The grace of danger in our lives

A new anthology presents a heart-pumping array of survivors' tales.

Published July 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

What is so alluring about danger? Not all travelers wander the globe seeking danger, of course. My parents love to travel, but they generally prefer organized tours or cruises that maximize control and minimize discomfort. But there is another kind of traveler -- the kind I am wont to cavort with -- who seems to welcome danger, to embrace it, to seek it out.

This danger can take many forms. Sometimes it is the pure physical challenge of doing something very few people have done before -- climbing a pristine cliff, rafting a virgin river. To adapt Robert Frost's famous image, when these travelers come to a fork in a yellow wood, they forge a third path that disappears into the thickest trees. This choice promises riches and ruins that humans haven't seen for decades, or perhaps have never seen. It rewards with the exhilaration of being the first -- and of pushing yourself to your limits and somehow surviving, the adrenaline rush of being absolutely focused on the here and now.

Sometimes danger takes the seductive shape of romance. A wanderer meets someone in a far-flung land and before long plunges off the cliff of connection into the roiling sea of infatuation. Sometimes lifelong secrets are exchanged and a kind of soul-sharing is sealed; sometimes the communication is restricted to eyes and hands, wordless invitation and acceptance. In every case, the angel of danger hovers near.

Then there's the danger shared by war correspondents and relief workers. Such people fling themselves into situations fraught with death and mortality -- why? Because of the life-charging rush of living on the edge every day? Because they think they are doing something vitally important to the planet? Because they bear a healthy dose of self-destruction? All of the above?

I don't know the answer to this. I have never been tempted by the prospect of dodging death.

Or have I? Countless times over the years, when given the choice of a safe way or a less sure, less known way, I have opted for the latter. Partly this is because as a traveler I have wanted an experience that is unique to me -- I don't want to see what countless others before me have seen, don't want to meet people who have already been jaded by a parade of earlier travelers. And partly this is because I have developed a simple philosophy over the years: The world constantly offers you different sets of doors to open, and the more challenging the door you choose, the greater are the potential rewards within.

In high school and college, when the world offered me dangerous doors, I usually turned away from them. Then I began to roam the planet, and slowly I began to say yes to adventure, yes to danger. I began to take these opportunities -- the ticket that suddenly materialized for the six-seater plane to Carriacou, the guide who appeared out of nowhere to lead me through Egypt's Valley of the Kings, the opera-lover seated next to me who invited me to stay at her apartment in Vienna -- as great gifts, as the universe showing me something I could learn no other way.

I began to realize that we always have choices, and that sometimes you will open a door and it will lead you to a disaster, and sometimes it will lead you to something indescribably rich and life-enriching. Danger. You can embrace it or you can ignore it, push it away, leave the door unopened, take the well-trod path.

But then you would never have drunk ouzo and danced under the midnight moon in the Greek mountain village. You would never have met the rickshaw driver who took you home and told you how he wanted to be a writer, how he would painstakingly compose poems by the light of a candle. You might never have met the lover who opened your eyes to the magic of Miro and Matissse and midnight walks along silken beaches. You might never have ridden Arabian stallions into the Sahara, crash-landed off the coast of Lamu, walked over avalanches on the Karakoram Highway to the fabled terraces and apricot trees of Hunza.

The more you put into something, the more it gives back to you. And this, I think, is the ultimate allure of danger. When we put everything on the line, when we risk all that we know, all that we have become, the closer we come to risking everything we have -- the closer we come to grace, to nirvana, to being endlessly expanded by the possibilities of the world.

These thoughts have been prompted by a heart-pumping, palm-sweating, mouth-drying new anthology called "Danger! True Stories of Trouble and Survival." The 28 excerpts in this book range from danger embraced to danger stumbled upon by accident. The tales include Peter Maas' extraordinary account of awaking in the middle of a battle zone in Bosnia; Sebastian Junger's unforgettable description of a rescue helicopter itself going down into the towering waves of a monstrous storm; Eric Hansen's chilling account of being mistaken for a blood-stealing spirit on a solo walk through Borneo; Joanna Greenfield's mesmerizing memory of being attacked by a hyena; and a terrifying second piece by Junger about tourists kidnapped by guerrillas in Kashmir.

This is on-the-edge-of-your-seat reading -- and the dangers described are life-or-death dangers, considerably less benign than the dangers I have reflected on above.

But of course, danger is a continuum. In one sense we all face danger every day -- the danger of getting mugged, of catching a disease, of getting hit by a car. Death is a distant constant.

Then without warning death plops itself in front of us and looks us straight in the eye. And these moments, as the survivors in this amazing anthology can testify, make us appreciate all the more the grace of danger in our lives -- danger that bids us cherish every moment, every gesture and breath, every taste and touch and scent, every day stolen miraculous from the beating wings of death.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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