You pay your (good, hard-earned) money and you take your choice. Some things just work out better than others.

For example, a recent group tour of some national parks in the Northwest was not one of my stellar travel experiences. I was hoping to escape our roaring furnace of a summer in Wyoming and South Dakota. True, the weather there was generally a lot cooler than in Tucson. However, several days, the temps surged up into the high 90s, making me feel right at home. Not exactly what I had in mind.

My 28 traveling companions for the eight days were a diverse lot from across the country. Most were pleasant enough, but interactions rarely got beyond the chit-chat stage.

Wondrous sights helped to balance the scales: from the Grand Tetons to Yellowstone's hot bubbling waters to the vast Badlands of South Dakota.

But much more important were the minor miracles that occurred on this tour, three in particular, for which I can only extend a heartfelt thank you to the universe.

The first occurred early on during our visit to the Tetons. Just looking at these majestic mountains in Wyoming, blanketed in snow, cooled my inner thermostat off several degrees. As we got off the bus to explore the area, Jesse, our driver, warned us to watch out for holes in the terrain made by prairie dogs. No problem, I thought. Feeling surefooted and walking with confidence, I suddenly fell into a hole, partially covered in grass, which I had not seen. They say that during tense moments, your life flashes before you. In my case, it was the rest of the trip, which I was sure would be missed due to a broken ankle.

The "broken ankle" turned out to be only twisted. Ice and elevation brought down the swelling and by the next day I was back in business. Hallelujah.

That day our scheduled stop was at Yellowstone National Park. The natural beauty was practically indescribable — not just Old Faithful but other waters of turquoise, gold and many other hues.

In the distance, a breathtaking waterfall ended in a blue-green lagoon. We were all snapping pictures at the top of a steep hill that descended about l00 feet to that same lagoon. Several of us noticed a big rock about seven feet below. "I'm afraid to venture down to that rock," a woman in our party confessed. Piece of cake, I thought. The waterfall would make a great background for a picture of me sitting on that rock.

Taking my first baby steps down towards the rock, I felt my tennis shoe slipping and knew I was in trouble. At that very moment a strong arm reached out to me. A stranger standing on terra firma was putting his own life at risk to save mine. I made it the few feet further to the rock and got my picture taken.

The risk I took could have cost me my life. I think I've learned a lesson about putting myself in harm's way for the sake of a photo. I could have picked up a similar one at the gift shop for 35 cents.

As our tour was winding down, a trip to Mount Rushmore was on the agenda to see the famous heads of four American presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and T. Roosevelt) cast in stone, each head six stories high. In front of the stone sculpture is the Avenue of Flags, bordered with flags of all U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia. The flag of Arizona was furled up, practically unrecognizable. My hope to get a picture of our state flag in front of the Mount Rushmore sculpture seemed dashed.

Within just a few minutes of my starting down the Avenue of Flags towards the famous sculpture, the sky darkened and the wind picked up. By the time I'd taken a few photos of the presidents, the flag of our beautiful Arizona was totally unfurled, and I got my picture.

After my return home and some R&R, the hot weather and small talk issues were relegated to the back-burner. In the forefront were memories of great natural beauty and most important a feeling of intense gratitude: I was alive to tell the tale.

Barbara Russek welcomes comments at

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