Stay Back from the Edge

Posted: May 16, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

Last week, I went hiking at Starved Rock State Park. The area is beautiful: there are sandstone canyons with waterfalls, outlooks perched over the Illinois River, and miles of forest trails.

The trails are clearly, and perhaps excessively, marked. The full trail map is posted at regular intervals, there are markings that indicate whether you are moving toward or away from the Visitor’s Center, and the squirrels have been trained to answer questions. (But sometimes their advice is nuts.)

iPhone 5-8-13 084Additionally, areas that look like trails that aren’t are subtly marked, “NOT A TRAIL.”

Naturally, whenever I saw those, I went that way.

This isn’t necessarily advisable. Actually, it’s against the law, as the ample signage points out. Warning at SR

Starved Rock’s neighboring park, Matthiessen, also notes on its website: “Hike only the marked trails. Unmarked areas are dangerous. Numerous people have been seriously injured or killed in this park. Be off the trails by dark.”

(What terrible things are wandering the forest at night? Ghosts? Monsters? A really dedicated Deliverance reenactment troupe?)

A quick Google search turns up plenty of news stories about people heading off trail at Starved Rock to terrible results. One was about a woman who fell 40 feet into a canyon, had to be airlifted to a hospital, and THEN got ticketed for being off the marked trails. Because police thought the ticket would teach her a lesson.

Eschewing logic, safety, and legalities, I went off trail multiple times. One time, I scrambled down sandstone, over tree branches, and battled a persistent wasp to get a look at one of the canyons. While climbing down, had I hooked my foot on anything or taken a misstep, I would have fallen down jagged terrain, but that would have just been a good storytellin’ scar.

It was later on in the day when I had second thoughts.

You can't see the ground underneath me? Exactly.

You can’t see the ground underneath me? Exactly.

I climbed down another “NOT A TRAIL!” to look at one of the park’s many waterfalls. A winding strip of land led to a canyon, narrowing to mere inches where I finally stopped to take pictures of the waterfall spilling down about 40-60 feet. While playing amateur photog with my iPhone, I looked down and saw how close I was to the edge.

For a moment, I felt like a kid again who recognized he had just done something stupid, and I could hear my mother’s voice in my head reprimanding me, making sure to use my first and middle name the way mothers (and girlfriends) do when you’re in trouble: “Paul Thomas, get away from that ledge!”

I sidled back to safer ground and then looked back at where I was standing. I would consider it insane to climb onto the ledge outside my 6th floor office window at work,  but apparently if you put a waterfall within my sights, I’ll dangle happily from that height.

We all have different interpretations of what qualifies as dangerous, and sometimes our personal perspectives are contradictory or even absurd. Take for instance:

1. I have never been on a motorcycle; it just seems dangerous. Yet on numerous occasions, I have driven a waverunner in excess of 60 mph out to secluded waters by myself while doing every dangerous thing the user manual likely says not to do.

Brick and bear2. Furry animals don’t bother me no matter how large, how angry, or how much white foam is coming from their maws. I’d happily cuddle a man-eating bear like Brick Tamland. Yet, snakes horrify me; I truly have ophidiophobia. The most terrifying part of Starved Rock was

Even this doe-eyed cartoon snake with eyelashes terrifies me. Actually, the eyelashes make it even scarier.

Even this doe-eyed cartoon snake with eyelashes terrifies me. Actually, the eyelashes make it even scarier.

the sign that warned visitors to be aware of poisonous snakes that may be basking on the trail. But it’s not just dangerous, poisonous snakes – it’s all snakes: big, small, cartoon. Two weeks ago at Kankakee River State Park, I saw a snake the size of a pencil and nearly ran screaming from the woods. My phobia wasn’t quelled any by the fact that the snake was also terrified and desperately trying to get away from the dumb, gigantic, lumbering mammal who spotted it.

skydeck3. I have heart palpitations just looking at pictures of that architecturally sound and completely safe deathtrap-looking box at the Willis Tower Skydeck, yet I’m not bothered by the heights of a canyon I was warned not to go near.

Whether a fear is learned or instinctual, sometimes our sense of danger is triggered even when danger isn’t present (see: tiny snake). And other times, when it should be going off, it doesn’t. Sometimes fear is what drives us or creates a thrill. And sometimes, we just ignore signs, logic, and laws, because they’re all just suggestions – right?

  1. Maya says:

    This is quite awesome, I always try to come up with random things to take photos of when traveling, but caution signs? That never really crossed my mind, genius! love it! haha

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