Ignorance is Courage

I work regularly at a lab in eastern New Mexico, flying there and consulting a week at a time. With evenings and some Saturdays free, I make sure to get outside, even though that area offers little of NM’s “Land of Enchantment” claim. (Likewise, but in an opposite way, most of Idaho isn’t “Famous Potatoes.”) I found trails to run at Ned Houk Park and took one major foray in 2020 over to Ruidoso to enjoy a mountainous loop above Grindstone Lake, on an inch of fresh snow. In 2021, with an online-issued permit in hand, I ventured to Caprock State Park in Texas for an epic and hot run through red rock and sand.

Once I encountered two runners at a brewpub in Clovis and the conversation led to several in-town runs with Air Force locals. During the pub chat, I inquired about other trails and mentioned my splendid winter run on trails above the lake, and that I encountered nobody except one couple hiking. They paused and smiled at each other and one replied, “It’s good that’s all you ran into!” Apparently, I had chosen an area of high bear density, and at a time with better odds to be accosted (which I would call “worse odds”). They said I was a bit nuts to run there alone, and to do so without bear repellent. They hoped that the lovers were just as lucky, or that they had conscientiously brought their Counter AssaultTM to avoid being maimed. I haven’t since returned to that wonderful trail.

Well into my second summer of running the Ned Houk trails, I approached the park entrance in my work pickup and noticed a little metal sign that had heretofore escaped me. It warned BEWARE OF RATTLESNAKES with a scary coiled snake illustration in a yellow triangle. Hmm…I hadn’t ever seen one here. I had noticed areas with leathery eggs that looked like well-worn billiard cue balls. In fact, I had commented to my wife about these strange bird eggs clustered along the trail. I wonder what type of huge chicks hatch out of those I had thought mindlessly.

Realizing that these intriguing avian deposits now represented a terrorist threat, I noticed them acutely along my run that day. Many were mangled, their contents presumably escaped among the grasses that densely line some of the trails. I did not enjoy my run that day, but I did have a particular spring in my step and sound forefoot strike. So, improved form was a plus. I thought back to the aggressive bears I never came up against. I considered the hostile rattlers all around me, fixing to strike. And as I bounded back to the vehicle, I realized that I had become a rattlesnake pansy.

I did, however, muster the courage to run there one month later, late summer, during my next visit. I thought I didn’t see any snakes last time—I’ll just run here once and let the pests have their place for the next few months, until a good freeze has squelched them. (The thought was much shorter than that because it was just a thought, but that was the gist of it.) I drove past that warning sign, now so obvious, parked at my access area, and trotted off on a healthy loop. After two miles I sighted my first rattlesnake in the wild, at least four feet long, slightly coiled, and on the right side of the wide dirt path I was running. I didn’t know that I could freeze while running. What I mean is that I saw it ahead of me, my mind seized, and for some reason I couldn’t stop. I just veered to its left, sped by the monster, and then as I slowly realized that I almost ran into the jaws of the enemy, adrenaline seeped into my blood like I was on a hospital drip. Twenty seconds later, I reacted like I should have earlier, and shouted something unintelligible, the beginning of what I would call “processing the event.”

I saw two more serpents in the next fifteen minutes, one a little baby rattler that I happened to stride over (I heard that venom from the youngsters is more concentrated), and another a teenager off to the side that stared me down (Enough of the entitled attitude, hotshot!). The final half hour of the run was non-eventful on the path but continued to be epic in my head. Back at the pickup I saw a couple motorcycle riders wrapping up their outing, so I approached one and asked how often he sees rattlesnakes out here. He just looked me over in my sweaty kit and said that I was a bit nuts to run there alone. I didn’t return to those trails for another eight months.

I now have a problem. I wouldn’t call it PTSD, because that’s a disservice to those who have endured real trauma, not merely threats that arose of their own choosing. But I do have a condition intensified by my personality: WCSD (Worst Case Scenario Disorder). I think back to the no-bear run and I get goosebumps. I regard now that my 95-degree run in Caprock State Park was not an epic workout so much as a fortunate snake- and scorpion-free event. I have even revisited my cockroach encounters growing up in Hong Kong, now that I’ve seen them scurrying about intermittently where I lodge in New Mexico…and one scampered up my shirt at a sink last week. Am I a bit nuts to sleep here?

I pine for the blithe days before these snake and roach encounters, warnings from wary runners and motor sports enthusiasts, and WCSD converged to produce acute late-onset creature-pansy. I’d prefer to be carefree, like when I was a child and hadn’t really considered the idea of death. Or when I was basically poor but didn’t yet know the shock of overdraft fees. Youthful ignorance translates into courage. If I must be wired as a pessimist, at least I could be a brave one! Courage doesn’t solve WCSD but it sure addresses it.

I’m glad, though, that I’m not paralyzed daily by many of the endless phobias from which some truly suffer. I speak of bears, snakes, and roaches, but there exist individuals who legitimately fear string, numbers, the color yellow, even having peanut butter stick to the roof of their mouth. I hope you are sympathetic toward me, but don’t google “phobias,” “threats,” or “things that can go wrong,” or you may soon join them.

Copyright © 2022 Richard Berndt – All Rights Reserved.

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