I Left the Comfort of Safety to Face My Fears Head-On—Here’s Why

UPDATED: January 19, 2024
PUBLISHED: January 4, 2024
Mature man riding a mountain bike learning to face his fears

My favorite bike crash came as I hustled to a shift at a fast-food joint. I was 14 or 15 years old and pedaling through a park in suburban Detroit. I stuffed my hands in my jacket pockets to keep them warm and rode hands-free along a dirt path. Then, I hit a rough patch—my front tire twisted perpendicular to the rest of the bike, the bike stopped and I kept going. I sailed over the handlebars, flipped and executed a flawless (and unintentional) rolling landing.

Flat on my back, I looked at the dull sky… and realized my hands were still in my pockets. All of that happened so fast I never had a chance to take them out. I sat up, looked around to see if anybody saw that—NOPE!—laid back down and laughed. Eventually I pulled myself off the dirt, got back on the bike and went to work.

As a boy, I spent every waking hour outside—riding, playing sports, jumping off my friend’s garage into his pool, whatever. As I turned in my bike for a car and a fast-food job for a journalism career, my outside life dwindled. I didn’t have time to ride hands-free through a park, and I started to think flying over the handlebars was frightening, not funny. I pursued safety and comfort, and neither was to be found outside.

When I lost my job, I lost that safety and comfort. As a newly laid-off magazine writer desperate to land freelance assignments, I wrote a story about hiking. I had a blast, so I wrote another, then another. Suddenly I loved the outdoors again. Hiking turned into long-distance bike riding turned into adventure racing turned into wanting to try everything once—rock climbing, ice climbing, dog mushing, surfing and more.

As much as I loved being outside, I still craved safety and comfort. Fear rode shotgun, whispering to me that I could not, should not, do whatever it was I was about to do: You’ll get hurt. You’ll make a fool of yourself. You will fail and be exposed as a fraud.

Those whispers became shouts this winter as I endured the worst stretch of my career. All at once, clients stiffed me, closed and tore my stories to shreds. When I have no confidence inside, I sure as hell don’t have any outside. For the first time in 30 years, I thought seriously about changing professions.

And then I was invited to attend the Scouting Jamboree at Summit Bechtel Reserve, a massive 14,000-plus-acre adventure park in West Virginia. Alongside 15,888 scouts from 50 states and 12 countries, I would have the chance to go mountain biking, rock climbing, rappelling and more. I said yes… and as the summer date approached, I regretted it. I told my wife I wanted to cancel the trip. She (lovingly) pushed me out the door. I arrived at the Jamboree dripping in angst and ready to revert back to a life of safety and comfort inside. There I met adventure-loving kids who showed me how wrong I was.

The good news: Blood spilled onto that mountain. The better news: It wasn’t mine. A teenager in front of me crashed his mountain bike, leaving one leg caked in mud, the other trickling blood—and his heart full to bursting. As he dusted himself off, his every movement screamed joy.

That’s what I’m afraid of? That looked like fun! Memories surged back to me. Seven years ago, on my first mountain bike ride, I flew over the handlebars in Colorado and landed on my face and chest. Didn’t hurt. Three years ago, someone stopped in front of me as I crossed a four-lane highway as a semi approached. Unable to unclip from the pedals, I pounded onto the pavement with my shoulder. That bruised only my ego.

It seems like by now I would know I don’t ride fast enough to get seriously hurt in a crash. That boy reminded me. The next time I’m worried about crashing, I’m going to think of the pure delight on his face as blood oozed from his calf.

He was bleeding. I was jealous.

Sabrina Wang shared with  me a badass story about the time she backpacked 100 miles in nine days. Every morning she asked herself the same question I ask myself on nearly every adventure: Why am I doing this to myself? And every morning she gave herself the same answer: friendships.

She was not done saying that word before I realized that was my answer too. The faces of a half-dozen men flashed across my mind, men with whom I have powerful, abiding relationships. Those types of relationships form when you endure challenges together. Wang reminded me of that in a way I won’t soon forget.

I waited for mountain bike lessons alongside James, who’s 17 years old. A few weeks earlier, he rode for the first time and crashed into three trees. “I was still shaking when I got on this bike,” he said. “But if you’re really scared and don’t do something, you might miss out on a lot of fun.”

We circled around our instructor. He told us to keep our eyes on the trail because our bikes would go where our eyes point us. “Don’t look at the trees,” he said.

Brendza looked over his shoulder at me and flashed a smirk that should be bronzed and put in the Smithsonian.

He pedaled down the path toward a scouting official who would assess whether we handled this beginner’s trail well enough to move on to the next level. I followed Brendza, my eyes darting up the trail looking for danger and finding plenty but avoiding all of it.

Here was the fear-facing lesson I needed. I rode past the judge with the biggest, dopiest, bring-on-the-crashiest smile on my face… with both hands gripping the handlebars.

Photo by Dewald Kirsten/Shutterstock.com

Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis. He writes about sports, travel, adventure and professional development. Email him at [email protected].