Will Teens Always Be Daredevils?

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

Late last summer, my family and I made our first visit to a swimming hole near our cabin in northern Vermont. It’s a spot where the Trout River rushes down into a series of pools, all contained by looming mossy rock faces that give off that unmistakable shadowy mineral smell of a river’s edge. You have to pick your way down to the river from the road via a network of paths that run through the woods. Even though everyone knows about the spot and cars line the roadside around it on hot days, it feels like a secret place once you get there. It also feels like a neutral ground between the ordered world of families and the volatile world of teens.

The pools are perfect for swimming, especially for kids — not too deep. Those looming rocks, though, are more interesting to the teens, who jump from them with dubious precision into six-foot-square pockets that are just deep enough.

That first afternoon at the falls, a group of local guys in their 20s or thereabouts had taken over a prime spot on the rocks, and they were smoking bowls and drinking colorful cans of hard seltzer. While they got benignly faded, we splashed in the pools and my husband and sons tried out the most popular jump spot, about 20 feet high. (I don’t do high jumps into water.) Then one of the partyers got up and began to climb up alongside the falls, angling and gripping with uncanny agility for someone who was obviously baked.

This guy’s appearance was distinctive: He had the slight, athletic body of a young man, but his hair was completely gray. His torso was covered in tattoos, some of which, you could tell even from a distance, were not done by a professional hand. There was something a bit mythic about this dude, a bit haunted. I felt both nervous about him and nervous for him. This is a feeling I remember having often when I was young and hanging out around charismatic teenage boys with no impulse control.

“Philly’s gonna do a gainer,” said one of his friends, kind of addressing us but also making the announcement generally. The group of remaining guys got quiet and watched, and so did we.

We all gasped at Philly’s gainer. From a small outcropping about 40 feet above the water, he leaned into a backflip and twisted on his way down. He landed within six feet of the rocks, sure as a guided missile. Ever since, “Philly’s gonna do a gainer” has entered our family vernacular, something my husband and I say when we’re about to embark on an effortful and impressive task, like grading a stack of final papers until midnight or braving the grocery store during the evening rush.

Last week, we were back at the falls for the first time this summer, and who else but Philly and the boys were in attendance too? A year had passed and everyone looked well. It was a reprise of the old scene: We swam while they partied in a neighborly manner. And before long, Philly began his climb. This time, he got to the spot from which he’d jumped last summer, but he didn’t stop; he started to climb a tree. The limb stretched out at least 50 feet above the water, and as sure-footed as a bird, he made his way out, walking the limb while steadying himself with a higher branch. Just before jumping, he removed the lit cigarette from his mouth, carefully put it out on the limb, and tucked it against a branch — for later, I guess. I turned away; I couldn’t watch. “Are you ready to save a life?” I asked my husband. I wasn’t. “This is fucked up,” I murmured to myself.

I didn’t see it happen, but Philly emerged triumphant. “He only does that one once a year,” said a teen who had come out from the woods to watch the dive.

It was a very hot afternoon, and we lingered at the falls for a while. As time passed, packs of teens — mostly boys, mostly limbs — began to appear from the woods. They had all come to jump, and Philly presided over them as an éminence grise of the falls. He dispensed advice and encouragement, squinting over his cigarette. “Send it,” he’d croak through the smoke. Meanwhile, they seemed to be socializing one another into a system of risk-taking that had been honed over years by older people. We realized as the mosquitoes came out and it was time to go home that we’d been watching a whole scene, a whole summer situation, with its own rules and characters and rituals. “But you know what also happens?” said my husband out of earshot of my kids. “They come back and do it at night. You better believe they do.”

Will teens always be daredevils? Will the forlorn beauty of the elder daredevil always inspire the younger ones? It seems like an impulse that’s on the wane lately, maybe since COVID or maybe since the ubiquity of social media. Is it possible that, for some teens, life today is too precarious to be deliberately dumb with one’s body? Is that a good thing? Certainly, as a parent, I think so. On the drive home from the falls, I repeated the admonition “no child of mine” until my kids demanded that I stop.

Daredevil behavior occupies a central place in coming-of-age stories, though, in part because teenagers’ neurobiology compels them to behave stupidly sometimes but also as a process through which powerful moral lessons can be learned. Perhaps daredevilry has become a class thing, just like everything else. The kids at the falls did not give off the unshakable impression of being elite. They might have been college-bound, but I didn’t get a “worried about getting into my top schools” vibe, if you know what I mean. These were kids who had probably not grown up feeling like precious cargo.

The classic coming-of-age novel A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, published in 1958, is a morality story centered on a tragic injury sustained at a falls. (And the characters are prep-school kids — rich kids weren’t always risk-averse.) Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson, one of my favorite books as a kid, is another story of learning about personal identity through a tragedy, this one taking place on a rope swing. Remember that weird ’90s movie Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, about a girl who rides her horse off high dives? I don’t remember the moral of that one, but the daredevilry felt poetic and necessary in a way that would not make sense in a kids’ movie today.

In rural areas, anyway, daredevil teens will no doubt persist, for lack of other things to do. And for guys like Philly, these feats of agility are a way to stay young forever. As we age, our bodies lose the ability, alongside the urge, to enact these epic sends. Older guys with graying temples who resist the weight of maturity and stay light and flinty are, a little bit, like living ghosts — young people frozen in time. I hope Philly ages out of this era soon and finds a different hobby before it’s too late.

A few nights later, my husband and I were at the local bar, the Snow Shoe, less than a mile down the road from the falls. I wanted to find out more about Philly’s deal — surely he’s the stuff of local lore. But nobody at the bar knew who we were talking about when we asked. “You mean my ex-boyfriend Wayne?” said Nicki, one of the bartenders. “He’s, like, six-foot-six? He set the holds up that tree years ago.” “No, not Wayne,” I said. It turns out Philly is just one among many.

Another bartender, Brandon, admitted to once being one of those guys himself. “Guilty,” he said, hands raised. As a teenager, he pulled stupid stunts at falls all through the valleys of northern Vermont. It’s likely there are teens just like him in every mountainous cranny of the continent: bored, confident, maybe high. “I don’t do that stuff anymore, especially now that I’m in the fire department,” said Brandon. “Now I can’t jump in. I’m pulling people out.”

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Will Teens Always Be Daredevils?