“Ooh, you don’t want to hike there today.” It was an unequivocal statement.
Actually, yes I did.
“It’s too windy,” said the lady at the Visitor Centre with a note of finality in her voice.
“Oh well, I’ve been hit by wind before!” I smiled jovially, trying to defuse the ominous cloud of doom she’d infused into the air. After all, we were only talking about a three-hour low altitude walk, graded as ‘easy’.
She looked unimpressed though. “You could hire a bike and ride around the town. Or there’s a heated swimming pool.”
I looked at her. She looked back at me. Somewhere between our gazes a subtle standoff was going on though neither of us wanted to fully unleash our differing opinions. Eventually with a disapproving and tight-lipped smile she circled the trailhead on the map on the desk between us.
I felt like telling her about the last time I was in this town three years ago. Back then I’d been hiking the whole length of New Zealand, a 3000km epic through challenging terrain and often wild weather. Back then I’d left this town for an eight day stretch that saw me wade at least 70 river crossings, follow a trail-less route over rugged mountains, get caught in a snowstorm and holed up in a hut for three nights trapped by snow and howling winds – in summer. I felt like telling the lady at the Visitor Centre all this and adding, “… so I think I can handle a little wind.” But I didn’t.
Of course she wasn’t to know my level of experience in the outdoors or what I enjoy doing, but to my mind it would have been far more helpful to tell me that the trail was occasionally exposed, point out that it was a windy day, and then let me decide if I still wanted to go.
It’s not the first time someone in a visitor centre has tried to tell me what I would and would not like. A few years ago I turned up at a ski resort in summer with my top of the range, full suspension mountain bike strapped to the back of the car. I bounded into the info centre for a map and some advice from the barely post-pubescent kid behind the counter in a baseball cap and a T-shirt far too big for him. “Well there’s a trail that goes up the ridge and around the mountain,” he said, pausing slightly before adding, “…but you’d probably prefer the village trail.” And how do you figure that, twerp? I resisted the urge to poke him in the eyes and walked back out muttering under my breath.
People make assumptions. We’re all guilty of it at some time or another. It’s a habit we have picked up likely as a by-product of our method of learning-from-experience. Often there is merit in heeding the patterns we have observed over the many years of our existence but sometimes assumptions can get out of hand. Life doesn’t follow neatly set rules. The world is more complex and far greater than that. And we are far greater than that.
The comments made by my pals in these visitor centres were simply annoying but real danger lurks when we actually start to believe what other people say can we can and can’t do. These opinions can come from all directions – friends, family, society, media. Sometimes these opinions, once aired, seep deep into our psyche, quietly dropping into our subconscious mind unchallenged, forever more to be thought of as facts. They might lead us to thinking things like ‘I can’t do xyz’, ‘I’m not suited for a particular activity/challenge/adventure’, ‘this is the way things are’, or ‘people like me don’t do xyz’.
Which leads me to part two of my gripe. We all like different things. While some of us might prefer to escape a windy afternoon ‘safe’ within the confines of a humid swimming pool complex reeking with chlorine others will prefer to pull on a rain jacket and head out for that hike in the fresh air where the wind will slap you in the face and remind you you’re alive. So that advice we get from others may not be entirely relevant to us.
I may once have said, “Okay Visitor Centre Lady, you know best,” and scrapped my plans for that hike up the Rakaia Gorge. But then I would have missed out on the intense blue of the glacial water flowing over rounded river pebbles, and the brilliant yellow flowers of the Kowhai tree against a brooding grey sky. I would have missed out on the endorphins that running along that cliff top in the rain gave me. And I wouldn’t have traded that experience for an afternoon in an indoor pool for the world.
It bugged me greatly that, were it not for the fact I categorically knew I could happily hike in windy conditions, I might have missed out on that gorge walk. As I walked I wondered how often we let other people’s thoughts and opinions affect what we do and believe? How many times do we just go with the flow, doing what is expected of us, without challenging whether it aligns with our own beliefs and what we ourselves want?
This concept doesn’t just apply to adventurous activities but to all facets of our lives. Have you ever voiced a dream only to have someone else laugh it off as ridiculous or impossible or perhaps suggest that you ought to be ‘realistic’? I suspect most, if not all of us, has at one point been told they “couldn’t” do something. But in accepting the opinions of others we can sometimes limit ourselves in the quest of finding what is true for us and realising our own goals.
It takes a conscious person to be aware of external influences and not be drawn into them, whether they be verbal comments made directly to us or simply ideas that have filtered into us osmosis-like from the societal soup in which we swim. The question is what will you do? The option that everyone else thinks you should do or the one you really want to do?
You might want to consider other people’s opinions – for others may have knowledge and accumulated experiences that you do not – but in the end I’m all for listening to your gut, being strong in your own mind and choosing your own adventure.