High Places: Metaphor and Individualism in the American West

Sometimes we find ourselves in the most unexpected places without any notion of how we got there, or why we’ve come.  Confused by our own lives, we construct metaphors; if we stare hard enough at these, circumstances often converge into clearer perspective and we see beyond entropy to a gleaming horizon of meaning.

One night last winter I found myself in such a place.  Dressing to go out for dinner with friends I was visiting– fresh from the shower and wearing only polka-dotted boxer shorts and a pair of argyle socks– I found myself standing on top of an end table in front of their guest room window eighteen floors above 97th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, watching wet snow falling past in huge, clumsy flakes.

I slid the window open to feel the tingling, ionic moisture in the air.  The extra height afforded by the end table streamlined my view of the precipitous fall line in a way that standing on the floor never could.  My feet were just above the level of the window sill; no barrier separated me from the open space.  Looking straight down at the wet street far below me, watching the yellow taxis and the tail lights moving along Broadway in long red tubes, a tracer bullet of fear shot upward through my legs.  I felt bedazzled, dizzy with altitude, mystified by what I might do, by what I might be capable of, by how and– especially– why.

In that moment of suspense and impending terror and utter faith in my own rationality, as the end table shifted slightly, like the best dancing partner, each time I rearranged my weight, I felt the potential for a recklessness so pure it clenched up my heart the way vapor lock seizes a car engine.  While my friend and his wife dressed for the evening in the next room– unaware that I was perched atop their end table so close to the window, in my socks and underwear, dreaming of a free-fall through that swirling space– I watched a doorman across the street and far below me striping the slushy pavement with the blade of a long-handled shovel, and I began constructing a metaphor for suicide.

I have always been afraid of high places.  Once, stuck for forty-five minutes on a swaying chairlift in a stiff wind too high above the Colorado Rockies, I realized it was not the height itself which frightened me, nor was it a fear of falling.  What scared me then was the same unsought notion that revisited me on top of my friends’ end table in Manhattan: the possibility of spontaneously deciding to jump.

But not even the idea of jumping chilled me as much as the potential for acting on this sudden impulse before the analytical side of my brain had the chance to slam shut the door on irrationality, before I could de-code such a convoluted message from my own subconscious and deduce what it was really trying to say.   There is something desperately compelling about the urge to sneak up on our own limitations and charge past them, the way Eastern Europeans once crossed beyond their nations’ borders and sprinted for the west.

In most cases, spontaneity is an affirmation of self, even as it represents a shift in the direction of the radical.  To step outside the circle of the familiar means moving into a wilderness of non-definition where the warmth and light cast by popular fires cannot penetrate, but where adventure assumes spiritual dimension: into the unmapped territory of pure freedom and individuality.

We all dream spontaneous lives from the comfort of desk chairs or sectionalized sofas, believing something will spur us to pursue adventure.  In my own life, I’ve performed modest acts of defiance, moving outward in small, shuffling steps toward edges, like driving away from a large city early in the morning, as all of the traffic flows the other way.

Still, I have never slept suspended by ropes in an 800-year old Douglas fir tree to stop someone from logging it.  I’ve never performed stand-up comedy.  I hardly ever climb into my car, without destination, and just drive.  I have encountered limits– and not very distant ones– that have kept me from the free-wheeling insouciance I’ve always craved.  I envy the yee-haw wildness of the most aggressive skiers, rock climbers, and kayakers.  I am jealous, even, of the way some people dance— with such a total transcendence of self-consciousness that their actions ring with the esthetic purity of drinking cool spring water from a ceramic cup.

But spontaneity encompasses a dark backcountry, too, rendering the edges dangerous, suppressing our migration.  Moving beyond the familiar involves abandoning the very reasons behind limitations– reasons of safety, sanity, and order.  Which is the point of impulsive action, and the threat.  We risk losing control in order to experience the ecstasies of discovery and release.

To exercise pure individualism we must maintain the most abiding faith that something inside us will prove powerful enough to recognize that transitory moment when we’re about to go too far, that we’ll know its time to plant our flag, define the outermost reaches of the territory we can visit, and accept the limits of our own range.  For some people that moment never comes.  Some people hike out along that steep arete which crosses between challenge and self-destructiveness; they hedge their bets.  They splice thin slivers of daring until the knife scrapes bone.

If you read the newspaper sometime in the middle of April–  when colleges are on spring break and students from the Northeastern states pack into their parents’ Oldsmobile Cutlass Supremes and drive straight through from Boston and New York to Daytona and Ft. Lauderdale, past the truck stops and sheet rock motels and the world’s biggest taco stand just over the border into South Carolina, driving with perfect, beachy images in their heads, and an unshakable faith in warm tropical nights and the likelihood of meeting the kinds of women who appear in beer commercials– you will come across a short item at the back of the national news which luridly describes that spontaneous extreme: an item that will eclipse your heart and set your head to shaking.

You will read about young men whose judgment was dulled by alcohol or pride or a too-strong desire to lean out beyond their own borders into that cold wind which blows most powerfully along the edges of things.  You will read about events which blossomed in the spirit that leads otherwise responsible young men to drink twelve straight shots of Tennessee sour mash whiskey at a palm bar, even when they don’t necessarily want to drink shots, when they really only want to go back to the motel room at the Pink Flamingo.  But they also want to be the kind of young men who are not boxed in by anything so trivial as convention, and so they step into the shadows to see what that feels like, certain they can step back at any time.

It’s easy to envy their reckless, broncing spirit if not their specific behavior, the way they respond to spontaneous impulses without forcing them through the clogged filter of consciousness and reason.  In this same spirit a young man slides open the glass door to the balcony of his hotel room, stands by the railing with a bottle of over-priced Mexican beer– wishing he had a lime crammed in the neck of the bottle not because he necessarily likes lime in his beer, but because it is the way young men like himself drink over-priced Mexican beer– and wonders how far it is to that next balcony, where that afternoon he saw three young women hanging their swimsuits out to dry.

He is about to invent the sport of balcony jumping, an activity lacking rules– which is the point– and the challenge of which is not complex, but if you flip through the newspaper in mid-April you will read about young men who just finished studying Descartes and plate tectonics, who play saxophone and run twenty miles each week, who dance with the grandmothers at weddings and who would charm you at a summer barbecue in Connecticut with their energy and sun-tanned good looks; if you page through the national section of the paper in the early spring in any given year you will read about how young men like these fell to their deaths in hotel parking lots as they were trying to jump from one balcony to another, for no other apparent reason than to see if they could.

It seems safe to guess that they were not thinking about suicide as they climbed up on metal railings, flexed their knees, and squinted across at the mirror-image safety of another balcony only eight or ten feet away.  Probably they were not even thinking about dying at a moment when they felt so alive, when they felt the naive invulnerability of smart, good-looking kids whose parents can afford to send them to prestigious colleges.  Most likely their brief flights across short, precipitous spaces were metaphorical statements about the way they wanted to live, analogies for moving toward the edge, for the kind of spontaneous, symbolic leaps that the most ambitious of us must take if we are to strike a blow against being average and constrained all the rest of our promising but mostly unremarkable lives.

Some years ago I had a very bad winter.  Heavy clouds settled in over the Pacific Northwest in early November and it rained nearly every day for four months– a rageless and unnerving rain which slowly leached out any foundation of hope that summer might come again.  I clung to a failing relationship through those dim months, which ended badly in March.  I could not work at anything, and wished to escape from my own self, and from the grey world pressing down on me.  I grew despondent to a degree I cannot even comprehend now, and craved some highly impractical action which would transport me to a fresh and unfamiliar periphery.

So I bought some backpacking supplies– a small stove, freeze-dried food, a water bottle, two packages of cigars– although I had never gone backpacking before, and drove my ailing Toyota south for two days into the Utah desert.  I parked in the scant shade of a stunted Cottonwood tree thirty miles by gravel road from the nearest town, slung on my pack, and disappeared over the edge of a huge scrub-covered mesa into the redrock canyonlands that drained into the Escalante River some fifteen miles away.  I chose the desolation of a route whose name implied the kind of patently western ruggedness I’ve always associated with individualism, and because it seemed like the farthest place I could possibly go.

I hiked for six days along slow-running water which cut gentle S-curves in the sandbars and embossed the mud with lovely patterns.  I explored gullies and side canyons and ancient Anasazi Indian ruins, slept under great slickrock overhangs, wandered through a landscape so hauntingly beautiful, so unlike anything I’d seen before, that sometimes I felt I’d lost myself.  Sometimes I felt as if I’d fallen over backwards, begun tumbling through a limitless space of sun and shade, past the greens of cottonwood and box elders, prickly pear and cholla cactus, the reds and oranges and purples layered in the sandstone, past the polished spires and domes, posts and lintels, archways and ells of the architecture of water and stone.

Those days in the canyon depths moved me in a way I can’t begin to describe.  I rose out of myself and toward that metaphorical edge that has always represented the way I most want to live.  I felt bleached clean, like old bones atop some mesa,  growing lighter with the suns of each successive year until their dust blows across the ridges and into the canyons and water courses of the desert.

On my fourth morning out, I woke early and drank a strong cup of cowboy coffee.   Then I filled my daypack for a long hike up to the rim of the canyon, where it overlooked the khaki waters of the Escalante River rolling lazily toward Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam somewhere to the west.  I left the pastel cradle of the canyon bottom and climbed up through notches in the sandstone to a plateau thirty feet higher.  Above me sprawled a huge bowl of rock filled with sand and speckled with red and yellow wildflowers.  Higher still, the dune topped out against another shoulder of nearly vertical rock which cast a deep, cool shadow on the upper reaches of sand.  Beyond that stripe of red rock was the canyon rim, and I suddenly became confused by my own metaphor: I was climbing up toward the edge of something, rather than out laterally and beyond it. This unsettled me until I recognized that the very structure of my metaphor might be worthy of pushing beyond– a realization that may have saved my life.

Two hours later, after a lunch of smoked oysters and dried fruit, after gulping an entire quart of water and singing all of the old Eagle’s songs I could remember, the canyon suddenly fell away from me.  I took a last upward step onto the rim.  The sun blared with the brassiness of a trumpet solo, and the expansiveness, after four days in the narrow confines of the canyon, was explosive.  I spun slowly around to view the Kaipairowitz Plateau and the Henry Mountains rising along distant blue horizons.  I looked cross-country at the rolling, frozen plains of stone hillocks pocked with potholes, a surface of wind-blown dunes petrified by years of unrelenting heat, a grey-green dermatology that was at once ugly and yet possessing a purity so deep that it was also very beautiful.

Up on the rim, on the edge of those deep, secretive canyonlands, I found myself smiling.  I was singing again, too, though not in a recognizable language.  I felt so deeply grateful for this place, for having chosen the unlikely option of coming here to an oasis of such stark and limitless beauty, that I wanted to cry out.

I gave a Mexican yell that shorted self-consciousness with an incandescent pop.  Ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ee-ha, I cried, and the sound took flight and swooped in and out of side canyons, moved cross-country out to the plateau walls and hump-backed mountains, bounced off the topography and flew back in a hundred fluttering versions of itself, chilling me with the utter limitless self-consciouslessness of the sound.

In this moment of denouement I drifted out onto a small peninsula of rock that extended over the canyon like an open palm.  I stood on its chafed fingertips and looked straight down to the green scarf of salt cedar along the Escalante River, which flowed the color of wheat beer a thousand feet below.  I stood very close to the edge; the familiar trajectory of fear ascended through my legs.  I had traveled a long way from the heart of the familiar to a landscape so bizarre and captivating, to a place so remote, to an edge so palpable that it was no longer a mere analogy for outward movement.  It was the thing itself, and confronting it I knew I was straddling the border between darkness and light.

Standing on that ledge of warm rock, a pocket of helium rose in a column through my solar plexus as I realized that this notion of expanded limitations, of pushing beyond– that this metaphorical road I’d been moving along– led right here to this place and this moment, where, faced with the outermost landmark of spontaneity, I recognized the inherent danger in the impulse, and in my metaphor.  I heard it ask me, ‘Just how far will you go?’  I felt the cool breath of shadow, although the sun was high and strong.

And I knew that to experience the ultimate release, the most complete freedom– out here in the Utah desert where no one would ever find me, where the flora and fauna live in thirsty impatience, where coyotes bark their doggie ballads in the evenings and the moon reflects pale light off the water and rock in a glowing patina– meant throwing myself down from the rim toward the muddy Escalante before I could think about the implications.  I wondered if, with a running start, I could drop clean into the river.  I was as far out as I’d ever been, and the joy of it was so immense that I wanted only to take the next step.  I wanted to jump because it symbolized a commitment to living in a way I’d always dreamed of.  It meant that I’d have lived, if only for a moment, without holding anything back.

There must be a kind of suicide born not of sadness and despair, but of possibility, when somebody wants so much out of his life he’s willing to unhook the safety net of his own self-preserving instincts and leap out into a void of pure potential as giddily intoxicating as oxygen.  In the realm of metaphor, gravity is negotiable.  But for someone who’s mistaken the metaphorical for the actual, who’s forgotten that we create analogies not to live in them, but to help us live better in the real world, cliff walls fly past quickly in red-orange streaks, and the ground rises up too fast.

Living by metaphors is in itself dangerous and spontaneous.  Sometimes, it’s difficult to know whether we’ve followed our imagery too far, or not far enough.  In Utah, I stopped on the very edge of the canyonlands and accepted that limit not because I was afraid of jumping, but because I didn’t want to die.  A road is just a road, and a man has choices.  Those choices determine the people we become.  I began the slow descent back to my waterside campsite thinking that merely by having found my way to that unlikely precipice above the Escalante, I’d already propelled myself over a different edge.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.