June 27, 2011

Dangling from a Wire

"Oh shit."

I was standing on the first platform of our zipline excursion - the one they called "The Bunny Slope" - watching our instructor demonstrate how to step off the edge and let our weight carry us down a metal wire with our knees tucked in for speed. For the first time, I felt scared.

I've jumped out of a plane, taken a running leap off a cliff, flown a sailplane, and crashed a snowmobile into a creek before, but the only prior time I was ever really scared was standing on the high rickety platform, leaning over the edge to grab a trapeze bar. With no glasses on or contacts in, and no ability to hear anything beyond the westside traffic roar, my most relied-upon physical senses were disabled, leaving me only with the sensation of sweaty fingers slipping over the bar, a lurching stomach, and a watering mouth.

Embarking on my first zip, I recalled the terror of trapeze, a physical activity I was embarrassingly bad at (a self-criticism that a friend likened to complaining that I was no good at swimming with sharks). Nevertheless, though I've never gone back to try to swing my legs over that bar, I did feel like I conquered those selfsame fears on Saturday, when I zipped through the canopy of Catalina Island's interior.

Oh, you're safe enough, skull crammed into helmet, straps digging into chin, tethers woven around pelvis and hardware dangling from carabiners.

That doesn't make it any less scary. You're in the mountains. With the sun setting. And you're pretty sure you're going to do it wrong.

Before my first giant leap for womankind, our instructor asked if I had any questions about the positions I'd have to execute: cannonball, starfish, etc. I said, "What happens if I don't starfish when he signals me to? What if I don't see him?"

"Well, you'll just be going really fast, and he'll have to stop you. But that's OK. If you do cannonball all the way, that's OK."

She'd strung me up and clipped me in while I was standing atop a box of stairs, which I had to step down one at a time to get to the ledge. I started to get really nervous, because with every step, I felt the tethers pulling at my waist, practically lifting me off my tiptoes and dragging me forward.

"That's OK," our instructor said, "I've got you. It'll be easier once you get to the ledge."

And it was. Once I got into position, the wire line above me sagged down with my weight, and waited for me to give it its cue: one confident step forward and vertical plunge down, and then a tilt back with straight arms, tucked-in knees, and crossed ankles.

My first trip down, I didn't look around at any of the scenery. I tried to keep my eyes on the instructor waiting for me on the other side, telling me whether to slow or keep going. When I landed, I said, "Did I starfish properly?", concerned with perfecting a technique I would have no previous knowledge of - not any more than trapeze, or swimming with sharks.

"Well, you'll get there..." he said.

This is what a perfect starfish looks like (this is not me):

With every leap, my form got better and the scenery got prettier, the sun casting its golden glow on us and imbuing the ocean with a deeper blue.

From the Bunny Slope, our lines got longer, lower and faster, allowing me to actually see my surroundings, the boat-flecked ocean shore to my right, the darkening peaks to my left, and the canyon of trees below as I sliced through the tree-tops.

I stopped asking questions.

I stopped looking before I leapt.

But I started looking at everything that passed before me on my way down.

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