I’ve never been able to jump off a cliff with ease. Although, I’ve always wanted to be someone who could stand moderately high above a body of water—lake or river—and launch my inherently fragile yet sturdy body through the air and into the murky coolness. It’s not like I considered being a professional cliff diver. I didn’t expect something so remarkable or so high. I just wanted to fit in.
Throughout my adolescent years, I remember standing on top of a rocky ledge, enveloped in the familiar and comforting scent of dry pine while I stared into the slightly fishy smelling pond below. I watched my friends jump, one at a time, into this deep, dark water. I watched because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t jump.
Most of my friends growing up were full-on adventure boys. To me, they were fearless: climbing trees then jumping to the ground, hurtling down hills on their bikes while peddling to increase the speed, gliding through the trees on their cross-country skis and barely slowing before taking a turn.
I constantly struggled to match the exuberance they threw into their lives and failed to measure up every time. Perhaps it would have been smarter to never try to copy adolescent boys, but when you’re an adolescent…let’s say “tomboy” as was the customary term…that sense of not quite fitting in was palpable. Every time we swam at the rocky cliff, I continued to think about jumping even though I knew I couldn’t. I evaluated and mentally measured. I stared and envied. Then, I just stopped. I wasn’t fearless.
My friends at the time were more an accident of location than a choice. I grew up in the Adirondack Park, a couple miles off the main road between two towns that you couldn’t easily get to without a car. Because of this, the kids you lived near determined your playmates, especially once school let out, and most of the kids around my age were boys.
My family’s house sat in a clearing of land, just over a hill from the largest of three interconnected ponds. Many people would consider these lakes rather than ponds, but by Adirondack standards, they were small for lakes. We lived on Second Pond, which was uncreatively named for its position along the road that curved around them and followed the hills past the rustic, palatial camps of the summer people and the much more modest houses where the rest of us lived. It continued beyond the last house, turning from smooth pavement to a rumbling dirt road and ending at the trails into the mountains, miles from where it started. Life here was filled with forest and mountains and water. The boys and I spent a lot of time exploring, riding bikes, and swimming in every body of water possible. This included the Point, a sandy beach next to a camping area where First Pond joined Second Pond. In First Pond, just beyond the Point, was the jumping spot that plagued my thoughts for so many years.
Eventually, we stopped swimming at those rocks. I went away to boarding school, then college. Instead of spending my summers adventuring, I filled them with the mundane tasks of earning textbook money in a tourist town—scrubbing toilets, working registers, folding clothes, handling damp cash drawn from the pockets of 10-year-olds and, sometimes, drunk 40-year-olds.
Curiosity would occasionally draw me back to that spot. I imagined the jump would appear less high or more secure. I would hop in my boat with clumps of moss growing on the bottom and row out there or swim over from the Point. But when I stood atop the short cliff and stared into the water, it seemed more impossible than I remembered.
“They jumped here?” I questioned. “Had I invented it all?”
These evaluation pilgrimages grew less frequent over time, especially once my mother sold our house on Second Pond and eventually moved away from upstate New York to avoid the endless northern winters. With her move, I no longer had a reason to return. It seemed I finally left those rocks for good. But the memory of not being able to jump had lodged inside me, murmuring in the quiet places of my mind and plotting out how I would define myself.
Luckily, through the years, I became swift at finding excuses to avoid things I desperately wanted to do that I wasn’t sure I could do without being afraid—too expensive (skiing), no one to go with (rock climbing), rattlesnakes (trail running and hiking), never did it growing up (camping), can’t sing (Karaoke). For a long time, it seemed almost easy to live this way. That is, until that flat way of life just became untenable.
I pushed myself into activities, not all at once like crazy immersion therapy, but little by little over the years. At first it was rediscovering hiking on trails near where I lived in the Washington DC area, then every Sunday with a group who chartered a bus to the surrounding mountainous terrain in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Next was trail running on those same local trails. Soon, I branched into climbing after I found a local gym and took a class. Through my hiking club, I met my future partner, who introduced me to camping, followed by backpacking, outdoor climbing, and ultimately, mountaineering. In the span of about five years, I went from never having done most of these things to summitting my first glacier-covered peak in Iceland.
Not long after returning from Iceland, another set of kids jumping into a different body of water churned up those same childhood memories from 25 years earlier. After a weekend camping trip in West Virginia, me, my partner, and two of his friends from work, Ulan and Yuri, were packed in my SUV along with all our gear, making the typical hot, humid summer more intolerable. The drive was leisurely and lazy, and we all wanted to stop for a swim. It seemed important to pick just the right spot, so we settled on Swallow Falls State Park in western Maryland, a small park on a rocky river lined with hemlock trees and waterfalls that dramatically increase in height as you go upstream.
At the park, we all popped out of the steamy car. Already in our swimsuits, our sweaty bodies were ready to cool off. Talking excitedly, we stepped on to the well-manicured trail that would take us to the farthest and smallest waterfall downstream, planning to work our way back up the river. As we got further away from the parking area, the aromatic summer forest surrounded us, and the trail became rougher with exposed roots, but also softer with a thin blanket of rusty-colored pine needles. I was instantly at home, encased in the smell of evergreens and the muffled sounds of our feet along the forest floor.
Quickly reaching the river on the short trail, we strolled along the flat exposed rock just beyond the first waterfall, winding our way between the open water and isolated pools to the second largest waterfall. There, we paused for some time to play among the falls and slippery algae covered rocks just below the water’s surface before moving on to the next set of falls.
As we approached the third, taller waterfall, we saw a group of kids jumping one by one, not from the waterfall but from an overlook just off the trail. Underneath, there was a quiet pool away from the churning base of the falls.
Ulan was the first to jump. I’m not even sure if he evaluated the riskiness. He saw others jumping and just went for it. He urged the rest of us to do it too. As in the past, I wanted to be someone who could do that, but I was also compelled by practicality. It just didn’t seem smart. The more I watched, the more I thought about those boys from my childhood, jumping carefree into the water.
Fresh with confidence from my recent adventures, I declared, “I’m going to do it.”
As I marched toward the small climb to the highest point above the water, Ulan, ever the enthusiast, cheered, “Yeah! Come on. Do it!
I climbed up and looking down, I asked, “Are you sure there’s no rocks down there?”
“There’s really soft sand on the bottom,” he replied. “You’ll just sink in a little. It’s okay.”
“Just jump out and to the left,” answered a random man who was watching from the fenced off trail behind me. I was pretty sure he meant there was a rock on the right, otherwise why jump left? Also, how did they know there was a rock there? I didn’t ask. I’m sure I never want to hear the answer. The man continued, “I used to jump here when I was a kid. You’ll be okay.”
I stared into the water below long past the point of appropriate because a line was forming. I tried to will myself to jump and imagined flinging myself off the precarious edge, avoiding this apparent mystery rock. Instead of moving, I just kept saying, “I can’t. I can’t.”
“Don’t think too much. Just jump. You’ll be okay.” Ulan urged.
I stared harder until I released one final, “I can’t,” shaking my head repeatedly and climbing back down. I couldn’t do it, yet again.
I stood off to the side with Yuri, watching Ulan and the kids tirelessly jump again and again. He told me he was happy I hadn’t jumped because if I did, he would also have to. He confided that he didn’t like heights and didn’t want to jump either. Although his words appeared matter of fact, his hesitation to speak and the quiet tone confessed something greater: don’t like was code for afraid. I considered his words as we stood there. To me, he seemed strong and unmovable; someone who always accomplishes what they set out to do. As I pondered what was unspoken, I took a deep breath, cracking the shame and self-loathing threatening to slowly constrict me. I firmly told myself, “You will get up there and you will jump.”
So, I did. I climbed up and jumped out and to the left, almost in a single movement, even though I was quietly shaking. My feet hit the soft sand and my knees gently buckled, absorbing the impact. I came up laughing uncontrollably, wiping the water from my face and eyes with both hands. Once I recovered and managed to stop laughing, I propelled myself toward a small waterfall where I could climb out and join the rest of the group.
Yuri also jumped, after me, but he hit his elbow on the mystery rock. Fortunately it was minor, as it could have been so much worse than a slightly bruised elbow. He remained true to his words: I jumped so he did too. I often wonder what he was thinking before and after he jumped and what it would have cost him not to. My partner didn’t jump; he didn’t want to or need to.
Ulan tried to get Yuri and I to jump again, but neither of us did. I don’t know about Yuri, but I couldn’t. At the time, I wondered if I should be disappointed. Afterall, I spent years fixated on the idea that if I could just get past the fear, I would be successful and turn into that person who joyfully jumps without thinking every time, someone fearless. Did I think I would suddenly and magically change? Maybe. But that’s not how it works, is it?
Ulan jumped a few more times before we all continued happily back to the car, pausing at the last and largest waterfall. Thankfully, no one was jumping off anything there. But at the top, sat a solitary teenager, legs dangling over the edge. He reminded me of those boys from my childhood, and I hoped he wasn’t considering the best place to jump. It seemed much too high. I chuckled, remembering how I craved to be just like that and imagining myself trying to emulate such a boy. What a strange thing it is to carry that little, lonely version of myself around without ever questioning if she and I were still the same or if we even wanted the same things anymore.
Now, when I look at any cliff above the water, I have a new memory and a new way to remember the old one. I think, “Would I jump here?” Truthfully, like my partner, the answer is usually “no,” so I haven’t jumped off a cliff since that day by the river. I can’t say if I ever will, but I have done so much more than my younger self could have ever imagined. Sure, I was scared for a lot of it, and that’s okay. I finally know with utter certainty that I will never be fearless, but it was never the fear I needed to let go of anyway.
Lindsay Dudbridge is a professional editor from the US who has been living in Madrid, Spain since 2019. She has many outdoor hobbies, including mountaineering, trail running, caving, and climbing, that she writes about on her blog notanoutlier.com. This submission is a work of nonfiction.