TURTLE ISLAND QUARTERLY 9
Non-Fiction by Kevin O'Rourke
After waiting an appropriate interval—for the curtains to close, and for the audience’s standing applause at the last syllable of the play’s last scene to wane long enough for the curtain to close and then open again and the cast to begin taking their bows, to even louder, sustained applause and cheers, during all of which we sat on the catwalk looking down at the action and the tops of our friends’ and families’ heads below, our feet dangling over the catwalk’s edge as we held onto its railing, tethered by ropes and clips and welded steel—Matt eventually said now, go now, now now now and with far less hesitation than I thought I had in me out we went, off into space, rappelling down down down, the stage below rushing up to meet us.
I would not necessarily characterize what I felt about heights, up until I no longer felt the feeling I felt (more or less at the exact moment that I landed on the stage the night Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum closed) as fear per se, because to that point I’d not had enough experience of heights to fear them. Say dislike then: I had a dislike of heights. But it was stronger than a dislike (and not so strong to be considered a loathing) so maybe aversion? Detestation? Hostility toward? Disquietude? Yes, disquietude. Heights tended to place me in a state of disquietude.
Growing up in the relatively flat, soft-rolling-hills suburban mid-Atlantic, I wasn’t presented with many opportunities to experience true heights, the sort that can be described as “dizzying.” Yes, there was the time we went to the top of the World Trade Center, and the many climbs up the winding lighthouse stairs in Cape May, NJ. And when I was ten or so, my father also worked for a time, seemingly only at night, in what seemed to me to be a very shiny office building, and his office was many stories up and looked out over a dark parking lot of cars’ windshields’ reflections and beyond the parking lot the expressway, and beyond that the river winding like a ribbon to the city, which shone and sparkled on the horizon.
Rather, much of my life was spent no higher than homes’ third floors, and far more frequently at ground level, on planed playing fields and on the floors of carpeted rooms, venturing to the creek down the street when the civilized, paved entertainments that normally sustained us grew thin. Heights, therefore, were a form of bogeyman: I experienced real heights, and real vistas, infrequently enough that they were rare and special and, like all rare, special things we encounter sporadically, somewhat terrifying. Their newness, and the fact that they existed concurrently with the world I felt so familiar in, scared me. Heights could kill me.
Seen from above, there seems to be little beach where California’s Mattole River meets the Pacific Ocean. The transition from land to sea looks abrupt, with the summer’s dry, yellow grass—maize and goldenrod, straw and cream—terminating in a band of green fed by the wet, spreading delta created by the river’s alliance with the sea. What beach there is is interrupted by the flow of the river itself, running parallel to the waves’ rhythmic pleating before making a sharp left and running into its source and terminus. The river flows fast and free, and the channel it cuts through the moist, pebbled sand looks almost machine-carved. The sound of the ocean dominates, and here and there driftwood lies quiescent, bleached by salt and sun and looking like great knobby bones.
The word vista, “a view or prospect,” comes to English directly from Italian’s la vista, sight, view, vision, and yes, vista. That word, in turn, comes more or less unchanged from Latin’s video, videre, to see (more accurately, I see, to see). The Latin word comes from a variety of older sources, including the Ancient Greek οιδα, to know. This word is also related to the archaic form of wit, to know, rather than the modern sense of humor. Hence the phrase “to wit”: that is to say.
Such an etymological progression shows an interesting, if obvious, connection: to see something is to gain some form of knowledge (about the thing seen, the world, one’s place in the world vis-à-vis the thing seen). Moreover, following to know, to to see, to vista, which we often thing of a pleasant thing (vista hardly seems to be used negatively), to gain knowledge of something is therefore pleasant, or at least enriching, as all knowledge is hardly pleasant. And vice versa, experiencing a vista shows us more of the world, giving us knowledge that we heretofore may not have had.
From Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, “A Farm Picture”:
Through the ample open door of the peaceful country barn,
A sunlit pasture field with cattle and horses feeding,
And haze and vista, and the far horizon fading away.
Almost all hobbies, once one learns enough about them, are almost perversely complicated. Take cycling, for example: say one enjoys riding one’s bike and is interested in cycling more seriously. In addition to investing in a proper bike, one should, if one is to take one’s new and easily expensive hobby seriously enough, acquaint oneself with all manner of mechanical and technical terms: front and rear derailleurs; dropouts; fork blades; crankset, crank, and pedal; the head tube, the seat tube, and the down tube; and brake pads, brake cables, caliper and handles. Then there is cycling apparel, which is legion, shoes and helmet and padded shorts and tight moisture-wicking shirts with pockets at the small of the back, and on and on.
Likewise climbing. If anything, climbing is even more gear-oriented than cycling, even though the latter is an explicitly technological sport; one cannot cycle with a bike, but one can climb without climbing gear. To wit, a short list of climbing equipment: nuts, chocks, and cams; chalk and comfortable clothing; form-fitting shoes and/or crampons for climbing in winter; helmets; belaying devices and pulleys and rappel rings; carabiners and harnesses; and most of all, rope rope rope.
None of which I understood when Matt showed us how to put on our harnesses and attach ropes to our harnesses and eventually how to rappel down from the catwalk to the stage below, slowing our descent by wrapping the rope around our thigh and controlling the speed at which it let out, and therefore the rate at which we fell, by applying or releasing pressure. My first few trips down were slow and jerky, marked by hesitation. Thereafter they grew faster and faster, until I was nearly falling freely toward the floor, and of my own accord.
My introduction to what Whitman called California’s “golden hills and hollows” and “flashing golden pageant” was not to its more absurd majesties—in its Central valley, or up north, among groves of redwoods—but to its highways. My boss and I stayed in La Jolla because the hotels in San Diego were full, and so our mornings and evenings were spent amongst the great convoy of commuters on I-5, tractor trailers and school buses and motorcyclists drifting between lanes as if to defy Death itself. Nonetheless, the view from our rented car’s passenger seat was a balm; I could almost feel, physically, my whole being being unraveled and relaxed by the tremendous space that surrounded us, the ocean one side and the stark road cut cliffs the other, and the big, boundless sky above all.
I had been indoors too much, and even when outdoors felt as if New York’s clutter was pressing down upon me like a great weight. The subway let me off in the basement of my office building. My apartment’s front windows faced east, our bedroom to the west; it was shaded on the west by a backyard of overgrown trees and the east by a school. While my office at the time was quite high up, on the ninth floor, from my window one could only see the windows of other buildings that surrounded my building like a fence. Some nights, after work let out, I would deliberately walk down Fifth Avenue, fighting the flow of crowds of shoppers and tourists making their way north, until I came to the intersection of 42nd street and the Public Library. For there, with Bryant Park’s oasis to the east, the metropolis’s looming valley is broken up by the trees growing in front the library like a reminder that where I stood was once (and will again be) ruled by the earth beneath the concrete and subterranean plumbing and transport beneath my feet. The stone lions sitting vigil on the library’s steps affirmed this for me, albeit silently.
In My First Summer in the Sierra, the naturalist John Muir writes of Yosemite National Park that the “whole landscape glows like a human face in a glory of enthusiasm, and the blue sky, pale around the horizon, bends peacefully down over all like one vast flower.” The same could be said of Lassen Volcanic National Park, approximately 300 miles to the north/northwest of the far more famous Yosemite. Per the National Park Service, in 2013 427,409 people visited Lassen versus Yosemite’s 3,691,191. Lassen is also much smaller: it contains 100,000 acres against Yosemite’s roughly 750,000. But while Lassen may be small for a national park (by size, Lassen is the thirty-seventh largest, while Yosemite is the sixteenth, though Lassen’s 100,000 acres is still rather enormous) and is relatively obscure, it is certainly extraordinarily beautiful. Mountains and valleys, its “painted dunes,” hot springs and “smoking fumaroles, meadows freckled with wildflowers, clear mountain lakes, and numerous volcanoes,” oh my.
It is also home to the Cinder Cone, which is a literal cone of cinder. More specifically, it is a 700-foot-tall mound of scoria—volcanic rock—that grew around what is a now-dead volcano. From the top of the Cinder Cone—around which there winds a difficult trail, as the stone that makes up the cone is loose and shifts underfoot, especially if it is a windy day, in which case small stones are sometimes whipped against one’s face as one trudges one’s way to the top with tears in one’s eyes—you can see much of Lassen’s wonder.
To the Cinder Cone’s immediate southeast lie the “Painted Dunes” and beyond them the “Fantastic Lava Beds.” To its northeast is Butte Lake, and to the south Snag Lake and beyond that Juniper Lake and its little campground. From the eastern edge of Juniper Lake, standing among the beds of wildflowers—monkeyflowers and larkspurs and St. Johns wort and paintbrushes of every hue—if one looks almost directly west one cannot help but see Lassen Peak looming over the entire area like some watchful godhead. Standing more than 10,000 feet, Lassen dominates without attempting to do so, and while in its shadow one is nearly always aware of its presence, the peak’s sheer faces highlighted by a smattering of snow even in another long hot summer of too little water and drought warnings that cannot be shouted loud enough.
Driving directly into the sun, we climbed to the top of the high hill in Ali’s jeep, all of us stuffed into the car like some advertisement for youth and exuberance, with music, holding onto roll bars at every unseen boulder and dip in the hill’s side, thinking we’d tumble over at any moment. From the top of the hill we looked down at the Mattole’s mouth, watching it open its lips lightly as it approached the Pacific’s margin. To the north a benign bank of cloud or fog hung over the high, hilled terrain through the middle of which the Mattole cut a soft little canyon.
To the west, the hill dove sharply down in a cliff and while leaning, peering over, I thought about how it wasn’t remarkable that I wasn’t afraid of the cliff’s height. I might have been afraid, once, before I learned that some falls are revelatory instead of fatal, but by that late afternoon above the Mattole I had fully assimilated my fear’s absence. It wasn’t remarkable that I wasn’t afraid but it was liberating; had I been afraid I might have stayed in the car, with my eyes still shut from the lurching trip up. Instead I had the wind on my face and the sun on my side, an afternoon years later I still remember as if the taste of it had never left my mouth. And it never will, I hope.
Kevin O’Rourke lives in Philadelphia, where he works as a science writer and edits The Hairsplitter. He studied art at Kenyon College and writing at the University of Minnesota. His work has been published in or is forthcoming from Cobalt Review, Tammy, Seneca Review, and The Collapsar, among others.