Is the world a generally wonderful place that is constantly improving and generally better today than it ever has been? Or, to restate the obvious, do we live at peril every hour in a world we must avoid becoming part of, and is this alienation from the world a fundamental part of the message of Jesus? As is usually the case with such things, the answer to both questions is: yes. And this is perhaps nowhere more clear than in Yellowstone National Park.
* * *
If you’ve never been there, Yellowstone is one of the most fascinating and beautiful places on Earth. I had the good fortune to live within a 90-minute drive of the park entrance for a few years. If you’re living in Rexburg and haven’t been to Yellowstone yet, you are wasting your life.
The other thing to know is that Yellowstone will kill you dead in a dozen different ways if you don’t follow the park rules. If you step off the boardwalk, you can break through the thin rock crust or otherwise fall into the scalding, acidic, arsenic-laden water that circulates through the geysers and other thermal features. If you get too close, the wildlife will maul, gore, trample, or just plain eat you. They don’t acknowledge your place at the top of the food chain, and in the park, the law is on their side. If you take a misstep over a scenic overlook, the law of gravity will not make an exception for you.
* * *
Not long ago, I had the chance to visit Yellowstone again for the first time in 5 years. July is not a great time to visit Yellowstone, as the park is crowded, and the more people in the park, the higher the chance that at least one of them will do something idiotic.
The Artist Point overlook provides a fantastic view of the lower falls and the grand canyon of the Yellowstone River. There is a stone wall surrounding the observation point that rises from knee height to chest height, indicating where it’s safe to walk and where it isn’t (if the contrast between the level paved surface on one side, and the slope descending at a steep-to-vertical angle a thousand feet to the rocks and rapids below isn’t enough).
And there was a not-quite teenager meandering outside the knee-high wall toward the waist-high section. I looked around and asked one possible-looking adult, “Is that your kid?” No, not his kid. So because nothing will ruin a visit to Yellowstone like watching an almost-teenager tumble to his death, I turned to the almost-teenager and said, “Please come back to this side of the wall,” and he stepped back over to the human-safe side. Because telling almost-teenagers not to do stupid things is adults’ job, and sometimes there needs to be an adult in the room—or an adult at the overlook, in this case—even if it means not minding your own business.
Then I turned around and spotted a 6-year old girl sitting on top of the chest-high section of wall. I walked close enough to grab her if necessary and looked around for a parent, again. I thought I spotted the father and prepared some choice remarks—Is this your daughter? Could you boost her down from there? And, by the way, you’re a terrible father and you should read up on the park rules before you get somebody killed—when the girl stood up, shakily, on top of the wall. Someone grabbed her, maybe the mother, and the day went on without anyone tumbling to their deaths a thousand feet below, but it could have ended badly.
* * *
The world is a lot like Yellowstone. It’s wonderful and fascinating and dangerous. The more wonderful it gets, and the closer we get to it to better experience its wonders, the more dangerous it is. How close can we get? To never visit the park would be squandering the gift, a sin of omission. But once there, it’s important to follow the park rules. Stay on the safe side of the wall. Don’t leave the boardwalk. Keep at least 25 meters away from bison and other large mammals, and 100 meters away from bears and wolves. Don’t assume that the foolish risk that resulted in a great photo for one person, or even for the last nine people, won’t end in tragedy the next time.