Monday, June 14, 2010


FEAR. There's a word for ya. Good fear, bad fear, deep fear, hidden fear. I am of the belief there are only two real emotions in the human heart – love and fear. Today I'm talking about fear.

It all started because a friend of a friend decided she needed to start a "bucket list." (May I nominate that phrase for most annoying phrase/concept since "cool beans" and "think outside the box?" In my humble opinion, writing out a bucket list gives unnecessary gravitas to ridiculous but fun things, like getting laid in Vegas, while trivializing difficult achievements, like becoming fluent in Hungarian. And, even worse, it gives people an excuse to put off doing the things they'd like to be doing if they would just conquer their own fear and inertia. "I can't do it now, my show's on, but it's on my bucket list!" Sorry, I should save this for another blog.)

Anyway, my friend's bucket list contained white water rafting on the New River in Fayette County, WV. I live in WV and have always felt a sort of secret shame that I had never partaken of one of my state's most famous and exciting activities, but to be honest, the thought of it scared the piss out of me. I don't really know why. I can swim; I'm not scared of water, but there are some serious Class Five rapids and, well, I like breathing. But the opportunity presented itself and I agreed to go, fear be damned. We also decided that, as a reward for bravely facing the lower New River in spring, we would treat ourselves to the newly opened zip line canopy tour that ranged across the gorge. A good plan, right?


I received two excellent pieces of advice before we left to raft. One, your paddle in the water will keep you in the boat. (Thanks, Melanie.) Two, listen to everything your guide tells you. I concentrated so hard on every word out of our guide's mouth I nearly set him on fire with my mind. I don't really know how or why it happened, but on that long, winding bus ride down the gorge to the launch site, my fear grew from anxiety to white-knuckle terror but part of my brain (probably the part that didn't want to be laughed at by the 11 year old kid in the raft with me) told me to stare down that fear, to fight through it. Or rather, paddle through it. We came upon the first real rapid of the day, a Class Three with a Class Five hole at the bottom, aptly named "Surprise" and what do you know? I did exactly what our guide told us, paddled like hell and came out on the other side laughing my head off and immediately in love with white water rafting. In every picture of me on that river, I am grinning like a baboon.

Fear of the unknown conquered by facing it head on. Check.

Skip ahead to the next day. Our adrenaline glands had gotten a well deserved rest. We suited up for the tree-top canopy zip-line. Three hours of gorgeous sailing over the beautiful New River Gorge. I had a few little butterflies but mostly I was pumped. After all, I had jumped out of an airplane the year before and I had just upped my bravery quotient by successfully rafting the Lower New River. I was ready! The fact that thunder clouds were rolling in over the mountains only gave me slight pause. The tour was rain or shine. I was in.

It started with a ground-school. These people take their customers' safety very seriously and they make sure everyone understands exactly how to do what they are going to spend the next three hours doing. We were clamped onto a pair of wires in a rather complicated series of carabineers, given instructions on breaking and steering and self-rescuing should we not complete the zips, one of which would be over 730 feet long. I watched my friends go first, zip lining over the perilous height of four feet. I learned from their mistakes. I felt confident in my ability to follow the directions. And then I felt this sick little worm of fear begin to twist inside of me. I thought maybe it was just a left over from the day before, or perhaps an unfortunate habit of fear that I might have picked up somewhere, like a cold sore. I took my turn on the ground-school line successfully and told that little evil worm of fear to buzz off. I had come to zip line and zip I would!

The first zip was 100 feet long heading right out into the gorge. The landing platform was easily thirty feet up in a sturdy hemlock and if you don't think that's high, well, think again. I could feel the adrenaline pumping as I watched friend after friend zip across the chasm with varying degrees of success, all laughing, all whooping it up. When I stood on the launch stump, harness hooked in, palms sweaty, heart pumping, I told myself I was going to face this new fear, this new shade of unknown, and I was going to zip my ass all the way across that gorge.

And I zipped. I kept my ankles crossed; I braked softly when instructed; I steered as true as an arrow and landed perfectly on the second platform. And do you know what I learned in that one jubilant instant? That I hate zip lining. The guide congratulated me, hooked me to the safety belt to prepare for the next zip and looked genuinely shocked when I said I wanted off the platform. There was one more zip to go before the rescue line and the guide assured me that once I did it again, I'd get over my nerves. After all, she told me, you're doing really well. And so we zipped again. Another 100 feet, another easy, straight, fast dead-on landing. And the transformation of my dislike of zip lining into outright loathing. The storm was blowing in. The hemlocks were swaying and I was fully prepared to scamper down that tree like a squirrel if need be. The guide told me to trust my equipment. I told the guide several words that rhyme with "duck" and the rescue line was prepared.

Did I regret bailing on my adventure after only two short zips, ignoring the guides promises that I would come to love the activity? Not for a heartbeat. The gentle man on the ground who plucked us from the rescue line (I was not alone in this defection) told me that I had made the right decision. He said "Honey, if you don't like it by now, you're gonna hate it in three hours." Truer words were never spoken. And when I saw the face of my best friend, who is perhaps the bravest, boldest, ballsiest woman I have ever known, when she returned from three hours zipping through the gorge in a driving rain storm – well, I congratulated myself on making the right decision.

What's the message here? One, don't invite me zip lining. But two, all fear is not bad fear but all fear must be faced. Some things you fear because they've become big boogey monsters in your head and when you right up to them, they're nothing more than ghosts. Some things you fear because when you get right up on them, they are indeed scarier than hell. But you won't know until you get right up on them and that is usually the scariest step of all. And whether you fight or flee, you can at least know you were brave enough to take that step in the first place.


Donna Cummings said...

Wow! I was riveted by this post! I understand how fear can paralyze a person -- it's the down side to being imaginative -- and I am filled with admiration at what you accomplished. I also admire you for deciding something wasn't worth pursuing, after you gave it a try.

Really great post. I feel like I've already gotten two things off my "bucket list" now. LOL Sorry -- couldn't resist. Should I have said "staycation" instead? :)

Donald V. Phillips said...

New nick name for you Shiela... Zippy. ;) Just take it as a term of endearment.

Super story line! (puns intended) I've been thinking about my own "bucket list." The only thing on it is scary, perhaps as scary as the zipline. It is PUBLISH or DIE. So to bastardize a line from Sawshank Redemption, I'm either gonna get busy publishing or get busy dying.

The only other thing I put in a bucket is sand at the beach when I'm building temporary sand castle embattlements.

Thanks for inspiring! Your story makes a great metaphor for writing.


Liz Lipperman said...

You always make me laugh. I have never been zip lining and after your experience, have no desire to. But I have been white water rafting. Hubby and I did it on our 40th wedding anniversary down a mostly 3 with one 4 at the end. Our boat had two women and a child, plus the two old people. Everyone was looking like they were glad they weren't in our boat. We ended up being the rescuers for the trip since we were so good at it. I absolutely loved it, even the last 4. One of the boats capsized on that one and the people were terrified. Seems they were stuck under the boat and sucked beneath the water. Bet their bucket list ended up in the garbage after that one.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading about your experience - "zipping my ass" cracked me up.

Tiffinie Helmer said...

Love this Sheila! I don't believe in bucklet list either. Maybe it's the "list" part of the whole thing. Makes it sound like work.

I've become a trill seeker since my kids started leaving the nest. Now that I don't have small children to take care of, it's like I can cut loose and live a little. In fact, my kids have pulled me back from the edge a few times. My 18 year old just recently took up kitesurfing and he's teaching me. My husband thinks we are nuts.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

SG Redling said...

Thanks to everyone for not judging me for chickening out on the zip line. As my mother always said "He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day!" Discretion being the better part of valor, I'm hoping I can parlay this daring into my new WIP. Thanks everyone for joining in!

Marilyn said...

I bet white water rafting and zip lining are gonna find their way into one of your novels. Do you think your character will complete the zip line?

I was right there with you in your fear!