Taking the Plunge

This was early in Grandma’s and my married career, in the carefree days of us working, renting, having no real responsibilities, playing, and sometimes starving.

We took a camping trip to a place in Indiana. It wasn’t Turkey Run. It was someplace close to that. Indian Hills, I think, or something like that. Or maybe Caucasian Valley. No, that can’t be it.

Anyway, we went, pitched a tent, and did our wood chopping, campfire building, outdoor cooking, casually-nice-but-not-too-close socializing with fellow campers, and hiking thing. In the course of our hiking one of the trails, we came to a crest. As we looked down, the trail plunged straight down the side of a hill. The main walkway was wide but nearly sheer, it seemed. And unoccupied. Rather than try to walk down it, hikers were carefully picking their way down by hanging on to the trees that were interspersed along the sides of the wide pathway. Really, it was that steep.

Grandma started to do the same, but I was seized with a sudden inspiration, the same kind of inspiration that one has as one’s last thought before one wakes up in the ICU. But it didn’t seem like it at the time. I was flashing back to a field trip in high school.

In high school biology class, we had gone on a field trip to to another state park, this one to a place with sand dunes that held some vegetation. Some of the sand dune walls were very steep, and the really joyful part was running down, then jumping and falling, falling, falling down that steep hill, before you came to a soft stop in the sand. Then you could jump again and plunge down the side again before coming once again to a soft stop in the sand.

And while it was fun to jump and fall and not get hurt, the thing that impressed me was: This is a really efficient way to get down a hill!

So now in looking down this hill – really, a near cliff – I imagined running, jumping, and, even without sand, sliding to a stop on the side, and then jumping again, and again sliding to a stop, and making my way efficiently to the bottom. This was because I was thinking of the biology field trip and not physics. Had I thought of physics, with the force vector of my body’s momentum pointing well outside of the base defined by my feet (which is a geeky way of saying “completely overbalanced”), I would have realized this promised an uncertain outcome (which is a geeky way of saying “a certainty of grievous bodily harm”).

So I ran, and I jumped, and I landed on my feet, sideways, expecting to slide. But I didn’t slide. In fact, I barely slowed down. The cold hand of gravity, having brought me this far, was not about to stop, and rather than falling into my slide, or falling forward into a mad downhill tumble, my body kept moving forward, or downward, take your pick, and I put my foot down in front of me to keep balance. Again and again.

In short, I was running down this seemingly nearly sheer decline, completely unable to stop, barely able to keep from falling forward. At that point in my life, I’d always been a fast sprinter, but this was surreal, and by that, I mean it didn’t seem real at all. It felt like I was running faster than I could actually run.  There wasn’t a question of trying to stop. All of my energy was simply focused on putting one foot in front of the other, rapidly as possible, in a desperate attempt to stay upright.

Then in the middle of the path, a young tree came into view. I had about two quick eyeblinks to decide what to do. Running into it wasn’t an option, unless I wanted to get split lengthwise like an overripe honeydew. I veered as best as I could to run close to it, and as I came up, or down, to it, I reached out my hands to grab it and arrest my Plunge of Death.

But here again, physics was not my friend. I probably weighed 160 or so at the time, running at about 150 miles an hour, so with a forward inertia force of a baby elephant, and given about three thousandths of a second to establish a handhold, my grip strength simply wasn’t up to it. And then came the highlight, although not the end, of this little adventure (which took FAR less time to experience than it’s taking to talk about it).

I was spun completely around, still at full speed, by the force of grabbing the tree and having it ripped from my grasp. Keep in mind that all my momentum is still fully foward at this point. I landed backwards, still hurtling in the same direction, and did an ungainly, moving, hopping, pinwheeling pirhouette, looking as graceful as a man picking his way barefoot through a field of burning cow patties while swatting at the thousands of flies, but somehow keeping my feet, still moving, until a second or so later, I was again looking downhill and still running faster than I’d presumed possible.

Now, I’ve played sports. I made it through Marine boot camp. I’ve gone up mountain walls, bungy-jumped, and done some crazy things. But if there was one moment in my life where I’d be asked, “Did you ever do something completely out of your head that you didn’t think you were capable of?” (because we’re asked that all the time, y’know) then I’d have to say, “Keeping my feet after trying to grab that tree.”

But keeping my balance through all that was a mixed blessing, because here I was, again, still in near freefall, sprinting wildly down the forest surface like an out-of-control RoadRunner, barely conscious of the surprised and horrified looks of the people lining the trail as I streaked by them.

And then the trail inconsiderately took a decided right turn. I could no more handle a purposeful turn than the Titanic could skip daintily around the iceberg. I simply ran right through the side of the trail, to a limb stretching across, about waist-high, that some park ranger had cleverly placed across the side as if to say, “Not here. Use the trail,” and the forces of physics that were applicable to me at the time simply didn’t care about the ranger’s trail maintenance duties.

In the dim misty recesses of memory, it seems like it was a tree trunk in my way. Realistically, it was probably a limb a few inches wide. I just know that, unlike my grip, my body’s momentum didn’t break through in unstoppable fashion, not quite. I have a flash of memory of “oh, no!!” as I hit it, being suprised that it didn’t really hurt, or not just yet, and then flying through the air, in a mindless, uncontrolled half-somersault, and landing on my back in the middle of a field of mayapple.

At this point, let’s not forget Grandma. She was back, still closer to the top of the trail, watching her fairly new husband plunge recklessly down a cliff, and no doubt rethinking the wisdom of marriage to someone who was so obviously a suicidal moron. Despite all that, she did care about me (she still claims to) and watched fearfully as I did the mad sprint, the flying no-hold on the tree, and the ultimate end of my sojourn as I crashed through the limb and went sailing into the mayapple.

Now, mayapple is a pretty little green leafy plant that grows, oh, maybe knee high, if I remember right. In any event, it grows higher than my body when I’m prone. So when I landed on my back in the mayapple, I ended up out of sight to anyone watching. So to Grandma’s view, I had ripped down the side of a cliff, crashed through a tree, went flying, and the earth had then swallowed me whole.

Back in the field, I lay there for a minute, the breath having been bounced out of my body. I didn’t dare move, because I was sure I’d find my limbs scattered around the field and pieces of spine lying around. But nothing like that. I felt around my body. Everything seemed to be in place. Nothing broken. I finally decided to try to get up and, to my surprise, found that I could. Something about the elasticity of youth and perhaps the cushioning of the mayapple had spared me.

At this point, then, a combination of stark relief and self-awareness of the absurdity hit me, hard, and I started laughing, hard, as I rolled around, found my feet, and stood. Grandma was almost down to me at the time, her pretty eyes big and scared, because she was alternately wondering how to get hold of the authorities to retrieve my corpse, or how many baskets they’d need to bring me back home. I assured her I was fine, and she gave me an appropriate dose, in equal measures, of sympathy and scorn.

We made our way back to the trail, and I saw the other thing that helped to keep me from getting injured in the fall. The limb that I’d crashed into and that had sent me flying was split clean through. It had slowed me down and paid the price for its kindness. I think the evidence of my plowing through the branch and remaining essentially unscathed impressed Grandma about me physically about as much as anything else that day. Although, certainly, you couldn’t call my actions on that day impressive.

We walked past this broken casualty of my adventure, commenting on it, and back onto the trail. Grandma was still getting over being scared. I was still laughing, in a mixture of relief, comical self-perception, and probably mild hysteria. There were other hikers on the trail, some of whom had to have seen the mishap.

But no one else spoke to me. In retrospect, I can’t really say I blame them.

— Grandpa

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