Sunday, March 29, 2009

R's Excellent Adventure - Days 2, 3 and 4: Facing the monster

Day 2, 3 and 4: Mountain biking and Whitewater Kayaking.
Skipping days because it is more important to me to get the big stuff down than the small stuff. Day 2 was about mountain biking. We went up to Dupont State forest to play around on the skills course for a little while before doing a little ride through the forest. R was pretty comfortable starting and stopping on the bike by now, so it was time to work on his balance.

We spent maybe an hour at the skills course. Riding mostly over the small boardwalk that is in the same area as the teeter totter and the other log rides. There is also a plank ride only inches off the ground, so he rode that as well. Never got up to the teeter totter, but he was doing well. He didn't want to try some of the more difficult obstacles as I think he was afraid of crashing.

He watched me fall twice while demonstrating the larger boardwalk area. Pretty funny really. I got up, brushed myself off and got back on the bike. I tried to set a good example - even in how to crash! He did crash once, not terribly hard, but it knocked his shoe off! Pretty funny!

That afternoon, we took a little ride around some of the trails in the vicinity of Guion Farms before heading out west to Camp at Turkey Creek Campground (not far from Tsali). We were able to get our campsite set up and get some dinner before dark. Even had some time to enjoy a little fire before bedtime.

Wednesday (day 3) was a river day (Nantahala river) so we knew we'd be wet. That's good because we awoke to plenty of rain. The temperature was a little cool, but I thought it would be manageable. After breakfast, we loaded into the car for the short drive up to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). We would rent an inflatable kayak for R, and I would paddle my own whitewater boat.

When renting a kayak from the NOC, the renter is required to watch a safety video. I've seen this video before, but I've also spent the last 23 years or so involved in some sort of extreme activity. It didn't strike me how terrifying this video is for the uninitiated.

My nephew has not had a lot of exposure to extreme sports of any type - unless you count video games or what you might see on television. In fact, his life has been very typical of a boy growing up in a small southwestern town - basketball, soccer, video games and school. Nothing wrong with any of that, in fact one could say it gives a certain amount of stability to a young boy.

Here's where I come in - the (not so!) crazy uncle who enjoys activities that border on or cross over into the extreme. A couple of years ago (2007), I let him (then 11 years old) drive my $25,000 Jeep. While that might not be a big deal to a lot of people, it was a big deal for him. Driving the Jeep was outside his comfort zone, so I had to push him a little to get him to drive it. He did it around the parking lot at first, then later in the week on a county road (dirt road). He was obviously nervous, but managed to get past it and seemingly enjoyed the drive on the county road.

Last year (2008), I let him drive a (rented) $25,000+ Jeep, but this time over some reasonably difficult obstacles. It was all I could do to hold him back. What a difference a year made. He asked me almost as soon as we picked up the Jeep if he could drive it. The only concern he really gave me was in his ability to ignore my commands of 'BRAKE!' 'BRAKE!' 'BRAKE!' 'BRAKE!' 'BRAKE!' We made it through that experience without a scratch though, so all was well.

This year (2009), my goal was to help him explore further where his comfort zone really is. I feel it is pretty important for a young man to understand that there is a point where he won't feel comfortable in any given situation. What is most important is how he responds to that situation - That's the true measure of his character.

The tools I would employ (much like the U.S. Army's Ranger School employs combat patrols as a leadership training tool) were the activities we had lined up - mountain biking, climbing and whitewater kayaking. Despite my years of participation in these activities, each time I don the requisite equipment for the day's activity, I feel the adrenalin begin to flow. Nothing like walking to the edge of your personal comfort zone and looking into the void!

Extreme activities are not the only way to get this feeling. I sometimes get this feeling before engaging a beautiful woman in conversation. I always get this feeling when in a situation where emotions are high or conflict is imminent. An anthropologist might say it is the 'fight or flight' syndrome. Whatever you call it, if you recognize it for what it is, you can better understand it. Once you begin to understand it, you can begin to control your reaction to it.

So today's activity really took R on a roller coaster ride to the edge and beyond his comfort zone. I let him watch the safety video by himself and it scared the heck out of him. He asked a few questions on the drive up to the put-in, but I didn't recognize the difficulties he was having with what he had seen on the video. The video really stresses the proper 'swim' position if you come out of your boat, and it talks about the dangers of foot entrapment (and the subsequent drowning that occurs). Before he was even near the water, his comfort zone was so far out of site, I should have recognized it immediately.

When we unloaded the boats at the put-in, I asked him how he was feeling. He said he had butterflies. I asked if he was scared and he agreed that he was. I asked him to think about how his body was reacting at that point. Personally, when I'm afraid, I get a bit of a metallic taste in my mouth. He didn't - but everyone reacts differently to these situations.

We talked about fear. I said it was like a huge monster that bears down on you, breathing it's fetid breath in your face, fangs dripping with the blood of a thousand innocents. It fills the space in which you exist, crowding you so you feel the only escape is to curl up into a little ball and cry, or turn tail and run as fast as you can away from it's stench. The monster feeds on these feelings, absorbing them like bounty absorbs spilled milk. The monster has ultimate confidence that you will fail, so it waits patiently for the first sign of your weakness. I still had not come to the full realization that R's weakness is feeling as if he has no control over a situation.

I tried to give him some advice about paddling the boat. As we drifted into the current, he seemed like he was starting to get a hang for it, but the water had yet to get choppy. I continued to tell him he would be fine. I don't think he believed me. I asked him to trust in himself and his abilities to learn a task quickly.

I told him to follow me and he seemed to be doing OK as the water began to get faster. We passed through a small shoals between the commercial put-in and the private put-in. When I turned around to see how he was doing, I saw that he wasn't quite in as good shape as I had thought. I helped him get to river left and we grabbed onto a small tree to hold ourselves in position.

We talked for a while as we held on. Although I couldn't see his face (we both faced upstream), I could tell he was not just on the edge of his comfort zone, he was hovering in the blackness of the void on the other side of it. The monster was crouched and ready to pounce.

I asked him about his feelings. He said he was afraid. I asked him 'What are you afraid of'. He said "falling". After further questioning, I realized this meant he was afraid of coming out of the boat. I know he can swim, although he's not a trained swimmer. I talked to him about the safety of the equipment he was wearing, stressing that he had multiple 'layers' of buoyancy devices (his PFD and his wetsuit).

During all of this, I took the opportunity to ask him again to understand what his body was telling him. His body was probably overdosing on adrenalin right about then, but it is still a new sensation for him - he wasn't recognizing it. Finally, he agreed to try for the private put in just downstream from where we had stopped. I told him he would need to be aggressive in making the boat do what he wanted if he wanted to be able to stop.

Unfortunately, his lack of experience and my failure to provide him an opportunity to learn before throwing him into the fray, resulted in him missing the eddy that would have allowed us to take out before the rapid. I peeled out of the eddy after watching rather helplessly as he careened downstream.

I quickly caught up to him and tried to get him back over to river left. I thought we might still have an opportunity to get the boat stopped before the rapid. No such luck. He careened and bounced off the left bank of the river as I tried to coach him from a few feet away. "Be aggressive!", "Paddle hard!" I called to him. I don't even know if he heard me at all during this time.

If you know the Nantahala river, you know the line for Patton's run (the rapid we were quickly approaching) is to river right. It became quite apparent that we were not going to make it over to river right. That is probably for the best, as the area on river left above the rapid is a huge pool created by several very large rocks. R found himself headed straight into this huge eddy, and I followed.

He breached the boat across the opening between two of the large rocks. Thankfully, one of them was actually on the bank of the river and the rocks were flat enough that the water was rushing smoothly under his boat. I quickly got out of my boat and grabbed the front of his boat to keep him from being pushed over the drop (the drop is about 2 feet). I told him to hold on, and I started pulling the boat up on to the rock. As the stern of the boat disengaged from the second rock, it started to twist. The look on R's face was pure terror. I reached down and gave him a hand to climb out of the boat.

Now we were safely on dry ground. He was shaking a bit and I could see the emotion in his face. He's a strong kid. He handled himself quite well. As we sat there talking about what was happening, we decided to have a little snack.

As we chewed our PB&J sandwiches, I admitted to him my failure. Usually, when a person has not met the monster that is fear, it is best to provide a slow introduction. I told him I should have done a better job of making this introduction. This experience for him was as if I had taken him to a cage match with the monster, threw him in the cage and locked the gate. I told him that sometimes it's necessary to look the monster in the eye and scream F*** YOU!!!!.

But now what? I knew he was flush with adrenalin, and I was in a position that could push him over the edge. On one hand, I could hear every Ranger Instructor I ever had screaming at me "Suck it up Ranger!!", "Drive On you little P****!", "What are you afraid of you little S*******?". It would have been really easy to go down that path - I also heard my own father in there as well.

On the other hand, I recognized the possible consequences from this type of reaction. As a Ranger, it didn't phase me. It struck me one day while in the Ranger Indoctrination Program - All the yelling and insults are just a tool to get me angry enough to get past the fear (or exhaustion or whatever). But as a young man, hearing the frustration and anger in my father's voice probably did more to keep me away from some activities than it did to reinforce my own belief that I could indeed perform in those activities. I needed to take care that I didn't allow R to suffer a (further?) loss of confidence.

So I had my own decision to make. Treat young R like I treated so many newbies to the Ranger Battalion and my father treated me, or empower him to make his own decision? As we finished up our lunches, I struggled to decide on the best way to handle the situation. In the end, I simply told R that He had a decision to make. I started by making it known that there were two possible choices in the current scenario and I didn't care which choice he made.

Door number 1 puts us back in the boats while door number two takes us up to the parking lot above us (the road parallels the river, and there happens to be a parking area directly above Patton's Run). I outlined in as much detail as I could what would happen for each choice. I repeatedly stressed to him that the decision was his to make. I would fully respect and support whatever he decided. I asked only that in addition to what he would face immediately after his decision, he consider how he will feel about the decision in a few days.

Regardless of the decision, we had to move the boats a little further down the river, so I left him with his ruminations while I ferried the boats to a public river access spot just down from the rapid. He walked along river left.

Several times I went to him and talked him through the consequences of whatever decision he would make:
Down river: at least 3 hours, if you're cold now, you'll be colder later. Several other rapids, not as big...blah blah blah
Hitchhike: He'd have to stay with the boats while I caught a ride the 8 miles downriver where my car was parked. I'd pick up the car and head back to pick him and the boats up. It would take potentially up to 1 hour...blah blah blah.

Eventually, I told him it was time to make the decision. He asked a couple of questions, made a couple of statements and decided to pull off the river. Immediately, I told him "Let's go". We set about carrying the boats to the parking area above. Once there, we looked back at the river and saw a 2 person raft navigating the rapid....I told him that's what we should have rented.

We got really lucky as a woman with a pick-up truck stopped and we loaded both boats, all our gear and us into the back (within 10 minutes of me sticking my thumb out). She dropped us at the NOC and we turned in his gear. We walked upstream to watch some boats navigate Nantahala falls (the largest rapid on that section of the river). Afterwards, we had a nice dinner at the River's End Restaurant. He was in good spirits.

I didn't make him relive the decision making process, although I did ask him to keep in mind the feelings he had as he went down that section of the river. We talked a little more about fear, but I tried to keep it a little lighter while we ate dinner.

Day 4: The following day dawned with plenty of rain and similarly cool temperatures. We opted for a day in Gatlinburg to stay dry (original plan called for Mt biking in Tsali). After a foggy, but scenic drive through the Smoky Mountains, we returned to our campsite. It wasn't raining too much so he asked about riding the bike around camp. No problem, what kind of trouble could he get himself into?

As I was preparing dinner I occasionally glanced around to see to where he might be. I usually didn't see him. Finally, I turned around when I heard "Uncle John?". "What did you do" was all I could say as I saw the blood running from his nose! His hoody, his shorts and his hands were covered in mud as was the bike. The pride in his face really told the tale though.

Of course I was concerned - what would my sister think if I sent him back with a concussion (he wasn't wearing a helmet), or a broken bone or?? After doing the concerned uncle thing - "What's hurt?", "where did you hit?", "how did it happen?" etc., I looked again at his face. He was smiling! In a simple bicycle crash I think he learned more about himself than a year's worth of schooling could possibly teach him.

Its funny how anticipation of an event is sometimes far worse than the actual event. During the climbing trip, he was afraid of falling, during the biking at Dupont he was afraid of falling off the bike, during the paddling he was afraid of swimming (he called it 'falling'). Really, he was simply afraid of being hurt. This little bicycle accident might have shown him that yeah, it can hurt a little, but the rush you get (unfortunately it is sometimes right before the crash!!) is awesome!

What do I think really happened to cause this rush of pride after the crash? I think he caught a glimpse into the eyes of the monster. Though he may not yet understand it, I know what has happened. Two things. He has tasted the blood of the monster - pure adrenalin. The other part? That's the key in this stage of his development. He has seen that the monster is equally afraid of him.


  1. Brother dear, you are an amazing writer. I feel like I was there. Oh, and you can have the care of my baby boy anytime!! Thank you so much for the blogs. He hasn't talked about much more than the crashes since he's been back. I've heard about them and the injuries in detail. His comment about the rafting when I asked if he wanted to do it again, "Oh, yeah!".

  2. You know I wasn't really scared of falling off the bike as I was nervous. And once I fell once and nothing bad happened I felt more comfortable I think if I would've went swimming once it may of done the some thing. In case you didn't notice this is R.

  3. Nice job, boy.

    And a great, thoughtful and insightful blog, oh my brother.


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