Scott Stoll logo world traveler. A bicycle wheel and the globe symbolizes Scott's journey around the world on a bicycle.
Delicate Arch panorama at Arches National Park, Utah. The arch sits next to a bowl underneath a beautiful sky.
Delicate Arch panorama Arches National Park, Utah. To me, the bowl carved out next to the arch was just as mysterious as the arch. It is a natural yin and yang.

Charged by a bull in Arches National Park

The reckoning

My girlfriend and I were returning from a three-mile hike to see Delicate Arch, the most photographed landmark in all the national parks. The sun had set, and we had a few more minutes of twilight when a loose bull crests the trail ahead.

Map of cross country drive
Destinations on our move across the country. First stop, Waukesha, Wisconsin, to visit my family.

I heard it before I saw it. Cla-Clomp cla-clomp. A bull crested the hill a dozen meters ahead. Two hikers at the top of the hill scattered, one to either side. Rather than chase the hikers, the bull paused at the top of the hill and refocused on the new threat standing in its path — me and my girlfriend. It set its eyes on us, lowered its head and charged. 

I had mere moments to decide what to do. Fight or flight are the common options. Fighting didn’t seem like an option, though it is recommended to fight some animals, like a hungry bear but not an angry bear. Freezing, or hiding in plain sight, is often a good strategy. Making yourself as small and harmless looking as possible. But that won’t stop the two-thousand pounds hurtling towards me. That leaves flee. But that also seems like a bad idea. Don’t bulls track movement? Isn’t that how a matador tricks them into attacking the red cape? If only I had time to remove my shirt and toss it into the face of the oncoming bull.

It had already been a long and stressful day… 

Earlier we had left Denver on a beautiful sunny morning, thinking we would sail over the Rocky Mountains. But little did we know a cloud was stuck to the top, and as we approached the summit, the skies turned from gray to pouring buckets to sleet frothing our windshield. The water piled up on the roads and cascaded down the hill. Twice, I momentarily lost control of the car as it hydroplaned across the surface. The first time, I froze. I was afraid to turn the wheel too hard and totally lose control, but we were heading straight for the median. It was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t moment — a moment of reckoning. I had to choose a course of action and face the consequences. The worst course of action was to do nothing. So, I braced myself and yanked the wheel back on course. 

Thankfully, unlike a snowy road in Wisconsin, the wheels grabbed hold. I was so panicked that I had to remind myself to breathe. I hoped Sara didn’t notice that I had panicked. No use for both of us to worry. 

I wanted to get off the road as soon as possible. I was happy to wait out the storm. But there were no off-ramps. And the visibility was so poor that simply stopping on the side of the road seemed even more dangerous. I imagined being rammed by another vehicle and shoved off the side of a cliff. 

So, I kept moving forward as slowly as possible but too fast for comfort. I white knuckled the steering wheel, talking it through out loud. Luckily, Sara, being a psychologist, is accustomed to people going through stressful moments. Mostly, she just told me to do what I thought best. I trailed a truck down the backside of the mountain, which plowed the torrents of water aside like a snowplow.  

After what felt like hours, the mountains parted, and we entered a parched desert and blinding sun.   

Actually, it had been a long and stressful few months…

Sara had got a new job at Stanford University in the Bay Area. It was an opportunity too good to say no. But selling our beloved house, downsizing, and saying goodbye to all our friends was heartbreaking. I would take daily walks, visiting my favorite places. Everything I saw, I would think, “This is the last time I will see this. This is last I will see that.” It was months of bittersweet love and a great life lesson. Isn’t every moment your last? Even if you can return, it’s a different day and time has worked its magic. The Earth will have rotated through the galaxy, the weather will have progressed through the seasons, paint has chipped, leaves have fallen, faces have wrinkled…

Sara called our move “The Reckoning” because we were faced with all the bad decisions and unfulfilled dreams that we had been collecting for ten years in Cincinnati. We had a basement full of broken, unused and unloved stuff. And, similarly, my mind had gathered a lot of dreams and beliefs that were no longer relevant. But it wasn’t so easy to throw them away. They were like cherished childhood teddy bears. I understand now how people accumulate emotional baggage as they age. 

But saying goodbye wasn’t even half of my challenges. According to my survey of the Internet, this list is the consensus on the most stressful life events. In the months leading up to our move, I experienced all but three.  

Top 15 most stressful life events

  1. Death of a loved one. 
  2. Marriage.
  3. Divorce or separation.
  4. Moving.
  5. Major illness or injury.
  6. Job loss. 
  7. Starting a new job.
  8. Retirement.
  9. Public speaking.
  10. Incarceration.  
  11. Financial issues. 
  12. Puberty. 
  13. Exams. 
  14. Buying or selling a house. 
  15. Having a child. 

Did you guess which twelve? I’ll give you some hints: I am not going through puberty. But, then again, I may be having a mid-life crisis and/or womenopause. Maybe, probably, both. Sara had a licensure exam based on 800 pages of California laws. Had she failed, it would have meant that we had sold our home and quit our jobs for no reason. Three people close to me died. A relative, an old friend, and my next-door neighbor. And Sara and I were on our way to Vegas and thinking of getting married. 

Raging bull in Arches National Park
In this still frame, you can see the bull when it has stopped and turned to look at us hiding behind the bush that I circled. Also visible in the foreground is another man hiding in a bush.

As I was saying…

My day had just gone off the charts stressful. Now, facing the raging bull, it was another moment of reckoning. I had to make a choice and face the consequences of my decision. 

I grabbed my girlfriend’s arm and yanked her into the bushes just off the side of the trail. “What do we do? What do we do?” she says. Her arm pulls against mine, wanting to run away.

Cla-Clomp cla-clomp

The bull veers towards us. I switch strategies and freeze. “Stop. Stop. Stop,” I say. We crouch in the bushes. 

I never take my eyes off the bull. It charges straight towards me. I notice that it has a yellow tag in its ears, but no horns. I feel relieved. I think I might survive even if it rams into me. 

CLA-CLOMP. CLA-CLOMP. 

As it approaches within a few feet. I hold one arm out, ready to push off the bull and roll to the side. My other arm is ready to shove Sara out of the way. 

CLA-CLOMP. Cla-clomp. Clomp.

The bull slows. Raises its head. Looks me in the eyes. I feel we share a moment. I know that is cliché, but I do think we had a moment of recognition — or should I say? — a moment of reckoning. He wasn’t a raging, angry bull. He was scared and lost, separated from his herd. And the bull saw that I wasn’t an enemy. I, too, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the consequence of butting heads would have been detrimental to us both. I would have been hospitalized and the bull would have been hunted down and euthanized. 

The bull shakes its head, as if getting rid of a bad idea, and continues down the path. 

Now Sara grabs my arm and repositions us behind a big bush. The bull stops just on the other side and looks back. It’s a majestic pose with ears turned up like horns. It could easily trample through the bush and over us. But after a moment, it turns and runs down the path.

There are a dozen hikers on the hill. And when they see the bull, half of them turn around and scatter. But rather than give chase this time, the bull turns downhill and disappears. 

I feel instant relief. Invincible. On top of the world. I just survived being charged by a bull. And I saved my girlfriend. (Maybe not, but it felt that way.) Only now, do I notice that my hand is full of thorns. I must have grabbed onto a cactus when we jumped into the bushes.

“Are you okay?” Sara asks, noticing me picking thorns out of my hands. 

“Yeah, it’s nothing compared to almost dying.” 

On the way back, some hikers pass, and I ask if anyone had a picture of the bull that almost trampled us. “That was you,” he exclaims. “When that bull put his head down and charged, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I got a video. I’ll send it to you.” 

The video takes place just as the bull turns around to look at us hiding behind the bush. You can hear the hikers saying some interesting things: One jokes, “Does anyone have a red cape?” And others discuss how to make an emergency call without a signal.

As I continue to revel in what just happened, Sara asks, “So, what was harder? If you had to choose, which would you choose: driving over the mountain in the rain? Or face the charging bull?”

“Oh, good question. Well, the bull was a true life-or-death situation. But it was over in an instant. I only had time to make one choice. Right or wrong. Driving over the mountain pass went on for a long time. There were an agonizing amount of decisions with no right answers.  I panicked. I don’t know if you noticed.” 

“I noticed.”

“Why didn’t you say something?” 

“I didn’t want to make it worse. Besides, it was hard. You were doing a good job. I don’t think I could have done better.” 

“The bull was definitely easier. I feel like Superman now. The drive left me exhausted.”

“It’s the difference between acute and chronic stress. We were just walking along enjoying ourselves. Boom. Bull. You don’t have time to think. You just have to act. You get that huge adrenaline rush. And you just do it. The bull runs past. It was super scary. But we were safe. And we had a big woohoo. We conquered the challenge and felt great. And it all happened in 60 seconds. Versus stressors in everyday life where there is a lower but constant baseline level of adrenaline. You never get the woohoo, ‘I solved it,’ relief feeling.”

She continues, “That’s what we’ve been missing all these months of packing and saying goodbye. Endless decisions of what to keep, what to get rid of. And problems that don’t have solutions.”

“It’s easy to choose the bull now that we survived,” I say. 

“Chronic stress kills you, too,” Sara says. “I’d take the bull any day.” 

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