Breathing the air up there

I’m acrophobic. I fell off a cliff at Starved Rock State Park when I was nine or 10. I remember falling into leaf litter and then rolling for God knows how long until a tree stopped me. I don’t know if that’s implicated, but it happened.

If I hadn’t been 20 and with my buddies, I would never have gone to the top of the Empire State Building. I did, though, and out on the deck I wouldn’t get close enough to the edge to look through the coin-operated binoculars. I’ve never been to the top of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in my hometown.

In 1971 I lived 22 stories above the ground with a leaky wall of glass in the living room. I avoided the entire southern half of the room, and our bean bag chairs—they were actually called chairs, though, of course they were anything but—never got close to the windows. The kitchen and bathroom were far enough away from the windows for me to avoid that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

The bedroom had floor-to-ceiling windows as well, and a balcony allowed me to relax in bed because at least I couldn’t see the sheer drop to the concrete. I can’t say I ever really forgot it, though. I was always conscious of being in a concrete box way up in the air. We soon moved down to a bigger place on the 10th floor, which felt much better.

Probably the most courageous thing I’ve ever done was go over the edge of a cliff in Palisades State Park outside Garretson, S.D., in the summer of 1982. I was about to rappel down the cliff face, and once I got over the edge and was actually hanging in my harness, I enjoyed the trip down, kicking off from the rock and having a great time. I got to do that because I inched my way over that edge.

For years, I yearned and dreaded to go the Grand Canyon, thinking that being close to a hole a mile deep would probably kill me outright, or might as well. When Janice and I went to the Grand Canyon last year, she went right out onto a promontory and then right over to the edge and leaned on the railing. I was reading a plaque near the entrance and trying breathing exercises.

As part of my current attention to habits, last week I went up in a glider with pilot Garry Lee to 4,600 feet above Oroville Dam, when I disconnected us from the tow plane and we floated around for a half hour and landed gently where we started. Wow.