She who dares… what, exactly?
I mulled this over for a couple slow-going miles on cross-country skis, singing and stopping frequently to announce my presence to the local critters. Contrary to my plan, I was the only one skiing to Tower Falls this early March day, and the grizzly boars had just woken up.
Wins. “She who dares wins,” was the phrase. But didn’t that leave out too much of life’s sexy nuance? If I won, then so what? And what did winning mean? I was reasonably successful at my career, I thought, but at the expense of several very personally important life goals. I was in Yellowstone to run from that definition of success.
Nevertheless, I kept coming back to “She who dares.”
I was certainly daring. I was traveling by myself, the park was mostly shut down to prepare for spring, and every single sign and piece of literature said you must hike with at least three people to be safe from a grizzly attack. The Bed & Breakfast that I stayed at in Bozeman lent me bear spray, and I felt invincible when I arrived in Yellowstone… until I saw bear safety signs, with their hikers in plural, everywhere.
After speaking with a ranger, checking the weather, popping by the only shop in town renting skis, and surveying the conditions in advance, I decided to ski the well-groomed trail to Tower Falls. The ranger recommended it, and noted that the first part in particular was a nice, non-treacherous, ski. I only took half of his advice on timing, though. He insisted the conditions were deteriorating fast, so I should go first thing the next morning. With flurries in the forecast that day, though, I bet on better snow the following morning. After visiting the trailhead and checking the iced-over grooves, my mind was made up. There were at least five cars at the trailhead. I wouldn’t get eaten by a bear.
Not so at all. The next day I was left, at 0930, after thawing from a sunrise photo shoot, utterly alone at the trailhead. I checked the snow - a perfect layer of powder over 18-36 inches of pure, groomed, solid, ice. My skis would fly. But, on the last day of good snow before things began to melt, not a single other human.
I thought long and hard about the bear guidance and the bear spray that I had made sure I knew how to use. All signs indicated that only one fox had been anywhere near the trail all morning, so I set off, figuring I could turn back if I felt uncomfortable.
I sang to myself as I skied, but nothing in particular other than “doo doo doo’s” and jingles announcing my presence coming up the hill. Only the little fox prints kept me company, right in the groomed ski tracks. That day he was to be my guide. We both started on the right side of road. When I saw an embankment that was too close for comfort, I moved to the left, and he moved to the left. When the tracks on the left got too icy, I moved back tot he right, and he moved to the right.
Eventually, I turned off course at the Calcite Springs overlook. I used every trick in the Nordic book to get myself up to the snow-covered wooden platform without post-holing in 6 feet of snow, and it worked. I was rewarded with a sight of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone that I was only able to see out of the corner of my eye two July’s ago, when I white-knuckled this same road through a snow and hailstorm. I vividly remember the sun greeting us as we descended below the clouds, and the shining yellow and red in the peripheral vision of my right eye, which I didn’t dare to stop and see. Here I was, entirely alone in this piece of wilderness, gifted that view all to myself.
From atop the overlook, on two feet at this point, I pondered how I got there. I could not think of many people I knew who would do this alone, and foregoing it would not be wrong. In fact, I knew very few people who would be able to safely get up to the off-trail overlook. Many had tried and failed, creating deep wells with their footprints all over the snow-smothered turnout. At every decision point I had, though, I muscle memory to fall back on.
I had run smack dab into a black bear with my parents, hiking in Shenandoah. I had rightly emptied a can of pepper spray on an assailant in Central Asia. I knew how I would react if attacked, and I knew how to distance myself from surprise. I knew I could detect the presence of other wildlife by their tracks, and I knew from walking my dogs that I was just as likely to see it before it saw me, than vice versa. I had grown up cross-country skiing in myriad conditions, so my snow analysis and balance were on point. I knew where I’d slip, and where I’d sink, and which was worse. And I knew not to discount the value of my poles, after I kicked off my skis, walking up the icy wooden steps. Without that cumulative experience, I never would have had that chance to reclaim this view of wilderness in commune, with no sign of manufactured humanity. Just another mammal checking out the view.
I thought about the young children in my life, and the struggles they will face. When they are presented with wild opportunity, will they be equipped to head into the snowy wilderness on their own? Or will they be coached to steer steadily away from danger? I realized that my shoulders could bear the responsibility to share this toolkit with a generation for whom it may be more effective to seek academic achievements through “shoulds” and apps. I made it to a serene precipice, and I could teach them how to function in concert with a very analog home planet.
Working my way back down to my skis, I realized that I got there because I dared. I knew that going alone was not a blanket right answer, even if all heroes’ journeys started that way. They did not all end in victory. I considered the risks, I considered my ability to overcome them, and I dared. And in that moment more than ever before, I heavily realized how clearly there was no right answer at all. There were only shoulds, and calculated risk, neither with any value judgement. The vast planet would spin whether we turned right or left, whether we lived or died, whether we created or destroyed.
Skis clicked in and back on the trail, I was pleasantly surprised to realize I had been going up the entire way to the overlook. Now it was time to reverse that, in the virgin powdered ice tracks on the opposite side of the road. I glided gleefully, speedy, wind in my hair, not even pausing to say hello to those skiing up the hill on the opposite side of the road. Yes, they did eventually arrive. But they were late, and that nice little sawdust layer of powder, like you find on some good air hockey tables, was gone for them. I still had it, and I flew.
“She who dares gets the best snow,” I said, aloud, as I came in for the finish.