My voice shakes as I try to make conversation with our guides. The outgoing, rather wild-looking young man at the wheel, and his counterpart, a put-together young woman with a calming presence, are doing their best to reassure me as we cruise along Highway 89 just north of Gardiner, Montana. We head into Cinnabar Basin along rushing creeksides still overfull from the snow run-off and make our way steadily up. The view is stunning as the thunder clouds from earlier today begin to disappate but my mind is on the task at hand.
I’m going zip-lining for the first time with Gardiner's Montana Whitewater Rafting and Zipling Company and already I’m feeling the instinctive urge to bolt. We haven’t even seen the course yet.
I brief our guides with my sob story. Yes, I’m terrified of heights. No, I wasn’t always this way. I explain that, in my early 20s (fueled by and mix of an adventurous spirit, inexperience, and just plain ignorance), I suffered a major climbing accident. I don’t go into detail about the helicopter ride, the numerous surgeries, the backbrace, the wheelchair.
The guides listen patiently. They’re friendly. It’s almost like they’ve heard this story before—but their sympathetic smiles are genuine.
Life isn’t about this accident anymore, I tell myself. It may have consumed my life and that of my loved ones for the first three years, but now things are different, better. Five years, countless hours of physical therapy and multiple successful surgeries later, I’m learning to trust my body again.
But can I trust this harness? What about this carbineer? What about zip lines towering hundreds of feet above sagebrush, dust, and unforgiving rock?
Before I know it, our guides are standing in front of a miniature zip line, expertly demonstrating key safety points. They explain the layout of our course and show us how to turn, how to go faster (faster?!) if we’re moving too slowly. They reassure us that they’ll be there to help us every step of the way.
Incredibly, we agree to try three of the long lines. Three! Somehow this is more than I bargained for, but I’m determined to at least get up on that first platform.
Turns out, this first step us, this was the scariest part. My mind threatens to turn on me again, kicking into flight mode. But something else is awakening in me that I haven’t felt in years—the thrill of trying something new. I’ve visited this place of rushing excitement before, but thought I’d left it behind for good.
Now I’m on the platform, watching members of my group zip past mature forest and green mountain ranges—the familiar colors of my home at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. It’s my turn, and incredibly, I don’t make a fuss. Perhaps it’s the jaw-dropping scenery around or me, or it could be the gentle encouragement and clear knowledge of our guides.
I’m determined to prove that the accident will not define my life.
I reach the second platform amidst cheers and hugs from the guides and members of my group. A ridiculously vibrant rainbow explodes across the stormy skies just behind us. If I wasn’t so deliriously happy, I might laugh at this almost cliché display in the weather. Not today.
Instead, I complete all three lines with more enthusiasm each time. We golf clap for one of the guides as she brings up the rear on the final line. We take group shots at the bottom of the course. We can’t stop smiling.
I’m my bubbly, carefree self as I chat up our guides on our way back to Yellowstone’s North Entrance. I can't wait to tell my friends that I made it through all three lines, that I might even go again someday.
We say goodbye to our new friends and head across town for burgers and sour beers, watching the Montana skies transform from steely gray to brilliant, post-rain cobalt blue—reveling in the feeling that comes with carrying around just a little less fear.
Special thanks to the guides at Montana Whitewater Company and Zipline Co. for an exceptional ride. Learn more about adventures with the Gardiner-based company here.
Neala Fugere is the marketing manager for the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce.