Guardian angel overworked, underpaid

The Slot, Pt. Lobos State Reserve.

It was exhilarating – in all the wrong ways. One moment I was crouching; the next I was flying. Backward.

The time was November, 2006; the place: Point Lobos in Carmel. The sun was high and so was the ocean, swelling and slamming against a peninsula of rock called The Slot. Every third or fourth wave was a paragon of physics: gathering itself, cresting and striking with optimal force. Water became thunder. Blue-green erupted in geysers of glinting white.

Imagine The Slot as a bent thumb protruding from Point Lobos’ south shore and hooking parallel to that line for 40 yards, forming a cove of sloshing seawater behind it. The thumb’s knuckle is a hill of nubbled Carmelo Formation rock that dips down to the thumbnail, the ideal spot from which to bag photos – up close and perpendicular – of breakers pummeling the promontory’s midsection. I hopped onto the thumb, clambered up the slippery knuckle and slithered down to the nail.

The ocean was in a cooperative mood. As the sun climbed toward noon the breakers burgeoned. I squeezed off my last shot and started back up the knuckle. I was almost to the crest when a breaker barreled in and launched a plume that rose high and fell hard. I reached down and found a handhold. The curtain of seawater stooped to my level. Whap. Feet slipped off wet rock but fingers hung on. I stood up and kept going, knowing I’d be given a three-to-four-wave reprieve before the next breaker would hit.

I knew wrong.

The next wave threw no curtain skyward; it threw a wall. I crouched, groped in vain for something to grip, and looked up. Sea and sky were erased. The wall, a Jackson Pollack masterpiece of silver spatter, rushed straight at me. I heard a seething noise and then something that sounded like – and felt like – swack.

Those who suffer physical trauma are often condemned to remember it too clearly. I was spared. My rough-and-tumble trip backward down the hill and into the cove began too suddenly and ended too soon for fear to take hold. The other blessing: I fell enveloped in seawater; couldn’t see a thing.

Three impressions stuck: the heaviness of the wall of water that hit me; the sensation of striking something that took my breath away; and the image from several feet under water of a fantastic swirling of green, white and gold above.

When I broke the surface I let out a whoop. I was alive. I had landed on my shoulder and not my skull.

I dragged myself out of the cove gashed and grateful. And embarrassed. I’ve apologized to my wife, my boss, my broken collarbone, my collapsed lung, my torn rotator cuff and my guardian angel, who must be thinking, “I’m not getting paid enough to cover this guy’s butt.”

Why do edges attract us so? Why do we lean over the rail and look down, climb to the summit and look up; scramble onto the promontory and look out? Is it, in the words of Mount Everest chronicler Jon Krakauer, because it's “titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier”? Do we pursue these moments, as he claims for himself, “not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them”?

I answer only for myself: No. I don’t go to the edge for the danger. I go for the view. I’ve cracked my skull on Yosemite granite to gain a special view of Nevada Fall; blistered my skin with Sunol poison oak to gain a special view of Alameda Creek; shredded my shins on daggers of manzanita to gain a special view of Morgan Territory. Some views are hard won; some lessons should be learned. Icarus’ wings and my collarbone learned the hard way: fly too near the sun and you get melted; wander too near the breakers and you get busted.

But the edge shouldn’t be dismissed. Only on the edge can we be both here and out there: clinging to the faithful grasp of earth while floating like a hawk on the updrafts of epiphany. Ask any cliff diver, hang glider or rock climber. At the world’s extremities – say, a thumbnail – are extreme experiences found.

I’ve returned to The Slot several times; returned to witness up close the terrible beauty of the out-there of ocean battering the here of earth. I’ve gone to the edge and looked down, looked up and – yes, my wife, my boss, my bones, my lung, my cuff, my guardian angel – looked out.