Despite this blog corresponding to my entrance into Yellowstone, the U.S.'s legendary and first national park, you'll find that this blog doesn't really have much to do with Yellowstone. Not at all. Instead, this post is about risk, something that is constantly on my mind as I make my way across the country. My journey into Yellowstone seemed like an opportune time to bring up this subject because it was there that I met two interesting characters who embodied distinct approaches to dealing with risk. Also, I was just bored during my day off in Yellowstone and didn't have anything better to write about. But, I promise, I think this is an interesting post!
David, Matt, Marion and I left Colter Bay in the Grand Teton National Park. Peddling Northbound, we were treated to some beautiful views of these mystic mountains as we exited the Park. No matter how you approached them, the Grand Tetons were hypnotic.
The 40-mile ride to Grant Village in Yellowstone National Park was mild. There were a few climbs, a few exciting downhills, a few boneheaded RV drivers that came unnecessarily close to us, and lots of undisturbed wilderness. Entering into Yellowstone, which was free due to good ol' Marion, we found thick tree cover on either side of us. Occasionally an opening in the line of trees would reveal to us a glass-smooth lake or a deep canyon. You know, in reflection, it was a pretty stunning ride. I fear that I may be losing some of my sensitivity to natural beauty at this point in my trip. When you're on the road for so long I think you develop a case of tunnel vision. Your mind becomes singularly focused on safely navigating the roadways to arrive at the day's destination, day-in and day-out. Thankfully, I am finding myself able to acknowledge the majesty of Yellowstone in hindsight.
So we arrived at Grant Village, located near the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. Before arriving we had made the decision to take a rest day here. Matt and David were exhausted, having forgone their rest day in the Tetons in favor of a ride to Jackson Hole. Matt, usually the peloton leader, had been trailing all day. It seemed that he had worn himself down to the point that he was getting sick. We all agreed that we were deserving of a rest day. Hey, why not? We were in Yellowstone!
Well, we found our first day in Yellowstone to be sort of blase. I don't mean to sound like a capricious snob. It's just that there were lines, food and groceries were overpriced, and everything felt overly developed. I don't know, it sort of felt like a tourist trap. Luckily, there were characters who made my stay in Yellowstone not only interesting, but inspiring.
Somehow we ended up sharing a campsite with a family that was also doing a bike tour through the National Parks. They were absent when we first arrived, pulling up on their bikes sometime before dinner. Holy crap. The father, Joel, was operating this crazy, jerry-rigged tandem bike that he bought off some guy back East. The bike did more than just carry his belongings. It carried his entire frickin' family. There was a seat up front for one child, then another seat in the back for his other child. Each seat came equipped with functional pedals. Whether his kids actually peddled or not was another question, but that was besides the point.
An East-Coaster like myself, I got to talking to Joel. He had completed the TransAmerica Trail several years ago, before he was a family man. Cycling was, and always had been, a passion of his. Now here he was in a new and different phase of his life, and he had somehow found a way to share his passion with his family. I found him, and his awesome family, truly inspiring.
Why? Because lots of people's minds default to figuring out what they are not capable of doing. Oh, we have kids now, there's no way we can do that. Oh, we own a house now, there's no way we can do that. Oh, I'm no longer single, I guess I can no longer do that. And at the heart of this nay-saying mentality, I believe, is a fierce aversion to risk.
Thankfully, there are people like Joel. His mind seems to gravitate towards uncovering what he is capable of, rather than what he is not capable of. I vehemently believe that every challenge is an opportunity in disguise. Yes, I will acquiesce and admit that going on a bike tour with young children would be a tall challenge. Shoot, I am hardly capable of taking myself on a bike tour. However, sharing the experience of riding through America's natural treasures with your loved ones is irreplacable. I can imagine few other things that would build such an inexorable bond. Yes, it's risky to go on this type of adventure, but there are ways to ameliorate those risks because, quite frankly, it is waaaaaaay worth it. Bike touring, life, everything is a question of risk management.
The day after meeting Joel and his go-getting family, we headed to the Grant Village Grill. David, Marion and I had an overpriced bite to each for lunch. Lunchtime conversation revolved around planning the next few days. We would exit Yellowstone the following day, bringing us into the great state of Montana. It seemed that there were a few treats awaiting us on the road ahead, including hot springs in the little town of Jackson, Montana.
Upon mention of the hot springs in Jackson, an elderly woman at the table next to us became perturbed. She turned around with a look of concern on her face and spoke to us with a tone of urgency, "You boys want to be careful with those hot springs in Jackson. They found a deadly organism in that water. It was some sort of brain-killing amoeba."
I'm not sure why, but Marion and I caught each other's glances. We tried so hard to stifle our laughter that we nearly imploded. David, a good orator and generally well-mannered fellow, continued the conversation with this concerned woman. He listened to what she had to say and thanked her for this considerate warning.
Walking away from the cafeteria, Marion and I were in stitches. How much more horrifying and ominous can something sound than a "brain-killing amoeba?" We were trapped in a fit of laughter. To make matters worse, Marion proceeded to share the story of a Warm Showers hostess back East who attributed her perceived decline in guests to ISIS. That was it. I couldn't take it anymore. Tears streamed down my face as I rolled in laughter in front of the Grant Village Grill.
So, taking a step back, I'll acknowledge that I didn't know what these elderly women had been through in their lives and could never put myself in their shoes. There very well may be good reasons for their strong risk aversion and perceptions of insecurity. And, then again, maybe there wasn't any good reason beyond just watching too much TV.
For whatever it's worth, it seemed that their sole focus was on risk without any consideration for the accompanying reward. Who knows, perhaps a dip in the hot springs would have done this concerned, stressed woman some good?
In the end of the day, we live in a world full of risk. Luckily, there is much we can do about the many risks we inevitably face. As a cyclist I can ameliorate many of the risks I face by wearing a helmet, staying hydrated, maintaining control of my bike and being visible. I'll call these manageable risks. Then there are risks which, on a bike or not, are simply beyond my control. I'll call those black swans (thanks Nassim Taleb). Training and knowledge will help me handle the former category, whereas there's nothing i can do about the latter besides, perhaps, learning acceptance. For a lot of people, including myself, acceptance is the hardest part. Much falls beyond the reach of man...especially a simple one like myself.
There you go. That's what I though about at Yellowstone. On my last night in Grant Village I may have un-thunk many of these thoughts while enjoying a round of beers and s'mores over the campfire. But, yeah, these random encounters strengthened my resolve to be like Joel, a fellow who makes conscious, informed decisions about the kind of life he wishes to live and isn't paralyzed by fear. And, who knows, perhaps after living my life this way I can learn to be more accepting of those things which are beyond my control.