My toes hung over the edge of the wet limestone. The water from the shallow creek beside me rushed over the edge and fell eighty-five feet into the deep green pool below. The constant hum of the waterfall echoed against the surrounding rocks, but I could still hear Lance and Tom egging me on. Everything had a muffled sound, like I was listening to the world from the end of tunnel, except for my heart. My heart was beating so loud that I was certain it had moved from my chest to my head. I was one jump away from a moment of teenage glory.
We left late on a Friday night for a guy’s camping trip to a nearby state park that boasted some of the highest waterfalls east of the Mississippi. The park was a verdant paradise of meandering hiking trails, deep pools of cool water, and forests full of wildlife.
Tom was quick-witted and had a contagious laugh. He was from up north and didn’t sound like the rest of us. He had a reputation for being a bit reckless. Lance wore glasses and was usually quiet in crowds. His timid nature came off as coy, and the ladies loved him. He never surprised anyone.
As we drove along in Lance’s pickup truck, we rocked out to Phil Collins and told jokes. We talked about girls. We talked about a future full of hope and promise. I was eighteen and had the world by the tail. I had recently graduated from high school and was going off to college. I was going to be fighter pilot in the Air Force, and maybe apply to be an astronaut for NASA. I was going to find the prettiest girl in the world and convince her to marry me. I was going to get rich, and maybe even famous. I was immortal.
In typical teenage fashion, we flew by the seat of our pants trying to squeeze excitement out of every moment. When we found all the campgrounds full, we slept by the side of the road. I tried to start a fire for breakfast using lantern fuel and singed my eyebrows. We went the wrong way down a one-way road and had to pull off onto the shoulder to avoid hitting an oncoming car. Tom lost his sleeping bag. We almost hit a deer. We drank IBC root beer and threw the empty bottles into the back of the truck so we could listen to them roll around and clink together. We didn’t get much sleep, but we didn’t care. We were young. You can sleep when you’re dead.
We started the day with a hike to the bottom of the tallest waterfall. The thin stream of water fell two hundred and fifty six feet into a rocky pool of chilled water. We hiked under the falls and let the water sting our backs. We dared each other to jump into the frigid water and see who could stay in the longest. I think Lance won, but our teeth were chattering and our lips were blue when we got out.
We followed a cable down the face of another bluff to discover a deep green plungepool with a waterfall cascading down the opposite side. Hot from hiking, we kicked off our shoes and dove in. The rising afternoon sun warmed the shallow stream above making the water from the waterfall feel warm and soothing. We dove off the big rock adjacent to the falls and sunned ourselves on the warm limestone banks of the pool. With the help of an old log, we lingered under the waterfall and fell into a state of bliss. In spite of the observers that stood on the lookout high above the water’s surface, it felt like our own private paradise.
While we languished at the waters edge listening to the roar of the falls, something hit the water so hard it sounded like a shotgun blast. At first we thought someone had dropped a rock, and we scurried to safety. Then a man’s head broke the surface, and he let out a rebel yell that echoed against the limestone cliffs of the bluff. We couldn’t believe someone had jumped off the waterfall above us. The jump didn’t look survivable, but he was living proof that it could be done, and his successful stunt mocked us.
Tom was the first to suggest that we make the jump. I wasn’t afraid of heights, so I agreed right away. Lance was hesitant at first, but we convinced him. We left our shoes by the water’s edge for our triumphant return and climbed back up the cable trail barefoot, hell bent on proving our manhood.
When we got to the top of the falls, I walked over to take a look. I hung my toes over the edge of the wet limestone and scanned the water eighty-five feet below. My head began to spin. The hum of the falls and the encouraging shouts sounded like some distant noise. I felt my heart beating in my temples. A moment of teenage glory hung a few feet over the edge, and I could claim it with one jump.
I hesitated. My mind turned from the thrill of the moment, to the danger of the decision.
I thought about all the things that could go wrong. What if I broke something? What if I hit wrong and got knocked unconscious? What if I hit a rock? As I stood there with my toes hanging over the edge of the wet limestone, the sun beating down on my shoulders, and the water plummeting past me into the pool below, I transformed from carefree teenager to responsible adult.
I backed away from the edge.
When I backed away, Tom, the daredevil, surveyed the situation and began to question the wisdom of the jump as well. While Tom and I were coping with a sudden rush of responsible thinking, Lance said, “What the hell.” Then he walked up, and jumped off. We hurried over to see if he had survived the plunge. When his head broke the surface, he let out his own rebel yell and was grinning from ear to ear. He was alive.
Inspired by Lance, I returned to the ledge and stood there again trying to will my shaking legs to jump, but I could never convince them. My moment of reckless abandon had been replaced with rational, responsible, adult behavior. A strange wave of shame washed over me. I felt like I had let myself down. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the scales of life had measured me, and I had come up short.
I told Tom that I was going to hike back down and get my shoes. He begged me to stay, but I knew that it was no use. As I started to walk away, he told himself that he could never let Lance outdo him, and jumped. I didn’t even walk to the edge to see if he was okay.
I made the lonely walk back down the top of the cable trail and waited for them to bring me my shoes. Lance and Tom were chatty and excited with the adrenaline still coursing through their veins. I sat there with my face buried in my hands. They consoled me and told me that it was okay, but I knew that I had passed through a door that would never reopen to me. I had grown up.
I went off to college. I earned my wings in the Air Force and became a fighter pilot. I found a beautiful girl and told her sweet lies until she finally agreed to marry me. I never got rich, or famous. The reality of my mortality became clearer with each passing year. The future, it seems, is a moving target, and growing old is a gauntlet we all must run.
Today, in my mind’s eye, I can still see the water from the stream plummet eighty-five feet into the deep green water of the pool below. I can still hear the muffled roar of the waterfall and feel the warm afternoon sun on my shoulders. Even though I am no danger at all, my heart beats louder and faster, like I’m standing on that ledge all over again.
|Cane Creek Falls|
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