Tuesday, August 16, 2011

the valley of fire

We've driven hours to arrive here -- a barren nocturnal wilderness formed from time-worn heaps of jagged rock and the occasional struggling shrub. As we emerge from the car, the night air is startlingly warm. The moon is ripe and full, sketching unnerving shadows between the boulders and clefts.

From the approaching road, the tower appeared as a pinprick-thick line drawn from the earth to the north star with a massive ruler. It's actually a triangular cage with a ladder set against the vertex of its equilateral legs. My feet at the first rung, I look up. Inside the cage, there is no sky.

My two companions begin their ascent -- the first steps of a reverent pilgrimage back to the ground.

I tighten my harness.

I climb.

The blush of dawn has begun to pour through the lattice. The breeze carries no sound but the sussurus of the generator far below, throbbing as evenly as the breath of a sleeping giant.

At just shy of nine hundred feet, I choose a perch and flip to the narrow space on the other side of the ladder. I grab the chin strap of your helmet to pull your kiss through the bars. I watch the oranges and golds of the desert-morning sun bury themselves in your green eyes and wonder, as I always do, if this will be the last time I see them.

You and the other jumper rattle further up the ladder, sending quivers through the steel. Soon, you're too far to see clearly. Soon after that, you can't hear when I call for you.

I start singing to myself instead and, while I wait for the familiar battle cries from the jumpers above, I play.

I sit in lotus between two legs of the triangle.

I hang loosely back into the center of the tower from my harness, arms loose, palming the ebb and flow of air as it moves through the steel and over my skin.

I straddle the void, balancing, one foot propped on each side.

I clamber out to hang on to the outside of the structure, sending resounding clangs up and down the length of the spire as I explore new points to affix myself, watching far above for signs of an exit.

I run my fingers over the inscriptions impressed on the quickdraw clipped in front of me. In one succinct, sentence-like diagram, the carabiner explains the math behind cross-loading. I'd never stared at one long enough to notice the engraving, so I take the moment to ponder the little miracle of engineering that holds me here. I scratch the multiple embroidery that holds the central web together. I think about microcracks.

The carabiner shivers under my fingers as the boys move into position four hundred feet above. As I move my hand back to the ladder, I brush a small fabric tag attached to the web. In tiny letters: "CLIMBING IS DANGEROUS." I see the words framed by the sacred grey geometry of the tower beneath me, its vanishing point sliding into darkness.

It's time.

The crack from the first jumper's canopy splits the silence. The gunshot retort is soon followed by a whoop of victory, and I watch him settle to the ground with the ease of a dandelion seed.

I drop my head through the lattice to crane my neck upward, squinting my eyes at the stark blue canvas behind what I can see of the zenith. Soon, you emerge. Arms and legs long and even, you spring into the void as smoothly as a launching albatross. When your canopy blossoms from your back directly in front of me, I throw a cry of triumph across the space between us. You cleave a path down, down, down to a dirt road and I see your nanoscale figure touch lightly to the earth.

I breathe, watching the pink slowly return to my whitened knuckles.

Time to go down.