October 30, 2003

Another Time I Almost Died

Although the time I blew up a grenade in my backyard with me standing about three feet away remains the single most amazing incident in my life in which I should have died instantly but emerged unscathed, there have been several other times I narrowly ducked the Reaper's blade. Getting hit by a train comes to mind, as does the time I climbed a water tower and almost fell to my death on the way back down. But. . .

There remains one time that sticks out in my mind as a defining moment when I came face to face with my own mortality. I think I was 16 at the time, and me and my friend, B.J., were out camping at one of our favorite sites. We called it Nort's Bridge, although the campsite itself was about half a mile away from the actual bridge. The site was basically at the head of a long stretch of tall bluffs extending for several miles, with the Upper Iowa River drifting lazily along nearby. At night, with a large fire built up, the shadows danced all the way up the side of the rocky bluff behind the campsite. It was the closest you could come to actually believing in spirits.

During that outing, B.J. and I decided to go for a hike along the top of the bluff. The thing about the bluffs in southeastern Minnesota is that they're pretty much composed entirely of limestone shale. That's just fine when the shale is compacted with tons of similar shale up above, but at some point there has to be a top to the bluff, and that's where things can get tricky. Trees and other plants growing on the top of the bluffs heave up the loosely compacted shale, so flat pieces of limestone litter almost every step you take. It's not an entirely stable situation for human feet.

As B.J. and I navigated our way along the top of the bluff, we zigged and zagged close to, and away from, the cliff edge, depending on how overgrown the vegetation was, picking the path of least resistence. Well, eventually, the path of least resistence brought us dangerously close to the edge of the cliff. Just as I was surveying the beautiful scene of a river flowing about 100 feet below, the shale slab I was standing on gave way, sending me on a brief but alarming slide over the cliff's edge. The rock continued its descent to the rocky shore below while I, in a reflexive action, managed to catch a protruding root, thus saving myself from absolutely certain death. It was right out of a movie, except this time it was heart-poundingly real.

So, there I was, dangling 100 feet over rocks, clinging to a not-so-stable root, waiting for B.J. to pick a careful path down to me so he could lend a hand. I didn't like my odds. Despite the fact I didn't have much faith in the root to which I held on, I tempted fate by pulling myself up. Although the root creaked and bent heavily under my weight, I managed to crawl my way back up to the top of the cliff just as B.J. reached me and dragged me the rest of the way to safety.

We sat together, breathing hard, and eventually we both just started laughing uncontrollably. It really didn't dawn on either of us that I probably should have been dead. It's not in the nature of a 16 year old to acknowledge mortality. That feeling of invincibility doesn't start to really wear off until after 25. For me, it was a funny little thing that happened; a good story about almost falling off a cliff.

UPDATE: And don't forget your best laugh of the day. (You'll need RealPlayer)

Posted by Ryan at October 30, 2003 01:37 PM
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