Last summer, I fell 100 feet into one of the steepest canyons in the United States. After tumbling 75 feet down the near-vertical canyonside, I dropped another 25 feet in free fall, landing in a dry stream bed between granite boulders.
People said my survival was a miracle. Fallen hikers are airlifted out of Eaton Canyon in Altadena, Calif., the site of my fall, on a regular basis. Every year, several die.
I have always loved falling. When I was 3, my favorite game was mantel jumping. My dad would place me on the mantel, steady me and step back. Id push off and fall for that perfect rush of a second before he caught me, swinging me to the ground.
In high school, I found a teenage version of mantel jumping by leaping off high, rocky cliffs with my friends into the ocean below. I loved the way the wind whistled in my ears, making me feel so alive.
If I was passionate about adventure, I was cautious about passion. Until one day I took the leap and told the captain of the football team I liked him, and he said he liked me. A week later he sent me an email saying he was dating a girl he had met at camp, and that she was a lot like me, except blond.
I used this experience as an excuse not to get invested in any more boys. I wasnt looking for a boyfriend. I was looking for adventure. A boyfriend would slow me down.
Then near the end of my junior year of high school, a senior named Wilder asked me to prom, and I said yes. Maybe it was because I knew he would be leaving for college soon. Right after I said yes, though, my heart started pounding. The smile on my face was so big it hurt.
Prom was a group event, not a real date, but he was there, this boy, looking at me as no one ever had.
I was determined to keep things casual as we headed out on our first real date.
We decided to hike the sage-lined trail to the waterfall in Eaton Canyon. Dozens of hikers were splashing in the pool when a hiker asked if we had heard of the second waterfall only a mile beyond.
We tramped another 20 minutes up the steep incline and found it, beautiful and isolated.
In my head I kept shouting, Casual! But it was difficult to hear myself over the water crashing around us as we kissed in the spray. It didnt seem real, how perfectly I fit into his arms as the sun warmed our dripping skin.
If we had paid more attention going back, we might have realized we had turned down the mountain too soon, but just being around each other was making us high. It was so easy to be with him. The way he laughed when I told him about the day Amy caught him staring at me in history, and he admitted it wasnt the only time. Im in such trouble, I thought.
We were coming around a curve in the canyon wall, hurrying to get back while it was still light. It was more like rock-climbing than we planned for, and we had to go flat against the wall and move carefully along a narrow ledge, but we figured it would get easier around the bend.
Wilder went first, searching for notches and footholds, finally making it around. Then I went, feeling for handholds, my face inches from the rock. And suddenly I wasnt holding on to anything. Sandy grit was skittering down the mountain alongside me. I was falling.
A bloody me
I thought I would be OK, but when I saw the panic in Wilders eyes, I realized there would be no outstretched arms this time, no ocean waves. I knew how to fall, but not like this.
I woke up to the sound of helicopter blades. A cable carried me into the air. It struck me: I had just fallen, and now they were taking me up even higher.
Nurses cut away my clothes with giant scissors and wiped the dirt and blood from my body.
They asked me to push against someones palm with my heel. I didnt understand why everyone was amazed to see me move my fingers and toes.
Wilder visited as soon as he was allowed, but I was too out of it to say anything except, Thanks for the flowers.
When he came the next day, I was ready. Youre off the hook, I said.
What do you mean? he asked.
I explained, in my drugged speech, that he didnt have to come to the hospital or hang out with a broken girl all summer. No guilt. Id call him when I was healed and back to normal.
He stayed with me until a nurse kicked him out.
Five days later, I was home. Doctors said I would have to wear a brace from my hips to my neck for 8 to 12 weeks, and then we could talk about recuperation. A week earlier, I leapt off cliffs into the ocean and jumped at the chance to find the second waterfall. Now, sitting up for 20 minutes exhausted me, and I could barely move without wincing.
Wilder kept visiting, and it scared the hell out of me. I couldnt stay awake for more than three hours, needed help with the simplest movements and smelled like blood. But when he came, I fought to look like the girl he had asked to prom. Id brush out my hair, still full of canyon dust, wear a long skirt to cover my battered legs and make sure bandages covered my wounds.
I looked as if I had been mauled by a tiger, but the brace covered most of it. Id laugh, roll out of bed and walk around, as if keeping in motion would prove I was strong, independent and unhurt.
After a few hours, my eyelids would droop and my back would beg for relief. I figured hed leave while I slept, but Id doze off listening to him playing basketball with my little brother, and when Id wake up hed be eating dinner with my family.
Falling to surrender
Sometimes I think my body saved itself that day by learning to surrender, that those years of falling prepared me to relax into the 100-foot plunge. It was weeks after the fall before I could let go.
I thought I could use my injuries as an excuse to push Wilder away. I thought I could keep things casual. I thought I could forget the look on his face as I fell and ignore the terrifying feeling of longing in my chest. I couldnt.
Maybe it was the way he said, Id rather spend my summer with you than any other girl. Maybe it was how being around him made me feel whole and unbroken.
Finally, surrender became not just inevitable but exhilarating. I didnt want to hold on to anything anymore. I wanted to fall, and I already had. And I knew that this time, too, I would be OK.
Natalie Lindeman, 17, is a senior at The Waverly School in Pasadena, Calif.
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