September 01, 2005

High above the river


I am afraid of heights.

I rarely confront that fear unless I go to the Southwest, where hiking trails often include spectacular vistas that absolutely terrify me. Climbing mountains in the northeast never scares me because always we have trees and bushes. When I look down from a cliff and see treetops, I always feel reassured. Perhaps it is the admittedly irrational thought that somehow the trees would rescue me. Or perhaps it is just that trees and snow are what I'm used to.

On the first hike of this Grand Canyon trip, I announced my fear of heights to the other fourteen people and explained to them (a bit defensively) that the fear was not irrational in the least. Being afraid of heights makes sense! Without it, humans would be falling from cliffs and buildings all the time. Fear is a good thing. They all laughed at me and then assured me that they would get me through the difficult hikes.

And I did manage every hike that I wanted to do, even climbing along scary narrow ledges where there is nothing, NOTHING at all, to hold onto. Every time, someone was ahead of me to show me where to step or behind me offering encouragement, even if the encouragement sometimes came in the form of teasing.

"Why are you always touching the cliff walls?" one hiker asked as we walked along ledge so narrow that I had to stop and think where to put my feet. "Without a real handhold, those rocks are not going to help you. And for god's sake, don't try to hang onto a cactus."

But still, I continued touching the rock whenever I could, needing the reassurance of something solid. When the ledges got so narrow and high that I stopped walking altogether, Storyteller Boatman would stop and offer me his hand. "Here's the fun part!" he would say, "I know how much you love narrow ledges."

On one long hike with Naturalist Boatman, I lingered too long in a waterfall and found myself at the end of our little line of hikers. I felt terrified as they tramped cheerfully and quickly up the side of a cliff high where it would be very easy to fall to your death. I didn't want them to get too far ahead of me. If I was going to die, I wanted an audience at least. Way Cool Older Woman saw the look on my face and came back to let me go ahead of her. "I think it's easier to not be the very last one," she said nicely, and waited patiently as I inched along, hardly breathing.

Teenage Boy, who at fourteen was the youngest member of our little group, often positioned himself ahead of me so I could follow his footsteps because he was just about the same height as I was. He knew how I hated to be following someone really tall, especially when that long-legged person took steps that I could not possible manage. I could see Teenage Boy turning back to make sure I was okay and slowing down so that he wouldn't get too far ahead of me. Whenever I got scared, he would smile and touch my shoulder.

As much as I have thought of this trip as a trip I was doing alone, I was of course, not alone at all. The fourteen people I traveled with, none of whom I had ever met before, quickly became a community of people who were willing to lend me a hand, give me encouragement, duct tape my blisters, or even check my scalp for ticks.

And always, I had the river. No matter where we hiked, how long or high, through desert cacti or long thin slot canyons, always we returned to the river. No matter how hot and dry the weather, I could always get my hair wet, my shirt wet, plunge my whole body into the current. And when I fell asleep at night, feeling safe on a beach inhabited by fifteen humans and various other creatures, the sound of the river kept dancing and churning through my dreams.

13 comments:

purple_kangaroo said...

Wow, I'm so impressed at the way you faced your fears and walked right through them. I would be touching the wall too . . . even if there's nothing to hold onto, I think it makes you feel more balanced to be touching something solid.

RussianViolets said...

Jo(e), I've so missed your gorgeous pictures. These are just amazing!!!

Running2Ks said...

You are so brave! And kudos to Way Cool Older Woman too.

Mona Buonanotte said...

I developed a fear of heights climbing a pyramid in Mexico, at a Mayan ruins. Halfway up I looked down to see Sergei at the bottom, and something snapped in my head. I had to come down a step at a time, sliding gently down on my bottom. While children and old people RAN past me going down. I would have been touching the rocks too, jo(e), and the heavens bless those kind folk for helping you!

negativecapability said...

I like what you say about starting the trip alone and then developing a new community. I love how a different self emerges when I extract myself from my established community and thrust myself "alone" into a new one.

Cut-Rate Parasite said...

I have no fear of heights (for the most part), but I find that when I'm around heights that those who do get very nervous when I go what seems to them to close to a ledge or something like that. Do you respond that way? I can't tell if it's a fear of personal danger or something more extended.

Yankee T said...

For me, the only good thing about you going away is that we get this stuff when you return.

jo(e) said...

Cut-rate: Oh, yeah, I do get nervous when I see people walking on narrow ledges -- unless they seem really confident and experienced. I mean, how horrible would it be to watch someone fall to their death?

I know it's rare, but it does happen. One of my students fell and died while mountain climbing a few years ago.

I try not to think about stuff like that when I am up high ....

ccw said...

It sounds like you were with a very wonderful group of people.

I agree, fear of heights is not an irrational one. You are very brave for doing the hikes.

Another beautiful picture!

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

When I was climbing I also needed to hold onto rock. It's so reassuring. After we'd hiked lower and were on steady ground, I still wanted rocks to hold onto.

Julie said...

I am so impressed -- impressed with you, and Way Cooler Older Woman, and Teenage Boy, too. What a great group of people. And gorgeous, GORGEOUS photo!

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

You may have been afraid, but you were also COURAGEOUS!! Courage is facing the fear and doing it anyway. And what a wonderful community of people. I'm so happy you had Way Cool Older Woman and Teenage boy to help! YAY!

Lorna said...

this is a real picture of Christianity- one walking ahead holding back a hand and another reaching out and back at the same time.

The photo is amazing but your words and your story even more so.

Keep writing and challenge us to face our fears too.

be blessed :)