Petit Jean

I’m recently back from a week of vacation at Petit Jean state park.  I’ve been going to family reunions there for over 30 years.  When I was very young I thought the place was boring, a bunch of old people sitting around playing bridge.  Somewhere around 12 yrs old I discovered that there were miles of trails, and most of them were lined with climbable rocks. 

As a teenager and a couple of times in my twenties I went there to camp and climb.  We would often wonder off the official path, and hike the edges of the valleys on inviting washouts.  And I discovered a trend.  We would follow a trail to the bottom of the valley where it ties in to an official trail, and we’d have to duck to go under a big red sign announcing  “DANGEROUS AREA ENTRY UNLAWFUL.”  This didn’t happen too many times before we began to seek these unlawful paths out deliberately.  Sometimes you would even see a foothold cut into a rock on the path, or stones that were arranged in a suspiciously staircase fashion.  I have come to the conclusion that some time prior to the 90’s (when my exploration started in earnest),  these trails were officially sanctioned and maintained, but someone decided that they were too dangerous and that people would get hurt, so they put up signs telling lawful citizens to stay on the safe paths.

The rocks at petit jean are a mix of iron deposits and sedimentary layers.  Over years the sandstone washes out and leaves ridges of iron that are just perfect to grab.  “The Bear Cave” is full of these, as well as some places with stairs cut into the rocks so even someone completely unskilled, but of reasonable health can make it to the tops of the rocks.  I look at these and I know that if this park was newly made they would’ve never put these in.  They’d be too scared to get sued… either by idiots who got themselves hurt (and in several nearby universes I am such an idiot) or under the “American’s with Disabilities Act” (because it’s not fair for you to let people healthier (read luckier) than me have fun).

These stairs are steep. I hovered behind Alaric the whole way.

And that brings me to “Petit Jean gravesite and overlook.”  This used to be a gravel road that lead out to a pile of large bolders overlooking a bend in the Arkansas River.  In the last 10-15 years they’ve made improvements.  Now it has a parking lot (with stripes and everything) which leads to a 8’ wide walkway (wooden deck) bound in by decorative stonework and cast-iron fencing.  The walkway has 2 steps down onto the tops of the boulders.

There’s no sign saying not to climb on the boulders, but there has been a definite dampening effect on people’s behavior.  I watched a woman stand on the deck and hold her 7yr old son back by his shoulder.  She was definitely breathing hard. A few feet past her she could see this:

That’s my girl!

The decrease in climbing  is measurable by the visible growth of bushes and small trees in the cracks of the rocks where in the past they would’ve been crushed under the feet of adventurous tourist, who kept the area clear and climbable for years without any paid maintenance.

That’s me in 1989 with my ex-step-dad

‘Dem bushes didn’t use to be dere.

Next year I might bring a machete.
It’s not the same rock, but it’s the same overlook. This is the best I can do for comparison.

You probably can’t tell because of the overgrowth, but maybe you can tell by my white knuckles… it’s quite a fall from there.

All this raises some questions:

  • “Are there fewer injuries?”
  • “Are there fewer deaths?”
  • “Do people enjoy it more or less?”

These questions seem answerable, but it’s not as easy as you might think.  If you type “Petit Jean injury statistics” into google you do not get linked to the information I want.  And on the enjoyment question, you can’t answer it now.  Maybe if they’d done a baseline survey 20 years ago and asked the same questions again, but we still wouldn’t really know.

When I was 6ish my grandparents drove me from Memphis to Disney land.  I spent a lot of time laying in the back window of their car.  I remember my dad’s mazda RX3 in which he had actively hunted down and destroyed the buzzer for the seatbelt.  I remember the first time I ever saw a bicycle helmet.  I remember a trampoline without a safety net, and jumping onto it from the roof, and falling off of it onto the ground.  I remember riding in the back of my uncle’s truck on a boating trip.

I’m opposed to people getting killed in general, and especially kids and especially for something stupid.

However I’m not opposed to people getting hurt.  Especially kids and even for something stupid.  You have to get hurt to realize that getting hurt is not the end of the world.  You have to feel adrenaline to get a taste of what you’re really capable of.  You have to live though fear and come out on the other side to taste how sweet life can be.

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