Britta Gustafson: Is it dangerous always playing safe? |

Britta Gustafson: Is it dangerous always playing safe?

Risky adventure encourages our wild side

Britta Gustafson
Britta Gustafson for the Snowmass Sun

My friends, family and I often play the how-did-we-ever-survive-childhood game, in which we regale one another with hilarious and harrowing tales of how we lived through growing up in this valley during the less-litigious years of our youth. And as we reminisce, trying to one-up each other, it begins to seem like an almost bygone era of access to just enough danger in an increasingly exhausting era of “safety first.”

The familiar tales flow: Remember that rickety two-story shack that doubled as a play structure looming over the rushing river at Herron Park? Those epic Rio Grande monkey bars that took down both small children and post-Eric’s closing time crowds with unabashed disregard for age or agility? The nearly 16-foot-high, straight-metal chute that claimed to be a slide with a railroad tie to land on at the Cathy Robinson playground?

How about the cliff jumping location up the Pass? It was dubbed the “rope swing” that (as far as we knew) never had a rope, so it required precision cliff jumping — a running start to clear a jutting edge with enough restraint to avoid crashing into the adjacent rocky face as we landed in the raging river.

And, oh, the Devil’s Punchbowl, much more daunting before there was a parking lot and a line to leap. The cliff’s-eye-view into that churning water psyched out many, and even after the jump, the icy water sucked the air right out of your lungs, leaving you gasping as you groped and grabbed at the slippery rocks to pull yourself out before the current swept you away. (There was no lead rope back then, either.)

Hitching a ride (yep, with a thumb) and not just from the Main Street “hitching” stop, but just about everywhere we wanted to go before we could drive.

We crawled through storm drains, balanced on fallen trees, and bouldered around the grottos. Rusted culverts doubled as tunnels, splintery cable-spools became tea tables, dilapidated cabins functioned as forts and the wilderness was our playground outside of school.

The pre-remodel Aspen Middle School sledding hill stands out in the minds of many as a risky-recess highlight. We all piled onto some kind of makeshift, giant sled and had to learn to collectively lean and bail out before landing on the concert below or careening into the side of the school. I remember the teachers jumping on; it was that much fun.

I also remember all the on-mountain, after-ski-hours antics with padding and duct-tape shoe-skis. We climbed the gondola towers and, of course, sledded just about anywhere with enough pitch to make it thrilling. A nearly out-of-control unpredictability must have been the appeal.

After so much reminiscing, the questions remain: Are we becoming too cautious? Will we innately seek out danger in less healthy ways if it isn’t accessible? Does a degree of danger promote a certain level of happiness? Is there a balance between safety first and pursuits of happiness? I think the notion of “total safety” is total nonsense, no matter where you grow up or what you pursue.

Shared tales of danger and debauchery that cross generations, provoking our childhood memories, may leave us all wondering just how we’ve made it this far. In some ways, those tales lead us to wonder if a greater danger may lurk in well-intentioned efforts to always play it safe, creating a perceived sense of safety and fostering a vulnerability to fear.

Maybe this wild place breeds adrenaline junkies and thrill seekers, or maybe it draws them here. Or maybe it simply encourages us to explore our healthy wild side, guiding many to question conformity or seek ways to preserve that wilderness access and defend responsible risks. I don’t think we are a dying breed just yet.

So it was with a sigh of relief that I arrived for my first time back to the post-renovation Herron Park playground recently, discovering that some have decided to bring back a little taste of the original thrill that the playground once provided. My son and his friend played on those brilliantly unbridled structures for about five minutes before wading through the ice-melt to the “island” to build a willow fort in the trees, where they spent the next two hours, as I wondered about the value of a little more danger in life.

Is it dangerous to always play safe? If you ask anyone from this place, young or old, you will get your answer.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at