A quarter of the way over the river, I forced myself to look over the edge of the railings at the water and trees so far below us. I immediately got that sense of vertigo, like my head was huge and heavy and my feet were tiny and couldn’t possibly support me. The railing came up to my hips, and it felt like I only needed to lean against it and I’d flip right over and cartwheel into the West Virginian forest below. We also had harnesses with basically a dog lead connecting us to some wires. The vertigo stopped, and despite the feeling that this entire bridge would break and I’d be falling any moment, the view was beautiful, showing us rafters going down rapids and long coal trains and abandoned mines and falcons soaring below us and diving for prey. Trucks rumbled over the top of us, causing the walkway to shake, and my hands to grip the rusty railing so tightly that flecks of iron started to gather in the creases.
We are on a bridge walk near Fayetteville, West Virginia. It’s apparently one of the longest continuous suspension bridge walks in the world, and it spans the entire underside of the bridge, walking through the girders and suspension beams. Our guide was a young local comes back from college to work in the summer. He liked to tell stories about dangerous things that his “friends” had done on the bridge during high school, about sneaking onto the walkway without harnesses during the night and drinking hooch and throwing traffic cones into the river. ‘My friends are pretty crazy’ he says, but everyone knows that he was there too. As we walk along, he is entertaining and professional and slick – too slick, I decide. He points out the falcon nests in the bridge – they’d been bought in especially to kill all the pigeons that had been corroding the bridge with their acid poop. He talks about a year event called ‘Bridge Day’ when apparently there are people jumping off the bridge every twenty seconds. I imagine jumping off the bridge, and immediately get dizzy again.
Halfway across the bridge, Michelle and Lyndsay noticed that me and Steven are walking weird. The entire time we’ve kind of been shuffling forward like old people, hands always on the rusty railing like we’re learning how to walk again, head relentlessly forward. Lyndsay and Michelle in comparison are skipping around, sitting down and taking selfies.
‘Are you guys OK?’ they ask.
Me and Steven are both like ‘fine, but you know, scared of heights’.
It’s been a few days now, and I feel like I get Steven more. He doesn’t always say a lot, and when he does, it’s usually a killer pun. He affects a kind of weary, sarcastic cynicism of everything, and talks about how much he hates everyone on the trip. I never believed that he actually hated anyone – it’s not like he was forced to come on this trip, but I couldn’t quite work out why this was happening. In improv, we’re taught to find ‘the game’ in the scene, which is the point of difference, the funny thing that you can use to facilitate dialogue and up the energy. I understood that the sarcastic pose was the game with Steven, and it was easy to play along with. But the question remained – was he an asshole trying to be entertaining, or was he a nice guy being entertaining by pretending to be an asshole? In Cincinnati when I first met him, I discovered a dog and somehow ended up cuddling the dog and rolling around with it, and it was amazing, and during this Steven just kinda walked away. ‘Not a dog person’ I decided, which kinda leant credence to the asshole theorum. But later I discovered that only a day or two earlier, his dog had died suddenly, and he was standing away because it hurt him. I’ll break any tension here – it turned out he is a super nice guy, like one of those extremely rare nice people.
Michelle, who was the designated trip-mom, and had single-handedly organised everything we were doing, kept asking us why we hadn’t said we were scared of heights before we climbed over some really really tall bridge. Steven and I just shrugged a lot. For me, I don’t really have acrophobia, but being up high kinda fits in with my general anxiety. Honestly, the thing I worried about the most the entire walk was my phone. Everyone was waving their phones around to take photos, and it just gave me the hibblies. I have phone-horror. But I’ve also never said no to any height based related activity, unless it’s stupid like skydiving or bungee jumping. I will climb your monument or stand on the glass floor of your tower, because it feels good to know that I am not defined by this fear. It feels better than doing something which comes easily to me. It’s a very similar feeling I had when I got on the plane to come over here.
This post is generously supported by the Thiel Grant for Online Writing, and is included in a 50 part series called ‘HELLO INTERNET BOY’ ranging from March 2015 – March 2016