I can be kind of a weenie. It’s been this way a long time, and I was a pretty fearful kid. I didn’t learn to swim until I was eight years old and could no longer tolerate being left out of pool games. One day, I just got tired of it, and swam across the pool. I guess that Anais Nin quote about staying tight in a bud till it’s more painful than blossoming also applies to kids who can’t swim.
As an adult, I tried to start re-balancing my relationship with risk, because I’ve learned that giving in to fear is a great way to piss away a life, and I fear that more than anything. These days, I don’t let myself out of much.
That’s why my heart sank a little on Friday when I saw a series of ladders fastened to the cliff face in Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. Because I knew I would have to climb them, despite my longstanding fear of heights.
Bandelier is the location of the cliff-dwelling ruins of the Ancestral Pueblo culture, which were occupied roughly from the 12th to the early 17th centuries. Most of the cavates — the individual dwellings within the rock face — are located a short distance from the ground, perhaps seven or eight steps on a ladder. But there’s one expansive room called Alcove House that can only be accessed by a 140 foot climb straight up the cliff face on three ladders.
I stood at the bottom of the canyon, wondering whether to go up or not. There were two large signs warning anyone who wasn’t physically fit or was afraid of heights not to attempt to reach Alcove House. I knew Travis would be fine. He has few fears, irrational or otherwise, and I knew neither the climb nor the descent would trouble him in the slightest. I squinted up at the ladders and considered. People do this all the time. (And have for centuries, apparently.) Obviously, few people have fallen off the ladders and bounced down the cliff face like pebbles. So really I was looking at mental agony, not genuine physical peril.
I did a little rock climbing in my early 20’s, but I was always harnessed, with a competent person on belay, and I never went too high. I do remember one time that I took an ill-advised look out over the valley and immediately froze to the rock face. That was the end of my climb for the day. As it turns out, that experience was useful on Friday.
After considering it for a few minutes, I motioned to Trav to start up the ladder. I thought I could manage my brain, and I wanted to see Alcove House, and get the photographs that waited for me up there.
Going up wasn’t terrible; I kept my face turned to the ladder, and moved briskly upward. Descending, though, was another story. You can’t go down the ladders facing forward (and this is a good thing, really), but turning around and descending the ladders does involve some coordination. And it’s just — harder somehow. I recalled my freeze on the rock face twenty years ago, and resolved to do two things: not look anywhere but at the rock in front of me, and make sure my boots were tied.
When I took a childbirth class before my son was born, the nurse told us that at the beginning of labor, the world would seem as big as it usually is, with our focus on the whole room. But by the time it started to get gnarly, our focus would have dwindled to a small area as most of it went toward managing the pain.
That’s how it was for me on the ladders as I came down. I mumbled to myself: “It’s just you and the rock. You and the rock. You and the rock.” My world compressed into a few square inches of the peach-colored volcanic rock in front of me as I methodically descended, rung after rung after rung, first my left leg, then my right.
“Hey,” I said to myself about halfway down. “Maybe you can write about this.” Right — 800-plus words about something lots of people could do without a second thought. (Including the ten-year-old girl who made it to Alcove House thirty seconds after I did.)
Not much suspense in this narrative, though. I made it down, of course. I’m damn sure not writing this from between the first and second ladders. But I had to be both gentle and firm with myself. I couldn’t yell at my fear. I had to make friends with it. I think that skill takes a long time for many of us natural-born weenies to master. I have to keep working on it.
But I’m still not going to skydive.