The following blog post is a reprint of an essay that I read on WITF's This I Believe Series a few years ago.
Growing up in small town Central Pennsylvania in the fifties and sixties, I had a lot of freedom. On summer days, my best friend and I would take off on our bikes and roam for hours. One afternoon, we decided to cross the river near the local college and explore an island we’d never visited. The only way to get there was to jump off of our bicycles and push them across a railroad trestle.
I’ll never forget the mix of sensations that day: the hot sun beating on our backs; the extra effort it took to push the bike tires over the wooden slats of the bridge; the instant of absolute terror when the tracks began to vibrate; and, the exhilaration that I felt as the train blew by us just minutes after we had raced to safety on the island.
Looking back on that day from my eleventh summer, I realize that this experience was an early expression of a belief that I have embraced ever since. I call it stepping outside my comfort zone. I believe in testing my limits.
Since that day I’ve stepped outside my comfort zone in many ways. In my career, I have always been one to design new programs and take on new projects. Do the same thing for too long, and I get bored. Outside work, I also like to try new things. I did a lot of wilderness hiking in my twenties. Although I’m afraid of heights with drop offs, I never let that stop me from taking high mountain trails. I learned to sail in my forties and find an intriguing balance of peace and excitement on the ocean under sail.
Travel has been another way to push the limits. After college, my husband and I spent four months on the road in our hippie van. We had to stop to work for a while in the Tetons and arrived home with just 38 cents and a new dog. It was a wonderful opportunity to see the country and meet people with vastly different life experiences. Today we take trips off the beaten path all over the world. Some of our friends call the places we visit “crazy”. I call them essential. I feel the same sense of exhilaration that I felt on that hot summer day on the railroad trestle when I walk the Amazonian rainforest or wake to hear a leopard on his nighttime prowl outside our tent in the Serengeti.
I don’t consider myself a thrill seeker. I don’t freefall from airplanes or kayak rapids. Even that long ago day on the railroad tracks, I was in little danger. The trestle was low, and I was a good swimmer.
But for me, it’s essential to step outside my comfort zone, try new things, meet new people, learn different customs, and see the world. I know I won’t be completely happy unless, from time to time, I can feel that track vibrating.