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From the age of five, I’ve had an irrational fear of heights. Maybe because, as a short child, everything seemed to tower over me. Or maybe because, as a Floridian, I had not known any height above sea-level until later in my life. As a boy, my fear of heights was a constant source of regret each time I found myself in a place above a young Floridian’s natural elevation. That all changed, however, when I shot through Northern California’s redwoods hundreds of feet in the air.
Paying the fare. Strapping on the harness. Hiking to the top of a cliff. Crossing a makeshift bridge that connected the edge of the mountain to the nearest redwood. Supported only by a thin wire attached to the broad branches overhead, I stood on a wooden platform that was far too small, staring into a void that extended one hundred and fifty feet below. At this point, all thoughts of it being my dad’s birthday abandoned me – and I was overcome with anxiety. My fear exploded when the tour guide lead me to the edge of the platform, attached my harness to the zip-line, and told me to get a running start. I swallowed and, to the coaxing of my family, reluctantly complied. Running forward, the crisp morning air whipping against my face, I leaped. That terrible feeling of dropping, of my stomach turning inside out, embraced me as I tumbled forward. The harness caught me, pulling against my chest. I refused to look down until my feet were firmly planted against the landing platform of the next tree. Lightheaded, I waited for my family to arrive behind me and was once again attached to the zip-line, told to step back, and then asked to leap.
“Go!” the guide barked. I closed my eyes and leaped off the platform two hundred feet above the forest’s floor. Whipped by wind and feeling weightless, I cruised along the zip-line. My gripping fear forced me to open my eyes, to verify that I was still attached to the line and heading for the next platform. I looked up. Down. Each and every way. I closed my eyes again, this time feeling and hearing only the force of the wind and the acceleration of the zip-line as I cruised through the redwood canopy. I absorbed the beautiful surroundings I found myself in, forgetting only for that moment about my irrational fear of heights. As I neared the climax of that particular line, I began to pick up speed. A group of branches covered a sunlit opening in the canopy before me. I could not believe my eyes as I rocketed through the opening into a breathtaking clearing. I could see for miles – to a stunning collection of mountains in the foggy distance, to the apricot colored sunrise, to a brisk creek gushing below me, spraying water over lush, aquatic foliage. I was captivated by the immense artistry nature exhibited from the sky. Everything below me seemed cohesive; the canopies of different trees melted together, grass met rock met flower, deer prodded alongside an obviously beaten path. I had faced my fear of heights and was able to, for the first time in my life, simply enjoy the serene beauty of being above my natural height.
It is in my nature to observe before I act, to analyze and inspect a situation before I enter it. Zip-lining was in direct defiance of this nature. Above the canopy in that clearing, soaring through what seemed like the clouds with my fear of heights forgotten, I had discovered my newfound ability to silence fear and hide my own bias – preferring instead to observe before emotion, such as fear, takes over. When I landed, the full sense of this accomplishment hit me like a brick. My fear was ultimately my greatest motivator – by forcing me to try to escape it, I had overcome it in the hardest way possible. That morning, I faced and conquered a life-long fear, I expanded my capacity for observation, and I gained a unique and incredible memory – that of zipping hundreds of feet in the air through the tips of California’s redwoods.
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