Last week, Mike and I journeyed by car to Yellowstone National Park and back.
Over the course of this (crazy) 6 day road trip through Illinois-Wisconsin-Minnesota-North Dakota-Montana-Wyoming-South Dakota-Iowa-Minnesota-Wisconsin-Illinois I experienced so much fear: fear of heights, fear of being lost, fear of driving, fear of going too fast, fear of losing control, fear of predators (specifically grizzly bears), fear of dying, fear of losing my job, fear of being of being dependent, fear of falling, fear of not knowing where I was, fear of having made a mistake, fear of failure, fear of being vulnerable, fear of the earth exploding, fear of falling through brittle rock that looked like moon crust, fear of running out of fuel, fear of falling, fear of falling, fear of falling some more . . ..
In Yellowstone, we were so high up that sometimes we didn’t know how high we were until suddenly a meadow on a road we were travelling gave way to a cliff then was back to meadow in less than 5 minutes . . . nothing in Yellowstone was constant or made sense. It was disorienting-ly beautiful , in what I imagine would be a Jurassic Park kind of way.
When we paid our entrance fee at the Roosevelt Arch, which is the North Entrance, the ranger enclosed a yellow slip of paper about bears. I remember seeing the phrase: “your safety in the Park is not guaranteed”
As we drove the 80-mile distance across the park (that I didn’t know was an active super volcano) tracing roads with steep grades and switchbacks – from Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower-Roosevelt to Canyon Village and back again- I held on to a handle in the car, leaning my body in toward my husband, away from the cliff face, as though the silver metal of our Volvo would protect me and my weight could shift the car away from the caldera’s edge. How crazy is that? and yet, I did it and closed my eyes pretending the precipice not there.
The emotions I felt at the end of each day in the Park were gratitude and awe.
On the drive home to Chicago from Yellowstone, however, I experienced the kind of acute anxiety you are prescribed medicine for (or maybe even are hospitalized for.) It began as I started my share of that day’s driving (2 hours of the 10 we planned). We were somewhere in Wyoming or maybe it was Montana – some state where there was a posted speed limit of 80 miles per hour. I remember the hills on the highway all seemed the same brownish color and you couldn’t see over them, even after you’d crested them – it seemed they went on forever, twisting and turning into the horizon. (There is a certainty of death crashing at that speed, isn’t there? I kept thinking this thought over and over – driving my own cumulative and compounded fear over its edge: heart pounding, stomach tightening, leg muscles shaking, ribs aching, eyes darting, head clouding, voice shaking, words scrambling . . .
I felt so ashamed and weak as I braked too quickly at the exit ramp, pulling off the highway and stopping the car several feet from the curb so Mike could take over driving again.
Fear is sometimes legitimate. Sometimes danger is present – even in those moments when our breath catches at the beauty of a canyon or at the myriad of colors in a geo-thermal pool, thousands of degrees hot. It is present in a field of alpine flowers where bison graze in the distance and a ranger has posted a note that there is bear activity due to a carcass on the trail you are walking on even as the June air is sweet and birds are calling with flute-like songs, and the breeze is the sound of kites catching – against your ears – all so soothing and easing and meditative.
Sometimes danger is there, deceiving us.
Most times, though, it isn’t.