The bicycle and rider perched singularly on the spine of the rugged ridge above us. Even with the new zoom lens we bought specifically for this event, the image was so distant it appeared sketched-in against the cloudless sky. The small crowd assembled below seemed to be holding its collective breath, including my teenage son who stood beside me. A countdown on a hidden loudspeaker thundered, as if the mountains themselves were speaking: “Three, two, one…” then the image above us became animated, moving across the ridge. Suddenly the bike catapulted high into the air, executed a perfect backflip, and landed softly on the hard edge where land meets sky.
In that moment, I got it.
An unlikely observer at the Red Bull Rampage, I was the antithesis of the typical extreme sports fan: a middle-aged woman with no athletic inclinations or abilities. But I was there on a mission—to discover why my son, who had been so like me in the first fifteen years of his life (serious, reserved, thoughtful), was inexplicably drawn to the crazy sport of freestyle mountain biking, where young men willingly fling themselves off cliffs. I was a parent undertaking the quintessential quest of simultaneously trying to understand my child and validating my own importance in his life. Extreme sports pale in comparison.
By the time we set out for Virgin, Utah, a seven-hour road trip from our home in Colorado, the trip had grown to epic proportions in my mind. Only weeks earlier he had suffered a mild concussion from taking a fall on his bike at the local pump track. We were constantly warring about it, with me insisting on safety and precaution versus him riding a rising tide of independence and fearlessness. What he didn’t perceive was the generations’ worth of maternal apprehension that I brought to the equation.
My own mother, and hers before that, were consummate worriers. Standing out in a lightning storm, swimming after eating, driving after dark, walking anywhere alone, doing anything alone—all were tangible threats to be avoided at all costs. A bookworm of a child, I had no real daredevil aspirations, but as I entered adolescence, I became thoroughly infatuated with traveling to the many places I’d read about, especially those in a city. Unknown and scary territory for my small-town mother, who of course objected.
As the worrywart mother I vowed I wouldn’t become, I recall with irony the risky behavior and just plain stupid chances I took as a young woman, on my own in New York City. Walking down the middle of a deserted street in the East Village at 3 am, feeling safe in my own fearlessness; stepping out of my studio apartment in the middle of the night to give some money to a homeless person because when he called to tell me he had found my lost ATM card, he sounded like a decent person; meeting one despairing but sweet denizen after another in coffee shops, nightclubs and Laundromats, then staying up all night with them to discuss the meaning of life—whether I had a guardian angel at my side or I had learned to trust my burgeoning intuition, these were all youthful escapades from which I landed with both feet on the ground, my head and heart intact.
I think perhaps they were not such stupid choices after all.
At dinner on New Year’s Day at my parents’ house, a story emerged from my mother’s youth that I had never heard before, making me think twice about what we do with those choices. When my mother was sixteen, she and her best friend went on a small plane ride offered at the county fair without their parents’ permission. The experience of flying over their rural township was exhilarating, my mother confessed—until my grandmother found out. With a terrified look on her face, she kept saying to my mother, “What if the plane would have crashed?” That imagined scenario is what my mother carried forward: for as long as I can remember, she was always afraid of flying.
I carry my time alone in the city as the strongest and truest part of me, not because I did anything especially courageous or noteworthy, but as a testament to the need to believe in things that were bigger than myself and my own experiences. It was a time in my life remarkably free of “what if” anxieties, allowing me to venture out beyond the safety and security—and yes, even the love—of my upbringing to partake in those primal experiences that concurrently depend on and hone instincts we perhaps don’t even know we have.
It’s an experience as breathtaking as an earthbound metal structure lurching impossibly into the sky above a desert vista, only to land as it is meant to, intact, on the soft sand beneath it. Or a small bi-plane at a county fair, landing safely to allow two giddy teenage girls to disembark. In that moment in Utah, I understood that for every “what if” disaster our minds can fool us into thinking might exist, there is also a beautiful landing waiting to happen. I see the choices that I owned back in my youth, and my mother’s before that, in the extreme sports my son is drawn to, and I realize it’s the same raw poetry that strums the heart incessantly, equal parts audacity and fortuity, calling us to do things bigger than ourselves and our experiences.
Gretchen Hayduk Wroblewski