I fled Las Vegas seeking respite from the overstimulation. Roaring through the Mojave Desert I was stung by the sight of fire-hued peaks thrusting towards wispy trolling clouds. Red Rocks Canyon was the opposite of the glitz I had left. Among its varicolored sandstone and petrified wood seclusion reigned supreme. This desert was no lifeless expanse of sand. Delicate florets of chaparral bloomed through the cracked earth. Kangaroo rats scuttled for rocky shade and roadrunners streaked across my path on urgent errands. The atmosphere was sublime for sitting and listening. It was, however, rife with danger. Scree slithered under me and vaulted down the slopes I trod. A mottled rattlesnake wedged itself into a fissure, and from around the corner an inky tarantula stalked forward. I hustled out of its way and stood by some sagebrush to watch its movements.
The tarantula paused in its track and jiggled one of its legs in the air. It sidled into the middle of the trail and then I heard a shriek behind me. “Is that a spider? It’s enormous! No, don’t go near it honey, it could kill us all!” I turned to see a mother with her child clutched to her chest cowering near the canyon pass. “But mom,” the eight-year-old wailed, “I want to see the spider!” “No! You’re not going near that thing!”
“What is it? What’s going on?” asked a salt-and-pepper haired couple with walking sticks. “There’s a tarantula on the path,” I answered. “Should we do something or call someone?” “I think it will go on its way if we don’t bother it. We just have to wait for it to move along.”
“Thank goodness you spotted the thing,” the parent said, “before we came along. They really should put some signs up to warn us about these dangerous animals.” “This place could definitely use more signs,” the pair agreed. “It’s beautiful here but they don’t tell you how slippery the ravines are or how often rock slides happen.” The mother murmured agreement still gripping her squirming charge. The spider made its solemn march to the edge of a globe mallow and disappeared from view. We all wished each other happy trails and went our separate ways, but I could not stop thinking about that conversation.
Signs are a ubiquitous component of my travels; traffic signs, airport signs, and caution signs pop up warning me of danger at every turn. The purpose of these alarms is to alert me of hazards, but their usefulness can become a menace if I avoid situations based on signals. To live is to court risk and erecting notices does not eliminate life’s uncertainties or help avoid them altogether. Avalanches occur regardless of whether there is a plaque stuck to the side of the mountain. Wild animals cross our paths in spite of labeled fences. Crosswinds and storms create destruction despite highway markers. Though posting warnings can keep us mindful, prevent blind spots, and protect others from our neglect, they cannot shield us from the vagaries of existence. “No one ever really has control,” Dr. Atul Gawande reminds us in “Being Mortal,” “physics and biology and accident ultimately have their way in our lives.”
Signs cannot control the world, but they can hold sway over my actions. They can instill fear about the places I explore, create an unwillingness to attempt the untried, and lead me to believe that my best course is to avoid encountering the world. I do not want to do this, to live inside a bubble and never step outside my doorstep. Risks and misadventures have wrought the stories in my life and these stories color my journey. “The chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life,” Gawande advises. Warnings have been useful to me. They have kept me from falling over precipices, safeguarded me at intersections, and made me aware of my surroundings. I do not, however, need them everywhere. I do not want them preventing me from exploring. I do not want them chiding me from opening mysterious doors, or wandering trails, or climbing pitches. I do not need more warning signs to guide me… I need more unmarked routes.
Learning essential survival skills and acquiring the ability to adapt in different environments is the best way to tackle danger. Knowing how to build a fire, understanding how to endure high waves and strong currents, as well as battling severe changes in temperature will always come in handy. Given the landscape of Red Rocks Canyon, always carry enough drinking water for your body’s requirements and limit sun exposure during the hottest part of the day. During hikes be aware of water running in desert washes as this is a sign of flash flooding. Stay on higher ground during rainstorms.
How do you feel about warning signs, especially out in the wilderness? Have they been useful to you? Share with us stories about risky encounters you have had with wildlife!