Excerpted from You Are Reminded That Your Safety is Your Own Responsibility
Your descent marks your entry into a world in which planning and preparation, self-reliance, and good choices are crucial. Don’t hike alone. Know what your destination will be and how to get there. Know where water is available. Get the weather forecast. Don’t overestimate your capabilities. Hike intelligently. You are responsible for your own safety as well as that of everyone in your party.
—Hiking Tips, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/hike-tips.htm
I’m traveling alone, renting a cabin at a normally tranquil spot—that’s called foreshadowing—on the western bank of the Big Laramie River at the edge of the Medicine Bow National Forest up in Wyoming. You are not going to stumble upon Woods Landing on your way to someplace else, because that’s not where it is. And, you’ve never been there on purpose. We must rely upon my capacity to draw you into the setting using the magic of language and amateur photography:
Imagine a vale of cottonwood, aspen, laurel and ash, surrounded by prairie foothills and pine-covered mountainsides. My cabin is a one-minute walk down a dirt road to a post office and a General Store with a couple of gas pumps out front. The store sells worms, Folger’s, batteries, Butterfinger bars and other worms.
Across the way, there’s a café/saloon/dance hall that was erected, according to the informative back cover of the laminated café menu, in the 1930s by a Norwegian named Hokum Lestrum, the logs all hand-cut and perfectly fitted to cleave together without nails, the floor supported by twenty-four boxcar springs. When the locals come here to dance, which apparently they still do on the weekends, they rebound quite a bit off that bouncy floor, which I would very much like to see.
Besides that, I am up here why? First of all, I don’t need a reason. I was born and grew up in Wyoming and they have to let me back in whenever I want. Second, I’m on a kind of self-styled writing retreat. My husband, Michael, and I just got home from a visit to Grand Canyon that was mind-blowing and life-changing. Soon as we got back to Denver, I turned around and said,
“Look, I have to go off again someplace on my own to think about eons and overwhelming forces and how insignificant I am. Don’t watch any Sandra Bullock movies without me. I love you. Good bye.”
I arrive and get checked in before noon. Unpack and install myself: t-shirts in the dresser, six pack in the mini-fridge. Ukulele on the sofa. Bug spray on the counter. Beyond Good and Evil on the bedside table. Fishing pole by the door. In my pack are the following essentials: Water, compass, gorp, and a First Aid kit (Neosporin, a Q-Tip and a Band Aid). What I lack in skill, I make up for in provisions and medical supplies.
I scoot a chair to where I can watch the river roll by as I porch-sit, write, and read Nietzsche, then I head up to the café for a bite to eat before I settle in for the week. So, why am I, by 3 p.m. on this—my first day in Nature—standing on the porch of my cabin totally re-packed, my Fiat 500, henceforth referred to as Vern, waiting at the ready?
Vern does not literally pant, but (as you can plainly see with your own eyes) if any car could, it would be he. She. Damn it.
When he was brand new and my friend, Cynthia Kolanowski, first laid eyes upon his sea-foam-green adorability, she cried out as if encountering an old friend, “Verne!”—a name spontaneously and honorably bestowed, but which, for some reason I saw, in my mind, as having a silent, feminine e at the end. It never occurred to me that Vern might not be the car’s name, and that does not occur to me now. But since the christening, there has ensued no small amount of auto gender confusion on my part. Problem is this: when I’m driving Vern, he’s a he. I can just tell. I know it on the inside. But, when I introduce her— I’d like you to meet my car, Verne. Verne, Jeremy. Jeremy, Verne! —she’s a she. Yes, I do teach my undergraduates that gender identity is socially-constructed, fluid, and a performance. And, I am not saying I don’t want any trans in my car; I do—mission, portation—I just don’t want to be futzing around, looking for the right pronoun. So, while I am not going to run out and install a gun rack or a trailer hitch, my mind is made up: he is a he. He will be raised as a he, driven as a he, and when the inevitable day comes, sold as a he. A cute, little, effeminate, Italian he.
Which, according to our resident philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, is a sign of health, “everything unconditional belonging to pathology.” I am as about as conditional as a person can be. That is why I am standing here, dithering, on the front porch of my cabin—should I stay or should I go? —middle of the afternoon, scanning the sky with a look of consternation on my face.
Consternation is appropriate. The air is hazy. There are helicopters and small planes huzzin’ around overhead. An atmosphere of let us call it Emergency Preparedness has rapidly developed. After lunch, I went over to the General Store to get me some dessert. While I was there, three Albany County Sheriff’s Department cars came racing into the parking area and skirched impressively to a halt, spraying gravel and raising a cloud of dirt, a development that—in the context of my having recently read the entire laminated café menu front to back for entertainment—was spectacularly exciting. I hung out to see what might happen next. Unwrapped my Butterfinger Bar. Took a bite, watching. Deputies were here with the urgent news that, rapidly approaching from just over the foothills across the road—quite visible from where I stood—was an impressive column of smoke.
I did not have to be convinced of its significance. Although I have been quite deaf in my right ear since I had the mumps in second grade, I can see just fine, and I instinctively get the relationship between smoke and fire. Not to mention, a few regulars at the café, old-timers in feed caps, plaid shirts and muddy boots—quintessential tough guys upon whom the rest of us count to remain composed at all times (they lose an arm in a hay baler, they’re like, Helen! Bring me out a bucket of ice, a towel and the pickup keys. And grab your purse—I may need you to come along and work the gearshift!—those guys) mosied outside together when they saw the deputies where they stood, appraising the horizon with troubled expressions, going “Oh, no!”
Oh, no is what I do not want to hear certain people say at certain times. My gynecologist in the middle of my pelvic exam. The pilot of the plane I’m on as we approach the landing strip. Anybody, right now, on the first day of my pre-paid, weeklong writing retreat.
Then the property caretaker, Brad—ponytail, pecan-shell teeth and a sizing-you-up squint—regaled our increasingly uneasy little knot of gathering onlookers with the germane tale of his own hair-singeing escape, not two years ago (when this exact same thing happened only from a different direction) when he barely got away, past blazing grama grass and exploding sagebrush, down the melting highway, using only his wits and a motorcycle. On that occasion, flames were stopped just right over there, where you can see the charred line of timber. Without straining, I am able to make out some darkened tree trunks that seem unnervingly closer than one might like. If this time is anything like that time, Brad concluded, we could be in trouble.
“Our boys protected us then!” chimed in the little General Store lady.
“Your boys?” I inquired.
“The local volunteer fire brigade—they’re all our sons out here.” This gave me pause as I reflected that, since the dawn of time, it is the young men who are called upon to put their lives on the line on behalf of the rest of us. And, they do it because they’re all testosteroney but also, they can’t refuse, because they’d look like pussies, and nobody wants to look like a pussy. Which was of sociocultural interest only momentarily. I prefer worrying to just plain old thinking. I asked one of the deputies (who appeared to be trying hard even as we spoke to grow his first mustache) a simple question:
“Do we have to leave?” Hoping, more than you can ever know, that he would reply, Yes. You’re not gone time I count to ten, I’m ‘onna shoot ya!
That is unequivocal. No second-guessing involved. Right, Sir! Got it! Hands in the air, nodding, spinning on my heel, running to the cabin, throwing all my stuff willy-nilly into Vern and rapidly departing. Doing exactly what I’m told to do by an authority figure brandishing a gun. It is so comforting to believe that someone can see the Big Picture, know what’s best for us, and just take charge.
Instead, the deputy’s voice cracked a little as he replied, “That’s up to you, Ma’am.”
“No!” I protested, my intensity fueled by irritation at the Ma’am part of his sentence, Ma’am being an ambiguous honorific that patronizes even as it purports to esteem; it is not at all the same as Sir, construing its object as a geriatric matron who must be humored.
“Tell me what I should do!”
His eyes widened in surprise as he took a step backwards.
“Idunno!” He held up his hands in a defensive gesture, demonstrating that he wasn’t hiding any intelligence that might inform my decision.
I went back to my cabin. Gathered up my stuff, nonchalantly—didn’t want to overreact or worse, look like a pussy—and here I stand, bags packed. Sniffing the air, fondling my key fob and resenting the privilege that allowed me to get myself into this situation, which might not even turn out to be a situation at all, but until I know for sure, I am in it, and resentful.
About thirty minutes into this activity, Brad stops by and tells me the property’s now officially on alert.
“Oh,” I remark, “on alert. What does that mean?”
His response is earnest. “We can kick back and smoke a doobie, but we might have to take off like bats out of hell.” He lumbers off to deliver the news to the handful of other guests—a biker couple, a family, a bearded backpacker with a dog.
Dilemma, yo. I have already paid for my week. If I leave, and that fire goes tearing off in another direction or gets extinguished, have I forfeited my retreat for nothing? But, if I decide to stay here, is it going to be possible to concentrate, write and read Nietzsche, what with all smoke and uncertainty?
And understand Nietzsche? I have my doubts. Oh, sure: I get that any morality that justifies weakness and fear is an inferior one—a slave morality. I also grasp Nietszche’s argument that a childish belief in a supreme deity limits our capacity to assume responsibility. Duh! Any Waldorf kindergartner can explain that much. But beyond that, I am too distracted to go deep, philosophically speaking. In part by the stupid fact that I chose to come to a remote location—favorable to creative introspection and rumination under ideal conditions, but inconducive to proliferative wireless signals. Which was brilliant, right up until the huge, scary fire started, when a woman needs to be able to get onto Wikipedia. No—I do not mean Google.
Google is where our worst fears go to mutate. This is because only those of us who have had horrible experiences bother to share them, in graphic detail, on websites that appear when you search for, I don’t know, let’s say, centipedes in Hawaii.
Which you do because, a couple of years back, your cousin, Kimberly—who lives in the Aloha state, but doesn’t have room to play host, so you rent accommodations—came to hang out for the afternoon with you and Michael in your theretofore perfect vacation condo right on the beach in Haleiwa. The three of you are sitting around, sweet Pacific breezes blowing in through the sliding doors, mai tai flowing (is it as if your glass fills itself). Life is good. Until Kim wonders aloud if y’all have noticed any centipedes scuttling about.
“Ha ha! Pfff! Centipedes don’t exist!” you scoff, adding a noticeably less confident, “Do they?”
“Actually, we have ‘em all over Oahu.” She holds her fingers three inches apart. “They’re about this long, and they move really fast.”
She discloses having recently hacked one to bits upon finding it skittering up the side of their entertainment center in their actual living room: “So, I grabbed a hatchet— “
Michael recapitulates: “You keep a hatchet near your television.”
Kim nods somberly, then gazes up, her big, brown eyes expertly searching the ceiling—at which unspoken implication, your hair starts to hurt. You are wishing that you had stayed in Colorado. In Colorado, you are familiar with the fauna (none of which have segmented bodies or more than a few legs) and their habits. But, what you should not do—after Kim leaves and you’re alone, in the condo, with just Michael and the internet—is you should not sneak out to the lanai with your handheld device and conduct a frantic Google Search for centipedes in Hawaii. You will regret it. Not just for the rest of your vacation. For the rest of your life.
Wikipedia, on the other hand, as any college student can tell you, is where we go to obtain knowledge. Once on it, I learn that wildfires move at a speed of up to 6.7 miles an hour in forests and 14 miles an hour in grasslands. Woods Landing, as I explained to you earlier, is in a grassy, high plains valley at the edge of a forested mountain. That’s what, 938 miles an hour. Or not; I majored in theatre, not pyrodynamics. Anyway—if I can now get the precise coordinates and boundaries of the blaze, take into account the topographical features between it and me and ascertain the likelihood (and potential velocity) of wind, then armed with numbers—and mathematics—I can begin to calculate my chances. But, I keep losing the signal. For Pete’s sake, all I want to know is this:
Am I to be drinking an ice-cold Titan IPA, writing a lyric essay on Grand Canyon and finger-picking the one song I know on the ukulele? Or, am I to be panicking?
Provided with data, I am capable of responding appropriately (even with equanimity) to any number of scenarios. Keeping things in perspective is why I never go anywhere—including on this trip—without my copy of the 2012 edition of the National Safety Council’s popular Injury Facts.
Which invaluable publication, alas, has limited use at the moment. Oh, sure, I can look up Fire—can? Hell, I do look it up—under which subcategories such as Smoke Inhalation and Burns draw my attention to an array of possibilities. But, I want to be online is what I’m saying.
Only, the network, WoodsLandingGuest, is completely unresponsive, regardless of my exertions. I’m walking around the property with my phone, waving it as if trying to attract the attention of a passing spaceship: Come take me home! I read somewhere that, for more bars, you should swoop your phone around, above your head in a figure eight pattern. I don’t think it works. I do it anyway.
Zip, zilch, nada. Accordingly, it comes to pass that the aspect of my trip I most looked forward to—being out of touch, out of range and away from it all—leaves me reliant upon speculation, face-to-face interaction and word of mouth. The speculation is vague. The faces are unreadable. The word is Idunno!
Don’t get me wrong. I am surrounded by (im)perfectly decent fellow human beings: the aforementioned Brad. The General Store lady. The deputies, a bartender, and oh! this multi-talented 14-year-old who, up at the café, took my order, made and served me a delicious green chili burrito, cleared my table, rang me up and gave me correct change. These are the sort of competent professionals into whose capable hands surely I can entrust my wellbeing. Yet, when I say, to Young Green Chili Burrito-maker, “What I mainly need to know here is, will that fire come closer to us?” he goes, “Well, we all live out here and we have not been ordered evacuate.”
“Precisely!” I reply, then—as he subtly but defensively backs away from me—continue, gesticulating appropriately: “This is the center of your world, and I can see that y’all are setting up those big, yellow, FasTank emergency water reserves, running with hoses down to the river, which leads me believe the situation here, for you, is dire. I, on the other hand, am a stranger passing through, one who might avoid suffering any loss of life, limb or property. So, as regards the peril to me, personally, what would be your best guess?”
How desperately I want advice. But, what is this child going to tell me? I don’t know why I suddenly see myself through his eyes. I wish I had not. I already know what I am: entitled, passive aggressive and kind of annoying. So, to repair this fresh problem (which regards shame due to unwanted self-awareness) I volunteer. “Might I assist in the fortification and defense of Woods Landing?”
This comes right out of my mouth before I can stop it, making me even a worse person, because I do not mean it. Now, I imagine myself missing my window of opportunity to get away, trying to act all brave, opening up a fire hose, getting blasted backwards 30 feet—into the river—by the unexpected water pressure, striking my head on a rock and knocking myself out. I can see it clearly: me drowning, not even actually doing something useful but just pretending to do something useful. Then, they have to fish me out and resuscitate me. Meanwhile, Woods Landing burns down around us. That woman is the worst thing that has ever happened to us! laments the little General Store Lady—and that becomes my legacy. I am consequently relieved when Green Chili responds to my offer, “No, there’s nothing you can do here. We got a whole training and procedure and everything. Just go back to your cabin. You’ll be okay.”
This last part—which I, as an adult, probably ought to be telling him by way of comfort and encouragement—is sweet, in spite of the fact that we both know he’s just trying to get rid of me. Back to my cabin I go, thinking, maybe this is an opportunity; if anybody ever needed to find peace with being on alert, it is I. Writing is a centering activity. I take out my Pocket Guide to the Grand Canyon, my notebook and a pen. Crack open an ice-cold Tital IPA. Sit down. Recall what brought me here. Begin to write. This, from my journal entry that day, page 23:
Grand Canyon’s nearly 280 miles long. In some places, it is deeper than a mile. Seventeen million years ago, the waters of a great river—established a course through what we now call the Colorado Plateau, as it was being uplifted by tectonic plate collisions. This effected erosion on a magnificent scale that continues even today, exposing nearly 2 billion years of the Earth’s geological history. The oldest human artifacts in the canyon are 11,500 years old. People migrated to the Western Hemisphere at least 4,000 years before that. Our remains have been found elsewhere that are estimated to be 195,000 years old.
Dinosaurs went extinct around 61 million years before humans appeared, having been in existence for something like ever. The Vishnu Basement rocks—that’s the layer at the very bottom of the canyon—could be 1.75 billion years old. Here is the thing: I’m 57. 57 is what percentage of 1,750,000,000? The answer is 0.0000325714285714. For a long time, I try to visualize this infinitesimally small number, imagining it first as the single flap of a bee’s wing, then as one bird chirp, or as the momentary glint of light on a ripple in the river. Sometimes, when there’s nothing else to be known and nothing to be done, a little context goes a long way. When I finally remember to look up at the mountain, it is no longer smoking, though the fire has left a thick haze. The sun, beginning to set, casts a glow like nothing I have ever seen.
 I only know five notes and one song, but it’s a song I really like: You may suffer; you may cry; you may often feel afraid, and you will ache in the pain of confusion. But, you will eat peaches! —and it just gets better after that.
 Don’t argue with me about this, especially if you’re a man and there is no chance that anybody will ever call YOU Ma’am.