Precarity in Pima Canyon

The rescue

Shortly after I moved to the Sonoran desert, I developed a standard response for friends and family who wondered how I was holding up. “Yes,” I’d say, “it’s hot as hell in summer. And, yes, the landscape is full of danger. But that’s what makes it exciting. I mean, in half a day I can make it from a trailhead minutes from my house into extreme wilderness.”

That’s all still true. But an experience this past March has helped me to me see this perception in a different light. As I witnessed the rescue of my daughter and her mother, who had run into trouble on a hike only miles from our home, I realized just how close we are to precarity.

I still love the place, even more than I did before. Almost every day now, I find myself driving around in what little free time I can muster to photograph the remarkable stormy skies of our Monsoon season. I ride with my daughter along the back roads and bike paths near our house, keeping an eye out for all the nearby wildlife. Sometimes I even go out for a short walk in the middle of the afternoon to feel the full intensity of the heat, which is not nearly as dry as its reputation during this time of year.

If anything, though, my nearly two decades in the Tucson area have made me more wary, not less. Things I didn’t think twice about doing in 2000 or 2005 now seem incredibly foolish, like that period when I first moved here and would drive around with the air conditioner off on 100+ degree days because I believed it would help me adjust to the desert faster. Pro tip: the inside of an automobile is not equivalent to being outdoors and it isn’t just babies that risk serious consequences from overheating.

It wasn’t until that day in March, though, that I began rethinking the relationship between excitement and risk at a deeper level. No matter how thoroughly I run through my mental checklist before a bike ride, run, or hike – making sure I have the proper attire, flashlight, portable mobile phone charger, and plenty of water – I know that something can still go wrong. A distracted diver could swerve into me. I could fall and injure myself. The heat could take me by surprise. But I still go anyway, confident that rewards of exercising outdoors are worth the risk. Even though I live in a place that still feels extreme when compared to my comfortable suburban childhood back east, I don’t let that stop me. Something inside me periodically needs to find the edge where sensible behaviour turns into dangerous fancy.

And I’m hardly alone in this regard. The rapid growth in extreme sports and wilderness travel over the past several decades testifies to a widespread desire to find pleasure in danger. For the most part, such experiences do not come cheap. Even off-roading and hunting, activities with more of a working-class aura, can cost a good deal. And if you want to climb mountains or sail on the high seas, the expenses add up rapidly. In other words, the people who engage in these kind of pursuits tend to be more financially secure than average. It almost seems as though the privilege that shields them from risk in their everyday lives compels them to seek it out in their leisure time.

Storm over Pima Canyon.

At the same time, even though the overall standard of living worldwide has increased tremendously over the past fifty years – a point that optimists like Steven Pinker love to make – it is also the case that insulation from risk is no longer simply a function of what might be called “mass privilege”. To be sure, the super-wealthy can still guarantee their safety from immediate danger. If the sea levels keep rising, if they spend too much time in the sun, if they eat too much of this or that, their future promises to be worse than their present. But the danger still seems abstract to them, a preoccupation for the mind rather than a problem for the body here and now. But an overwhelming majority of the world’s population does not have this luxury.

In his influential 1986 book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, German sociologist Ulrich Beck drew a distinction between the industrial society that took shape in the early nineteenth century, in which class was the primary way of dividing people, and a new order, still unequivocally modern, in which safety plays that role. The concept of being “at risk”, which has saturated the rhetoric of NGOs over the past several decades, conveys the essence of this new society. Although privilege must still be thought of in economic terms, it is increasingly expressed in terms of the capacity to stay out of serious danger. Only a small percentage of the people on this planet can work without being constantly exposed to pollution and crime or secure the best medical care. Only they will be able to move away from the places that climate change will be most forcefully impacting in the years to come. The rest are not so fortunate. As Beck puts it, “the driving force in the class society can be summarized in the phrase: I am hungry! The movement set in motion by the risk society, on the other hand, is expressed in the statement: I am afraid! The commonality of anxiety takes the place of the commonality of need”.

Beck’s vision of this new modernity does make room for hope. As more and more people fall into the category of the “at risk”, this shared anxiety has the potential to provide the basis for new political bonds through a “solidarity of anxiety”. But figuring out how to facilitate this transformation poses a major challenge. “It is still completely unclear how the binding force of anxiety operates, even whether it works.” While the common experience of being at risk could bring people together, there is no guarantee it will do so. Indeed, what we know about how anxiety functions in the psyche of individuals suggests that it is more likely to divide society than to unite it. Beck sums up the problem by posing a question which now seems, over three decades later, to have been disturbingly prophetic: “Will anxiety drive people to irrationalism, extremism, or fanaticism?”

The reactionary populism that has been sweeping Europe and the United States in recent years is one example of the ways in which the solidarity of anxiety has been mobilized politically. So is the religious fundamentalism that has helped to reshape the geopolitical map since the end of the Cold War. Although examples of more optimistic responses to Beck’s “risk society” can be found, it does not so far seem to inspire as much cosmopolitan collaboration as he hoped it would. On the contrary, more and more people who once felt relatively secure in the social order – even if they did not benefit much from their relative position within it – now perceive themselves to be perched on the brink of a terrifying existential chasm. They did not need to find the edge; it found them.

Maybe that’s what separates them from the sort of individuals who seek out risks for fun. Just as a lot of people prefer driving themselves to being a passenger on a jet, despite the statistically verified truth that automobiles are far more dangerous, those who devote free time to the pursuit of limit experiences feel more secure than those for whom roughing it is not a form of tourism. But, given the way the world is trending right now, with planetary ecological and financial crises rapidly intensifying, I am starting to wonder whether outdoor types are deceiving themselves. Could it be that the constraints on mass privilege are exposing them to everyday risks that they disavow by exposing themselves to extraordinary ones?

Like a lot of people, I find deviations from routine exciting. Many of my happiest memories, even from when I was a very small child, derive from experiences that didn’t fit into the ordered spaces of my normal life. That time when my parents spent hours driving to the suburbs of Philadelphia and back to purchase my three-year-old self a set of blocks from Creative Playthings, while I watched the world turn dark from the back seat. That vacation to the Blue Ridge Mountains when my younger sister had to be hospitalized with a minor illness and my dad took me around running “manly” errands for a few days. The two harsh winters in the late 1970s when our rural house was without power for a week and we huddled around the eighteenth-century fireplace. Even occasions when I knew I should be feeling more scared and excited, like when my grandmother needed to be taken to the emergency room and I was given the responsibility – exciting for a ten-year-old – of getting my sister and her visiting friend ready to leave the house quickly.

View of Tucson from Pima Canyon trail.

Basically, I better in situations that can be considered emergencies than the rest of the time, when everything goes according to plan. And I also feel better, even if it that seems shameful. That’s why I still try to make room for extraordinary moments amid the burdens of ordinary existence, even if the impulse sometimes leads to irrational behaviour. Right now, for example, I have a hundred things I should be trying to get done right now – including finishing this piece – yet find struggling to suppress the urge to go outside and see when the clouds are doing as sunset approaches. I want an adventure, however small, no matter how much it makes the rest of the day harder. The more I think about my recent experience, however, the more I’m starting to believe that I’m perpetrating a mental bait-and-switch, refusing to perceive the precarity seeping into everyday life by romanticizing the dangers I choose to face.

This brings me to the tale of that day in March. I was planning to spend most of it with my father, who had recently been discharged from the hospital after emergency surgery but was still far too weak to go back to his apartment. Instead, he had been admitted to a skilled nursing facility for rehabilitation, though there had not been much sign of it during his first week there. And he was miserable. Although I would rather have been almost anywhere else – my father-in-law and mother-in-law had both had to stay in this same depressing facility for weeks on end – I knew that I had to be there for him. But at least there was college basketball to distract us from his dementia-ravaged roommate.

My daughter was going hiking again with her mother. Until two summers ago, she would complain about almost everything that makes the Tucson area special, declaring that the temperate coast of California was her true home. She still loves the ocean more than anything, as do I. But something inside her has shifted just enough to make her appreciate the place where she has lived since before turning two. Now she likes to go out and explore the very scenery that used to bore her. It’s a surprising transformation, one that I’ve done all I can to encourage.

The previous week they had made a trial run deep into the interior of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness before turning back. Now they were planning to do a loop, starting at the Iris. O. Dewhirst Pima Canyon trailhead a few minutes from our house and ending up at the one for the Finger Rock trail. Internet posts had described this as a difficult hike, but one still doable in a single day. While I had my doubts about the undertaking – a number of people had said that the route was hard to follow when you reached higher elevations – I was confident that my daughter’s experience backpacking with Outward Bound in the High Sierra back in 2016 would help her determine if and when it was time to turn back.

Like many of the trails in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness area of Coronado National Forest, the Pima Canyon trail starts in the foothills, next to some of Tucson’s most expensive homes, the sort of places owned by individuals whose privilege is exceptional. The first part is heavily travelled throughout the year, though summertime hikers from around here usually head out early in the morning or as close to sunset as possible. If you move quickly, the trail will take you up to some gorgeous views of the valley below in less than fifteen minutes. Then it enters the canyon itself, one of the many rock-walled drainages that crisscross the Santa Catalina Mountains.

While the first part of the trail does climb fairly quickly and require navigating some rocky terrain, it is not especially difficult for anyone in decent health, provided they have enough water and avoid the hottest part of the day in summer. Once the trail descends down into the canyon, it actually becomes a good deal easier for quite a long while, its periodic rises offset by long stretches of relatively flat passages through the thickets that invariably spring up along creek beds, even in the dry season, in this place where water is scarce.

Pima Canyon stream

Up until a few weeks before this fateful day, though I had begun this trail dozens of times over the years, I had only made it a half mile or so into the canyon. But my daughter’s desire to hike as much as possible before the return of the giant tarantula hawk wasp that she dreads had recently led her to go farther into the canyon than ever before on one of the hikes she undertook with her mother. Eager to share their discoveries with me, she suggested that we try it after I picked her up at school one February afternoon.

Moving rapidly by my standards and somewhat slowly by hers, we were able to make it to the other end of the narrow part of the canyon just before the sun sank below the horizon, which always happens a good deal sooner would be the case in the flatlands of urban Tucson. We were in a bowl-shaped basin, with remarkable views of the surrounding ridges. Although she was worried about making the return trip before it was totally dark out, I assured her that we should be able to do so and had flashlights with us just in case we didn’t.

As a consequence, she consented to walk a little further, so I could get a better photographic vantage point, then lay down on a trailside boulder while I spent maybe ten minutes figuring out what sort of handheld shots I could manage with my telephoto zoom lens as the surrounding landscape – we had found ourselves in a bowl ringed by high ridges – rapidly grew dim, with only the highest places above still receiving sunlight. It was a magical time, the sort that sustains my spirit long after it has passed. When I’m in that zone, I’m able to forget both disappointments from the past and anxieties about the future, because I am so resolutely focusing – literally, in this case – on the present moment.

We had a wonderful conversation on the way back to the trailhead that day, so good that even now I can play parts of it in back my head. The rabbits scurrying around in the brush may not have much interest in different ways of making connections between structuralism, linguistics, and the work of Noam Chomsky, but I certainly basked in the pleasure of being able to share with my daughter the sort of intellectual work I’ve been doing for the past three decades.

As we ambled down the final slope, the lights of the metropolitan area spread out from the Tucson Mountains in the west to the Santa Ritas in the south to the Rincons in the east, well over a hundred square miles in all, I thought about how special it was to be able to get this perspective, in every sense, without even having to interrupt our dinner plans. It seemed like validation for all the difficulty I’d had adjusting to this environment upon moving here, not to mention the struggles that come with living in an impoverished border region. And it also inspired a mixture of confidence and curiosity. Now that I had finally seen what the landscape at the end of Pima Canyon proper looked like, I felt a tremendous urge to see where the trail went from there.

No matter how long I live in these parts, I will never stop being surprised by how different these mountain ranges can look, depending on the time of day; the season; the weather; the location from which they are seen; even a person’s mood. They can look like the painted backdrop on a vast stage or the back wall of a miniature diorama. But it’s only once you get above the “house line”, when the only fences are made of cactus and ocotillo, that you can comprehend just how much bigger they are than the strip malls and apartment complexes they encircle.

Saguaros and cliff.

Part of the reason is that these unfamiliar vantage points make it easier to discern features of the landscape that otherwise tend to disappear. What looked like a single, continuous ridge line from ten miles away will suddenly disaggregate into several different ones from five. While this phenomenon can probably be perceived in mountains everywhere, it is especially pronounced in our parts. The saguaro cacti studding the lower elevations and the kind of granite that comprises the mountains create a pattern that fools the eye when the ridges are seen from a distance. The relative narrowness of individual ridges – the Santa Catalina Range has a surprising number of small canyons – also makes it easier to collapse them together visually.

Having travelled far enough back on the Pima Canyon Trail to perceive difference where I had previously presumed sameness, I was eager to learn more. I suppose that’s one reason why I kept my concerns about the long hike my daughter planned to take with her mother to myself. Besides, I figured, if I could make it as far as I had in a short amount of time, with a perpetually challenged respiratory system and balky leg, surely they had the capacity to go a long way on an all-day trek. As it turned out, though, this was precisely the sort of reasoning that gets people in trouble.

At first, as I sat watching games with my dad, I received enthusiastic phone calls every hour or so from them. Shortly after noon, my daughter informed me that they had already gone much farther than we had managed on our after-school hike a few weeks before. By the middle of the afternoon, however, her tone began to change. It was clear that the rapid progress they had been making earlier in the day had stopped, though I couldn’t discern exactly what the problem was. Despite looking at the map on my phone as she looked on the hardcopy she had brought with her, I could not tell where they were. The features of the landscape she was describing were either not recorded on the map in a way that I could read or they had somehow gone strayed from the official trail onto one of the many “wildcat” spurs that previous hikers had made.

As my father eavesdropped on our successively more stressful conversations, his anxiety – always easy to activate – started increasing at an alarming rate. So I made up an excuse, telling him I’d come back if I could, and went home to wait. After several more hours in which I hadn’t heard from them again, I concluded that they must be out of mobile phone range. Then I remembered the find-my-phone app and decided to see whether it would work for such a remote location. To my great surprise, it did. Unfortunately, however, the information it provided was potentially worrisome. The phone seemed to be in more or less the same area she had described in our last conversation. Had she perhaps dropped her phone?

Although I was becoming increasingly concerned about them, part of me felt reassured by the fact that I had been able to locate them electronically. Whereas people used to measure a place’s remoteness primarily by its distance from paved roads, they now tend to do so in terms of mobile phone service. If you can make a call or check your social media feed, the logic goes, how lost can you truly be? Despite the fact that I have repeatedly discussed this ill-founded confidence with my new media students, using it as an example of the ways in which technological advances can dull our native wariness, I found myself drawing comfort from the idea.

Shortly after nightfall, though, she called again, in a state of total panic. Her mother was injured, having hurt her knee, and complaining about light-headedness and pains in her chest. They had turned around but were barely making headway on their journey back to the trailhead. She knew, despite her mother’s protestations to the contrary, that they were still miles away from their destination. And they were starting to get cold because they hadn’t expected to be out at night.

Rain in Pima Canyon.

After marvelling that I could hear her clearly from that far back in the canyon – there aren’t any cell phone towers inside the Pusch Ridge Wilderness – I told her that she should see whether calling 911 would work there. But she said her mother didn’t want to do that and that she wasn’t even sure what to say if she did get a hold of them. I agreed that it seemed unlikely that the police and fire departments would have personnel available to track down lost hikers at that hour and figured that the park ranger wouldn’t be working until morning. As it later turned out, we were wrong. If you ever find yourself in distress in a wilderness area where you have mobile phone coverage, you should call 911 or your nation’s equivalent immediately, for reasons I will explain later.

At the time, though, the only solution that came to mind was hiking back into Pima Canyon to help them myself. I rapidly loaded my backpack up with warm fleece coats, beanies, an ample supply of ibuprofen and several Xanax. Since I knew they hadn’t eaten a real meal in over twelve hours, I also threw in several energy bars, little packets of trail mix, and a bottle of water I’d mixed up with electrolyte powder. Although it was chilly by Tucson standards, with temperatures already having dropped into the 40s, I resolved to make an adventure of it, mobilising childhood fantasies about performing daring rescues.

Unfortunately, the only flashlight they had left behind was an old one that only stays lit if you hold the on-off switch down with a lot of pressure. Since I knew I’d need to use the cane I was bringing her mother to navigate the trail, which is full of places where ankle-twisting and knee-wrenching are likely, I decided I’d reserve the flashlight only for any situations where I absolutely couldn’t see the trail.

Upon arriving at the trailhead, which is less than ten minutes from our house, I took a deep breath and started walking. The first part, though low-lying, is one that I’ve traversed enough times during my nearly two decades living in the Tucson metropolitan area that I managed not to lose my way while I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. And by the time I turned left to begin the climb up into the canyon, I was able to see a lot, despite the fact that there was no moon to guide me.

Over time, my already excellent night vision became increasingly acute. I was surprised to realize just how much of the landscape I could make out by starlight alone. Not only that, when I did turn on my flashlight briefly, I found that the narrowness of the beam actually made it harder to situate myself in my surroundings. I could see better for a few feet right in front of me, certainly, but struggled to connect that visible space to the now-pitch black territory beyond.

That insight proved helpful when my daughter started calling again. She was increasingly scared about her mother and starting to doubt her own well-being as well. Because I couldn’t hold the cane and phone simultaneously with a flashlight in my hand, I decided to put the latter back in my pocket and leave it there. Somehow I managed to make it back farther than we had reached on our after-school hike in half the time, fuelled by the adrenaline her panic was activating. And I only fell once, not because I couldn’t see, but because the tip of the cane become wedged between two rocks on one of the flattest portions of the trail and I was moving too quickly to extricate it before losing my balance. Given my own mounting excitement, however, I barely felt the effects of the fall, though they would lead to considerable bruises later.

Peaceful Pima Canyon from the south.

It may seem rather shameful to admit this, but that excitement derived as much from pleasure as pain. I was still worried about them, of course. At the same time, the feeling of having to navigate in the dark with just my natural vision to guide and the sheer beauty of my surroundings was filling me with a sense of inner peace. I was on an adventure. Maybe it’s all the war stories I read growing up, about heroes who managed to stay calm in times of trial. Or maybe it’s just my particular biological programming. But I’m one of those people who can seem hopelessly lethargic and disorganized until I find myself coping with a serious crisis. Indeed, I sometimes have the suspicion that I attach myself to people prone to panic because I sense that I need it to ground myself.

Luckily, my daughter had managed to persuade her mother to call 911 by this point. Help was supposedly on its way. Because I had started heading back to them sooner, though, I was bound to reach them first if they were still on the trail. My daughter had started to wonder aloud whether they had taken a wrong turn. I was worried, too, in part because I had noticed that using the flashlight made it harder to distinguish between the trail and the surrounding desert, which – in stark contrast to the wooded landscapes I’d grown up exploring back east – invariably presents a wealth of false pathways interspersed between the small trees, bushes, and cacti that cover it.

I decided to start shouting for her between phone calls, to see whether I was getting near their location. Despite the echo generated by the surrounding rock walls, however, she kept telling me that she couldn’t hear me. I spotted a plane circling slowly in the sky above and asked her whether she could see it, too. She could, which was encouraging since it meant that their location probably wasn’t too far from mine. And then, finally, she heard my voice, faintly, to my immense relief.

I suppose I could have tried to locate them with the find-my-phone app since the signal was pretty strong. Unfortunately, though, the level of resolution its mapping function achieves is not much help when there are no street addresses or other clearly defined markers with which to orient yourself. Not to mention that the brightness of the screen would have made it difficult to see the trail ahead for several minutes after each consultation. Nevertheless, having mobile phones made the experience much less stressful for me. At least I knew they were well enough to keep hiking back, however slowly. And hearing my voice as I made my way towards them certainly obviously helped my daughter to regain her composure.

I had now exited the bowl-shaped basin we had reached on our after-school hike and was snaking my way back up through a landscape of dense underbrush and large boulders on the other side. Now we started yelling to each other while still on the phone in a call-and-response that surely troubled whatever animals were in the area. Finally, after another fifteen minutes of fast hiking, I reached their location. It was nearing 11:30 pm.

It rapidly became apparent why the find-my-phone app had provided such distressing information. Her mother could barely walk. Although they had turned around hours before, they had literally been inching along. And they were both shivering, the cold weather magnified by their panic. As they put on the warm outerwear I’d brought, I prepared an electrolyte drink and gave them both anti-anxiety medication. Then we continued the return journey, with me helping to support her mother on the rockier portions of the trail.

Trees in the Bowl.

After another twenty minutes or so, we could see a light approaching us. The plane was still circling overhead, too. Then we heard voices. And, finally, around midnight, we met up with at least a half-dozen rescuers. They explained that a larger crew was on its way with a rolling “off-road” gurney to meet us and proceeded to do a quick evaluation of my daughter and her mother. They also confirmed that the plane had been looking for my daughter and her mother, suggesting that the ones I had puzzled to see one circling over the area in the past had also been participating in a rescue effort. It was a sobering thought.

After radioing in their medical status, we resumed the return journey. Progress remained very slow. About forty-five minutes later, the gurney arrived along with a triage team that took vital signs, evincing considerable concern as they prepared my daughter’s mother to be strapped on the one-wheeled gurney. Hushed tones are rarely a good sign in that sort of situation. That’s why, although my daughter seemed to be enjoying the attention of the young, fit, and friendly team of rescuers, I became more concerned than I had been previously.

In the end, it would take us over three hours more to make it back to the trailhead. Every bumpy passage required four people to lift the gurney high enough to prevent it from getting stuck. The work was so exhausting that most of the dozen-or-so rescuers now present took turns at the task. One of them had badly sprained his ankle while walking into the canyon, however, and could not keep pace with the rest of us, requiring two rescuers to stay near him.

Meanwhile, my daughter and I enjoyed talking to members of the crew. Although a few were employed by local fire and police departments, most were volunteers. They regaled us with tales of harrowing rescues they had performed in Pima Canyon and other locations in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. Some had been attacked by killer bees. Others had fallen in locations far from any trail and had to be airlifted out by helicopter. Indeed, my daughter and her mother were the second rescue they had performed that night.

The more I listened, the more apparent it became that, despite our proximity to civilization, we were in a pretty dangerous place. I also came to understand that that very proximity was part of the problem. When people go on adventures far from any town, they are much more likely to take the proper precautions in advance and to be careful during their trip. As one rescuer remarked, when you can get enough of a mobile phone signal to post something to Instagram, it’s hard to take risk seriously.

As we approached the parking lot for the Pima Canyon Trail, I could hear the thrum of diesel engines. When we rounded the bend, the scene before us looked like something from a disaster movie. Ambulances, fire engines, and police cars were all over the place. Another dozen emergency personnel milled about. And the whole commotion was just for us.

Although my daughter was deemed well enough to go home with me, her mother was transported to the hospital, where they determined that her core temperature was down to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. If they hadn’t called 911 when they did, she could have suffered serious long-term consequences. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that her life itself was at risk.

During the summer months here in the Tucson area, locals are more likely to be aware of the dangers that await in the surrounding wilderness. Rattlesnakes, flash floods, and, above all, heat-related trauma are all serious concerns. But as the experience of my daughter and her mother demonstrates, the temperate time of year is not as safe as it initially seems. Lots of bad things can happen. And enough of them do to justify the operations of a permanent rescue team.

In the wake of this incident, I spent weeks poring over every map I could find, trying to figure out whether they had ever lost the trail or not. I drove all around looking for new vantage points from which to figure out whether my eyes had deceived me into underestimating the number of “folds” in the interior of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. And then, after considerable hesitation, my daughter overcame what she only half-mockingly referred to her as “Pima Canyon PTSD” sufficiently to hike back during the day into the portion of the trail that I had only experienced at night.

Sure enough, as I had suspected from my cartographic studies, where I had once discerned only one ridge in the back of the canyon, there turned out to be several. The biggest, on the southern flank of which the Pima Canyon Trail met up with the Finger Rock Trail, wasn’t even visible from where we ended our hike. My daughter’s description of having gone up one hill after another, which had not seemed to match up with the trail on the map, had been correct. Just as the eye tends to collapse the ridges it sees into a single ridge, the line delineating the trail averages a vast number of switchbacks into a line that seems reasonably straight. The landscape is much bigger – and wilder – than it appears from the city streets to the south and west.

This was the most important short-term takeaway from our family adventure. As I ponder its implications, I keep hearing Neko Case’s voice in my head, telling me to never turn my back on Mother Nature. Despite our self-importance as a species, the strange arrogance that comes from having potentially damaged our home planet to the point where we’ve put our future at risk, few of us are well-suited for surviving in the wilderness. And, while that may be more true for extreme regions like the Sonoran Desert, it applies to any place where we face exposure to the elements.

More abstractly, the experience testifies to the importance of having the infrastructure in place to rescue those who overestimate their abilities or simply have bad luck. Maybe my daughter and I could have helped her mother out of the canyon in time without the aid of the rescue team, but I wouldn’t want to bet on the odds. At the very least, their well-coordinated and timely response to the call for aid saved her from serious medical problems. And it might just have saved her life.

The Monsoon has become my favourite season here in the Sonoran Desert because the often-violent storms that sweep through leave the landscape lush and green and the skies resplendent with stunning cloud formations. When I see the elements of a beautiful photograph start to build up, I get the urge to head up the nearest trail for the right vantage point. This year, though, I am being especially cautious about heeding that urge. A lot can go wrong very quickly. And, in a world that seems to be on the brink of disaster, that sort of stress is not what anyone needs.

Back when those teenage soccer players and their coach were rescued from that cave in Thailand, the efforts of the rescuers received understandable praise. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the diver who died after bringing them supplies. After we had arrived back at the trailhead and my daughter’s mother had been loaded into the ambulance on that day back in March, half of the team had to head back up the trail with the gurney to rescue their injured comrade.

Whenever people are able to expose themselves to risk, it creates a burden on society. Sometimes the cost is relatively small, as in the case of the rescue in Pima Canyon I’ve been describing here. And sometimes, as in the case of tobacco cigarettes, prescription opiates, or the stock market, the cost can be astonishingly high. Either way, though, decisions have been made, whether at the top of a chain of command or lower in a bureaucracy, about which kinds of risk to support and which to discourage.

Why couldn’t the same level of support be mustered for someone who feels lost within the social order as for those who have made a conscious decision to venture outside of it? Why can’t I summon the same enthusiasm to journey through job listings or tax forms as I did to wander through the dark places of Pima Canyon? What will it take for us to create institutions that mobilize Ulrich Beck’s “solidarity of anxiety” to undertake the rescue of those who cannot make it out of the canyons of debt and despair on their own?

Don’t get me wrong. I am immensely grateful to the emergency personnel and volunteers who participated in the rescue of my daughter and her mother. And I want their work to continue, because the more people who can experience adventure close to home safely, the better. What I am wondering, rather, is what it will take for human beings to realize that their exemplary commitment and organisation should be a shining example of how to navigate the “risk society” without regressing into irrationality and divisiveness. The greatest adventure is what lies ahead for us all, as we try to prevent our planet from becoming uninhabitable.

Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.