Sin in the Wild Outdoors, June 1997
No one but me saw me do that. The exclusivity of this feat made me think even more highly of myself as I tooled on into town. I was the top celebrity in that van. Of course, I was also an idiot.
What I'm trying to describe here is the fine line between pride and stupidity. Actually, there's a fine line between stupidity and lots of things (bravery, love, being funny), so many that the line probably should be redrawn as a circle, with those important accessories of humanity in the middle, and a vast parade ground of stupidity all around. Of those accessories, none will fraternize with stupidity as readily as pride. Pride and stupidity are thick. Except for the part that keeps you from going on The Ricki Lake Show, pride almost is stupidity. This is revealed most comically and horribly in what we do outdoors.
Going down a flooded creek in a boat we'd found, me bailing and my friend Kent fending off obstacles with a surveyor's stake, both of us about 13; up ahead, unexpectedly, a large deadfall lying clear across the creek; and Kent said, "Don't worry, I've got everything under control." I used to tell the rest of that story, but now I understand that I don't have to. Certain prideful declarations — "I know this road like the back of my hand" — seem to exist mainly as preludes to the inevitable disaster. We Americans like to think of ourselves as thumbs-up, can-do types. More recently, we have begun to suspect that the cocky, grinning bush pilot who flies twice a week across the Arctic Circle and back carrying no emergency supplies but a Clark Bar may actually be insane. That we took on the alteration of this continent in the first place now looks more and more like hubris on a gigantic scale. "Manifest Destiny" may be a fancy, nineteenth-century way of saying "I know this road like the back of my hand."
But what the heck, we're here. For better or worse, our pride/stupidity has had a lot to do with bringing us this far. Pride, the deadliest sin, is a crime of attitude — of overweening ambition, of imagining ourselves equal to powers beyond our range. Oddly, though, it's a sin whose punishment equals its failure: We approach too near the sun, the wax melts, the wings fall off, and we plunge into the sea. Yet once in a while we don't fail, miraculously, and instantly the sin is erased, and all is glory. In the town where I live — Missoula, Montana — someone recently climbed the tallest building on the campus of the University of Montana and impaled a pumpkin on the spire atop the uppermost tower. In the night, the perpetrator or perpetrators scaled several steeply pitched tile roofs, ascended the tower, carried or hoisted an extra-large pumpkin, and left it there for the school to see when the sun rose in the morning. The administration grumbled about the irresponsibility of this act, and about how expensive it would be to take the pumpkin down. But they didn't take it down, and it's been there ever since. I've looked at it from many angles, wondering how the feat was managed, admiring the mountaineering skill it took, and in the process noticing the architecture of this estimable old building much more closely than I ever would have otherwise. If the pumpkin-impalers had fallen and hurt or killed themselves, public opinion would rightly have regarded them as worse than stupid. But fate turned out better, and the lofty pumpkin remains, making us proud to live in the same town as the idiot or idiots who put it there.
Illustration by Greg Clarke