Monday, March 11, 2013

Out of sight

Telling people today that I grew up four blocks from the Canadian border is an item of trivia, but as a kid that was just home. Where Niagara Falls fall down and form a lower river, carving a gorge that leads after several miles to Lake Ontario, I grew up in the shadow of tourism on a beautiful river bank.

Some two miles south were the famous postcard views but at the end of my street was the state park that formed the top of the gorge. I spent so many hours there, the equivalent, I'm sure, of whole weeks of my life. Sometimes we stayed at the top of the gorge, walking along the trails. Often we took the foot paths down to the river's edge, climbing down hundreds of feet to the bluest water, freshly churned from its ride down the famous ledge.

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There was another way, though, and it's the one that was the most physically challenging, the one I can find no official information for, the one I took least and loved best, the one that felt riskiest. People are allowed at the top of the gorge and people are allowed at the bottom of the gorge, but what about on the vertical cliffs between top and bottom?

There was this spot (I'm sure I could still find it today) where if you hopped the protective railing at the top of the gorge, hopped down a boulder under a bush, carefully not looking at the vista that made it look like you'd fall straight into the river, where a steep zig-zagged dirt path led to a set of steel cables anchored into the escarpment.

I'm not sure if it's really called rapelling if you climb down with no safety ropes or gloves or harnesses or helmets but we would squeeze those cables, lean back just enough to find the next foothold with our feet, and descend vertically into the gorge. Sometimes, if we were feeling terribly energetic, we'd use those cables to climb back up. Most of the time we needed to find the stone steps. It's more than 400 steps up, curvy, angled, eroded stone steps, but that was the easier path.

And you knew you were allowed at the top and you knew you were allowed at the bottom but there are no signs, not even warnings, about the steel cables. You knew you weren't supposed to be on those cables. They don't officially exist, and sometimes they're cut away, pins and bolts and no cables. And then somehow, the cables show up again. To find them, you just have to jump over the railing at the edge of a cliff.

I think about that space, liminal in access, permission, memory. Those cables thrilled me, challenged me, terrified and exhilarated me. They were probably illegal to climb and inherently bore an element of risk (although any climb down the gorge does) and they tested me. They were so important to my sense of self and ability and trust and confidence. They taught self-reliance and -confidence and adventure and trusting my instincts, not based on posted rules established on a median sense of ability but on carefully considering for myself what could or could not be done.

Lessons like those have to be learned a little out of sight sometimes.

This post was inspired by Raising Cubby: A Father and Son’s Adventures with Asperger’s, Trains, Tractors, and High Explosives by John Elder Robison, who encouraged his son to be an explorer. Join From Left to Write on March 12 as we discuss Raising Cubby. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

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