," she says. "It's very sad if fear stops you from living."

Cathy Hearn, a white-water kayaker based in Maryland who has won two world championship medals, been in the Olympic kayaking competition and run rivers that no one else has done, is forcibly reminded what it means to take a risk every time she looks down a difficult rapid and wonders how to run it.

For Hearn, taking smart risks means balancing analytical assessments of danger with gut instinct.

She's always prepared and never really scared when she faces a rapid, she says. But sometimes she has an unclear feeling. When she tries to visualize running the rough stretch, it's as if a piece of the picture is missing. In her mind, she tries to flesh it out. If she can't, she tries to figure out why, which sounds a little like me, on the road to the Maze imagining how I'd handle getting stranded and having to hike back by myself.

Instincts and feelings like the ones that guide Hearn are "your body's primitive fight-or-flight mechanism," psychologist Backman says.

Those instincts often speak softly, but they can help you gauge the pros and cons of taking a risk if you hear and attend to them.

Backman's approach to facing risks is like Hearn's. "If you want to push the limits, ask yourself what bad things could happen and how you would respond if they did," she says. If simply traveling alone seems risky, take baby steps toward your goal, she advises; work up to a solo journey on the Silk Road by going to Florida by yourself first.

Ponting is way beyond baby steps. Her father, a game warden, let her go on wilderness backpacking trips with a friend when she was as young as 12. As a result, she is skilled and confident in the outdoors, so she can take risks that others should not.

The road to the Maze wouldn't bother her, but she understood why it terrified me. "When I travel, I do extreme things other people wouldn't do," she says. "You weren't prepared. So take a class, learn how to backpack by yourself and navigate with a compass."

The Boy Scout motto is "Be prepared." I played with dolls, so mine was "Be careful."

Now I don't need to remind myself to be cautious. I need to push myself to that Yucatan beach. I'd better be able to get out of a sand trap and change a tire. Fortunately, you don't have to be a Boy Scout to know that.

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