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On Overcoming Fear


Winter in Yellowstone is a time of magic and mystery.  Snow-shrouded conifers are further veiled by persistent geyser fog, lending the landscape an ethereal beauty.  I love the winter here, and have come to feel surprisingly at home in the harsh environment.  No doubt about it, though, a Yellowstone winter can be hazardous—even deadly—for the unprepared or just plain unlucky.  The stark beauty of the place is made all the more poignant by the tinge of healthy respect and fear it inspires.

Sometimes, facing fear is the best thing you can do for yourself.  In choosing to come back to Old Faithful, I understood that I was confronting a number of fears, both concrete and abstract.

Let’s start with the simplest fear of the bunch, my apprehension about snowmobiling.  I consider this a very healthy fear, and also a fairly straightforward one to overcome.  After just a week of riding, I feel like I have built up an enormous amount of confidence.  I’m definitely not a master of the machine yet, but I’m no longer intimidated by it, either.

front view of snowmobile

My nemesis, my friend.

Really, my fear in this case wasn’t about the snowmobile so much as it was about the unknown.  Riding a snowmobile was a completely foreign skill to me.  Plenty of people do it regularly and safely, including almost everyone I know who works for the Park Service in Yellowstone.  It’s our main way of traveling between locations in the winter.  (I prefer cross-country skiing for local travel like my commute to work.)

The thing is, there is a lot that can go wrong when you’re on a snowmobile.  The wind chill associated with going 35-45 mph makes frostbite a real danger.  There are risks associated with losing control of the machine: crashing into trees, accidentally sliding into a river alongside the road, or simply getting stuck can all happen.  A more quotidian challenge that’s somewhat unique to Yellowstone is the likelihood of encountering wildlife along the roads.  Bison are the biggest hazard, both literally and figuratively.  These very large (a big bull may weigh in at 2,000 pounds; a typical adult cow will probably be around 1,200 pounds) and potentially dangerous animals travel the groomed roads because it allows them to save precious energy.  Close encounters happen.

a bison walks through a snowy meadowThe potential for extreme cold makes all of these things higher-stakes: even something fairly straightforward like changing a broken drive belt becomes exponentially more difficult and dangerous if the temperatures are much below zero.  For safety reasons, the park has instituted a mandatory cessation of all but the most critical employee travel on the coldest days, when the mercury plunges below -20°F.

Like most fears of the unknown, my nervousness about snowmobiling waned rapidly as soon as I had a little bit of experience under my belt.  Now, I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride about overcoming my apprehension and learning a new skill.

Alas, snowmobiling is only the most tangible of the fears I’m confronting this winter.  The others are harder to deal with.  They’re harder even to admit to.

First, coming back here was an important decision for my happiness, and I do not question that I made the right call.  However, I am definitely uncomfortable with the potential repercussions for my career and my future financial security.

To come home to Yellowstone, I left a year-round job with higher pay and good benefits, returning to life as a seasonal park ranger with no job security and little hope of advancement.  It was in some ways an easy decision—I was unhappy and felt out of control of my life, and I felt better as soon as I asserted myself by making the choice to leave—but in other ways I couldn’t help but wonder if I was being foolish.  I have always believed in following my passion when it comes to my work, but the challenge is that doing what you love does not necessarily equate to being able to pay the bills.

I’ve gotten by as a seasonal for many years, though, so in the short term I’m not too concerned.  The real questions spring up about how this will ripple out to affect my future, and of course there’s no way of knowing that until I get there.  The uncertainty is unnerving.  So is the fact that I had, in a sense, “arrived”—I had achieved something that I really thought would make me happy, and it didn’t, and I had to change course.  Coming back to Yellowstone, while wonderful, is in many ways a return to square one.

The second, more challenging fear is in some ways the most mundane imaginable, yet it is also the most profound and painful.  As I mentioned in a previous post, part of what spurred me to come back here to my favorite place in the world was the breakup of a seven-year relationship.  I had every expectation that my partner and I were going to be together for the rest of our lives, and reimaging my future without him is hard.

However much it hurt, losing him was a good opportunity for me to re-assess what I’m doing with my life.  I’ve been glad of the chance to start living for myself again instead of for us.  But I’ve still had to confront one of my deepest fears, of growing old alone and unloved.  I know it wasn’t a waste of my time—I grew, and learned, and I think I’m kinder now than I was before—but I am having trouble shaking the feeling that I lost some of the best years of my life.

I’m thirty-six now, so it isn’t as if I’m ancient (though it feels that way sometimes—after all, I’m the oldest I’ve ever been).  I don’t think my love life is over.  The thing is, I’ve dated enough men to know that what we had was special.  I still love him.  I still believe we are about as well-suited for each other as any two people can hope to be.  I invested myself fully in our relationship and believed that he was also giving everything he had.  Perhaps he was, and he just didn’t have enough to give.  Perhaps I was wrong.  Regardless, I’m heartbroken and disillusioned that all the things we had going for us still weren’t enough.

On a very deep level, I’m much more comfortable with this state of affairs than I was two months ago.  I have turned a corner; I know I’m going to be okay, and that I can be just as happy as an independent single woman as I was when I was partnered.  There was a while there in October when I wasn’t sure of those things, not at all.

I’m tempted to end this post right now, but there remains one critical aspect of this scenario that I haven’t mentioned yet, and it’s important.

The added dimension of complication is that he, too, is here at Old Faithful.  He is living with a girl (and I use that word intentionally here) who is less than half his age.  She isn’t old enough to drink legally.

He didn’t leave me for her.  He says that he didn’t meet her until after we split up, and I believe him.  However, I do think he left me for what she stands for: youth, vivacity, a carefree life.

My one hesitation in accepting this job was a fear that people might think I was moving back to Yellowstone in order to try to work things out with him.  I had to think carefully about whether that was, in fact, a hidden motivation for me.  I decided it wasn’t, that I had plenty of other reasons to accept the job.  I’m in a place that I love, living a more active lifestyle with more opportunities to connect with nature, and I’m among friends.  I was uncomfortable telling people at first, though, because I was afraid that they would think less of me, that they would judge me for what they might see as my motivation. “Don’t move for a man,” one colleague counseled, before I explained my thought process.

In talking through the decision with my friends, I reached a level of comfort with the decision.  I came to understand that I really was making a move for the right reasons, and they all could see it, too.  More importantly, regaining trust in myself and my autonomy was invaluable.

Readers who know me may find this surprising.  I think I have a reputation as a strong, independent woman.  I don’t think many people would suspect me of lacking confidence in my direction, or of having doubts about my capabilities for self-determination and self-care.  I guess it just goes to show how different appearances can be from what we think and feel beneath the surface.

Now, of course, it’s all out there for the world to know, and that’s intimidating in and of itself.

This post has certainly been difficult for me to write.  I’ve been thinking about it all week, trying to avoid telling this most central story in favor of more superficial updates about life in Yellowstone in winter.  In the end, though, I had to write this particular piece.  I feel good getting it out there: I have overcome one fear this week, and am working on living with others that may not be defeatable.

Thanks for reading.

ski tracks through snowy woods

Forging my own path.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Janet Johns #

    Just saying, Hugs….sometimes life is hard and sometimes it is even harder. Enjoy what you can always.

    December 16, 2013
  2. George #

    One thing about age, Cathy, (mine, not your young age) is that we have lived past all our mistakes and successes and have the perspective of hindsight. Everyone I know that has chosen to earn their living by doing what they loved doing has never regretted it. It always lifts my heart when I read or hear about someone that made that hard decision because I know their future will be much happier.

    You might enjoy reading Anne McKennill’s blog.

    December 16, 2013
  3. Mike Howe #

    That was a very brave and very honest post Cathy. I’m not going to patronise you by offering some cosy platitudes, you’re in a very difficult time of your life but as you acknowledge, you’ll be ok. I hope posting this has helped you further along the road to recovery. Keep working hard for the wildlife and the park, that is a really important element of your life and hopefully always will be. Other things will follow and, because you’re the person that you are, they’ll mostly be good.

    December 17, 2013
  4. nick #

    Yellowstone in winter is the epitome of real. I’m pleased you’ve kept it as real in your writing.

    December 17, 2013
  5. audreydclark #

    CB – One of my favorite things about you is that you are both extremely kick-ass and excruciatingly honest about not always feeling kick-ass. It makes you both admirable and likable.

    December 17, 2013

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