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Fair Warnings

When negotiating the perils of the great outdoors, there are times when we all need a little guidance

Author Maureen Ellen O’Leary Illustration Miguel Montaner


When students step into my office at the California college where I teach, they’re greeted by photos of danger signs posted on the wall behind my desk. “If you lose your footing, powerful currents will carry you over the falls,” one of them explains. “You will be battered to death against the rocks.” The signs are accompanied by drawings of figures enacting various impending catastrophes: the slip, the plunge, the subsequent battering.

You can see confusion on my students’ faces when they first encounter these images. After all, I teach them how to write. And while writing can be a difficult undertaking, it is rarely a fatal one.

Actually, these signs represent a kind of hobby of mine, or a preoccupation. My older brother Charlie and I discovered them on long-ago camping trips to Yosemite, our families in tow. We would hike to the top of Vernal and Nevada Falls. Along the way, we’d read the placards, riveted by the voice of doom. We particularly liked the one that said, “The rocks are deceptively slippery,” with its suggestion of intentional malevolence.

Oblivious to our backpacks laden with too many snacks and too little water, we stood there, caught in the thrall of articulated tragedy. We’d read the phrases aloud, either in chorus or taking alternating lines.

Charlie: If you slip and fall, you will die.   
Maureen: Death will quickly follow.   
Together: There are no second chances.

The views from these peaks were stunning, but all Charlie and I could think about were the many ways in which we could stumble off of them. Our respective children have also fallen victim (not literally) to our heightened sensitivity to potential dangers. If we even imagined them thinking about approaching an edge, we would lunge blindly, a response that carried the risk of pushing them over the very edge we were worried about. But there it is. We believe in danger signs; we heed them, and we want our loved ones to do so too.

Many years later, while hiking a rugged trail on the coast of Cornwall, England, I gazed in wonder at the jagged peaks above and roiling sea below. Oh, to be able to walk along the lip of this wild precipice, with its savage rocks and churning waves. Such splendor! Such freedom! And then my boot slipped.

It was then I noticed two things: I’d become separated from my travel companion, and the trail had grown quite rough. Jutting rocks left little room for walking. I shifted my concentration from the scenery to my feet. Imagine if I were to trip. Imagine if on that lip, that very thin lip of the cliff, my shoelace came undone, or a goat appeared to claim his share of the path.

These “imagines” suddenly assumed a ferocious reality. It had not occurred to me before that I could possibly be in any danger. There had not been a single warning sign. Not one. Surely if there were anything to worry about, they’d let us know. Wouldn’t they?

It was around this time that an unlucky local came along. I collared him and, wild-eyed, pointed to the half-mile drop, our feet mere inches from the edge (his a little closer, since I had ruthlessly positioned him on the outside). “Isn’t this dangerous?” I semi-shrieked. “Shouldn’t we not be here?” (Even in my state of panic, I knew I could get away with a double negative in England.)

“Well, yes, rather rough, that,” the man said, prying himself from my grip. “Best be careful.” And with this he was gone. Once again I was alone, with nothing but my mortality to keep me company.

At last, my friend reappeared and, with soothing words and a firm hand, guided me on to safety. Later, over pints of Guinness, she listened as I railed against the irresponsible Brits and their no-sign policies. It seems funny now. Almost.
Nature has no particular interest in my personal safety, or yours. I think this is partly why I find warning signs so reassuring. They demonstrate that somebody, somewhere, is looking out for us.

I was given another occasion to think about all this recently, as my husband and I made our way through the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia. Each place we visited trumped the previous one in terms of escalating beauty. I did find time to note, however, that Her Majesty’s disregard for warning signs was still respected in many parts of Canada.

But then we came across a trail whose signage seemed to speak to the Canadian virtues of temperance and pragmatism, signs that trod a sensible middle ground between leaving us to our own devices and scaring the life out of us.

We expect that you

  • are aware of the natural hazards
  • are properly equipped and provisioned
  • have the adequate knowledge, skill and fitness level
  • are prepared for emergencies

Safety is not only a matter of being careful; you have to be prepared. Today, I carry that lesson with me when embarking on, say, a suicidal trek across a warningless South American mountain ridge. I have learned to take responsibility for staying on the straight and narrow. The writer in me, though, still finds value in those blunt, explicit Yosemite signs of old. Because sometimes the obstacles we encounter are deceptively slippery, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so.
Maureen Ellen o’leary, an English professor at Diablo Valley College, welcomes all warning signs, except on snack food.

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