My entire body shook uncontrollably.
There was a drop beneath me, but I had no way of knowing how far down it went; it was pitch black. I was straddling two boulders, at least five feet apart, and I wasn’t wearing hiking boots. This was not my idea of a “rock scramble.”
A gently sloping slab scattered with tiny pebbles, perhaps. A merry jaunt over some loose gravel, maybe. But this present reality of low visibility and no promise of survival? Definitely not. I cursed myself for not bothering to look up the definition of “rock scramble” earlier. Mostly, though, I wondered who in the hell had come up with such an innocent phrase for this activity. I was insulted by their nonchalance; it felt like referring to having a limb bitten off by a great white as “a pretty bad Monday.”
Unfortunately, none of these thoughts were helping much with the current situation, and the outstretched hand awaiting my next move was growing impatient. I made a big deal of pushing my back foot off the boulder to make it look like I was doing something other than practicing my petrified deer impression, then quickly settled back into my own version of limbo, literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. I gulped. The hand sighed. It was going to be a long night.
The beginning of college had been a strange mix of wanting to impulsively do everything and wanting to sit very, very still until things decided to just calm down, thank you. I was generally the world’s biggest advocate (and, incidentally, worst cheerleader) for team Shh, I’m Still Thinking, but the decision to go on the Outing Club’s illicit overnight trek to Mohonk Preserve definitely fell into the category of don’t think, just do. My pride for this decision was completely out of proportion to what I had actually achieved, but it didn’t matter: I’d finally found that who-cares and of-course-I-climb-mountains-at-night attitude, that healthy dose of stupidity that seemed so central to life in college. The fact that I didn’t know a single person in our group of ten scruffy pioneers made the decision all the more absurdly perfect to me.
The night that we were set to depart, I loaded up my backpack with water and warm things. Realizing that I still had an hour to spare, I instated an obsessive and somewhat frantic ritual of checking the clock and rummaging through my packed bag approximately five times a minute. Overeager anticipation soon trumped my need to keep up this ritual, so I headed over to the parking lot where we were supposed to meet. I arrived ten minutes ahead of schedule; the trip leaders rewarded me by arriving ten minutes late. Undeterred, I confidently told them who I was, then sat down on a wooden bench next to a girl whose legs nervously fidgeted at approximately the same rate as mine. We quickly became friends. Well, kind of quickly, kind of friends.
Awkward introductions and stilted questions did lead to the discovery that we had something important in common: we both had to pee. It was an exciting revelation. We spent some time worrying that the group might leave without us, but then determined that they knew who we were, and that we would be very fast. We ran inside, laughing excitedly, wondering what the night held in store for us.
Five minutes later we returned to a decidedly abandoned parking lot.
This is what I remembered as I stared up at the bearded and bespectacled face of the person who was supposed to help me cross the dark abyss, the same person who had left me and my new best friend stranded in a parking lot for a full twenty minutes before realizing that his car felt light on people. The only information I had gleaned on the drive over, squeezed between two puffily-coated strangers, was that he enjoyed unremarkable indie mix tapes, believed an ex-lover had been using him for his body, and prioritized carrying pot, Franzia, and a tiny guitar with a missing string over other more useful forms of sustenance. Our relationship was not off to a promising start, but he was the one with the headlamp.
I had a history of intense caution going into college, making this trip an odd choice to begin with. When I was seven, in an effort to get me to experience life a little more, my mom decided that it would be good for me to go on the river rapids ride at Disney World. It was a mild and perfectly safe attraction – probably thousands of people had gone on it at that point – but I was convinced that our raft would be the one to flip over and kill everyone on board. Naturally, I wasn’t too keen on partaking in this activity. As soon as I saw the sign for the ride, I immediately latched onto the nearest wooden pole with no intention of letting go. My mom did her best to ignore both my bloodcurdling screams and the glares of other park-goers as she grabbed my arm and dragged me towards the ride. It was a long and ugly battle, one that I eventually lost. Tears flowed freely as a smiling park employee buckled me into place on the raft, sealing my fated ride to a watery doom.
I’d like to say that a lot had changed, that I’d grown so much, that you’d hardly be able to reconcile freshman-year-college me with the kicking and screaming child from over a decade before. But I’d be lying. At best, I’d learned how to ball up most of my outward symptoms of anxiety and stuff them into a possibly less visible (but certainly no less quiet) place in my mind. Certainty and control were still just as much my staples at age eighteen as they had been at age seven. Spontaneity was allowed, but only in controlled bursts. I had a threshold for unpredictability; crossing it meant a quick and inevitable deterioration into non-functionality. The world I had created was my greatest comfort, if not my greatest joy. I ventured out only on rare occasions.
Then there was college. It wasn’t neat or tidy, and nothing fit like it was supposed to. I wasn’t sure if I had any friends, or if I was in the right classes, or even if I was in the right place. When my grandfather died a month in, I started searching for answers in the most arbitrary corners of the universe. I really had no idea what I was looking for, but when I came across the e-mail advertising an overnight hike on Bonticou Crag, I was pretty sure I’d found it. For once, I replied without thinking.
Straddling a dark and seemingly bottomless void, I was coming to regret my decision. Hitting send on that e-mail had already brought me to my unpredictability threshold. Being asked to trust this guy with the boxed wine and poor taste in music put me not only past the threshold but across the foyer, down the hall, and up about 37 flights of stairs. He wasn’t a tried-and-true friend; in fact, he had already forgotten me once that evening. Nothing in me was saying that it was a good idea to grab his hand, but it was the only option I had save for packing up and stubbornly turning the whole operation around. Without any basis or desire to do so, I just had to believe that it was going to be okay. That everything was going to be okay.
Through some bizarre process that to this day I cannot explain, I suddenly found myself standing on the other side. I didn’t dwell, pausing just long enough to offer a silent thanks to a deity I believed in on special occasions and to the person who I now believed might be the greatest wilderness hero of our time. Then I kept going. I don’t remember much else from the rest of the climb, only that the view that greeted me when I peeked my head over the last boulder was of that box of Franzia. I can say with some confidence that cheap wine has never looked so magnificent.
My memories of that trip are a series of scattered moments. Huddling in a circle, laughing at bad ghost stories. A song improvised to the impromptu strumming of a small, five-stringed guitar. My first unobstructed view of the night sky since coming to college. Two shooting stars. Pitching a tent on the softest rock we could find. Not being able to sleep. Not caring. Waking up with the sun, watching it slowly set the fall foliage aflame. Cramming ten exhausted hikers into a diner booth. A perfectly greasy breakfast. Half-awake reminiscences of one-night stands that didn’t end in orgasms but workouts that inexplicably did. Gazing out the window and listening to the same unremarkable mix tape from the night before. Loving every song.
As it would turn out, my ride on the river rapids all those years ago hadn’t been destined for a watery doom. After getting over the initial shock that I was on the ride at all, I found, despite myself, that a sense of enjoyment had crept up on me. I threw my hands up. I laughed. I screamed – not out of fear, but out of happiness. I never wanted to get off.
Earlier that morning after the hike, as we were all making our trek back down to the cars, we passed by the base of the rock scramble from the night before. It looked impossibly menacing in broad daylight. I paused for a second, thinking about the fact that if I had known what was coming, I never would have gone on the trip. Yet there I stood, scrambler of rocks, surmounter of insurmountable things. I turned with a quiet smile to rejoin the group’s sleepy pilgrimage toward breakfast, mulling over the events of the past twelve hours. I started gathering up memories like the freshly-fallen autumn leaves that produced a satisfying crunch with each step of our hiking boots. I had excellent plans for jumping into them later.
I’m so glad I never looked up the definition of “rock scramble.”
I think I never will.
Alex Cornacchia recently graduated from Vassar College with degrees in Psychology and Art History, effectively combining her life’s great interests in people, science, and art. She currently resides in Westborough, MA, and spends most of her days writing and exploring (in many senses of the word). Follow just some of those explorations at curiosityseeds.wordpress.com.