Climbing Ampersand recently, I slipped on a rock. Fine. It happens. But not that much, not to me. Lacking other things to be proud of, I at least take satisfaction in a good sense of balance. This sense of balance was learned long ago, a factual nugget I reflected upon as I continued to hike, in the way that desultory, pointless thoughts float through your mind like breeze-buffeted wisps of milkweed on long stretches of lonely trails.
Growing up in rural West Virginia, our county’s school system didn’t have a lot of spare lettuce for playground improvements, so the janitor, Mr. Ryder — a taciturn, thickly muscled man man who was not tall, and whose darkly tanned face was deeply lined from too many years of mopping up crayon induced vomit — fashioned outdoor toys from the scrap he had on hand.
To be totally accurate, we did have two pieces of store-bought playground equipment, one being a hand-cranked merry-go-round that was quite frankly a piece of mechanical wizardry with an assemblage of iron gears and cams that allowed it to achieve stunning circular velocity. But it was quite old, and when it achieved warp speed, worn bolts and chunks of metal tended to go flying off like a rocket ship escaping planetary orbit. The kids graduating from this elementary school might not have known their ABCs, but they sure learned how to duck.
The other manufactured equipment was a set of “monkey bars” which was basically a staircase of ever-higher steel poles parallel to the ground. No one had ever heard of rubberized landing surfaces, so like the rest of the playground, the monkey bars were cemented into a hardened surface of highway asphalt. It was a wise, cost-efficient choice, because for all the kids who fell on the pavement from the heights of the monkey bars, it never once cracked. The same could not be said for the kids, and the gleeful cry of 8-year-old boys that “Donna’s busted her head open!” still ring in my ears. Between the monkey bars and the merry-go-round, come spring, the rescue squad, to save gas, would just leave an ambulance parked in the abandoned cemetery across from the school.
One of Mr. Ryder’s creations was a set of “balance beams” that were in fact elevated 2x4s for us to walk across without (ideally) falling. As was all the playground equipment at our school, along with the concrete floors of the school itself, they were painted gray, surplus pigment from old battleship, I suppose. The overall effect was obviously quite dreary and led us to wonder why children in the Eastern Bloc thought they had it so bad.
So they wouldn’t sag, the flat (4) side of each 2×4 was nailed over top of the narrow (2) side of a second 2×4, and occasionally the wide board fell out, leaving the narrow board exposed. This was more of a challenge for the user and more of a risk, since the old board was generally lying, angry nails pointed upward, down below. I got quite good at traversing these skinny studs, and so this is the story of how I attained such a good sense of balance.
But as I was reflecting on this on the trail, my balance failed me again and I slipped on a second rock. I caught myself with no harm done, but for maybe three-quarters of a second I was in free-fall and my ultimate safety was not assured.
As people who suffer near-death experiences relate, it is incredible how many thoughts can pass before your eyes in such a short span of time. And from the time that I slipped to the time I caught myself, it was sufficient to consider all of the following:
I never ever slip twice, one right after the other like this, so something must be afoot. And didn’t I just read in the rangers’ reports that someone on Ampersand had recently suffered a crisp knock on the coconut after slipping on a rock? And didn’t I read about another person who had slipped on a rock and broken an ankle? What is going on? Maybe there’s a story here. Are the rocks slipperier now than they used to be? Maybe this has something to do with climate change. Maybe the frictional qualities of granite are affected by a warming planet.
Or maybe this is a product of overuse. I remember being in Peru where they showed us a steep slab of rock in which deep, glass-smooth channels had been worn in the stone by the millions of tiny bottoms of children who had for centuries used it as a sliding board. Maybe all the boots over the Adirondack rock is wearing away the rough surfaces that used to afford better purchase.
But then as I caught myself and soldiered on, I realized that the obvious answer is unfortunately the most likely answer: I’m just getting older. My balance isn’t what it was.
Being something of a Pollyanna, I don’t see this as an entirely bad thing. It just means that I have to take my time and be more careful. Too often the drive to “get there” has led me on too many forced, head-down marches that I know have caused me to miss some of the interesting features the woods have to offer. So I’m trying to ratchet it back a little. Go slow. Take pictures. Look up wildflowers. Study the terrain. Listen.
And keep an eye out for slippery rocks.