A few years ago at a Chelsea diner in New York City, I overhead a famous actor on the phone in the booth behind me testing out some new jokes with his agent. “Get this one,” he said, “Why do we go on vacations? Because life has gotten too easy, so we say to ourselves, ‘I know how to survive here, so I’ll go someplace where it’s harder for me and see how I do there.’” It wasn’t the best joke, but it is kind of true.
I’ve just returned from some extreme vacationing, the kind of rejuvenating activities that make a person understand mortality rather explicitly. There’s no place better for such experiences than at high altitudes in Colorado where there are many ways to know, in unquestionable and visceral ways, how vulnerable humans are.
White-water rafting in Brown’s Canyon through Class III and IV rapids? It seemed like a good idea beforehand and a spectacular one afterwards, but during the actual roaring drops and spins between big rocks, I was wide awake in both terror and joy. So was everyone in our raft, including our expert guide, a wonderful young woman who assured us dozens of times that “we were crushing it” every time we hit another rapid, some with descriptive names like “Widow-maker.”
The other rafts twice the number of people on them as ours with only Ken, Forest, our nephew Andrew, me and our guide. “Will that make it easier?” I asked her, wondering also if the water being so high would help us avoid big rocks. Actually, a light boat and high water equal speed on steroids, and it wasn’t until after the trip that she confided to us, “I didn’t want to scare you guys, but I’ve never seen the Arkansas [river] higher than today.” She didn’t need to scare us, especially when I flew out of the boat only to land back in, paddling like a demon the whole time.
I also faced vivid images of another kind of danger when horseback riding through three climates: high desert, aspen forest, and alpine-ish field. Three different habitats means big changes in altitude, which means leaning forward while going up a steep path through the trees, praying my lovely horse, Wonder Pony, didn’t slip. Even more heart-race-inducing was going down what felt like a vertical path. “Do the horses ever lose their footing and slide down the mountain?” I asked my guide. No, she told me, unless there’s a lot of mud. I looked down at the wet dirt, leaned way back and pressed my knees in as hard as I could (just as my guide told me to do) and prayed. By the time I got off the horse I could hardly stand up and could only walk cow-girl-bow-legged. But none of that mattered because I was ecstatic. Survival can do that to a person.
There were also the big drops to look down, especially at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a national park in southwest Colorado where the canyon is both narrower and deeper than the Grand Canyon. Sitting on the edge and looking to the ant-sized river below made my heart beat hummingbird-fast, as if willing me toward hovering position. Walking the two-mile loop down and back up simply made me grab hold of trees and pant hard, determined to keep going.
Now that I’m back in Kansas, I face our local dangers: chiggers, ticks, hail, humidity and state politics, as daunting as white-water and high altitudes but not quite as enticing, but that’s what vacations are for.