“You Are Reminded That Your Safety is Your Own Responsibility,” by Janna L. Goodwin

Jan 22nd, 2020 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

Your descent marks your entry into a world in which planning and preparation,
self-reliance, and good choices are crucial. Don’t overestimate your capabilities. You are
responsible for your own safety as well as that of everyone in your party.

Hiking Tips
Grand Canyon National Park 

I’m traveling alone, renting a cabin at a normally tranquil spot on the bank of the Big Laramie River at the edge of the Medicine Bow National Forest up in Wyoming. You won’t 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.

Imagine a vale of cottonwood, aspen, laurel and ash, surrounded by prairie foothills and pine-covered mountainsides. My cabin is a short walk from 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—according to the informative back cover of the laminated café menu—was erected, 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 self-styled writing retreat. I just got home from a visit to Grand Canyon that was mind-blowing and life-changing. Soon as I got back to Denver, I turned around and said to no one in particular, Look, I have to go off again someplace on my own to think about eons and overwhelming forces and how insignificant I am.

I arrived and checked in before noon today. Unpacked and installed myself—six pack in the mini-fridge, uke on the sofa, Beyond Good and Evil on the bedside table—then headed over to the café for a bite to eat. So, why am I now—by 3 p.m. on this, my first day in Nature—standing on the porch of my cabin totally re-packed, wearing a profoundly concerned look on my face (I can feel it). I’ll tell you why. The air is thick. There are helicopters and small planes huzzin’ around overhead. An atmosphere of let us call it Emergency Preparedness has rapidly developed.

So, after lunch, I stopped at the General Store for some dessert, and while I was there, these three Albany County Sheriff’s Department cars raced into the parking area, skirching impressively to a halt in a spray of gravel, a development that—in the context of my having recently read the entire café menu front to back for entertainment (see Hokum Lestrum, above)—was spectacularly exciting. Deputies pointed out that, just over the foothills across the road, quite visible from where we stood, there rose an impressive column of smoke. I did not have to be convinced of its significance; I instinctively grasp the relationship between smoke and fire. Not to mention, several 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—mosied outside together, appraised the horizon, and started murmuring things like Uh-oh! Then, the property caretaker, Brad—ponytail, pecan-shell teeth and a squint—regaled our increasingly uneasy little knot of 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) concluding, we could be in trouble.

“Our boys protected us then!” chimed in the little General Store lady. “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 plain old thinking.

“Do we have to leave?” I inquired of a deputy who appeared to be trying hard, even as we spoke, to grow his first mustache. Yes, I hoped he’d firmly reply. You’re not gone time I count to ten, I’ll shoot you. No second-guessing involved; I’d just run to my car and take off, following the clear instructions of 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 with an intensity fueled by irritation, Ma’am being an ambiguous honorific that patronizes even as it purports to esteem. “Tell me what I should do!”

His eyes widened in surprise as he took a step backwards.“Idunno!” He held up his hands to show that he wasn’t hiding any intelligence that might inform my decision.

I went back to my cabin. Gathered up my stuff (nonchalantly, as I 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. About thirty minutes pass before Brad stops by to let me know the property’s now officially on alert.

What to do? I’ve pre-paid for the 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? Oh, sure: any morality that justifies weakness and fear is an inferior one—a slave morality. And I concur with 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’m 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 under ideal conditions, but inconducive to wireless signals. Which was brilliant, right up until the conflagration, when a woman needs to be able to get onto Wikipedia. NOT Google, which is where our worst fears go to mutate because only those of us who’ve had horrible experiences bother to share them, in graphic detail, on websites that appear when you search for, I don’t know, death by fire. Wikipedia, on the other hand—as any college student can tell you—is where we obtain knowledge. By standing on a stool in the bar and waving my phone in a figure-8 for twelve minutes, I finally connect, discovering 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 is in a grassy, high plains valley at the edge of a forest, so that’s what, 6.7 times 14, which is 938 miles an hour. Or not; I majored in theatre, not pyrodynamics. All I want to know is this: Am I to be sitting on the porch, drinking an ice-cold Titan IPA and writing an essay on Grand Canyon, or am I to be panicking?

It’s not like I’m alone. There’s Brad, the General Store lady and a multi-talented fourteen-year-old who, earlier, took my lunch order, made and served me a green chili burrito, 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 the kid, “What I mainly need to know here is whether that fire will come closer to us,” he goes,

“Well, we all live out here, and we have not been ordered evacuate.”

“Precisely!” I reply, gesticulating appropriately: “You all live out here. I, on the other hand, am a stranger passing through—one who might avoid suffering any loss of life, limb or property if I take action in time. So, as regards the peril to me, personally, what would be your best guess?”

How desperately I want advice! But, what’s this adolescent going to tell me? I don’t know why I suddenly glimpsed myself through his eyes. I wish I hadn’t; 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 flies out of my mouth before I can stop it, making me an even worse person because I do not mean it.

Now, I see myself missing my window of opportunity to get away, acting brave, opening up a fire hose, getting blasted backwards thirty feet into the river by the unexpected water pressure, striking my head on a rock, and knocking myself out. 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 therefore relieved when Green Chili responds,

“There’s nothing you can do. We got a whole procedure. 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 Guide to the Grand Canyon, my notebook and a pen. Crack open an ice-cold Titan IPA. Sit down. Recall what brought me here. Begin to write.

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.

I’m fifty-seven. Fifty-seven 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.


Janna L. Goodwin grew up in Casper, Wyoming, studied theatre at the National Shakespeare Conservatory in New York and, in 1995, began writing plays and directing ensemble and comedic solo performances. Her work has been produced in New York, Massachusetts, Colorado and California. She has a doctorate from U. Mass, Amherst, and is on the faculty at Regis University in Denver, where she teaches in both the Communication department and the Mile High MFA (low-residency) writing program. The principles by which she tries to conduct her life reflect the Book of Ecclesiastes, Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, Kurt Vonnegut’s dictum “We are here on earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different,” and Men Without Hats’ Safety Dance.


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