Such Great Heights

Everything looks perfect from far away

~ The Postal Service

Looking back on it, I’m not sure that I ever liked heights very much, per se. I’ve always loved amusement parks, and there was a time that I loved flying. Basically, heights never bothered me when I was younger, but they were more accidental accompaniments to other adrenaline rushes than anything else.

But as with aforementioned flying, as I got older, the phobia increased. To the point where when I’m somewhere high up, my legs will do this shaky thing that I can’t control. Shaky maybe isn’t the right word. It’s more like a fierce numbness combined with an otherworldly tingling. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to pass out. It’s like there is something in my body or subconscious somewhere that is convinced I’m destined to fall.

Metastatement? Perhaps. But the good news is, there were five times in the past two years that I managed in varying degrees to overcome the fear/sensation. And here they are!

1) Seven Falls

Most out there who’ve been to Seven Falls are right now probably like, “Erm. Really?” But yes, really! On Josh’s first visit to Colorado, we did it up vacay-style and hit a bunch of the tourist traps! Which to be fair are not trappy in Colorado so much as awesome. But basically, Seven Falls features waterfalls (hence the name!) and trails – but it also features steps. Lots and lots of steps. Steep steps. High steps! They go up really, really far. When I walked up with Josh, I was relatively okay. But going down was another story entirely. Because from way up high, you can see just how far up you are, and there is no choice but to climb down, every terrifying bit of the way. Well, it was terrifying to me. Josh was very sweet and never made me feel bad for being such a baby. When I hit flat land, it felt amazing and though I was weirded out by how scared I was to begin with, it felt great to have faced my fear, albeit with some horror movie eye-hiding along the way.

2) Hiking at a Place I Will Edit As Soon As Josh Reminds Me of Where It Was

Last summer, Josh and I went on several hikes led by our friend Paul, who is an excellent hike leader and tour guide. Though this was not our first hike and though I’d done the Incline with little fear, the hike that day was different. Cody had joined us, and that was the good part, but the bad part was the point where I realized it was a steep fall down, and there was nothing to stop us from doing just that, AND that I had no choice but to keep going, because turning back would have also been scary, plus: fail. I kept pep talking myself, but the fear overcame me and I actually started crying. While fear is my arch nemesis, the times are extremely few and far between that it brings me to tears. Yet there I was, traipsing a mountain with the boys and while I wanted to be Kate from “LOST,” instead I was all dissolved into a puddle of tears. Embarrassing, yet self-schadenfreude saved the day. Josh, Paul, and Cody were very sweet and told me to take as long as I needed. When I was “ready,” they took turns grabbing my hands and leading me past the scary part. Then it got awesome again, and afterwards we went for beer and pierogies and P.J.’s, and the day felt all in all successful!

3) The Royal Gorge

Oh, Royal Gorge. Get better soon. (This summer’s fires destroyed a lot of its structures, though thankfully not the bridge.)

Royal Gorge was the first place besides Briarhurst Manor that I went to with my family, when I came out to visit them in 2009. That weekend was awesome. I got to see my family again, got to see their awesome house, and I just loved Colorado. But it was also brutal, because I got bad altitude sickness. So I was never sure which it was, the upset stomach or the fear of heights that kept me from crossing the Royal Gorge bridge that day. I took about 10 steps until I got that leg-ringing/passout feeling, and went back to the mainland to get a slice of pizza and a root beer instead. Walking across that bridge, that day, felt like a physical impossibility.

When I prepared to move to Colorado in 2011, everything in my life was changing. An important and long-term relationship had ended. I’d left my job. I lost my car by default, as it wouldn’t have made the 2,000-mile drive. I was leaving friends, family, and the only state I’d known for 35 years to enter the unknown, save for my family. It was sad and scary, yet invigorating, because now I could be fearless. “I will ride the Sky Coaster!” I said to everyone who’d listen. The Sky Coaster drops you from a harness and has you swing over the very-deep Royal Gorge.

Yet I didn’t go back to Royal Gorge until last summer, with Josh. There again, was the bridge. This time, I knew what I was in for – kind of. I knew I’d be scared, and that the bridge waved around in the wind. But I stepped onto the bridge and kept going. I clung to the railing and to Josh, and didn’t dare look down or around, but I got to the other side. Then after hiking around and seeing the animals (yay!), we had to go back across.

I knew I could do the bridge again, because the first journey was successful. But there was also the option of the tram. It takes you back across the Gorge, suspended from a cable. Terrifying! But it seemed wrong to turn down the challenge. We had to wait for it to come back, and every minute of waiting was excruciating. My fight-or-flight reflex was roaring in a bipolar way. My legs didn’t ring this time, but itched to run out of the waiting area and back across the bridge. But I stayed put. A family joined Josh and me on the tram, and the kids were laughing at how scared I was. That was actually comforting, and here I am to tell the tale.

Though I still have not done the Sky Coaster.

4) Tower of Doom

On one of Josh’s later visits to Colorado, we stayed in Denver and had the most glorious extended Halloween weekend. On the Sunday in between the Saturday of celebration and the Monday of actual Halloween, we went to Elitch Gardens, Denver’s amusement park. As I mentioned, I am or at least was an amusement-park junkie. Tons of things in this life scare the bejeezus out of me, but an amusement park was never one of them.

When Josh and I went to Elitch, it had been quite awhile since I’d done anything ride-wise besides carnival fare. Ten years, to be exact, unless you count Adventureland, which I don’t, though I love it. And I was startled to realize what an absolute baby I’d become. Everything scared me! Even the freaking Octopus! That’s not what it’s called at Elitch, but the Octopus was my favorite ride at the Cure of Ars fair since I was a little kid.

However, nothing could have prepared me for the Tower of Doom. I THOUGHT it was going to be like the Dr. Doom ride at Islands of Adventure. Not only do they share the word “Doom,” but they’re set up the same way. Dr. Doom shoots you up and/or down, depending on where you sit, IIRC. Also, you feel really strapped in, and the ride isn’t super high.

Tower of Doom was another story altogether. You’re in like, a seatbelt, and just feel the world fall away from you as you creep up…and up…

…And up! I can’t remember ever feeling more scared on a ride. Like at any moment, I’d just fall right out of the seat. Once at the top, I figured we’d go back down again slowly, but no! You just WOOSH right down, seeing every moment that had lasted a lifetime just a second ago whiz past.

Once we were back on ground, I understood the faces of those who’d gone before me while I was waiting on line. They start out psyched, and end up looking traumatized.

A year later, Josh was now living in Colorado, and we decided to go back to Elitch. Rides and Benny Blanco’s ftw! This time I was like, let’s go on Tower of Doom FIRST. I wanted to consolidate my fear into that ripping off the band-aid experience, so as to enjoy the roller coasters properly.

When the attendant strapped me into the seat, my body rang with an “Are you freaking kidding me?” reaction. But I was prepared this time. When or how I came up with this approach I don’t know, but it was planned. As the ride took me up, up, and up even higher, I thought of Elijah Wood in “Sin City.” SPOILER ALERT FOR THE MOVIE! I thought that if he can get eaten away by wolves whilst retaining a poker face, surely I could do the same on Tower of Doom. I stared straight ahead and didn’t look anywhere else. When the ride reached the top, I let out a breath. There would be a drop, and I knew this. The important thing was that I’d made it to the top without feeling fear. And if I recall correctly, we went back on that ride before going home that day.

5) Cave of the Winds

As with Royal Gorge, Josh and I got a free pass to go to Cave of the Winds. The outdoor attractions close at seven, so when we arrived at around six a couple of weeks ago, we took a look around, decided to come back earlier another time, and went to see “This Is the End” instead.

Last week, we went back to Cave of the Winds. I’d seen the outdoor ropes course, and was very psyched to do it. Or so I’d thought. We went for it first – got harnessed in, and headed up the steps.

The first thing that tripped me up was realizing that part of the course was right over a canyon of some nature. Pardon my lack of geological knowledge. But basically, the whole shebang features all different kinds of ropes and balance beams. You are in a harness, but whoa. It looked WAY less intimidating when I saw it from the ground.

And when I got to the point where I had to walk on a narrow piece of wood fairly far off the ground, I lost it. I tried to think of Elijah Wood. I tried to kick my own ass, mentally.

But it was one of those times where mind does not triumph matter. I couldn’t move. My legs were once again threatening to give out.

There was a time 20 years ago, when I did a high-ropes course at Smuggler’s Notch. Though it scared me, I pitied the people who had to bow out. Now here I was, having one dude yell at me to move because I was blocking the way for all of the non-cowards.

So I moved, back down the staircase, slinking with shame, while telling Josh to please stay and have fun.

The guy who’d harnessed me in was all, “Whaaaa,” at my return. “I just couldn’t,” I replied. And that was true. But I didn’t accept that it was true for all time – not even for all day, because when would I next get a free pass to do something that back in the day would have fueled me with vigor?

I settled into my table of shame, drank Powerade, and watched Josh traipse all over the place – moving up to the second level, when I couldn’t even approach the first. I watched as kids flew around the scariest part of the course, the one over the canyon. The fear and self loathing threatened to overtake me. I sat there and wondered what exactly had happened to me over the years, to make me so fearful. Why I was sitting at a picnic table when I could be having an invigorating time.

It was one of the select times that my analytical tendencies kicked in. I watched what people were doing, and by doing so gained proxy-sense memory. I could do this. I COULD. Just not quite yet.

Of course, the fear of the ropes course was compounded by my fear of the humiliation of going back up to get harnessed in again. Surely they would know that I’d failed once, and the next attempt would be a futile effort.

But then one girl who’d already won my heart by sassing off to a rude customer told me effusively that there was nothing to worry about, that she was terrified the first time and couldn’t do it, but now she does cartwheels off the equipment, and the harnesses are gold.

Josh came down eventually. I cheered for his bravery and said I wanted to do the Bat-a-pult. Which is basically a zipline, only you’re not in a harness, but something akin to the Ferris Wheel seats that are not enclosed. He was like, are you sure? I explained that heights terrify me, but if I’m forced into equipment that moves without me, it’s easier than having to force myself to move. Still when I waited on line with him, I couldn’t look at views. I could barely talk; I was too scared to like, deal with life in that moment.

We got to the seat, and I pointedly did not look at anything but that seat. I looked at Josh, at the attendant. Anything but the terrifying expanse of land I was about to fly over. But I got in the seat.

Then we were shot off, and both of us were like, whoa. This is actually relaxing. The ground below was not that far away, and the experience was fun.

When we got off, I was ready, almost, for the ropes course. First, I needed some “food,” so we got nachos, and ate them in the very-nice seating area that overlooks some beautiful land, and also reminds me of going on retreats in high school.

And then I was as ready as I’d ever be. Thank the Lord, the people working the ropes course were not the same ones who’d witnessed my shame earlier. One dude was particularly awesome, calling the harness “bomb equipment,” which helped immensely.

It wasn’t some immediate success story. I was still terrified, and Josh had to lead me every literal step of the way, for awhile. But I did the first level of the course. Then we went up to the second, and it was even scarier. But I did it.

At that point, Josh wanted to do the over-the-canyon section of the course, and I just couldn’t. I almost went down again, to the ground. Instead, I decided to try the first level again. This time, it was way less scary, and I started channeling the nine-year-old kid that used to be me, who used to go to the playground to work the balance beam on the weekend. After a few times around the first level, I went back up to the second. It was scary, but not nearly as much, this time.

Josh started to go over the canyon again. I was so inspired by how he kept challenging himself. When I knew he wasn’t looking, I was filled with a surge of determination. The night before, we’d watched the “LOST” where Hurley finds the van. Instead of trying to channel Elijah Wood’s lack of feeling, I tried to embrace Charlie’s attitude when he gets in the passenger seat: Maybe it’s dangerous, but such is life – live a little, why not?

There is still one challenge I didn’t do on that course. There is still the Sky Coaster. There is still something at Elitch that shoots you into the air and makes everyone who goes on it scream, and I haven’t done that either. They are all now on my bucket list. The older I get, the more cognizant I get of how and why I am afraid of such things. I’d like to spend the next half (God willing) of my life facing and embracing those fears.

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