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Risky Business at Red Rocks

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.

Red-Rock-spiderThe 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.

Red-Rock-viewSigns 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.”

Red-Rock-landscapeSigns 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.


TRAVEL NOTE:

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!


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24 replies »

  1. Your photos are stunning and pulled my attention to you blog. But your writing is also excellent and I had to keep one reading. Being from Europe I was surprised by the amount of warning signs in North America. There seems to be signs everywhere. There is even signs on the 110 km/hr (I’m in Canada) highways that distractive driving is dangerous. Well, if you are trying to read all those signs along the highway you will definitely be distracted! There is a warning written on your coffee cup at starbucks that the coffee is hot. I’d hope so – I don’t buy cold coffee! 🙂 I agree signs are of course needed, but sometimes common sense is maybe sufficient?

    • Indeed, one would think common sense would be sufficient. Speaking of coffee cups, those signs on them are a result, we were told, of a lawsuit against McDonalds (the American fast food chain) for serving coffee at too high a temperature. Rather than lessen the heat of the beverage, McDonalds decided to put warning labels on their cups and other companies have followed. Traveling through the United States it has been eye opening to us too how many posted signs there are. Glad you enjoy our photos and stories! We hope you come back for more….

  2. Amazing photos. Living in Vegas for the past 5 years, I’ve been to Red Rock many times and I’m quite thankful I’ve never run into any pesky tarantulas! I have to agree with some of the commenters about how few signs are posted abroad compared to North America. I was shocked by an unmarked fence once in Ireland! But had I used a moment to think, it would’ve been more evident the fence was on! Despite this, I do think too many signs can hinder an experience. It should be more common sense that hiking comes with certain dangers.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I too have noticed the cultural preference in North America for signs. I think you hit it on the nail when you mention that pausing to think and using common sense overcome the need for a lot of signs, although I would probably not have been thinking this way if I had gotten shocked by a fence!

  3. Great shots and the writing all flows well with the wise words of “physics and biology and accident ultimately have their way in our lives.” And letting them have their freedom and do what they do. I think it is important to have signs or warnings at any parks entrance (State or National which they do), but I am thankful they do not have them all over the place…all things carry risk. Being prepare, that is the key (and at times my weakness) 🙂

    • Being prepared is your weakness? We’re intrigued as to how this could be….In life there is sometimes no way to prepare for every risk. Or perhaps the best preparation is simply knowing that there is no true way to always be prepared.

      • Ha, ha – yes I guess that does sound a bit convoluted but my take is being prepared is essential but there is only so much you can do. It is best to understand that when things go wrong, you will find a way out…so what you mention above where often risks are inherent in anything you do and inevitably impossible to prepare for it is sometimes best to go with the flow and get on with the adventure 🙂

        When I was young, my pack was always the heaviest…and even today, I bring an extra lens or two ‘just to be prepared’ when it really is not necessary 🙂

  4. Firstly, seeing your photos of Red Rock Canyon made me just a little homesick for LV. And secondly, I had a rush of goosebumps on goosebumps whilst reading your post because you’re the THIRD person today who mentioned the book Being Mortal. Obviously, I must find this work and read it.
    The universe is calling out and I’d be daft not to pay attention, right?
    Lovely post again, BT!

    • Thank you PP! Wow, the THIRD person, eh? So we’re behind the times, then. Gawande’s book talks about mortality, the world of medicine, and illness in a way most western health systems don’t address. It is a fascinating and soulful read. Let us know what you think!

  5. Excellent post, Jesse, and rings true about being prepared. How about the hiker in CA recently who survived nine days with a broken leg? A water filtration system and a whistle (to alert the search party) saved her life. Knowledge, research and experience trump signs…

  6. I think some signs are helpful such as bear warning signs when one is in the area. The one thing I marvel at outside of North America is the lack of signs. It seems any other countries it is let your common sense prevail.
    Gorgeous photos and I love Red Rocks Canyon.

  7. I don’t think one bill will fit all. But I would like to have signs if I have young kids and old generation with me in the exploration. That would also mean the probability of being in absolute wilderness with them is minimal. But out there in the dense and less trodden place, I don’t think human should intrude with signs more than they can help. Almost all parks have very well defined websites. The information should definitely up there on the websites. If the decision is not impromptu, folks do a fair amount of research before heading out

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this issue Aby. I do agree that park and outdoor companies in general have very good websites where they display all the possible dangers of the area along with helpful survival advice!

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