catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 14 :: 2003.07.04 — 2003.07.17


Fear of falling

Note: To excuse the quality of the picture that goes with this article, the film got a little damp due to an incident you?ll be reading about in a few minutes.

A lot of people don?t like camping on account of its demand that you make your body physically vulnerable. You can?t turn on the air conditioning when it?s so humid you can?t sleep. You can?t find an indoor respite from mosquitoes unless you enjoy spending hours in your tent. You might wake up floating in the middle of a heavy rainstorm?hopefully floating, but probably swimming. You can?t really control the taste of your water or the smell of your restroom?if there is a restroom. You can?t stop your neighbors from blowing off fireworks or yelling obscenities or backfiring their trucks at three in the morning. You can?t control your physical environment.

But that?s partly why I like it so much?because you risk all of the bad things in hope of the very, very good things that make it all worthwhile. Like wading in a crystal clear, secluded lake with a tree-topped island in the distance. Like enjoying wild strawberries on a hike. Like seeing a turtle digging a hole for her eggs only minutes before you see a mother moose and her baby. Like smelling the lemony leaves of a wild rose bush. Amazing things happen when we make ourselves vulnerable to the natural world.

Rob and I recently had the opportunity to visit our friends Heather and Noah in Grand Marais, a northern Minnesota hippie/tourist town on Lake Superior, about 30 miles from the Canadian border. It was our second visit to their rented cabin, which has electricity, but no running water. This time, I learned that if I threw a rock at the outhouse before I approached it, the flies would leap away confused instead of swarming me.

While the prospect of using an outhouse might be enough to make some refuse to visit (not to mention bathing only once in five days?and that time in a chilly river), I enjoyed the opportunity to empathize with a significant portion of the world?s population that survives on less than three gallons of water a day?for cooking, cleaning, and

drinking. I also enjoyed the opportunity to challenge my body in ways I don?t usually take the time to do.

On the last day of our mini-vacation, one of our hosts took us on a hike up the Kodonce Creek. We could have taken the easy trail along the side of and above the creek, but chose instead to don water shoes, begin at lake level and hike right up the middle of the stream, which varied in depth from ankle deep to waste-high and ascended away from Lake Superior in a series of waterfalls.

The first waterfall we came to was an easy climb?8 feet high with a moderate slope and large hand and footholds. As we proceeded up the creek, the cliffs on either side of us grew higher and greener, covered in ferns and moss with a canopy of trees at the very top. I felt overwhelmed by the incredible secret places God took the time to create so just a few could take pleasure in their beauty.

Then we came to the second waterfall, which was larger and steeper than the first, but not insurmountable. Heather mentioned offhand how another acquaintance had almost killed herself on this fall, but someone caught her before she fell. ?But that was when the water was higher.? Oh, good.

Heather went first and attempted the left side for several minutes while we surveyed the right side for any sign that it might be easier. It turned out to be more difficult than it looked. As Rob climbed the right side, he found footholds to be few, small and extremely slippery. In the meantime, Heather was pulling moves on the left that my short legs could not. My heart began to pound.

?Can we get up to the trail after we climb this one?? I asked, seeking some assurance that I would only have to tackle this fall once.

?Yeah, we can.?

Okay, I thought, eyeing the rocks and shallow pool at the bottom of the fall. Here goes. Hugging close to the slimy rock, I climbed slowly the route that Rob had taken. At some points, I had no logical assurance, only blind faith, that my foot would hold. In less than a minute, I made it to the top and with shaky knees, continued the hike. ?That was hard to watch,? Rob said. Yes, I thought, feeling a sense of pride and relief for having made it that far. The worst is over.

And then we came to the third waterfall. A complex mass of several interwoven, rushing streams of water, number three was twenty feet high with only one potentially navigable side. To get to the top, an angular rock would necessitate reaching around blind to find a hand hold and then somehow stepping three feet up to avoid the rushing water that would sweep us down the rocks. There was no way.

Heather tried to make the climb, but succumbed to our urges not to take the final risk. Little did we want to have to climb the fall if she made it and even less did we want to see Heather slip to a serious injury or worse. So we turned around?there hadn?t been a trail, only vertical, unrelenting, hundred-foot walls of brittle rock. Aside from a search and rescue team, we clearly faced our only option, which was climbing down the second waterfall.

No doubt partially from a feeling of guilt at the non-existent trail, Heather went first, slowly navigating backwards the side she had climbed up a half hour earlier. She moved slowly, carefully and took long enough for us to be thoroughly frightened of our turn. Rob wanted me to go next, but I intended to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that no part of the pool at the bottom was deep enough for me to jump before I attempted the backwards climb.

So Rob went. He was holding on at the top while Heather was placing his feet, but his borrowed shoes were too big and his toes could not take hold. He slipped. Holding on only with his fingers in a narrow groove of rock at the top, he gritted his teeth and yelled for Heather to help. With nothing against which to brace myself, I was powerless to offer a hand and found myself muttering, ?God, help? over and over again.

Rob finally got low enough to where I could say to myself, ?Well, if he fell now, he wouldn?t die.?

And then he fell.

Flipping himself over mid-air, he launched face first into a foot-and-a-half of water. Fortunately, he, the car key, and our film made it through mostly okay. Unfortunately, the fall left our camera broken, Rob soaking wet, and me, still at the top, terrified.

At the bottom, Rob found a pool that was waste-high and, knowing that I had the option of jumping, I started down. Within seconds, I was low enough that I could step into Rob and Heather?s hands and they lifted me to the bottom. What an incredible sense of relief! As we found the trail to the top, we also found ourselves able to laugh again. And as we told and retold the story later, I felt miles away from the pounding fright that nearly froze my body.

I feel like I should take something profound away from such an intense experience, from a moment of such vulnerability?like I should have had a revelation in those minutes of anticipating potential death or injury. But more than revelation, I experienced reaffirmation. I was reaffirmed in the idea that when we face an insurmountable task, when we accept a risk beyond what we think we can handle, we are capable of far more than we ever thought possible. We may be frightened by the fact that we can?t always be in control, even when we try desperately to maintain a tight rein on all of the variables that surround us. But the fact remains that we live in an unpredictable world, most of which we cannot see or fully understand. We were created by a God whose promises we must accept or reject without any tangible proof. Some of us even live with the wild expectation of a mysterious next life that is perfect and eternal.

Being in nature, making my body vulnerable reminds me of these simple truths. As I face the tasks of maintaining and growing a non-profit organization and starting a fair trade store, I sometimes feel as if I?m at the top of the cliff, paralyzed with fear, eyes closed, begging for help, sure I can?t continue. But thank God for sources of strength that are not my own, for the encouragement of friends, for the generosity of strangers, for the mystery of will. These things help me to move forward even when I know I can?t, even when I?m nearly incapacitated with thoughts of the tragedies that might lie ahead. When I think I?m going to fall, a hand reaches out to support me.

Lately, I?ve had the sensation of falling often, even in my sleep. I dreamt about having to go on vacation in a few minutes and I haven?t started packing. I dreamt about arriving at exam day without studying. Sometimes I wake up with general but distinct feelings of unpreparedness, of searching for something I have no hope of finding. But just in the past week, a family donated a box of vegetables to us, another family wrote us a wonderful note of encouragement with a check, and a woman who hardly knows us gave her tithe money for desperately needed eye exams and glasses. A friend of ours would call these things ?smiles from God,? small gestures of affirmation that we are on the right path. We are certainly blessed with help on this journey?but these are blessings we would never have known if we hadn?t taken a risk.

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