Pass/Fail: Become a Local

Whether you’re visiting a mountain town or moving in, it’s only natural to want the natives to accept you. But how far out of your comfort zone are you willing to go to get there?

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If the people of Durango, Colorado, could rewrite their welcome sign, it would read: “Go home. We’re full.”

But after years of visiting the peak-rimmed town as a ski pass-toting tourist, I wanted in anyway and moved from my family’s cattle farm outside Houston to Durango in 2017. Still, every time I drove down Main Avenue, my Texas license plate felt like a scarlet letter.

So I ditched my camo and denim and drove a little faster over the mountain passes. Soon, I fell in with a rowdy group of regulars at the local coffee bar, who—despite teasing me for my “y’alls” and “howdys”—seemed to genuinely accept me. The only trouble: They never could see past my Texas origins. I knew the ribbing was all in good fun, but I wanted to prove that I belonged in Durango just as much as a lifer.

When the only thing getting roasted at our bimonthly potluck was me—someone even threatened to peel off my “I Durango” bumper sticker—I made my move. “I’m going to do the ABCs,” I blurted. The ABC challenge is a series of cliff jumps I’d been hearing about for years, even as a visitor. For kids who grow up here, leaping off 50-foot Adrenaline Falls, 40-foot Bakers Bridge, and the 12-foot waterfall along the Cascade Creek slot canyon is a rite of passage.

“If I do the ABCs,” I continued, “you have to call me a local.” Nearly everyone present had done the challenge as a teenager, and while the jumps are generally safe, they aren’t for everyone. After an exchange of glances, my friends smiled. “All right, Alex. You’re on.”

A week later, four of us arrived at Bakers Bridge under summer-blue skies. While leaping off the bridge is technically prohibited, the landing is wide and deep, making the plunge the easiest of the three.

The place was filled with jumpers, music, and—worst of all—spectators. My stomach curled as I watched a group of teens launch back flips off the bridge into the Animas River.

Minor problem: I had never jumped off anything much higher than a pool diving board. I walked to the edge and found myself frozen stiff, having conveniently forgotten about my “healthy” fear of heights until now. Cheers faded into hushed questions: “Uhhh, is she OK?” In that moment, I felt every bit the Texas tourist.

Then John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” started playing, and a chuckle rippled through the crowd—and me.

I inched forward and plunged ungracefully toward the river. My arms windmilled, my legs kicked. I forgot to tuck my chin. As I landed, feet first, my neck reeled backward and I sank into the icy water.

A week later (once my whiplash had faded), I was ready for the next challenge, and surprised when my friends apologetically said I’d have to find Adrenaline Falls on my own.

The location of the cascade is a locals’ secret—I was going to have to work for this one. I recruited a new friend, a fellow Texas transplant named Mariah, to help.

Fortunately, I’d at least learned the trailhead was on Lime Creek Road. After several hours of searching (we didn’t try to Google it, which felt like cheating) and another hour of hiking, the aspens opened up to reveal a perfect pool of Rocky Mountain snowmelt. We were the only ones there. If we got into trouble, it’d be a while before anyone knew.

After some smaller test jumps, I climbed to the top of the cliff. At the 50-foot mark, bile crept into my throat. I scooted back down to the 40-, then the 30-foot mark: “This is my limit, I’m not going back up,” I shouted. Mariah shrugged, and I leaped from there.

When I told the story that night, my friends laughed. “Don’t worry,” one born-and-raised Durangoan said. “I don’t even go from 50 feet. It counts.” Two down.

But Cascade Creek was the finale for a reason. It’s a slot canyon, so once you enter, you’re in it for the long run, swimming through freezing pools for nearly 30 minutes until the last 12-foot jump at its mouth. Thanks to higher-than- normal water levels and strong currents, the previous summer had seen a half dozen rescues and one drowning.

But a few days before game time, Hurricane Harvey swept my hometown underwater. I recognized lifelong friends on the news, rescuing animals and kayaking door to door delivering food. I winced at the memory of trying to hide my Texas origins.

If I went home to help with the relief effort, I’d miss the three-week window when I was sure Cascade’s flow would be slow enough for safety and still deep enough to jump. But after watching the floods on TV, I found I’d lost my taste for watery recreation.

My friends supported me, but I wondered if bailing on the challenge meant I’d officially forfeited my burgeoning local status—and my bumper sticker.

But when I got back to Durango, I woke up to a new sticker on my car. The illustration of two friends tent camping was easy to recognize—it was the work of a Colorado artist and common in local shops. Turns out the sticker has a name: “Home is where you pitch it.”

The Verdict: Pass

I opened myself up to new friends—and their traditions. And without even finishing the ABCs, I found a sense of belonging by being myself.

How to Push Your Limits the Right Way

Examine your motives.
A big part of outdoor adventure is getting out of your comfort zone. But look at why you’re doing it. Intrinsic motivations—like wanting to experience nature or develop a skill for your own satisfaction—lead to more enjoyment. Extrinsic motivations—like impressing other people—on the other hand, can lead to feeling stressed, pressured, and burned-out.

Find your threshold.
The Yerkes-Dodson law of psychology maps stress as a bell curve. No stress means no drive. As stress levels rise, so do levels of focus and excitement. But at some point, increasing your stress pushes you past the point of feeling both challenged and capable, and feelings of fear set in, undermining both your focus and ability to perform. Everyone has a different threshold. Find—and stay at—yours.

Take it slow.
Start small. Take a class or go with friends you trust. It can help to think of your progression as a pyramid: Before going on a long backpacking trip, for example, doing a few dayhikes and weekend trips will help build both your fitness and comfort levels. Need more time? Take it. 

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