Unfolding the Map
We join William Least Heat-Moon for a barbecue with the three hang-gliders in Klickitat, Washington. Hang-gliding is described as an addiction to risk, to put it all on the line, but to not push the envelope too far. Sound familiarly like keeping things in balance? I explore a little from my own experience why it seems that people from small towns might take more risks. To locate Klickitat, fly to the map!
"Alba Bartholomew lived in Klickitat, a company town of seven hundred in the narrow vale of the Klickitat River. His little frame house was like the others on the street except for the windsock blowing on the roof. He worked at the St. Regis sawmill, where he ran a stacker. It wasn't the most interesting of jobs. The mill got much of its timber from the Yakima Reservation twelve miles north. St. Regis was the reason for Klickitat, and when the Yakima's big ponderosa were gone, people feared the company would pull out and Klickitat would go the way of Liberty Bond.
"'....I think the real answer to why we fly is because it's addictive. It's a buzz to put everything on the line. Whenever we go up, we're subconsciously asking the most important question in the world - asking it real loud - 'Is this the day I die?'"
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 8
I'm making a little bit of a correlation in this post. As I learned in my statistics classes, correlation is not causation. However, one can make a few intriguing suggestions about how things may work through examining correlations.
My correlation, which I am highlighting with my pairing of the two quotes above, might or might not be apparent. This chapter of Blue Highways is all about three guys who hang-glide. LHM sees them, meets them, and is invited to the home of one in Klickitat to talk more about hang-gliding. I find it very interesting that LHM describes the town of Klickitat as small and with nothing much besides a dependency on a lumber mill which, if his words are any indication, may close down in some unknown but not too far off future. (Note: the lumber mill has been closed since 1994)
Just a few paragraphs down the page, one of the hang-gliding guys talks about flying as an addiction, and the thrill of risking oneself to the point of questioning whether the risk will be the last action one ever takes.
It all makes me wonder whether there is truly a correlation between two things exemplified in these paragraphs. Might living in a small, out of the way, dependent town, lead one to be more open to risk?
Now wait a minute, you might say. Small towns are often a bastion of conservative values. People in small towns may live there because there is less risk. There is often less crime, for instance, and the closeness of small communities often shield its members from other types of risk. I wouldn't disagree. After all, I lived in a small town that was remarkably free of issues that plagued more populated areas.
But I wouldn't necessarily agree either. In my small town, there was little crime, but there also were people who we considered "characters" who might have been locked up in other places. We didn't have gangs, but we did have families with reputations as fighters who'd just as soon hit you as look at you.
I've argued before, however, that as peaceful, friendly, folksy and pastoral small towns can seem and feel, they often have a dark and sometimes violent undercurrent that is less apparent than it might be in cities. Small towns can be dark, dysfunctional places, where alcoholism, drugs, and abuse of the emotional, physical and sexual varieties are revealed if someone cares to pull back the curtains hiding them. I wouldn't trade my small town childhood for anything, because it taught me about the best and the worst that humanity offered.
In isolated small communities, is it any wonder that someone might find risk and danger compelling? One interesting fact that may support my argument is that small towns and rural areas are overrepresented in the US military. In 2005, the Heritage Foundation examined U.S. Census data and found that rural areas are overrepresented in the military as compared to urban areas. While there are most likely many factors that contribute to this statistic, including that rural areas tend to be poorer with less opportunities for employment of young people than urban areas and that there is a higher percentage of conservative-minded people who may view military service in a patriotic sense, I also think that a desire to undertake risk as a way to break free of convention might serve as an additional motivating factor. The desires that drive young people in cities to gather at Occupy protests currently around the country, to assert themselves in a cause that they can rally around and believe in with like minded people in a structured way, may also come from the same psychological place that encourages young people in rural areas to join the military and do service. Both choices offer a set of risks and rewards.
When I lived in a rural area, there always seemed to be a number of young people who were always willing to risk. You probably find the same thing in cities but in small towns it stands out a lot more. These were kids who were on the forefront of experimenting with drugs, alcohol and sex. Of course, a lot of us did those things, but small town kids always seemed to take it one step farther. Some of them paid dearly for their risk-taking. Alcohol maimed and took the lives of more than one young man and woman when it was mixed with driving. Somehow, rural areas the loss of someone young is extremely tragic because it is so noticeable, so out in the open, and the grief of parents is on display and not lost or buried in a newspaper column in the back page - it is most likely going to be on the front page of the local paper.
Despite the tragedies, we teens in small towns still too risks. Why? Because there was little to do in a small town on the Northern California coast, just as there was little to do after hours in a midwestern plains town, or a town in the South, or a small mountain town. We took risks because we were young, we wanted to impress the girls/boys, and we wanted to feel like we were in control of our own destinies. We wanted to feel like we were making our own decisions, even if they were bad decisions.
Today, as an adult of 47, I understand better the idea of risk and reward. I could, if I wanted to, take hang-gliding lessons which would be a somewhat dangerous but understandable way of taking a risk. I could do a parachute jump. I could get a motorcycle to ride the open road or devote my time to mountain climbing or spelunking. All of these are dangerous but they are considered hobbies that involve an adult's choice. In those activities, I might still catch a little of the thrill I got by stepping outside the boundaries imposed on me as a teenager. After all, when all is said and done, humans don't really belong in the sky any more than they belong on a speeding piece of open machinery on an asphalt road or rapelling down into the bowels of the earth. We do it to push the envelope, to test our limits. No matter what, we are always like children in that very few of us can ever leave anything just as it is and be content.
What's the opposite of taking risks? Why, it's never doing anything. As is usual, we find in LHM's travels and quotes that life is a balance, this time between risk and safety. It's neither good to be a total risk taker. But, as the Barenaked Ladies point out in their song Never Do Anything, neither is it healthy to never risk nor accomplish anything.
If you want to know more about Klickitat
Next up: Dallesport, Washington