Risk taking as parents: Where’s the line when we’ve gone too far?

A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to visit the Ambri research and development laboratory. If you haven’t heard of them, I would encourage you to watch this video now, before reading on.

As we toured the facilities, I was struck by the level of innovation and critical thinking that was going into their battery. They are entering uncharted territory – a place where no company has ever gone before. There is no industry standard. There is no “best practice” to lean on. They have to test everything and consider tiny details.

They know the chemical reaction works; now they need to figure out how to package it. They have experimented with the shape and size of the cells, the material for the cells, and the spacing between them. No detail is too small – should the metal be cut like this to best disperse the energy? Or like that? Should we weld this? Or press it? Make 4” x 4” cells? Or 6” x 6”? Or 8” x 8”?

Ultimately, Ambri has nobody to lean on but themselves. Any one of thousands of decisions they are making could lead to the failure of their battery. But if they can pull this off, they will change the world. It’s pretty exciting, heady stuff.

As I talked with Phil Guidice, CEO of Ambri, about all the steps they are taking, I was reminded of a discussion I had years ago when I was planning and preparing to take our dog, Dash, on our journey. My first plan of attack was to check out all purpose-made dog baskets on the market. Unfortunately, they were all too flimsy for what we were planning. They would have been fine for a Sunday afternoon ride in the park, but would not hold up to the demands of a long journey.

My next step was to explore options to figure out what I could re-purpose to make work. I finally settled on a strong milk crate attached to the bike with strong nylon straps. I was happy with my plan and was confident that Dash would be both safe and comfortable.

dog in basket on bike

And then came the emails. “Are you crazy? If you are going to take your dog on your bike, you need to get a commercially-produced, purpose-built basket.”

“They do not exist,” I responded. “That is why I have created my own design.”

“Well,” my critic countered, “if they don’t exist, that probably means it is a dumb idea and should not be done.”

Which brings me to the point of this article. Because nobody has done it yet, does that mean it should not be done?

Entrepreneurs have been searching for uncharted territory for years; always looking for that brilliant, yet undeveloped, idea to break into an untapped market. In general, we as a society have embraced that as a good, albeit risky, thing.

hot air balloonWe are fairly supportive of companies like Ambri and realize that our world is where it’s at because people like Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk refused to accept the status quo. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are revered due to their creative genius and willingness to go where others wouldn’t.

We are fairly tolerant of young adventurous single explorers pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable. When Felix Baumgartner jumped out of his hot air balloon from miles above the earth’s surface we, for the most part, applauded his bravery. We were excited when, in 2005, Ed Viesturs became the first American to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks.

But once children or pets enter the picture everything changes – at least for some people. Many feel that parents have a responsibility to play it safe. To tread gently within the boundaries of what society deems acceptable. Parents who push the envelope are irresponsible. They should do the expected and save the risky stuff for after their kids leave home.

But should we? Is that really what we want to teach our children? Will our kids learn to dream big if we parents shove our own dreams under a pillow. Will children learn to go beyond commonly accepted boundaries and challenge traditional thinking from parents who play it safe?

When I was in one of my teaching courses in university, my professor said, “There are three best ways to teach: model, model, and model.” I’ve seen that to be the case over and over again. I, as a teacher, modeled the behavior or thought process I wanted from my kids, and they learned it. Modeling truly is the best way to teach.

And yet our society does the opposite. We “play it safe” and somehow expect our kids to take it a step farther. We say with words that we want our kids to be creative, to think critically, to be willing to jump outside the box, but we won’t do it as parents. How, exactly, do we expect our kids to?

“But it’s foolish,” some will argue. “Your kids need you alive. They need to be supported financially. Taking risks with either your life or your finances can only be a bad thing.”

I get that. I know I struggle with that idea. My kids DO need me. Taking unnecessary risks with my life would be foolish. But how, exactly, do we define unnecessary? I don’t want my kids to grow up homeless because I risked our finances and lost it all.

pioneers

It wasn’t all that long ago that whole families walked across America in search of a better life. It was expected that the kids would go with their parents.

But then I look back through history and see that it was the risk-takers who changed our world. It was Alexander Graham Bell who dared to dream of a way to communicate with those far away. Pioneers who loaded all their earthly belongings in a covered wagon and walked thousands of miles west in search of a better life. It was Mark Zuckerberg dreaming up Facebook. Small start-ups that created cell phones and expanded internet and designed Velcro to hold things in place in outer space.

Our society will never move forward if everyone plays it safe.

So where is the balance? How do we find that tightrope suspended precariously over Niagara Falls – the one we as parents must somehow navigate in order to teach our kids? One thing I know is that it starts early.

It starts with parents who are willing to allow their children the freedom to learn.

Lia Keller, who blogs over at Skedaddle, allows her kids to climb trees, at the risk of falling out. She allows them to cross creeks and climb mountains, and teaches them appropriate safety strategies. “I want my kids to learn about risk and to trust their own judgment about situations; I hope they can avoid the teenage recklessness,” she says. “I want them to have a sense of danger and what might happen if they are careless. Thus, I sit on the bench as my kids jump off trees and lean over edges not because I don’t care.  I let them do these things because I care deeply for their futures as teen age boys!  I want them to be adventurous souls, but come back home in one piece.”

hiking in the woods

We got our kids out exploring and adventuring from the time they were small. Here, we discovered the wonders of the Taiwanese jungle.

Ken Smalz also addresses that question in his blog, Big Grey Rocks. “Am I exposing my kids to risks? Absolutely. When we reach the trailhead and step out of the car we’ve re-entered the food chain.” He finally came to the conclusion that in the end, not exposing kids to risks early and showing them how to assess, avoid or mitigate risks is far, far riskier than the alternative. “In all seasons, there are cliffs to fall off, rivers to drown in, and falling rocks to dodge. There are many ways to get injured, maimed, crippled and killed in the mountains. But is it safer to not expose your children to these and other risks, or to teach them how to identify the risks and manage them?”

Susan, the blogger behind Mountain Mom and Tots wrote a post in response to an article she found in Psychologist Today about why children need risky play and how they benefit from it. “The article explains that kids crave play in this way to test their limits, learn how to handle fear and to feel thrill by combining the joy of freedom with a dose of danger. Risky play can help with emotional regulation of children, teaching them how to keep a level head when they feel scared or how to manage anger when rough and tumble play gets out of hand.”

And then she asks the critical question “If free play involving some element of danger is so important to kids development, why is it so hard as a parent to let them do it?”

It’s imperative that we allow our children the freedom to explore and discover, to learn and to grow. But it’s equally as important for parents to model what they want, to teach by example, to walk the talk. If we want kids who will break through the accepted norms in society, we need to attempt it ourselves. It’s scary, but I would go so far as to say that we parents have the responsibility to do it.

kids in triathlon

Davy and Daryl, along with their cousin Savana, participated in a triathlon when they were 7 years old. It was a challenge for them – especially Davy who wasn’t particularly strong in swimming.

Over on Adventurous Parents, Meghan wrote a three-part series on the whole idea of taking risks as parents. What are our responsibilities as parents? Is it fair that we would head out to do risky things, knowing that our children could be seriously affected? What are the rewards – both to ourselves and for our children?

Another friend of mine, Melissa, has addressed that question in her blog, Adventure Tykes. Where is that line? Where is that razor sharp dividing line between foolishness and adventure? For the record, I don’t think any of us have actually found it, but it’s good to think about it.

I think it is pretty clear where I stand on the risk issue. I believe strongly that kids need to be exposed to all sorts of risk in order to be willing to go beyond the standard accepted status quo when they are adults. They need to be pushed, but more than that, they need to be allowed to follow their own gut – kids are inherent risk-takers.

It’s us parents who hold them back. We are the ones who refuse to let them develop to their full potential. We are the ones who tell them, through both words and actions, that it’s better to stay within the socially acceptable limits than to push those boundaries.

And then we turn around and wonder why they aren’t out there changing the world.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Please leave a comment below about where that razor edge is. To what extent should we parents be pushing and/or allowing our children to take risks? In what ways do we have an obligation to save them from themselves?

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Life is a gamble – and it doesn’t always go your way

You may or may not be aware of a rescue happening now on the high seas, but I’ve been gripped with this story since I heard of it. A family of four, with two small children, set out in their boat to cross the ocean. One thousand miles from the Mexican coast, their boat was damaged by a storm, and then their tiny baby got sick. Very sick. They called for help, and boats and helicopters made their way through the ocean toward them. At this point, it looks like the little girl is stable, but still critical, and the fate of the boat is unknown. They have been blogging about their journey at Rebel Heart.

rebel heart

But what has really struck me is the sheer number of haters out there.

“I don’t understand what they were thinking to begin with. I’m sorry, I don’t even like to take my kids in a car ride that would be too dangerous, and it’s like taking them out into the big ocean? It’s like – I don’t know.”

There is a tradeoff to everything. Yes, we could be overprotective helicopter parents, not letting our kids take a ride in a car, but what will that teach them in the long run? Maybe they will be “safe” for now, but what about in 10 years? 20 years? What will they have learned as a result of living in that bubble?

I’ll tell you what they would learn – they would learn to fear the world. They would learn they weren’t capable of taking on the world. They would learn to cower in their own little corner, afraid of anything that might hurt them. Is that really what we want?

I am a mother who took my own children from Alaska to Argentina on bikes. Yes, bicycles. 17,285 miles through 15 countries. Our journey took nearly 3 years. While everything went well for us and we had no major issues, I always knew that something COULD HAVE happened. And I knew that, if that “what-if” had happened, we would have been crucified as parents.

Any parent who chooses an out-of-the-box childhood for their kids knows there are risks. But there are also tremendous pay-offs. The lows can be very, very low, but the highs are amazingly high. The benefits are life-changing.

We faced our share of critics while on our journey. We dealt with people who felt we were endangering our children’s lives every single day. But in the end, we had to answer to our children. We had to provide our children with the very best childhood we knew how to give. We needed to encourage our children to reach for the stars and dream big and do great things. If we didn’t do that, we would have failed them.

And now, looking at this whole thing from the other side, I can say that our journey was worth it – and then some. All 1018 days were worth it. All those 15,000-foot mountain passes we pedaled over and all the massive winds we battled – they were all worth it. My sons learned from each and every one of them.

We were accused of teaching our sons nothing useful – that we were only teaching them to be “bums on bikes,” but they are moving on and spreading their wings in amazing ways. At age 16, they are now involved with FIRST Robotics, working at the cutting edge of science and technology. Together with their team, they won at the Salt Lake City regional event and just now (30 minutes ago) lost in the semi-finals at the Las Vegas regional. They will go on to the world finals in St. Louis in a few weeks, and I have no doubt that they will put up a good fight and do well.

Again, life is a tradeoff. We can take the safe route, but we have no guarantees of its safety. We might not see the failures of that route for 10 or 20 years. Or we can reach out and grab life by the horns and live it with passion and determination. Each one of us gets to make that choice.

I urge you to think about that. Consider all the benefits and costs, both long-term and short-term. Don’t take the easier route just because it’s “safer” now – will it be the best in the long run? Life is a gamble, and it doesn’t always go our way. But it doesn’t always go our way at home either.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Dangers of family travel

Danger. It’s a word that strikes terror through our heart. It’s a place we would never go, and we most certainly wouldn’t take our kids there. I mean – it’s dangerous. And that’s a bad thing. Right?

I’ve had a lot of fun putting this piece together. I contacted other traveling parents and asked if they would be willing to contribute their thoughts on the dangers they face. Their responses were somewhat predictable, but I had to laugh anyway.

Davy in Ethiopia

Marilia di Cesare of Tripping Mom wrote, “I’ll contribute, but I travel the easy way. The most radical thing about my traveling is arriving without a place to stay alone with my daughter and sometimes at night.

Amy Page of Livin’ on the Road said “I’ll have to have a think of some perceived dangers or actual dangers, as the only one I can think of at the moment is being addicted to travel!”

Talon Windwalker of 1 Dad, 1 Kid, I Crazy Adventure added, “Theft, murder, and muggings happen in the US as well as overseas.”

Honestly, I could end this post right here, right now – everything that needs to be said already has. When we are traveling the world we face no greater danger than we do when we’re back home. Many people, however, don’t see that – yet. I hope we can help them see that people the world over are more the same than they are different. They are not to be feared.

I asked these three parents to give me their thoughts on the danger issue:

  • What are the perceived dangers of travel?
  • What are the actual dangers of travel?
  • What kinds of special precautions should one take while traveling?

Daryl in Thailand

What do you think the major fears of people are regarding travel in general and travel with children in particular?

Marilia: People worry about lots of safety issues. They think your kids can get stolen, that all your belongings can get stolen and that you are likely to face violence with someone robbing you with a gun or a knife. They also worry about health issues, like if the water and food are contaminated. They worry about roads that are unsafe and bus rides that might carry lots of thieves besides you.

Ultimately, people are afraid without being aware of exactly what. They just say “You’re crazy” but hardly ever can explain why that is so. The fear is built in them by the static life they have and the news on TV “showing” how dangerous the world is. The news is made to make people want to stay home and not question the status quo, which includes living forever in the same place as the safest choice.

Talon: I could be completely wrong, but I think their fears of danger to the kids is really more about their fear of doing the unknown, of traveling to places that are unfamiliar, etc.

Amy: The egotistical part of me says “jealousy” – fear that we will have amazing experiences that they may miss out on, then I realize they are more concerned with practicalities.  A lot of times it is fear of the unknown that holds people back

rattlesnakes

What do you think your actual risks are? In what ways are the risks you are facing as travelers the same/different from what you would deal with at home?

Talon: Realistically the only issues we’ll face in other countries as compared to our native one is bad water and possibly dengue fever from certain mosquitoes. I’ve traveled extensively and only had food poisoning or food-related issues in the US. Other than that really the risks are the same. Theft, murder, muggings, etc, happen back in the US as well.

Amy: The biggest risk is that our bank account will run dry.

We spend more time in the car while traveling than we did at home, so the risk of car crash is greater.  That being said, it’s probably less of a risk when we are careful, slow, and minimize long drives than doing an hour’s commute in the city each day when you are tired, grumpy, and stuck in peak hour traffic.

One danger we have actually faced is from animals. Our son, Peter, nearly stepped on a Brown Snake as we hiked at Wilson’s Promontory, a beautiful, but overly-popular national park at the southernmost tip of Australia. We could have faced that danger in a park near our home as well.

We also had two medical emergencies while traveling Australia. My eldest picked up a rock in an historical gold-mining town of Walhalla and crushed his finger. He needed an hour and a half of plastic surgery to reconstruct his finger. While the incident was something that could have happened anywhere, it was worse because we were five hours from the main hospitals in the city.

Our other medical emergency was when our daughter fell off her bike head first.  The local hospital assessed her, but as they didn’t have any technology they couldn’t do scans or any further investigations.  The Royal Flying Doctors’ are a unique Australian service where planes fly into remote areas, pick up the person needing medical assistance and fly them to the city.  The Royal Flying Doctors’ came out at midnight to pick up Susan and me to go 600km down to Adelaide that night.  So yes, it can be more dangerous being away from medical help if something does go wrong.

Marilia: As a tourist there is a high risk of petty robbery when in touristy areas. Thieves hang around those places waiting for tourists to let their guard down.

You might want to be careful with street food depending more on your stomach acceptance to new foods and spices than really contaminated water or food.

What special measures are you taking to prevent/minimize risk of something happening to you and your children while traveling?

Talon: We’ll use more DEET-containing sprays for the mosquitoes than we did at home, and we won’t drink tap water in many of the countries we’re going to. We have special water bottles with filters in them so we can get water if filtered water isn’t available.

I am probably a bit more careful with where we eat than I would be in the States. I’m probably more cautious about not letting my son stray too far out of my sight simply because he doesn’t know the language. Otherwise, we haven’t really taken any other precautions we wouldn’t have at home.

Amy: After running out of water on a hike, we now each carry 2L each, plus often add extra if it’s a longer walk.  We also all make sure that we wear proper shoes and socks, as snake bites usually occur on the ankles and it is a possibility.

The other thing we do is to always carry a satellite phone.  In Australia, phone reception is really haphazard and limited once you are out of the city.  The satellite phone gives us that piece of mind that if anything does happen, we’ll be able to call for help no matter where we are in Australia.

Marilia: I only travel during the day and try not to arrive anywhere new after dark. When I arrive in some new place, I usually take a taxi to my accommodation in order to not walk loaded and vulnerable. I don’t take my electronics with me anywhere and try my best to be discrete about where and when to use my computer in public places. I only drink bottled water (but in my country, Brazil, you can’t drink from the tap, so it’s not a new habit).

I never walk alone in isolated areas after dark and even deserted beaches might need a consideration during the day (as I once was robbed in my country in a deserted beach at noon by a crack-head), but this can be decided after talking to the locals and evaluating the local scene.

I have all my documents scanned and the number of my credit card on line, so if I get robbed, I can take action quickly.

Davy getting cast in Mexico

Words of advice for other parents who may want to head out and see the world, but are afraid that “something” might happen?

  • Statistically speaking you are far more likely to be seriously injured in your own home than you are doing any other activity, and it’s by a high margin.
  • The only reason you aren’t scared to cross the road is because you have done it many times – not because it is without risk.
  • If you remember that bad stuff happens even at home, then the idea of being out in the world isn’t so daunting.
  • Do your own research about the area where you are going. Read what you can online but especially talk to people who have been where you want to go.
  • Never walk alone after dark in isolated areas, avoid bringing your camera with you all the time, so you can be stress free. You can take it with you on special picture days, for instance.
  • If you go to the beach, ask someone to watch your things while you go for a walk or a swim.
  • Remember: Your accommodation might not be the safest place, even when it looks safe, so you might want to ask the owner where the best place to keep your valuable items is.
  • Check with locals as soon as you arrive for any advice they can give you about safety.
  • Avoid telling anyone where you are staying, and be careful about who you invite to your place.
  • Generally speaking traveling with kids is actually safer than solo travel as an adult. Many potentially “bad people” have more respect for children and will pass you by simply because of that.
  • We are only the total sum of our experiences and in a hundred years nothing most of us have done will matter or be known except that we played a role in a child’s life.
  • Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  • I will only regret what I haven’t done, because even the bad experiences help me grow and learn.

*****This article is part of a series of articles on the dangers of travel.

How dangerous is family bike touring?

Life doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee

Risk Assessment – A personal decision

Isn’t bike touring dangerous?

Acceptable level of risk

Nicole Gouin Curry posts about her son getting hit by a car in Vietnam

Check out our extensive resource section! We’ve got tips and advice on a wide range of topics from bicycling with children to finances for long term travel to roadschooling and more.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Risk assessment – A personal decision

I love it when people challenge my thoughts and ideas. Each time they do I learn something new and am challenged to think about the world and my actions in a different light.

One man responded to a blog post I had written about cycling to the ends of the world. “I just don’t see how subjecting kids to this odyssey of self-discovery or whatever it was could possibly benefit them in the long run,” he wrote. “That’s just irresponsible.”

He went on to say, “I always viewed [your journey] as risking almost certain disaster every day, for a prolonged period of time. A really unacceptable level of risk.”

It’s funny – I never considered that we were facing “almost certain disaster.”  Certainly not every day and certainly not for prolonged periods of time.  I felt our journey was entirely an acceptable level of risk.

Not only did I feel our journey from Alaska to Argentina was not particularly dangerous or risky, I felt it was an awesome way for my children to live their childhood years.  I felt the benefits they would gain from a cycling/traveling lifestyle outweighed whatever negatives they would lose.

Cycling on a foggy morning

For every choice we make in life, we opt out of something else. Sometimes those decisions are easy; sometimes they are hard. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of those choices. In the end, we have to make a decision. We have to choose for one and against another. That’s just the way it is.

We could have chosen to stay in Idaho and the boys would have played on soccer teams and swam on swim teams. They would have eaten lunch in the school cafeteria and ridden the bus to school and raced outside to play tether ball at recess. They would have had sleepovers and played video games with friends. They would have been part of chess club and boy scouts.

Those things aren’t bad.

Or we could, and did, take off and travel the world and allow the boys to climb on Mayan pyramids and Incan temples. They could swim with sea lions and scuba dive with turtles. Fly over the Nazca Lines, see the mysterious Ica Stones and conehead skulls, see ships rise and fall in the Panama Canal.

They could see real life penguins and guanacos and rheas and armadillos and foxes and bison and musk ox and big horn sheep and reindeer and iguanas in their natural habitats. They could stay with indigenous families in the Bolivian highlands and with migrant workers in Mexico. They could go sand surfing and real surfing. They could eat lomo saltado and carne asado and drink mate.

But these things came at a price.

penguins

Everything comes at a price. Whenever we choose TO DO something, we choose NOT TO DO something else. The trick is to choose wisely and spend our time doing the things that will most benefit us.

In the end we feel that, overall, our choice was the right one. Our sons have amazing life experiences that will benefit them tremendously throughout life. The important thing is that they grow up into capable human beings who can contribute to society – and that is exactly what we feel they will do.

As our discussion progressed, this man chimed in again. “Your “risk-reward” meter is calibrated much differently than most people’s are. Again, I say you took on a really, really risky venture, and got through it without anything catastrophic. My risk-reward meter says that you were probably really, really lucky.”

I love that idea – the risk-reward meter. We each calibrate our meter based on our life experiences. We see those things we know and feel comfortable with closer to the reward end of the meter. The unknown, and therefore scary, things get placed at the risky end. My meter looks completely different from yours.

I would feel extremely uncomfortable if one of my boys decided he wanted to play American football. Ouch – talk about risky! I had twelve-year-old students that RACED on dirt bikes – like motorized motorcycle things that go a bajillion miles an hour? Gads – that scares the bejeezus outta me! I’ve also had elementary school kids who hunted with guns – you know those metal things that go *kaboom* and can kill people. And animals?  Yeah those.

Those items are definitely on the risky end of my meter.

And yet I don’t judge those parents because I know that, according to their risk-reward meter, what the kids were doing was fine and the parents had taught them to be safe. I’m OK with that. I may say something like, “That is something I would never want to do, but good for you for allowing your kids to get out and experience life!”

Hotel in Colombia

My newfound ‘friend’ came back to the discussion one more time. “The fundamental issue is that your process of identifying and evaluating risks is quite different from mine.”

Is it really? Or are we both basing our evaluations on our own life experiences?  I would be willing to bet that Mario Andretti or Anderson Cooper’s risk-reward meters would look vastly different from mine.

And his.

Is my risk-reward meter more valid than yours? Is yours more accurate than mine? Does the fact that I encourage my kids to ride their bikes make me an irresponsible parent? Does the fact that your child plays American football show your judgment to be faulty?

We all see the world through glasses tinted by our experiences – and that’s not a bad thing.  I won’t judge you for the decisions you make, and I ask that you not judge me for mine.  Our decisions are both equally as valid – but are based on different risk-reward meters.

What would fail miserably on your own risk-reward meter that others wouldn’t think twice about?

Cycling Patagonia

*****This article is part of a series of articles on the dangers of travel.

How dangerous is family bike touring?

Life doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee

Risk Assessment – A personal decision

Isn’t bike touring dangerous?

Acceptable level of risk

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Isn’t bike touring dangerous?

“I was driving down the road the other day and saw some cyclists ahead.  I braked and waited until I could get by safely, but I’m concerned about them – the other motorists who won’t do that.”

“I saw a cyclist riding through my town last week, so I invited him over to my house for the night.  I took care of him, but they won’t.”

“I stopped and gave some cyclists Gatorade on a hot day, but they wouldn’t even consider doing something like that.”

I hear stuff like this all the time – isn’t it dangerous to bike around the world with all those bad people out there?  All those people who would never help a cyclist or go out of their way to avoid hitting them – they’re everywhere.

What I want to know is this:  who are they?  Who are those people?  They certainly aren’t the people we’ve met.

In our 43 months of full-time bicycle touring as a family, we’ve never encountered them.  Instead, we’ve met countless people who haveinvited us to their homes, shared a meal, filled our panniers with oranges, and hauled stuff halfway around the world for us.  The people we’ve met have been of the kind, generous variety of human rather than the ones we see on the nightly news.

Traveling on bicycle makes us vulnerable – to both the good and the bad.  People could take advantage of our vulnerability to rob us or run us off the road and there isn’t a gosh darn thing we could do about it.  But our experience has shown that our vulnerability on the bikes makes people want to help us, to take care of us, to reach out and make our journey just a little bit better.

The people we’ve encountered have stopped on the side of the road to hand over Coke and chocolate in the middle of a long stretch of nothing.  They’ve pulled out a bag of fresh pineapple after we had gone too many days without fresh fruit.  They’ve leaned out their car window and shouted, “Would you like to spend the night in my house tonight?”

People have handed us the keys to their houses, spent hours helping us solve one problem or another, and sent us emails to cheer us up when we’re down.  They’ve sent packages of goodies through the mail and brought other packages when they’ve gone on vacation.  They’ve hidden Gatorade alongside the road, and rescued us from pouring rain.

In short, the people we’ve met have been just ordinary people who were willing to lend a helping hand when they saw the need.  The people we’ve met have been just like you and me.  After 43 months and 26,000 miles on the road we haven’t met them.

Why are we all so afraid of them anyway?

Meeting the Freisens

Maria Elena in Guatemala

Daryl and Dino

*****This article is part of a series of articles on the dangers of travel.

How dangerous is family bike touring?

Life doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee

Risk Assessment – A personal decision

Isn’t bike touring dangerous?

Acceptable level of risk

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Tips for bike touring safely

“Isn’t it dangerous?”  We hear those words all the time and, frankly, I’m always a bit confused when I hear them.  Dangerous in what way?  What should we be afraid of?

Yes, what we are doing is dangerous.  We could be hit by a car, bitten by rattlesnakes, die of food poisoning, or slip in the bathtub and hit our head – but then, all those things could happen back in Boise, Idaho too.  Is there a greater chance of them happening down in South America?  No, I don’t think so.

I find it ironic that we traveled 9300 miles in 2006-07 and nothing happened.  No incidents at all – unless you count the time Davy slipped on an orange while playing tag in the plaza in a small town in Mexico and sprained his wrist.  We spent twelve months cycling around the USA and Mexico and were perfectly fine – but within two months of arriving back home to Boise we had two potentially life-threatening incidents.

John and I were taking a class at our local university and went on a field trip to visit extinct volcanoes in the desert south of town.  We had asked permission from our instructor to take the boys, so they were running around in the desert while we enjoyed the lecture from our professor.  And then we heard Davy yelling, “Daddy!  Daryl’s trapped by rattlesnakes!”

Sure enough, Daryl was standing – frozen – on a boulder with two rattlesnakes a few inches away.  Fortunately, John was able to carefully lift Daryl up and carry him to safety, but we considered ourselves very fortunate that he wasn’t bitten.

A few weeks later, I was riding my bike home from school when a car hit me.  I crashed to the ground and lay sprawled out in the middle of the road.  By the time the ambulance arrived, I was up and walking and knew I was OK – had pretty serious road rash on my arm and leg, but that’s about it.  Nevertheless, we knew it could have been a lot worse.

So I come back to where I was before – yes, something can happen on the road, but something can happen at home too.  So far we’ve pedaled nearly 23,000 miles as a family in over three years on the road and have experienced two dangerous events while traveling – an encounter with a rogue bear who exhibited very un-bear-like behavior, and a collision with a car in Albuquerque.   Fortunately, nothing serious happened either time.

Have we just been lucky?  I don’t think so.  I think our experiences are what one could reasonably expect to happen while on a journey like ours.  From talking with other cycle tourists who have traveled in all parts of the world, what we have experienced is the norm.  If someone does have a serious accident or is robbed at gunpoint or kidnapped I would say they were unlucky.

I think it is important to remember that every one of the towns we pass through is home to somebody.  People live in those towns and raise their children – and they feel it is perfectly safe.  Why should Tegucigalpa be safe for Claudia and not for us?  Juan feels secure in Bogota; why shouldn’t we?  Are we really any safer in Boise, Idaho than we are in any other town?

What I think these concerns come down to is the fear of the unknown.  As one friend put it, there is something intimidating about facing the boogieman – and if you don’t even know who the boogieman is or where he hides, he’s even more scary.  I feel fortunate that we’ve learned the boogieman isn’t out to get us regardless of which country we happen to be in – that frees us up to travel the world without fear.  In fact, we’ve found people throughout the world to be kind, generous, giving people who will go out of their way to help us out – why should we fear them?

That being said, we take many precautions to do our best to ensure that nothing bad happens.  We can’t, by any means, totally prevent bad things happening to us, but we can minimize the chances by taking certain precautions.

Practice safe, defensive riding techniques

  • Wear helmets and have mirrors on bikes so we know what’s coming behind us
  • Be highly visible – we have brightly colored bags on our bikes and wear bright shirts
  • Ride with traffic, never against it
  • Ride in the road, not on sidewalks (they have too many obstacles for safe biking)
  • Slow down at all intersections and be prepared to stop.  Make sure we have eye contact with drivers
  • Never ride at night unless we have plenty of lights (we carry blinkies for those rare times when we need to ride in the dark)
  • Choose roads with minimal traffic (not always possible, but we try to choose back roads when we have the choice)

Avoid areas known for guerilla activity or other security risks

  • So far, this has never happened, but if there was an area known for kidnapping we would avoid it.
  • We sought out a police escort when passing through areas known for robbery
  • Be aware of changing conditions and be ready to respond.  An example of that is Colombia – it is now very, very safe to travel in, but people still have the idea that it is dangerous.  The reverse could also be true if there is a sudden government change or some other event occurs.

Eat healthy food and maintain sanitary conditions

  • It can be hard to be very clean in remote areas, but we do our best to keep hands and food clean.  We aren’t fanatical about cleanliness, however – a certain amount of germs makes us stronger
  • Drink bottled water or otherwise make sure water is safe to drink

Watch the bikes at all times and choose camping spots carefully

  • Never leave the bikes unattended unless they are safely locked up in a hotel
  • Look for camping spots where we either have permission from the landowner or we pull off the road to a hidden spot where nobody knows we are there
  • While passing through cities known for theft, we use extra straps on our gear to make it harder to get off the bikes
  • When passing through dicey areas, we stay in a tight pack and pass through quickly without stopping

Will these precautions preclude something happening?  Absolutely not.  But we feel the risks we face while on the road are similar to what we would deal with if we lived at home in Boise, Idaho.  And out here, we’re having a lot more fun!
*****This article is part of a series of articles on the dangers of travel.

How dangerous is family bike touring?

Life doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee

Risk Assessment – A personal decision

Isn’t bike touring dangerous?

Acceptable level of risk

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Life Doesn’t Come With a Money-Back Guarantee

“Aren’t you scared?” a friend asked me the other day.  “Aren’t you afraid something might happen on your trip?”

“Of course,” I replied.  “I’m afraid every day of my life.  I’m afraid I’ll fall down the stairs in the morning.  I’m afraid my boys’ bus driver will fall asleep at the wheel.  I’m afraid we will get one of those tainted burgers tomorrow.  Aren’t we all scared?”

I think each of us needs to have a healthy fear of the unknown – it keeps us safe.  But I also believe we can’t allow that fear to paralyze us into inaction.  Way back when I was in high school one of my teachers signed my yearbook, “Always  remember – if you smile at the world, the world will smile back.”  I truly believe that is true, and that is how I try to live my life.  I want my boys to have that same attitude.  I don’t want them to be scared of the unknown.  I don’t want them to be paralyzed by fear.  I want them to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that almost all people in this world are good, caring, kind, and giving people.  And that’s what I think we are showing them. 
 
I’m not so naive as to believe nothing can happen to us.  I know we could get in an accident or we could be attacked by some weirdo.  But you know what?  That could happen here in Boise, Idaho too.  I find it ironic that we cycled 9300 miles around the USA and Mexico without incident, and then within a few months of arriving “home”, two incidents happened that very well could have been life-threatening.  rattlesnakes We took our boys out hiking on an old extinct volcano just south of home.  As John and I walked back to the car on the dirt road, the kids took off across the desert.  A few minutes later we heard, “Daddy!!  Daddy!!  Daryl’s trapped by rattlesnakes!”  John bolted across the desert to find Daryl frozen in place with not one, but two, rattlesnakes a mere 24 inches from his feet.  Fortunately, Daryl knew to freeze in place rather than panic, and John was able to slowly pick him up and carry him to safety.  Then a few weeks later I was hit by a car while riding my bike home from work.  Fortunately, it wasn’t major, but I took the fall on my elbow which was pretty badly bruised and scraped up. 
 
So I guess my point here is that stuff happens.  But it can happen at home too.  Why should I (or anyone else) think we are more likely to run into problems in Portland or Bakersfield or Mazatlan?  Don’t get me wrong – I would be devastated if something were to happen to any of us – any parent would.  But I don’t feel like we are doing anything particularly dangerous.  I see families out cycling around here in Boise all the time, and people seem to think that’s a good wholesome family activity.  If we put panniers on our bikes and go ride around Boise, does that somehow make it more dangerous?
 
But it all comes back too the fact that we can’t truly protect our kids (or animals) from everything.  Life doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee.  One day when I was in high school a bunch of ambulances came screaming by my house and stopped at a house a block away.  A while later they left quietly.  I found out the following day a little 6-year-old boy had slipped in the bathtub, hit his head, and died.  So do I not allow my kids to take a bath?  At what point do we draw the line?
 
I think our journey is a great metaphor for life.  As we walk through our journey here on Earth, there are no guarantees that all will be smooth sailing.  We are faced with challenges every single day of our lives.  Some people will allow those challenges to overwhelm them, and some will choose to look them in the face, battle it out, and overcome.  My boys now know they can overcome adversity.  And they know life isn’t all smelling the roses.  They know they will pass through trials and tribulations just like us all.  But they also know that perseverance and determination can get them through.  They just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other and not give up.  And that’s what life is all about.

*****This article is part of a series of articles on the dangers of travel.

How dangerous is family bike touring?

Life doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee

Risk Assessment – A personal decision

Isn’t bike touring dangerous?

Acceptable level of risk

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel