Why do so many tourists do such dumb stuff? Every year there are a glut of stories about people getting too close to animals in the Parks, walking off of the boardwalk, trying to swim in boiling bodies of water, so on. As far as I know, we don't reciprocate - do you hear stories about us hick Montanans heading en masse to Times Square, trying to pet rats and take selfies with speeding taxi cabs?
Petrarch wrote that "a good death does honor to a whole life." Another wise soul (some attribute it to Crazy Horse, others Low Dog, and still others the Klingons) once said, "it is a good day to die."
I remember when I was a kid wondering what that meant. What could be a good day to die? One that you'd had an extra scoop of ice cream? One on which Michael Jordan had personally signed your Nikes?
But as an adult, I think I came to understand it better, or at least to come up with my version of what I think it means: you want to die in a way that that means something. Or, at the very least, is badass. Now, I'm not morbid. But there are a billion ways to die, even in the most boring of places - you could trip on your way to the breakroom and break your neck at work. You could pass on the toilet, as did no less regal an American personage than the King himself, Elvis Presley.
Ok, maybe I am morbid. But it seems to me that no spot on earth is without an ever-present risk of death. Montanans need not be reminded that they're sitting more or less atop a volcano overdue to belch out a few hundred million metric tons of magma right on top of us. Like, any minute. Or, let's say that Yellowstone doesn't go off in our lifetime, or even ever again. Well, then we might also point out that we're overdue for WWIII, which so far has some surprising similarities to the Mission: Impossible series of films in that the first and second entries came out pretty close to each other while the third is somewhat delayed. But all it would take is one very bad diplomatic gaffe, some President to vomit in the wrong lap, and China, North Korea, Iran, and/or Russia might mash that big red button. Undoubtedly one of their targets would be Montana, the site of a strategically vital cache of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Then again, you could fall asleep in your bathtub and drown. Someone once managed to drown in a bowl of cereal, if I remember right.
Do you remember the then 54-year-old Iowa biker woman who approached a bison in Custer State Park in South Dakota? We don't want to be liable for libel, so we WON'T SUGGEST SHE'D BEEN DRINKING WINK WINK, but for whatever reason, she dismounted from her hog and got real close to a group of bison, including a mother and nursing calf. A protective bull ran at her and somehow got its horn caught between the woman's belt and her jeans.
The bison went ape. It thrashed its massive head, with her attached. She lost consciousness, and then she lost her pants. Amazingly, she survived. But if that's how she had died, what do you think that her biker friends would have thought about it? Because some part of me thinks that, even though surely they would have missed her, and surely there are many people who love her and are glad she's alive, if she had died her biker friends would have thought it was a pretty awesome way to go. They'd probably tell the story of how they watched her duel with a bison and lose for the rest of their lives in bars and at parties and maybe even at family reunions.
I guess I'm suggesting that some of the touristic foolhardiness we get here in the West springs from the fear of dying in some banal way like, ugh, peacefully in their sleep. They'd rather go out ungently. I think Sigmund Freud, that mother-lover, called it the death drive, the impulse to obliteration, the odd little voice in your head that urges you, on a really steep hike, to inch closer to the precipice, look down and try to imagine what it would be like to tumble all that way.
I think those of us who are lucky enough to have been born in Montana have to keep in mind that, for better or for worse, the kind of person who would come to Montana to lose their pants to a bison is the kind of person who might be ok with going out that way. In fact, I think that a certain kind of tourist sees going to Montana as at least a little similar to going to, say, Jurassic Park, or maybe the moon; you go because it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but in the full knowledge that you might be annihilated. This might sound flippant (and millennial flippancy is my security blanket), but in this case, I really don't mean it to be. I genuinely think that a statistically significant number of the travelers to Montana that put themselves in dangerous situations are ok with assuming that risk.
I imagine it myself. What if I got to enjoy the same privilege as Tom Sawyer and see my own funeral:
"Oh, that's so sad about Sherman, cut down before his time, what a tragedy," says one of my aunts.
"Can I ask what happened?" someone says.
And then my aunt leans in conspiratorially and whispers, "He was trampled and gored by a bison. You see, he was trying to take the ultimate selfie - from on top of a bison next to Old Faithful. I know, it really is awful, but just imagine if he'd have pulled it off. It would have gotten 20k likes easy."
At this moment, the collective videos of that poor woman's personal rodeo easily number in the millions of views. There, preserved for all time is, a moment of stupidity, yes, but also a miracle, a moment of blind luck so profoundly unlikely that it boggles the mind. That the huge, seriously pissed-off bull, tosses her back and forth at literally breakneck speed, narrowly missing every opportunity to dash her brains out against a rock or snap her every bone is incredible. You watch it, and you get that sickly feeling you get in your stomach seeing videos like this - you think, "oh my God, am I going to watch a person die?"
But then, no. She's fine. A little the worse for wear, sure. But unconscious and thus unaware, maybe not blissfully precisely, of the fact that she just had a one in a zillion encounter and survived. Moreover, she's become a star in the process. I have it on good authority that Distinctly Montana is attempting to purchase the screen rights to her story. They're very interested in having Meryl Streep play the role as a kind of female-driven 127 Hours. Only it's called Four Seconds.
Sorry, I slipped into flippancy again. But again, I am at least partially serious. What if that woman's near-fatal bison encounter was the best thing that ever happened to her? I confess I'm too lazy to Google her and actually find out, so I'll just imagine it instead: she's parlayed her life-changing experience into a wildly successful Twitter account and has told the story of her transformation and subsequent awakening following her experience with the shattering force of Mother Nature, 140 characters at a time. I like to think she's up for the Pulitzer this year, and is set to become the seventh panelist on The View.
And guess what - no one tells the story of how so-and-so died of a gluten allergy, overdose of wheatgrass or any of those other modern ailments. No one thinks it's a great adventure to meet your maker by succumbing to "neurasthenia," the old-fashioned psychological diagnosis that sent Teddy Roosevelt West seeking an ameliorative dose of adventure and vitality.
To go tangle with some bison, in other words.
Frankly, the willingness to tie one on, approach a huge animal, and risk getting tossed around a little might indicate the kind of rugged individualism that helped tame the West. I would stop short of calling that 54-year-old daredevil a hero, but at the same time, you can't accuse her of timidity, either.
In fact, her behavior could serve as a model for how to deal with life's challenges. First, get hammered (ALLEGEDLY) and then you meet them head-on, staring into their big black eyes. If they charge you or start to whip you around, just make yourself go slack.
The final step is to take off those pants, upload, and share!
Sherman Cahill lives in Butte, Montana. One day, he's heard, the tunnels under Butte will collapse, sending the entire city falling into a giant sinkhole, a calamity that will mess him up good, unless he's out of town that day.