Monday, November 15, 2010

I'm Keeping My Arm

I'm not giving anything away when I say that the climax in the movie "127 Hours" comes when Aron Ralston, well played by James Franco, decides to cut off his right arm. It's been pinned by a boulder, trapping him in a remote canyon for five days. He's out of food, water (he's already resorted to drinking his own urine) and hope, but not the will to live--it comes down to the arm or him. At this point, the audience has plenty of time to ponder what they'd do under similar circumstances, given that most people at the screening I attended, me included, chose to avert their eyes from the amputation, fake or not. I peeked at the screen for perhaps a nanosecond, only to see a flash of flesh and blood. I kind of vurped and put my head back down.

It didn't take me long to answer "What would Patty do?" because I had come to the conclusion an hour and 15 minutes earlier that I would never find myself in a remote canyon with my arm pinned by a boulder in the first place.

Rewind to another telling scene near the beginning of the film in which Aron befriends a pair of female hikers and leads them off the beaten path to a super cool hidden swimming hole. You've probably seen this in the movie's trailer: the three are wedged between rock, scooting along with their butts on one side of a narrow gorge and bracing themselves with their feet on the other. Aron suddenly drops his legs and plummets to the unseen water below. The girls follow suit, one more reluctantly than the other after letting loose a string of "fuck, fuck, fuck."

I'm the girl who says "fuck." And then turns around.

Several years ago, Dave and I were hiking the Angel's Landing trail in Utah's Zion National Park. A more accurate moniker would be Satan's Spire but the Mormons had naming rights, so heaven won out. From the guidebook, and I quote: "The route, cut into solid rock, very steeply ascends a knife-edge sandstone rib, from which cliffs plunge 500 feet or more on either side. Sloping steps cut into the rock making footing precarious. Short segments of chain bolted intermittently to the rock offer occasional handholds, but many exposed stretches offer no such protection." Yeah, just another walk in the park.

The guidebook had duly warned me, yet there I was, "fuck, fuck, fuck," clinging to the "intermittent" chain for dear life. We came to a lookout point and stopped so I could collect myself. That was it. I was done. I'm sure the view at the top was spectacular, but I'll never know.

Do I regret not finishing the climb? Hell yes. I was angry and disappointed in myself, for being afraid and giving into that fear. For being such a wuss-assed wimp. Not for "faint-hearted hikers and small children" the guidebook chided. That was me--a faint-hearted baby. I stomped back down the trail, which intersected with another less-vertiginous path, and proceeded to death march Dave for miles through the blistering August heat just to prove...what? If I couldn't conquer height, I would conquer distance? Spurred on by adrenaline, I quickly outpaced my parched and hungry husband, who ultimately refused to go one step further on our meager reserve of supplies. I continued some way without him--who was the wuss-ass now--until it struck me that this was our vacation. We were supposed to be having fun. Together. For the second time that day, I switched direction.

The Arons of the world keep going.

I want to be the person who climbs mountains, but content myself hiking the foothills below. I want to camp under the stars, but retreat to indoor plumbing at night. As much as I envy and admire the people who abandon themselves to the call of the wild, I'll never be one of them. For some reason, that depresses me.

Do you know how many people tour the Grand Canyon via car? Griswold-like, they pull up in their SUVs, hop out to snap a photo, then hop back in and motor on to the next scenic turnout. The fact that Dave and I hiked halfway down and back should be a point of pride and probably puts us ahead of 99 percent of the population (it doesn't count if you get to the bottom via mule, unless you're the mule). But damned if we didn't encounter a pair who were hiking the canyon's entire width, rim to rim. The couple, a man and woman (we assumed married), were maybe in their 50s, possibly early 60s. And just like that, our far less vigorous excursion was utterly diminished. It mattered not one whit that on our return to the top we came across another couple huffing and puffing and turning at the one-mile point. In their minds, we were gods, but I knew better.

I'm not Aron Ralston. I might share his motivation to challenge nature, to go deeper and farther, to explore and discover, but where he plunges ahead, I hold myself back. When I come to a sign that says, and I paraphrase, "If you're stupid enough to think you can hike to the bottom of the canyon and back in a day, you will die," I take it at face value. So I go halfway, half-hearted, half-assed. I respect limits, I consider consequences, and once you do that, you're toast as a Mountain Dew poster child.

Aron lost his arm because it never occurred to him that he might. I've got both of mine, because it occurs to me that I could.


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