Traveling by car with or without a family was a big deal in the 1930s when roads that were sometimes barely more than well-worn trails across the prairie connected one little town to the other.
Those who traveled them regularly knew where the mud holes were, which creeks were fordable and when, and which farmers didn’t mind if you camped overnight at the edge of their pasture or field. A heavy canvas tent was sometimes carried along in case shelter was needed. Our parents had such a tent.
We still played in it in the early 1950s. It was about 12′ by 12′ – a large one. Probably weighed about twenty pounds and it depended on heavy wood poles for its sturdy stand. We depended on older brothers to set it up when they might have time after field work on a summer evening.
Staying out and sleeping in it overnight meant waking up in unfamiliar surroundings which could be a delightful thing to experience, with only the occasional wandering skunk adding an unfamiliar threat…which might cause us to relocate to our familiar bedrooms. It was just a few steps to the back door of the house, a scamper through the length of the first floor to the stairs that we could climb in the middle of the night to find our familiar beds…if we had decided the familiar was better.
Such an alternative was not available when Grant and I woke up in the middle of one night in the 1970s and learned that we had camped in Mule Deer Mid-Night Meet ‘n Greet Territory.
We were hiking with Eric and Jon who were about seven and nine at the time, at 7,000 feet elevation somewhere south of Yosemite. This was in the good old days when trail signs were few and hence, trails were lightly traveled. Hikers didn’t venture out on long trails unless they knew how to read maps. We were in the process of learning.
We had run out of daylight some time before we ran out of trail that evening. Our destination, a lake with camping options for backpackers, was too away far for us to push on. When we saw packed ground in an open area about four hundred feet square under the forest canopy alongside the trail, we set up there for the night, on the slanted ground.
One small area was flat enough for supper preparation over sterno cans, using lightweight camp-cookware kettles.
A little after midnight we awoke to heavy movement and shuffling feet all around us. It was perfect audio for a tucked-safely-into-your-own-bed nightmare – but not so good when you discover you’re in territory that is not yours by any definition.
The noise was a group of mule deer moving through the clearing, nibbling at the brush along the edges of the clearing and chatting among themselves.
Now backpacking at altitude in the The Sierras has several delightful features: one of them is that there are seldom any mosquitoes, so we never used tents. Just sleeping bags on thin foam pads. We literally slept under the stars which meant that as we struggled awake in those moments there was no tent wall between us and hooves and legs that were scuffling up against our sleeping bags, bumping into our heads.
We had shifted a log so we could brace our feet against it- as though we were on a tilted bed – the boys between us, so we wouldn’t lose either of them in a downhill roll during the night.
As DH and I sat up and realized we had company (of course the boys slept soundly through the entire event), we immediately scrambled to our feet, recognizing that these confused and slightly alarmed and hooved mammals had a serious advantage over us. In such a situation there’s no option but to combine what you know how to do with what you’ve never had to do before, but must now do.
We had thousands of pounds of Mule Deer on The Hoof who did not appreciate our presence. It was flat dark so they couldn’t clearly see who or what the intruder was. What species we were. What threat we were. They did know we were noisy.
We used the flashlights to little effect and added the audio of the lightweight cooking utensils, each of us pounding two pieces together to make as much noise as we could; repeatedly taking a step or half step toward the animals who stood fully as tall as we did, yelling as we stepped – then stepping back in order to keep our legs as a useless little fence around the boys, still sleeping between on the ground between us.
The deer finally decided to give us about an 8′ foot open space but didn’t leave their midnight ground until about an hour later – I suspect their usual time.
It was a frightening and unfamiliar situation. and left us with badly dented cookware.
Remember the young man in Utah who got his arm thoroughly caught between two rock formations a couple of years ago? After a few days dying there, he realized that it was up to him to save himself by cutting off his arm. So he did that. He mixed the familiar with the unfamiliar to get through a bad situation.
He walked out, met a family who helped him, and he survived.
And, of course, wrote a book – because everyone wanted to try to understand how on earth could you make yourself do that?
I haven’t read the whole book but I’m guessing his motivation had to do with what was at stake: his life. Lack of meaningful options tends to focus the mind.
Aron Ralston took something he already knew about (his own anatomy, his level of dehydration, his knowledge of the minimal chances of being found within his projected survival window) and mixed it with unfamiliar necessity (breaking your own arm and then cutting it off would fall under the unfamiliar). *See links below for updates on Ralston’s life since that experience.
When he decided to cut his right wrist and hand off he was excluding the option of having two of those for the rest of his life. Every choice made excludes other options.
On December 18, 2013 the oncologist said there was one treatment that might extend Grant’s life by a matter of weeks. She also explained that on most of those days, due to the effect of the treatment, he would feel extremely ill with some very unpleasant and uncomfortable symptoms. He would likely not have much enjoyment out of any additional days.
We looked at each other for a few seconds as we used thoughts that were familiar to us, added in new and unfamiliar thoughts, and we made a decision what we would never have volunteered to have to make.
We did what we had never had to do before and were, from that moment forward, content with it.
What he said to the oncologist on November 15 after she delivered the initial, unchangeable verdict carries continued weight to this day, “It’s all good.”
In retrospect, that’s still a good and honest evaluation.
Whether or not a choice is easily caught in the act it still possesses sequence and result.
It is a process as much as a raindrop hitting the ground is a process….
…even when the choice requires a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar.
A refusal to choose is also a choice, and and it will have both sequence and consequence.