Fear of Heights
I looked at Jesse and then back at the 12-foot wall in front of me. I bent double, holding my stomach, and felt as if a hand were wringing the life out of my intestines to the beat of my pounding heart. Waves of nausea waxed and waned as I contemplated the inevitability of climbing up and out of the small crevice within which we found ourselves.
“I can’t do it,” I said, straightening and shaking my head. I walked a few steps back from where we’d come.
“Why not?” Jesse asked, and I couldn’t tell if he were being a smartass or if he really wondered.
“Because . . . because I just can’t.” I wondered how I could explain 50 years of fear, of sitting at the top of an eight-foot ladder and crying because I had to climb down from it. 50 years of dreading any downward slope where I might lose my footing and roll, uncontrollably and dangerously, to end up a broken pile of limbs and torso. 50 years being certain, positive, that I would fall to my death or at least suffer debilitating injury whenever I faced even the most benign climb or descent.
“Why not?” he asked again. “Just put one foot here, and one here, and I’ll help you up and over.” He motioned to his thigh, set out parallel to the ground as it rested on a small outcropping, and another outcropping, just a bit higher, for what he imagined would be my second foothold.
“I can’t.” I repeated the only words I could come up with.
Jesse was getting irritated, I could tell. “Why not? And what are you going to do? Can you find our way back out of here?”
I knew that wasn’t possible, and now I too was getting angry.
“I just can’t!” I heard the panic and futility in my voice and the nonsensical childishness of my response. I felt trapped, and he was being so insensitive to that thing in me that elicited a deep and primal fear as only a deep-seated phobia can.
I looked up at the wall furiously. Furious with his insensitivity, furious at the situation he had put us in, furious with myself for being so afraid. Then I grabbed his offered hand and stepped up onto the thickness of his thigh.
It had been such a great idea, Jesse thought, to explore Rock City Park in rural New York State. And it was. But, as was typical for anything Jesse led us into, we were late to the show.
The whole adventure had begun a few days earlier when we’d left the brick and mortar walls of Jesse’s apartment, loaded the car with borrowed camping gear scavenged from a dusty outbuilding, and headed into rural western New York. My first camping trip since a one-night fiasco 30 years earlier, I only looked forward to it because it promised to be something new and I could have Jesse alone for a few days before heading back across the country for the beginning of a new semester teaching in Sioux City.
Finding the place had been a challenge. Armed with little preparation other than unspecific directions from his friend John (whom we both knew to be a blowhard), we had finally stumbled upon the primitive state park.
Leaving the car as the last bits of light fell through the trees and laced the ground around us, we armed ourselves with flashlights and only a vague idea of where we would find the best bits of the hike. We were completely inexperienced at this hiking/wilderness thing and had no map, no water, and no gear. In addition to our hand-held flashlights, Jesse had brought along the car GPS after entering the car’s position. After a few minutes of wandering among trees, buried stones, and surprisingly colorful toadstools, we found the rocks.
Half-buried in the earth or jutting up in the night air, covered with crumbly loam and slippery moss, these massive boulders had been pushed down the slopes of now disappeared mountains by the slow, powerful force of an ancient glacier, creating cracks and crevices, shelves and walls. Navigating around and over them exhilarated and frightened this city girl who’d never spent any time in the wilderness and little time in nature.
As I hopped across a number of one- to two-foot-wide voids slashed in the earth, I imagined my kids’ disbelief. While these cracks in the ground would pose no challenge to most hikers, or even those out for an evening stroll, my years of imagining falling to a horrible death caused the breath to catch in my throat each time I stepped across one of the narrow, dark chasms.
The pride I felt each time I conquered one of these small feats of bravery built and swelled my chest. I felt uncharacteristically unafraid and strong as we wound our way through the natural labyrinth. Jesse, in what I imagined was an attempt to get a rise out of me, wondered aloud whether there were mountain lions or bears about. Not to be easily cowed, I laughed at his speculation. But his next musing found the vulnerable soft underbelly of my fear. He wondered about spiders and centipedes and what kinds were native to western New York and might be lurking, just out of sight. I suddenly imagined walking into a hanging black widow, my flashlight catching that notorious red hourglass too late and feeling her silk web catch on my face. That’s when we began to look for a way back to the car, finding only a route that included this climb.
As I began the climb up the wall – and looking back I have to admit that “climb” might be hyperbole but life is all about perspective after all – my hands shook and my knees wobbled. Each handhold and foothold felt inadequate as I pulled myself up the wall. When I reached the top, I pulled myself over onto the solid ground and an explicable rush of accomplishment, relief, and undeniable joy instantly replaced all the fear and anxiety.
The realization of what my body was capable of doing, after spending most of my adult life overweight and unfit, shocked me. I remember feeling a lightness of being I’d never experienced. The weight of a lifetime of fear and habit fell away like so much dead skin of an onion, curling and crackling at the bottom of a flimsy paper sack. What had begun a year and a half before – the shedding of an old life that included dealing with a 20-year marriage that ended in an amicable divorce and losing the 50 pounds of extra weight I had accumulated – was now realized in a dark forest in western New York.
The new life I scrambled into when I climbed that first wall looks very little like the years that came before it. I’ve climbed many more walls, scrambled up mountains and ventured down into canyons all across the western United States. I’ve discovered passions and parts of myself that I never knew existed.
That earlier me, the one once ruled by a fear of heights, now seems eons ago and is as foreign to who I am now as the joy of standing free, above the world at the top of a steep and precarious ascent, once was. And wonderfully, my joy of scaling heights has morphed into a spiritual one – I’ve gained the legs and heart to follow not only the path that leads up and over great vistas, but also the path that follows my bliss. When that path becomes frightening, as it sometimes does, I remember, as a talisman, that question my friend Jesse offered up all those years ago, “Why not?” And I now know there is no good answer.