I was out on a run through the rough, muddy, and very slippery trails of Roads End State Park on the Oregon Coast today. While navigating some treacherous sections of the trail, and loosing footing occasionally, I was pondering what I said in my previous post about enjoying the challenge of going solo on open water swims, and on trails like this through the mountains. 

It occurred to me that a great part of what makes it possible to take solo treks into potentially dangerous areas (in small or big ways) is the ability to make good choices. Mind you, I am not talking about making the ‘right choice’ but about making the ‘best choice’ one can. (More on that below.) And I am not talking about making a single good choice, as if that is all it takes, but a whole series of them.

On the trail today, my choices were mostly about where to place each foot while running through particularly steep and slippery sections. However, I made a decision the day before while packing for this trip to the coast which lowered the probability that my choices today would have better results: I chose to bring my road running flats with very little tread instead of my favorite trail running shoes with bigger lugs on the sole for traction. I had planned to run on this trail yet knew I would run a few miles to get to the trail and then back home – I didn’t want to wear the lugs down on the road unnecessarily since they are quite soft and are absolutely my favorite pair (a model no longer produced). But I was aware that by choosing the flats I would have to be even more careful, and perhaps limit what I could tackle today off road.

Oregon Coast, Photo by sarandy westfall on Unsplash

Indeed, on a couple downhill sections, while still going very slow I had a few slips and partial falls, which I was able to recover from without hurting anything. It immediately reinforced my value for being safe over being fast and I slowed down even more on that section. I looked ahead at the option to go along a ridge to the primary destination of this park, the breath-taking lookout point on a high cliff over the ocean. But to get there, I would have to follow an extremely narrow, wind-exposed ridge with a deadly fall to the north side into the rocks and waves a few hundred feet below, and a potentially bone breaking tumble down the steep meadow on the other. It’s an awesome viewpoint, and actually quite safe when you stay on the trail… in dry weather. However, I chose to turn away from this exposed route and headed into the forest again and to the more gradually downhill trail that looped back to civilization.

But out on a trail like this, what if a mistake happened? What if I still fell and hurt something after all my caution?

When I was young, my uncle and my grandfather started taking me deer hunting with them. The first hunts began with hiking along logging roads in the coastal and Cascade Mountains, with a few short hikes through trail-less old growth and replanted forest. When I got into my teens, my uncle took my on pack-in hunting trips far away in Eastern Oregon. When he was confident I had the skills, I was released to go off on my own, for hours, even for miles at a time. The stipulation was that you followed your pre-planned route, and carried everything you’d not be willing to live without if you had to spend the night out there on your own; you had to be prepared physically and mentally to take care of yourself overnight, with injury or whatever, until the EAP (our emergency action plan) would be initiated by the others the next morning. These were week-long trips in designated ‘wilderness areas’ which meant there were no motorized vehicles allowed in the hunting area, and no roads where someone could drive in to pick you up if injured. We carried out entire camp in on our own shoulders. We were miles from the road, and when we went on our separate hunt routes each day, we were often miles from each other. Fortunately, in all those experiences, I made mostly good choices and few mistakes, none costly.

Though I have not hunted in 20 years and I don’t desire to anymore, those experiences set a tone in my psyche about experiencing wilderness in this way. It made me feel more comfortable being alone in challenging conditions. It instilled in me the ethos for being a planner, about being prepared, about making choices with the possible consequences soberly in mind. It also gave me a great satisfaction in practicing and applying the skills of clear, calm thinking in the midst of uncertainties, especially when alone, since there was no one else to delegate that responsibility to. It makes total sense why I find satisfaction now in facing the psychological challenges of going off on solo swims and runs in wild areas. The challenge is mostly in the head.

There are some interesting phenomena regarding how people make decisions when in a group. For one, we sense less risk when facing challenges with others (as social baseline theory reveals), which may also diminish how carefully we make our decisions.  In many ways, we assume the others around us know what is going on and we have a tendency to go along with what they are doing, assuming they have taken care – however, their brain is likely assuming the same. When there is some authority around, even more so, we tend to question or totally ignore our own assessment and responsibility to decide for ourselves. In many cases, it is convenient, if not wise, to let a specialist influence our choices, but not in all cases. And when there is no authority around to outsource this responsibility to, one had better have some skill on hand for making a wise decision on his own. 

I know I have read about this somewhere to stir up my own thoughts on it and I can’t quite locate the exact text – but there is a good chance it came from the stoics and possibly in something Ryan Holiday wrote about them. But a principle that I follow is that it is my responsibility to put in the effort and make the best decision I can – to make a good decision versus make the right decision, which would imply that I control the outcome – then accept and respond to the results whatever they may be. Those results will likely produce new options, for which I again would practice making best decisions for.

Despite all my good choices I cannot guarantee the results I want, but I can stack the deck in favor of those by making choices in certain ways. This is where having  guiding principles in place can be very helpful. Those principles are linked to my values so that when I have to decide between two appealing possibilities or between two unpleasant possibilities, I can look to my values to help me decide which one I’d like to stack that deck in favor of.

Out on the trail this morning, it was crystal clear that protecting my body was the number one value. So what if I didn’t go a few hundred more meters to that view point? So what if I didn’t go a bit faster through some sections? I would still have a satisfying run and I live to run another day with a completely intact body. But I had to keep making that choice over and over, step after step, section after section. One slip in my attention and intention could mean one lost footing and a consequential fall.

Someone out there might picture me arriving at some new, desolate stretch of sea and just jumping in to go for a long solo swim without a second thought. But that is not an accurate or complete picture. There is a whole history of experience and caution, and a series of choices that lead up to if, where, when and how I go on swims by myself. What is well within wisdom and the capabilities of one swimmer might be quite foolish for another to attempt. Depending on what experience, knowledge and skill we each have, I don’t belong where some people go, just as others don’t belong where I go.

A good part of wisdom is knowing yourself, what you are capable of and what you are not capable of. It’s about knowing what your risk tolerance is (or rather, your tolerance for receiving the likely consequences of a very possible  mistake). It is about knowing your values and letting those guide you into making good decisions.

Good preparation and good decisions are what really set you free to go alone where you haven’t gone before.

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