My mind was made before I even looked over the side — I was going to jump.
Last week was the first time I experienced the Devil’s Punchbowl on Independence Pass.
The Punchbowl is a cliff jump into the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River. The water runs through a deep, narrow slot in the rock. The main jump is about 20 feet into a frothy pool below a waterfall. A large submerged boulder is to the left, where you don’t want to land, and the cliff on the other side could be a hazard if you jumped too far out.
Of course I took a peek over the ledge at the top to make sure I aimed for the right landing, but I hopped off right away, before imagination spun out.
Some other guys had made the mistake of thinking too long. They sat at the brink, contemplating the void. I knew exactly how they felt. It’s a headspace in which you know the only way you’re leaving that spot is by jumping, but pulsing fear holds you back like a giant hand clenched around your chest. So you sit, waiting for a window between terrific heartbeats.
In 2004, my friend Todd took me to a secret swimming hole outside Yosemite National Park. He parked the car on the side of the highway next to the Merced River, which is what I assumed we’d be jumping into. Instead, Todd went up the hill toward something that looked more like a drainage ditch amid the tall, thorny brush.
We crossed a barbed-wire fence and followed a steep path up a hillside that climbed up and around the thick flora. The air above the oasis canopy was devoid of breeze, much less the sound or even smell of water. Under the June California sun, the back of my neck felt as crispy as the dry, yellow grass that scratched my legs as I hiked. Cicadas articulated the sound of heat like a chorus of circular saws burning through lumber, and sweat stung my sunburns like itchy sawdust.
At last, the trail descended to the creek and we waded to the other side. The clear liquid rushing around my skin was a savior but it was no deeper than my knees and the stream was perhaps 12 feet wide. Todd had promised a 40-foot cliff jump and I struggled to imagine plunging into something so small from so high.
More hiking brought us to a natural little reservoir carved out of the Sierra granite and I understood why the place was called “Paradise.” A 20-foot waterfall down a polished rock slab created a thrilling slide into an emerald pool with a sandy bottom.
“Where’s the big jump?” I asked. All I saw on the opposite bank was a 15-foot cliff. Above that there was only a steep, grassy bank with a few rocky ledges poking out here and there.
Todd led me to a trail on that side and we scrambled up the bank. Back in the brain-baking temps of cicada land, I concentrated on my footing in the steep dirt, hands gripping tufts of cheat grass for balance. I looked up in time to see Todd leap.
He seemed to fall forever, knees bent, arms out, as if strapped to a snowboard. There was a long silence followed by a distant splash. A sick feeling plunked into my gut.
The drop hadn’t looked so bad until I witnessed Todd’s air time. I peered over the side. The big pool looked like a glass of water — I could easily over-jump it. The roaring waterfall was but a gurgle and butterflies floated lazily in the quiet air where I sat down to compose myself.
It took 30 minutes of meditating to accept that my mind was made up.
“WAAAAAHHHHHGGG!” I descended in a choked scream.
Rising from the water felt like freedom, and I jumped again before we left.
Last week, those hesitant men eventually jumped while others hucked gainers and other stunts that were scary to watch. Though some took longer than others, everyone who went up to the jump spot went out with a leap.
From the start, you either know if you want to do something or not. That’s what put you on a particular path in the first place.
If that’s what you want, don’t think about the choice — the rest is already decided.
— “Open Space” appears on the second and fourth Friday of the month. Derek Franz writes for the Eagle Valley Enterprise and lives in Carbondale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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