Posted by: George | May 30, 2010

The Wilderness

May 30, 2010

Friends have started to hear about my planned trip across America. Most of them ask fairly similar questions: “Where are you going to go?” “How long are you going to be gone?” “Are you going to Yellowstone?” “Are you going to drive Blue Highways?”

My answer is usually the same: “I don’t know.”

When I’ve made long-distance trips like this in the past, I don’t plan much. I pick a direction and start to drive. In the evening, I look at an atlas and pick a new direction for the morning. If I’m bored or I see an interesting sign (like “Devil’s Hole, Turn Left, 4 Miles”), I’ll make a turn and see what happens.

The most interesting reactions to the trip have been from my friend Jim. I’ve known him for about six years now, but I probably don’t know him very well. He’s a bit of a puzzle.

Jim is an excellent teacher, very supportive of students, a devout Catholic, but sometimes he comes across as a grumpy cynic. And not by accident. He seems to enjoy getting a rise out just about everyone he encounters. He’ll throw out a provocative statement, then lean back, a slight smirk at one corner of his mouth, and wait for a reaction. (This is part of what makes him such a good teacher; he makes people think.) He’s visibly disappointed if his target ignores the jab. If he were Jewish, I would say that he likes to kibitz, that is, offer unwanted, annoying comments for no other apparent purpose than his own amusement.

(To be fair, other’s enjoy his verbal jabs. I usually laugh pretty hard the whole time I am around him. And he’s not as tough as he makes out. He is actually a very soft-hearted guy who goes the extra mile to help a friend or student in need.)

Jim has been in good form as we’ve talked about my trip. When I mentioned that I was going to camp, Jim responded, “Bears eat campers. They drag them out of their tents.”

When I mentioned that I might drive through New Mexico, Jim said, “They have signs all over the state that say ‘Beware of rattlesnakes.’”

When I mentioned that I was going to take my bike, Jim warned, “In California, mountain lions come out of the woods and attack cyclists. They eat them.”

Maybe Jim is concerned about my safely and is offering friendly warnings. Maybe he’s trying to provoke me, playfully prod one of his buddies. Probably both. But this may also reflect Jim’s world view. He is an early American literature scholar, so he spends much of his life reading about the dangers of the wilderness.

 Jim does have a point. American is vast. On some stretches of highway (not just Blue Highways, but Interstates with four lanes), you can drive for 400 miles without a gas station or another human being, except for a few psycho hitch-hikers. An adventure as simple as wading into a trout stream can present some level of danger. On hiking trails, even within the boundaries of our national parks, you have to understand that you have entered the food chain. One of the best-selling books about our national parks is Death in Yellowstone.

I am well aware of the dangers, and I plan to be careful. I am not going to go into Yellowstone and try to pet a buffalo or elk, which gets people killed every year. When in New Mexico, I am going to watch where I step.

I’m also not going to worry. I tend to view the world through probabilities. I know it is more likely I will be struck by lightning will sitting on my front porch than eaten by a bear. Here’s hoping the odds are in my favor.

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