Risky business


Jackson Avenue in the snow

The snow was still coming down when I went walking yesterday. Fat flakes blanketed streets and cars, a cushion of snow encased tree branches and everything seemed about 20 decibels quieter than usual. It felt adventurous to be out in such weather – even though I was hardly alone. My friends were just returning from cross country skiing in Sligo Creek Park, where I also saw people hiking the wooded paths and walking their dogs along the paved path.

The real adventurer came rolling down Jackson Avenue, a steep neighborhood street that leads into the park. The road was mostly unplowed, still thick with snow and slush. He was on a bicycle.

He had a light. And snowpants. His tires were wide, I think, wider than my commuter bike tires – though it was hard to tell through the snow that coated them. He looked prepared. But really, who rides a bike in 3 inches of snow?

My first thought was for his safety. If he made it home with no major spills or injuries, he would feel like a hero, admired for his grit, determination and sense of adventure. If he was hurt, say, sliding down Jackson and onto Sligo Creek Parkway, where there might be a car driving by, or slipping off one of the bridges that span the creek and into the icy water, the story would be different. Admiration would quickly turn to disdain for poor judgment.

How quickly we go from brave to reckless.

The thrill of risk is what drives me to try things that could be considered either. My risks are not really life-threatening – leaping from a 40-foot cliff into the ocean is about as dangerous as it gets, and I jumped only after watching a line of people do it before me. I climbed onto a ski lift one night, even though I wondered where the rest of the skiers had gone, and found myself alone at the top of a dark, icy, black-diamond ski slope, dodging blasts for snowmaking equipment — but I made it down the crusty edge of the slope safely. And the one time I went rock-climbing, that first belay brought my heart to my throat, but I was in a climbing gym – hardly 127 Hours, the movie where a climber gets stuck in a crevasse for days.

I’ve had a couple of adventures on bikes, as well. Riding along the Mount Vernon Trail after a night at Alexandria’s Hard Times Cafe, my old biking buddy and I would hold our breath pedaling along the wooden boardwalk that took us through the spooky swamp along the Potomac River. Who might be hiding around the next curve? And why didn’t we have bike lights? I can’t remember. And there was the afternoon my honey and I rode along the Northwest Branch Trail to Franklin’s Brewery, where it got dark before we’d finished dinner. On the way home we wound up stranded on an unfamiliar stretch of highway in a sketchy neighborhood, then unsure which direction to take along the dark trail through the park. This time, we had one bike light between the two of us, and I followed its beam, every muscle tensed, until we made it out of the woods and home.

It was sort of thrilling. But mostly uncomfortable, and certainly not high adventure.

Still, these experiences flip the adrenaline switch, goosing me with an electrical surge that knocks me out of the everyday and into new possibilities. They make me feel invincible. I can use that sort of boost.

I will never climb Mt. Everest. But don’t be surprised if you see my biking down Jackson Avenue in the next snowstorm.


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