It was early, 9:30am at the very latest. The ravens croaked and garbled from the ponderosas and the sun glowed an eerie purple, tinted by smoke from a wildfire raging west of us. My hands gripped wood, my sandaled feet clutched at the pegs driven into the sides of the pole I hugged. My harness creaked as I eased by weight backwards a bit, and down below, a classmate tightened his belay.
Only one month before, I had leaped into the unknown. I decided not to return to the perfectly mowed lawns, brick walks, and solemn arches of my university in St. Louis. I strode away from the crumbled ruins of my parent’s divorce and piled belongings- hiking backpack, guitar, social justice books, and sketch pad, into my groaning car and headed westward.
Heat on high to avoid the steaming threat of an overheating engine and windows down to seek cool in 102 degree air, I blew west. In a motel in Oklahoma City, I woke, or didn’t, as I have a tendency to act out my dreams, and naively opened my door to find a young girl asking for money to get home to her grandma. In the morning, in the odd filtered light of motel blackout curtains, the only proof of this interaction was my opened change purse on my bed stand.
In Albuquerque, a diner waitress reproached me for being female and alone at night in the part of town I’d chosen for a stop. She urged me to head directly to my motel, lock the door, and not open it until morning. I awoke from a dream, standing in my bathtub wrapped in the shower curtain, sweat pooling on my collarbone.
Mule-eared sunflowers bobbed and swayed in the drafts of 18 wheelers and red rock canyons trailed away from highways. The sunlight blinded me, turned my already tanned arm the color of overlooked toast, and the hammered the need for water into the crevices of my aching head.
And then, with a whoosh and bumpy ride on a gravel road and oh so many get-to-know you initiatives, I was in the woods for three weeks of orientation at a completely different type of college. We swam our 40 pound packs through a reservoir and gingerly dipped bottles full at the end of a cattle tank that was our only source of water and was also guarded by a sleeping rattlesnake. We jumped off of boulders into pools that took my breath away and plodded onwards, blisters coated in duct tape. After three days of solo, listening to flies buzz outside my tarp and coyotes yip and bark in the night, I emerged, stronger and beginning to feel just a little bit brave.
And now, as I gazed out over the Bradshaw Mountains, the pinion juniper woodland covering grating granite slopes, I felt my breath stick to the insides of my lungs. My stomach was tight and my knees locked to prevent the wobble sought by my legs. Shouts of encouragement trailed upwards and I could see the trapeze bar, hanging definitively out of reach of my perch on the tip of the top of the telephone pole.
I climbed the final peg and both feet eked out real estate yet lapped over the edges. I crouched low, willing muscles to fire and hands to grab. And then, with a roar of a breath and a shout that was equal parts fear and exhilaration, I jumped. And with thunk, my hands met grip tape and my biceps contracted and I swung, out and over my outdoor education classmates. Out and over this new town in a new state in a new part of one my countries. And back again, away from realities that had left me uneasy and sleepless. Away from the shoulds and the urges to follow a route that left me feeling complacent. I leapt and I caught myself. I leapt, and I hung on.