I don’t like the trappings of luxury, even when on vacation. I don’t like lounging. I don’t like spas or massages (see my post about that here). I fear the sunshine and its cancerous rays and I don’t enjoy showing off my body poolside. I don’t like sports that cost a lot of money; that rules out skiing, golf, and other equipment-intensive sports.
So when I want a vacation, I choose physically challenging/off-the-beaten-path adventures and historical sights. I’ve been to Guatemala and I hiked the pyramids of Tikal. I have been to the pyramids of Luxor and Cairo, and I have seen Western Europe and the Mediterranean with only a backpack for five weeks. I love an adventure. If I’m not sweating and bruised up at the end, it wasn’t a “good vacation.”
And so when I went on vacation over winter break with ManFriend Rob, I traveled to the border of Utah and Arizona to adventure every day. Given the random medical issues I’ve had in the past 5 years, this was an ambitious trip. I decided to act as if I was not worried about my back, my knees, my ankles, my hernias. I have permanent damage in my right hand from a car accident 5 years ago, and I knew to climb “lefty;” I decided I would just go for it which is incredibly UNLIKE ME, since I am a very cautious and thinking-things-out person.
One day we toured the slot canyons of the Navajo people, and one day we hiked Marble Canyon and followed the dry bed of the river, known as the wash, all the way to the Colorado River. Great adventures. But the greatest adventure of all was pretending I was not afraid of heights: especially on the day we did the Voodoo Via Ferrata trail near our hotel, rappelling our way down.
Now, if you don’t know what Via Ferrata is, Google it. It’s the way soldiers in World War I traversed mountains like the Alps. It looks like the steps of a disjointed ladder made of metal bolted into a mountainside. You climb them while clipped to a very strong metal cable that is also bolted into the side of the mountain, all the way up. At times, you are hiking almost vertically; other times, it levels out. But from the bottom to the top, the height of the climb is about 500 feet. And then you are hooked to the mountain and a cable and you rappel down.
I did that.
Here are the pictures showing the climb up. Feel free to laugh out loud at the expression on my face. I was terrified. Our guide Kyle, who I want to either adopt or marry, asked if we were afraid of heights. I did not lie. I said, “Yes, but I am prepared to do this.” And he was the perfect guide because he didn’t make a big deal out of it. And he was appropriately gentle, understanding my fear, and firm, to ensure our safety.
I was very afraid. As I was suspending myself over the significant drop, I just kept looking up. I tried to look down once when Kyle suggested we stop for a breather. My body produced tears. I cried while saying “No no no.” Kyle swiftly started us climbing again.
I was afraid. I knew if I thought about the height, the climb, or anything else too much, I would start crying again and that it would cloud both my vision and my physical ability to make judgments about foot and hand placement, which could have dire consequences. It would be very unlikely I would die on this climb, because I was clipped to a safety cable. But if you slip and fall and are smacked against the jagged cliff you are traversing, injuries can absolutely happen. Nothing is certain in this world.
Once at the top, I felt exhausted and my legs and arms were very sore from climbing. But I felt good. What didn’t feel good was knowing that it wasn’t over yet – still ahead, we had to traverse a canyon on a narrow suspension bridge in order to get to the location where we would be rappelling down.
So. The bridge. Very high up. I truly thought it would be okay after I had just climbed this mountain and was feeling so proud and confident. The second I stepped on that bridge I feared for my life. Because the fear was climbing its own pathway from my toes to my stomach into my throat and my eyes started to blur with tears of fear. Again, I was clipped on, but if I fell, it would be very dangerous and traumatic as well.
I kept putting one step in front of the other. That’s all I could do. And I pushed my fear down and I pushed my thoughts down and I kept on moving forward. I was even able to sit with Kyle in the middle of the bridge as a demonstration of my courage. I did not want to be on that bridge. I did not want to sit on that bridge. But I needed to sit on that bridge. Sitting was scarier than anything I had done that day, but I slowly followed my body and I sat and straddled the bridge. I did not look down. I sat for a minute and getting up was almost scarier than sitting down.
But I did it. And I made it across.
And rappelling down felt scary, but not nearly as scary as anything else I had done. It almost felt fun. Almost.
I am not going to say that this experience made me understand war. Or made me better understand how I have walked through some of the sadness and tragedy and shame I have experienced in my life. I don’t understand death or dying any better now than I did before.
But what I do understand is that biology is destiny, as Freud said it was. And biology is also the destiny I can not imagine for myself because I am limited by my fear. My physiological reaction to heights, to pain, to my weak hand; these are all my destiny – until I allow my brain to order them to be silent. To leave room for other possibilities of thinking and feeling. To let me live this life the way the God of my understanding wants me to live it.
I want to be fearless. I want to be brave. I want to be courageous. I want to conquer shame and fear and hesitation. And I want to continue to live this blessed life one footstep after another. One placement of my hand after another. One cry. One hug. One love saying to another, “I am proud of you.” One foot in front of the other, even if the bridge from here to there is narrow, unstable, and treacherous, and even if the path is steep and uncertain and difficult and dangerous. One sitting down. One getting up.
And as the Japanese proverb reminds us: if we fall down 7 times, all we need to do is to get up 8.