Thursday, August 9, 2012


There he was, measuring the distance from the top of the big rock to the water below.  Twenty feet?  Twenty-five?  Whatever it was, it was far.  More concerning to him than the drop, though, was the depth of the water.  Ten feet maybe?  Twelve?  He stood there looking down, knowing there was no real way to gauge from above.  How much water do you need?  He wasn’t sure. 

You should just go.  You just saw Angel do it.  His anxiety level, which had been a low persistent buzzing in his body since stepping out of the forested canyon and onto the rocky promontory, jumped a notch in response to this thought.   He was filled with a nervous uncertainty, but he noticed that it lacked a sharp edge of fear, which surprised him. 

Little Mikey explores the swimming hole in 2007.
He’d seen this cliff many times before, but never from the top.  After all, this was his favorite swimming hole in all of Oak Creek, large enough and deep enough to swim in, with a wide, shallow area for the kids to play in.  And then there were the rocks on the far side, the deep side, that seemed like they were designed for jumping into the water.  There were three of them, in perfectly ascending order.  He thought of them as the Three Bears rocks, because one was too little, one was too big, and one was just right.  He’d jumped from the little one and the just right one many times in years past, but never big bear rock.  He’d never even considered jumping from that rock, even on the few occasions he’d seen others do it.  But he was there now, and he thought he might just do it.  He even felt, in some strange way that he knew was unconnected to any sense of masculine pride, an urging, like he was supposed to jump. 

His being there at all was really an accident.  The others set out from camp to go swimming a half-hour before, and so to save time, he took a side path through the forest, guessing it might turn out to be a short cut.  And it was just that, except the near-constant upward tilt of the trail brought him not to the water’s edge, but to the rocky outcropping overlooking the swimming hole.  Right to the top of big bear rock. 

He looked down, taking in the whole bend of the creek at a glance.  Angel was now telling the others he was up there, and heads were turning in his direction.  From up high, he explained to the others how he got there.  A few of the kids began pointing, and yelling encouragement to jump.

Despite their shouts, he felt no pressure.  If he had thought about it, maybe he would have, but he wasn’t thinking, not in the way he was used to.  He knew he didn’t have to jump, that he easily could have decided to reverse direction, backtrack to the more familiar trail, and follow it across the creek to join the others.  It might have taken fifteen minutes.  But he never really entertained the notion of going back, again because he wasn’t thinking in his usual terms.       

Afterwards, he would wonder why. 

Several years ago, they had come to this same swimming hole on a similar mid-summer’s afternoon, and there were some teenagers up on big bear rock.  There were three of them, Native American, or maybe Hispanic boys.  After a few minutes of taunting each other, two of them jumped, but the third didn’t; a heavy-set kid with long black hair.  When he was left alone, he just regarded the water below silently, endlessly.  Sometimes he would edge forward like he was going to jump, and then back away again.  He moved very slowly, almost groggily.  It wouldn’t have surprised anybody to learn he had been drunk, or stoned.  But maybe he was just scared.  

For a long time, he vacillated between the edge of the rock and a few steps back, as though he were the black mark at the center of the rope in a very evenly matched game of tug of war.  From below, everyone yelled words of encouragement and tips for taking the plunge, all thinking that the only way down was to jump.  At times, it appeared that he was inspired by their words, and stood at the very edge, looking down quietly; but after a few false starts, he backed away again each time.   Eventually, he just kind of sat down on the rock, bowed his head, and fell still, his long hair hanging like a wet towel over his face.  He seemed to have given up on the possibility of getting down, and no one, even his friends, seemed to know what to do.     

He was still there when they left the swimming hole over an hour later, still sitting cross-legged and hunched, unresponsive to their final attempts to rouse him.  The only thing they could think of to do was let a camp attendant know there was a kid, who may or may not be passed out, stuck on the big rock at this one swimming hole.  

I wish we had known about the path then.  He looked over the edge again, but even the freshened memory of the boy who wouldn’t jump hadn’t made him more fearful.  All he thought about was the depth of the water below.  Do you have to hit it just right, or was there some room for error? 

Angel was now swimming back towards the base of the big rock.  He would climb up to the top through a steep cleft on one side.  Of the handful of people they had seen jump from this ledge, all of them had gotten up the same way.  Viewing it from above, it was clearly too steep to use for getting down; it looked like a jagged chute all the way to the rocks at the bottom.  It looked, in fact, a whole lot riskier than jumping into the water, as uncertain as that was.    

While he waited for Angel to finish his ascent, he half-consciously began to check the pockets of his shorts.  Am I carrying anything that would prevent me from jumping?  After all, he hadn’t intended to find himself at the top of this rock, hadn’t planned for it, and he might have had any number of things that he wouldn’t want to get wet, or want to leave on this rock however long until he could come back for them.  With some relief (was it really relief at the time?), he remembered that his phone, wallet and keys were all back at camp, and hadn’t brought the camera that day because the battery had died.  He had nothing to stop him.

He inched forward on the gritty, sand-dusted ledge, perhaps never entirely embracing the idea of jumping.  When Angel, his nephew and a soon-to-be freshman in high school, came up behind him, he said, “Alright, Angel.  What do I do?” 

Angel stepped to his side, and pointed down at the water.  “See the white rock at the bottom there?  Aim for that.”  He looked where Angel pointed and saw the rock.  It looked like it was there expressly to serve as a target.

“Did you hit the bottom?” It was an unnecessary question, really, since Angel showed no sign of injury (and was here ready to do it again), but he had to ask.    

“Yeah, a little. Then he offered, “Try to bend your knees before you hit the water.  It’ll slow you down.”

He nodded as though he heard his nephew.  “Oh, my glasses.  I almost forgot.”  He grasped them with the fingers of one hand and drew them away from his face.  Obviously, he couldn’t jump with them on, and he didn’t like the idea of holding them in his hand either. They were half-rim glasses, and he didn’t want to lose a lens on impact.  He held them experimentally.  This he wasn’t comfortable with.   

“Put them in your pocket,” Angel suggested.  His cargo shorts had lower pockets that buttoned shut.  He mentally weighed the trauma they might experience in there and deemed it safe enough.  He let them slip into the pocket almost unconsciously, and snapped the buttons closed.  “That’s a good idea, Angel.  Thanks.”

He turned back to face the edge, and stepped out onto the last jutting little platform of rock.  He hesitated.  Am I surprised by the absence of that familiar, paralyzing sense of anxiety? That I don’t have to beat it back first? Am I going to wait for it to come?  As if in response, he took his baseball cap off, flung it out over the pool, and jumped.

There was one long second of free-fall, just enough time to get the accelerating sense of being a rocket aimed in the wrong direction.  Of course, he forgot to bend his legs, and hit arrow straight, but the water swiftly pulled him by his feet into a tight curve, so that his butt just grazed along the rocks.  The adrenaline rush completely negated the sharp cold of the water; it was there, but he couldn’t feel any of its bite.  He pushed off the bottom, and thought the water might be shallower than he guessed, maybe seven or eight feet instead of ten, because of how quickly he was back up.  But he’s not sure about that because those moments under the water felt compressed, almost instantaneous.      

He swam to shore, and hauled himself out of the water.  He wasn’t giddy with excitement, no, not giddy at all.  Calm.  He had no desire to do it again, not today anyway, but he felt good.  Really good.  For a long time, he sat on a large rock with his feet in the water, picking up his hat when he noticed it floating in (and only then remembering he had thrown it), and letting the sun slowly sip away the wetness from his skin, clothes and hair.  

Later, days later, he thinks more about what happened.  He can’t figure out why his attitude had been so different, why he hadn’t had more of a struggle with the anxiety and the fear he has come to expect in those kinds of situations.  He knows that if he had taken the same old trail to the swimming hole, he would have had trouble with the idea of leaping from big bear rock.  If he had stood, looking up at that ledge against the sky, and tried to talk himself into it, he knows it never would have happened.  He would have instead mired himself in a thick, muddy rut of worry and self-doubt.  

The more he thinks about it, the more convinced he becomes that there was something about this small thing that is important.  There is something he can learn. 

And although he doesn’t reach any definite conclusions as to what that something might be, he suspects strongly that it has something to do with being open to possibility.  He originally took that side path hoping it would bring him to the water somewhere in the near vicinity of the swimming hole.  But as the trail continued to rise, he knew that there was a chance it might come out where it did – at the top, and then he would have to decide whether to go all the way back, or jump.  But he didn’t let that stop him.  He didn’t turn back.  He stayed open to the possibilities.  He just followed the path he could see, and let it guide him. 

When he got to the top, then, he was already looking at the situation with a different perspective, yes literally, and yes metaphorically.  And yes, the drop looked just as far as he had imagined it would, and yes, the pool looked just as shallow as he feared it would.   But the possibility seemed almost manageable from up there, more than he ever could have guessed without seeing it himself.  And he stayed focused on the possibility, not allowing a space within his mind to fill with worry, not allowing the anxiety to work itself into its frenzied, borderline berserker, state. 

Remembering this later, he thinks he can begin to see how it might be better sometimes to not try and navigate through life on so tight a course, managing each move by chart and plumb, working so tirelessly to orient himself in such a way as to avoid every little disturbance, to tack around every mapped danger and every visible risk, and never relinquishing, not for one moment, his mind’s relentless preoccupation with the unknown, uncountable threats below the surface. 

He thinks (an original thought for him, an exciting thought) that maybe it’s better to let himself get into situations sometimes before deciding how he must respond to them.  Maybe trust your creativity, your flexibility, your possibilities more, and not rely so completely on your rational (and yet irrational), self-preservational, endlessly convoluted, exhausting avoidance system.
He thinks that maybe, in that moment, he has seen a way to begin.     

Yours truly, jumping from 'just right' rock in 2007.
He thinks he wants to remember that feeling he had.

He thinks he wants to remember how good it felt.

He thinks he wants to take that side path again, and again, and again, and approach big bear rock again, and have it feel right again.  Yes, yes, and yes. 

And jump again. 


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