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How to stay married after travel disaster

By Miriam


Years ago, an ocean kayaker was enjoying a perfect morning on the Atlantic Ocean near Sandbridge in Virginia Beach.  A stranger sipped coffee on his deck with his camera positioned at the ready.  Just as he started to click a few images of the kayaker, the seas erupted and a gargantuan creature emerged just a few feet from the kayaker.   When the gentleman realized that he had captured a breaching humpback whale on camera, he ran onto the beach and flagged down the kayaker, excitedly offering to share his image of the magical moment.  The kayaker responded, “I prefer the peaceful image just moments before.”  You see in the moment of churning waters and powerful energy, there was chaos and confusion.  It was difficult for his brain to comprehend what was actually happening, much less appreciate the wonder of the sea creature within his reach.  His memory of the whale encounter was pure terror.

Moments before the ice storm on June 18th in Wolf Creek Pass, John and I were soaking in the glory of the Rockies from our vantage point of a charming Pagosa Springs coffeehouse.  The mountains invited us to explore and to savor their grandeur.  Twenty minutes later, the wrath of nature displayed an unrelenting ice storm rendering us vulnerable and unsure of the best course of action.  After several stops and starts, much debating between the two of us and thanks to the kindness of strangers, we made it off the mountain but re-routed our destination as symptoms of hypothermia had begun.  It wasn’t until weeks later as we continued our debrief that we realized how different the internal dialogue sounded within the two of us.  At nearly 11,000 feet, John’s focus was on the road and our Can-Am Spyder, all the while admiring how well the Spyder was performing, a key thought he forgot to share with me.  My thoughts ran something like this:  “Well, if we go off the mountain, it will be quick.  So glad I told Katie where to find our financial papers and the phone number for our attorney.  I don’t want to die, but I’ve had a good life. . . ”  That night in our hotel room at Monte Vista, tears ran down my face as I ruminated about what could have been.  John worried about whether there would be health ramifications from our experience, given our persistent head colds since Santa Fe, and re-played the day in his mind, trying to assess where he could have made better decisions.

Most risk in life is a matter of personal choice – skydiving for sport, outrunning an approaching train, engaging in criminal activity, etc.  But, on Wolf Creek Pass, we were thrust into a situation of hazardous road conditions and exposure that was not of our choosing and not within the realm of possibilities that we had imagined for this trip.  Despite John’s obsessive planning, we were ill-prepared and ill-equipped.  What options were available?  Hysteria?  Too much energy with no improvement in the situation.  Besides my personality is hard-wired for stoic misery.  Seek help/take shelter?   Our remote location offered no shelter unless we broke into a vacant building.  With singular focus, John worked the problem and perhaps at least subconsciously was thrilled that a great story might emerge. 

Scientific studies of human response to danger show that there are differences in brain activity within men and women.  Generally, women respond from more of an emotional base with concerns about “tending to others” while men focus on taking action to thwart the danger.  As a couple, we had never experienced anything like this before yet I knew that I had absolute trust in John’s driving skills and his ability to optimize the capacity of the Spyder’s performance as well as confidence in his decision making to minimize the threats to our safety.    Perhaps we know intuitively when to step up to take action and when to rely on the expertise of others.  Sometimes wisdom requires getting out of the way so that others can respond.  How would you and your spouse respond to this scenario?  Do you know how your spouse will respond to disaster?

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