a thoughtful web.
Good ideas and conversation. No ads, no tracking.   Login or Take a Tour!
kleinbl00  ·  2391 days ago  ·  link  ·    ·  parent  ·  post: The Hunt for the Death Valley Germans [Tom Mahood, otherhand.org]

Okay, let's talk about my discomfort with your discomfort.

We all take on varying degrees of risk in our lives, and we all generally mitigate it to the best of our abilities. Some people are better at it than others, and some people have more capacity for it than others.

It's likely that I have a higher level of acceptable risk than you. As mentioned, I've done the desert hikes. I ride a motorcycle in heinous traffic, I scuba dive, I set off professional pyrotechnics. I do not do any of these things lightly, and I do not do them without mitigating the risks they entail to my satisfaction.

I have also been caught unaware by unforeseen risks, and it has radically increased my level of jeopardy. I've done the "lost in the woods above freezing" thing. I've gotten stuck on a desert road in the middle of the summer with nobody knowing where I am. I've ridden into freeway traffic with raw gasoline dripping on the back tire of my motorcycle, with all that entails.

I've also had risk stacked against me. Hiking buddies that let go of the wrong rope and require me to free-climb to safety 200 feet up at sunset. Parents that let me wander free as a small child near flash-flood-level arroyos. Drunk drivers that decide to play frozen tree slalom at midnight while I'm in the back of the pickup.

And I've seen risk escalate to the point of tragedy. Drunk people who couldn't swim laughing it up on the boat until they fell off and drowned. Off-roaders tumble end-over-end and send people to the hospital. Friends of friends who always assumed that their first and second falls were fine, until that one time their primary wasn't good and they fell 140 feet to their death.

Tragedy is risk un-respected.

As someone who has selected a level of risk greater than the larger populace, it is important to me that the world understands risk. It is important to me that I be allowed to take my daughter hiking without raising eyebrows because I have enough water, people know where I'm going and I'm not venturing out of the safety net of easy society. It is important to me that I be allowed to ride my motorcycle because I have the training, I have the judgement and I have the situational awareness to keep myself safe under conditions of normal risk. It is important to me that I be allowed to set off pyrotechnics because I know what's safe and what isn't, I know how to handle mishaps and I do not take my task or responsibilities lightly.

Those of us who engage in risky pursuits need the ability to comment when someone underestimates the risks. It is necessary to be able to honestly discuss risk, preparedness and behavior that increases peril. It is necessary, in short, to call a spade a spade and an idiot an idiot.

I've driven roads very similar to the victims in conditions very similar to theirs. Lots of people have. The overwhelming majority of them know what they're in for - I certainly did, and I never drove further than I could walk out. Despite being more than 18 miles outside of town when I drove my Scirocco off the road in the Sonora Desert, I was never not within line-of-sight to a half-dozen desert communities. Despite venturing off-road for 5 miles of the return hike (which turned it from 18 miles to 12), there was less than a mile when my destination was not in full view. It was far and away the scariest portion of the trip. And I had made a mistake, and I had been stupid, and I was stacking risk... but I wasn't being an idiot.

I've got a kid. I've been in that desert. I've even driven a Plymouth Voyager and I'm here to tell you that you have to stack risks like poker chips to end up in the position that family was in. Half of them are absolutely blameless victims, which makes it far worse. That makes the other two selfish idiots.

Look - You can make it from Los Angeles to Vegas for lunch. I've done it. It's a day-trip - a grueling day-trip, but a day-trip nonetheless. The desert you drive through to get to death valley is no joke, and there are warnings in many languages (as if being called Death Valley wasn't enough). And I understand the false sense of self-confidence you get by pulling through by the skin of your teeth - the weekend I got lost in the woods and nearly died was the weekend after I NEARLY got lost in the woods and nearly died.

But I was an idiot.

And anybody can call me one.

And when we aren't allowed to even casually point out the idiocy of people who do colossally stupid things, as part of a larger point, we mask the true risks of our lives.

I grew up in the desert. The first time I went to Hawaii I found beaches where the undertow will suck you to Japan. They kill a half dozen people a year. They're well-marked, despite being at the end of a two-day hike. It wouldn't take much of a misstep to drown within sight of a Hawaiian beach, but it would take a deliberate commitment to disregarding risk.

And I've never been hiking in Germany but if I saw something marked "Tod Wald" on the map I'd stick to well-marked trails and travel with a group at a bare minimum. If my kid was with me I'd probably see it via tour bus.

We need to be able to comment on idiocy when we see it because it's that factor that keeps us safe. I need to be able to call this poor misbegotten erroneous family of risk takers, may they rest in peace, idiots for taking risk after risk after risk after risk after risk in order to end up dead. It doesn't mitigate the tragedy, it doesn't diminish their suffering, and it doesn't impact their fate one iota... but it serves as a useful goalpost when separating the people who can reasonably expect to come out the other side of Death Valley alive from those who really should know better.

If you have ended up somewhere they want to fly dogs in to find you when two days previous you were on the Las Vegas strip in a minivan, you have committed either idiocy or suicidal behavior. And this wasn't a story about idiocy, and my comment wasn't about idiocy, but do please be careful how much disparagement you put behind the term "idiot" when it is being used flippantly (but accurately).

What separates me from them is idiocy. What separates them from the guy who found them is idiocy. We, as a culture, need the free ability to call idiocy when we see it, or else we'll all have to abandon anything but the most idiotic pursuits.

Do you understand?