By Tim Hayes
Who’s ready for a pop quiz? Here goes…
Would you hand the keys to a brand-new Lamborghini to a 16-year-old kid with a learner’s permit?
Would you offer a multi-million dollar NHL contract to a person who’s never been on ice skates?
Would you pay $200 for a ticket to a Broadway show starring trained (or even untrained) seals – and nothing else?
If you answered “Yes” to any of the above questions, then, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to come over here and sit in this Time-Out Chair for the remainder of the essay.
For everyone else, here’s what I’m talking about.
One day, about a decade and a half ago, we drove north to a state park for the birthday party of one of our daughters’ friends. This young lady was turning 12 and her parents thought an outdoor picnic with her friends’ families would be nice, and it was. It had rained pretty hard earlier that day, but by midday the sun had come out and the park’s lush, green lawn and woods were in peak form.
After the sandwiches had been eaten, the candles on the cake blown out, and dessert served, the kids had run off to play while the adults helped to clean up and talk. Before long, Host Dad suggested we all go for a walk along one of the trails into the woods. Might be a nice way to work off those burgers, dogs, and slices of cake. So off we went.
With Host Dad in the lead, our little band of parent couples strolled along a well-worn, wide dirt-and-gravel pathway. After 15 minutes or so, the path began climbing a steep ascent and started to narrow in width as trees and undergrowth edged in from either side, so we were forced to fall into a single-line march. And, for those of us not used to long walks in the woods, to get the first sensations of sucking for air.
The path sloped slightly downward again as it rounded a hillside. By the time the part of the line where my wife and I were hoofing along – about halfway through the group – came around that bend, we both gasped at the scene before us.
And this was not a “Heavens, what a lovely sight” sort of gasp, but more of a “Holy Hell, what have we gotten ourselves into?” version.
The path at this point had disappeared completely, leading to a thin ledge cutting across what to us looked like a sheer stone cliff. You slipped off that ledge and you had about a 30-foot vertical drop, dunking you straight into a swift-current stream.
Now, understand the mentality in play here. Host Dad was built like a rail. Tall, thin, angular, flexible. The guy rode his racing bike to work every day, 15 miles across bridges and highways, up and down the unforgiving slopes of Pittsburgh. He must have had 20 pairs of athletic shoes, and probably wore his supergrip rock-climbing specials on this day.
Navigating this cliffside? Just another day at the office. Or, just another day getting to the office, in his case.
For a couple of citified landlubbers like us, though? Sheer cliff? Nah, more like sheer horror.
In a flash, my mind rewound to a moment one summer when I was around 12 years old. My buddies and I, bored and looking for adventure, walked a couple of miles to a quarry down near the river and decided to go across the upper edge. Before long, we found ourselves in a similar geographic dilemma – high up on a cliff, with little room to maneuver, no alternative but to press on or backtrack, and a long, long way down.
I’d never been so terrified, and I remain convinced that day my brain gave birth to an everlasting, stifling fear of heights.
And now there I stood again, a quarter-century later, in my blue-jean Bermuda shorts and all-purpose-cutting-the-grass “Dad tennies” from the sale rack at Famous Footwear, while my wife wore slip-on sandals for God’s sake, the two of us suddenly, unwittingly, and resentfully starring as the Flying Wallendas, 30 feet off the ground – or above the water, as it were, in this scenario.
And remember, it had rained hard earlier that same day, and this rockface remained shaded for the most part by trees – meaning that conditions remained favorable to slippage. Great. More good news.
Having been boxed in on either side – the cliff before us, the rest of the group on this narrow path behind us – on we ventured, resisting the unbelievable-yet-deadly temptation to look down, clinging to the face of that rock for dear life, scratching the crap out of our faces in the process, inching our feet sideways, Egyptian-hieroglyphics style, step by step, to finally reach the other end and feel that beautiful terra firma beneath us once more.
Host Dad led us on for another 10 minutes or so, until the remainder of the group reached a mutinous quorum and overtook the agenda, demanding that we turn the hell around, get back to the picnic tables, re-open the coolers, and have a beer to steady our nerves. Can you believe the balls on this guy, leading us into such a situation? Can you think of the liability he opened up on himself? It boggles the mind, even after all this time.
Yeah, thanks all the same, Host Dad, but by that moment we had soaked in enough nature to last a lifetime. And at this rate, that remaining lifetime didn’t feel like a very long stretch. And why not?
Because the only way back to the beer would take us across that cliffside again. Sigh.
As I heard Jerry Seinfeld once say, it’s so wonderful to reach the part of one’s career and life where you can just say “No.” We’re there now, thank God. I don’t like to take writing tests any longer. I don’t audition for work any more. After I’ve made a living at this for nearly 40 years, either you believe I can do the job or you don’t.
So if we had found ourselves today trekking through the woods and presented with the choice to somehow slide bodily across a sheer rock or not, there is absolutely no way we’d accept that ridiculous choice. It feels so good to say “No.”
Keep your supergrip shoes, Host Dad. Knock yourself out. We’ll be back at the picnic tables. Safe, warm, dry, and 100 percent content with that decision.
Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes