Over the Edge

BROTHER Bob and his son, Jason, are coaches in the rocks above Turkey Creek. They say the first step, over the edge, is the scariest. They say once I make that first step, the rest of the descent will be easy and fun, and I'll be glad I did it. It might not matter if the rest is easy and fun, because I might never take the first step over the edge.

I'm fastened into a nylon harness. A rope is attached to a tree ahead of me and passes through an aluminum figure-eight attached to my harness and then passes around me. I hold the rope with my left hand, ahead of the figure-eight, and I hold it with my right hand after it passes around me. From my right hand, it hangs down 50 feet of cliff face. I'm supposed to lean back until I am horizontal, then walk backward down the cliff face, letting rope pass through my hands and gripping it again to regulate th e speed of my downward motion. Rappelling, they call it.

I say, "I can't bring myself to lean that far back over a 50-foot drop."

Bob says, "You have to. If you don't get 90 degrees to the cliff, your feet will go out from under you, and you'll smack into the rock and probably break yourself up."

"That won't be any problem, because I'm not even going to start down. I'll just come back up, and somebody with more nerve can take my turn."

"Everybody is scared the first time. Isn't that right, Jason? I was scared the first time. But once you get over the edge, you can't get enough of it."

Nephews, nieces, and daughters watch from top and bottom. Juniper, my 16-year-old daughter, who had her initiation several months ago, preceded me down the rock face. She pushed away from the cliff with her feet, so that she bounced as she went and swung merrily side-to-side, adding to the excitement.

If I back out, I have to face everyone afterward. I've lived a good life and had a lot of fun and rewarding times. Nobody lives forever. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar said, "A coward dies a thousand times before his death. A brave man dies but once."

I lean back until I'm 90 degrees to the face of the cliff. I step down and release rope and step again and release more rope. One small, white cloud looks down at me from the blue sky. Family members look down at me from the top of the cliff. It is as they said. The worst part was getting horizontal. Now I'm comfortable with the position. I push away from the rock and bounce, not a very big bounce, but a bounce. I walk backward down the cliff, releasing rope as I go, until I step down onto level rock at the bottom.

The cliff looks so much smaller from the bottom. I climb the long way around to get back on top and get in line for another turn. Every other initiate goes through the long building up of nerve at the top. Now I can add my voice of experience to the encouragement. "Once you're over the edge, it's easy. You'll be glad you did it."

Not too long after this, we take over the management of Magic Sky Ranch, where the rock formations are many, varied, and startling in their beauty and steepness. Jason brings his rope and other equipment, and we find several places to rappel.

Then we start climbing back up. Jason is a good coach, very supportive and conscious of safety, never pressuring anyone to go beyond what she or he feels ready for.

We use the harness and the rope for climbing, with one person at the top, tied to a tree, keeping the slack out of the rope; belaying, it's called. The rope isn't used to pull the climber up, but to keep him from falling if he slips. Or her. Juniper is the most adventuresome climber, after Jason.

She has wanted opportunities for adventure, and she is finding them. I get part way up and take pictures of her as she climbs the face of the rock, into a crevice, and up the crevice to the top. A certain amount of discipline on my part is called for, to swallow all the "be carefuls" I might say. She is tied to the rope, but she could still slip and swing to the side. At any moment of particular concern for her safety, I think, "She could be growing up in a city and facing a far more dangerous environmen t there, so keep the mouth shut and the camera operating."

WHEN it's my turn, I get to the difficult spot where I must know just how far out of vertical I am, and I must use very small handholds to pull up over a protruding rock. After three tries at stretching myself up the face of the rock, I decide this is one challenge I'm not going to surmount. I say, "I'm going back down."

Jason says, "OK. Slack on the rope," and he gives me a little bit of slack at a time, until I am back down at the bottom. I untie the rope, and the next climber ties on and succeeds in reaching the top.

At different times, we try different rocks, for going up, for going down. Sometimes I climb or rappel, or both. Sometimes I just watch; sometimes I find perches off to the side and take pictures. Once, it occurs to me that I'm a little nervous about the safety of the young people, as parents and uncles will be, but all the young people are harnessed and fastened to ropes, following all the safety procedures, while I'm 20 feet down the face of a steep cliff, perched on a small protrusion of rock, so I can

get pictures of everyone rappelling. I have neither rope nor harness, and I'm not even sure I can get back up the route I came down.

It's a series of adventures, climbing and rappelling with friends and family, taking pictures and laughing and joking and working closely with each other, encouraging and supporting each other. Hang on tight to the rope; hang on tight to the rock. But start letting go of the young people as they seek their own adventures.

I could try to make an allegory of climbing and rappelling. At first, the parents are involved, cautioning for safety and overseeing the processes, then beginning to let the young people go on their own, except that Jason taught Bob, and Juniper learned before I did and is probably already more proficient at rappelling and climbing than I will ever be. Jason counsels his dad to be more careful, to pay more attention to the rules for safety.

Maybe that doesn't stretch an allegory too far. Our children have taught us much, particularly about how to appreciate living, how to find the adventure in every day's existence.

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