Thursday, 22 October 2015

Stupid Wisdom

Sulovskie skaly 06 I always massage a broken heart with danger. Once, in college, I memorialised a girlfriend's abrupt adieu by riding my bike a hundred miles up the side of Mt. Rainier and back in a single day.

It helped. I don't know why.

Not long after I fell in love again, and not long after that, got bounced again. Days later found me high on a sheer rock face, alone, with little experience or equipment.

I almost didn't survive that one.

The memory of that September morning remains vivid, these many years gone. The scent of sun-baked basalt and cool alpine air, the grey stone driving into my gut like a terrestrial fist, and once again I'm crimped over a ledge, cheek pressed against the Olympics. Below, the toes of my hiking boots are wedged against a shallow nub in an otherwise featureless surface, while above I'm literally clinging by my fingerprint ridges to the shelf's base. Hanging between worlds, I am simultaneously of one piece with the mountain, and apart from it.

Backing down is not an option; toeholds are few, and I can't see to find them. I can't climb for the same reason. So I cling, and ponder. Indian summer makes my palms sweat, and that makes them slip, in tiny jerks that send electric jolts through my body. Yet I'm strangely detached, as if it's all happening to someone else.

I suck in a lungful of air, and my expanding chest deducts another quarter-inch from my account.

The fall, fifty feet to jagged rocks, will surely kill me. I could channel my strength into a desperate upward surge, but my boots might slip and their weight drag me to my death. On the other hand, if I deliberate much longer, the problem will solve itself.

Calmly, I choose to panic.

Knotting the muscles in my legs, I shove off hard, back arched, arms thrust forward like a competition swimmer. My face makes a sickening thud against the outcrop, but my fingertips find a crevice in the blind rock. I jam my knuckles in, head throbbing, lips numb and swelling, and hang. My boots kick briefly in the void, then find a ripple of their own. Chin clenched against the ledge, I cling again, and gasp, and wait for the nausea to pass. A rivulet of blood trickles from my nose, down the rock, and into my tee shirt. But I'm well-belayed, suspended by my own skeleton. A leaden heel flung over the rim, and I throw my arse into the job and flop onto the deck like a halibut.

For a long time I just lie in the hot grit, trembling, an arm tossed over my eyes, and wheeze. At length, choking on the blood now flowing backward, I rise to half lotus, clamp a bandana over my nose, and pant through my mouth. Golden morning whispers the dry bunchgrass that tufts the cracks. A Steller's jay screams in the treetops below, neon blue among the needles. And far below that a forested valley stretches, pristine and wild, to the edge of the world.

At last the bleeding stops, and sometime later, the singing in my spine. I fill my mouth with cold water and lie back down.

That day I decided I'd got what I came for. Since then, my heartache remedies trend to solitary journeys through remote places.

Dangerous, yes. But not stupid.

(Adapted from Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Around Washington's Borderlands, copyright RK Henderson. Photo of a guy doing it right courtesy of Jakub Botwicz and Wikimedia Commons.)
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