Is there something you’ve always been afraid of that you wish you weren’t? Some childhood irrational fear that you try, secretly, to overcome hoping that no one finds out?
Heights, Hanging Bridges and Fear
I consider myself to be fairly risk loving and have had, in my 30-some-years of life, taken chances on my career, on moving country or even on people that I am proud of. But those irrational things I am afraid of, I am embarrassingly uncompromising on. So the story this week is a small example of personal victory and taking one tiny, but consequential step, in facing a lifelong fear: heights.
Here’s three distinct memories:
- As a ten-year-old I remember panicking over diving off the diving board. While my peers on the swim team seemed to be excited at the idea of plunging head first into the water after elevating themselves several feet into the air, I nervously stood at the end of the line, wishing that I didn’t have to participate in what appeared like a suicidal mission for very little gain. I’m a good student! (I think.) I can’t hit my head! (It’s my best asset.)
- At the age of five, I stubbornly cried for three hours as I sat at the top of the purple twisty slide of the Lawrence Elementary School playground. My mother stood at the bottom and refused to let me go home until I slid down it, “You’ll enjoy it once you try it! Don’t be so scared,” she shouted.
- During my summers visiting my best friend in North Carolina, we’d all go to Emerald Park, a waterpark with the usual twisty, turny, bacteria filled cesspools. There was one ride, a free fall slide from what felt like was halfway up the sky down into a large rectangular pool. You could hear the screams of kids sliding down it from the entrance. I would have anxiety on the car ride there, my stomach in knots, counting down the minutes we’d arrive at the white ticket gates, terrified that my friends would find out I was too chicken shit to go to on the “most awesome, best free fall ride in all of Emerald Park”.
I never understood these repeating patterns of irrational fear until the moment I was walking down the steps of a monastery in Ladakh, India at 14,000+ feet of elevation during a summer vacation in 2013. Suddenly, the white steps beneath my feet started swaying, and I was unable to see clearly enough to even put one foot in front of the other. Luckily my Company, a mountain-goat like skilled descender of stairs, took me by the hand while I covered my eyes, and we walked down all 200 or so steps, hand-in-hand with me practically blindfolded. I felt like a donkey. He thought it was romantic. That horrifically embarrassing moment itself, however, was illuminating. I had and have a severe fear of heights, which I had never understood and, as an athlete and lover of competition, hikes, and (quite ironically) very tall mountains, was a fear I both dreaded and deeply hated.
From that moment and years later, I would try to overcome this stupid fear, some endeavors more successful than others.
Trekking the Sierra Nevada via the Hanging Bridges of Monachil
There is something inexplicably exciting about being deep in the mountains, searching for peace and silence. Every single mountain excursion – from the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Carolinas to the Adirondacks of New York to the California Sierras and then the Alps of Europe – has filled me with deep memories of adventurous treks, beautiful sunsets, hot chocolate at the peaks and a feeling of freedom that I can’t seem to quite match in any other setting. For me, there’s a silence in the cool, alpine forests that puts to rest, briefly, a hyperactive mind while the changes of scenery and vegetation as I climb higher makes me feel like we’re ascending some botanic staircase to heaven.
Of course then when our bus pulled into Granada, the first things I noticed when I looked up were the purple tinted mountains of the Sierra Nevadas, small slices of white snow crisscrossing along the peaks, some that reached an elevation of 11420 feet. It was 90°F in the valley where Granada sits, surrounded by greenery that changed from short, desert shrubbery to lush alpine forests. The valley is also separated by the Darro Valley where the River Darro flows through the center of the city and seen from the caves of Sacromonte – the famous gypsy caves where we’d spend an evening watching Flamenco – and also from the winding streets of the Albaycin, a UNESCO world heritage site from the historic Moorish quarters. It is easy to forget that Granada, sitting at 2421 feet of elevation, is a town in the foothills of some of the largest mountain peaks in Europe.
The second thing I noticed was the Alhambra, a large fortified castle, nestled against the alpine forest and a striking foreground for the purple Sierras. Looking up at those beautiful monuments, one created by nature and the other, over hundreds of years of Moorish and then Catholic rule, I desperately wanted to go explore.
So after arriving in Granada, and after staring longingly at the mountains surrounding us, my Company looked up a beautiful hike through the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountains but warned, “To get to the waterfall, we’ll need to cross over four swinging bridges over the rock canyons. But, how do you feel about that?”
I agreed to challenge myself with the swinging bridges after obsessively confirming that the bridges, despite missing boards and steps from various backpacking website photos, were in fairly good condition, and we set aside an entire day to hike the Sierras via Monachil.
To get to Monachil from Granada, we took the 183 bus from downtown Granada (schedule here, note the very limited weekend schedule, and on Saturdays which has the last bus running at 13:40) which dropped us off on the bridge in the center of the small town of Monachil just 8 kilometers away. Monachil is a small mountain town with less than 8,000 people and off the beaten path of tourists visiting Granada. If you love the outdoors, adventure and hiking, this is the activity for you.
Following the river upstream on its left side and checking with the various signs on the road toward Los Cahorros (i.e. keep going up, up, and up along the hairpin switchbacks), we passed farms and a number of beautiful views. The surrounding hillsides had olives trees, pomegranates, grapes, figs and what mysteriously looked like kiwi plants, and we always had views of the green alpine forests straight ahead.
We approached our right hand turn off about 1 mile up the road from Monachil’s center. It looked like a steep downhill, gravel road, and quite frankly like someone’s drive-way if it weren’t for the steady line of cars that kept passing us to reach the cafe with the mountain view. You’ll know you’ve made the correct turn to the Los Cahorros trail when, after walking about 200 meters on the gravel road, you come to a cafe with a parking lot and laughing, happy people sitting around and throwing back some cervezas or tinto de veranos on a hot, summer day listening to the waterfalls flowing from the snow peaked Sierras. The trail head is just ahead of the cafe and well marked.
The Los Cahorros trail is famous for its snowmelt waterfalls, ice cold swimming holes (recommended only for hot days), River Monachil which runs along the trail, canyons, caves and of course, the four swinging bridges. The last bridge above the waterfall is famously the longest hanging bridge in Spain. My personal goal early on before embarking on the hike was to make it to the waterfall by crossing 3 out of the 4 hanging bridges. I would then take a quick dip into the glacial melt swimming pool, pat myself on the back, and head home after having a few celebratory drinks and tapas at the cafe. I had no intention of unnecessarily going over the final and longest bridge. That would be far above and beyond the adventures for the day.
Excited by the views around me and looking forward to a cool dip in the ice clean swimming holes, I approached the first bridge with as much confidence as I could muster. I asked my Company to go ahead of me so I could have a clear visual as a distraction beyond the gaping holes in the bridge boards, the sharp rocks below, and the left to right swinging motion that bridges shouldn’t have. He took two steps onto the bridge before he was pretty much gone and already on the other side. I was terrified, taking one painfully slow step in front of the other, my vision starting to blur and the wooden boards beneath me swirling as the bridge lurched from left to right, left to right.
One slow step at a time, I somehow made it without falling through the cracks in the bridge. It was a huge confidence booster.
Before getting to the waterfall, there were two more bridges to cross. Just like my childhood experience of eventually sliding down the twisty slide (and yes, I did end up liking it) at Lawrence Elementary School after being told off by my mom, the next two bridges were almost unmemorable. We quickly arrived at our paradise and spent over an hour dipping our feet into the icy cold water, sticking our heads into the waterfall, and then sunbathing on the hot rocks.
Despite sunbathing in what felt like a summer paradise, however, the final bridge quite literally overshadowed me (you can see it in the photo below). I could hear every creak when hikers crossed it. I could see the bridge in the shadow of the rocks surrounding the waterfall, and see it swinging delicately from side to side, inviting, tantalizing and teasing. I envisioned what it would look like on the other side, and soon, I decided I was going to make it over.
Ironically, like so many things I had feared before, the first attempt was the hardest. Even when a group of cave dwelling hippies (yes, it’s a thing in Granada) hopped on the bridge and started shaking it, even when my Company started to feel nervous (he was busy trying to take photos), even when the oscillations of our heavy footsteps started to go in sync dangerously to cause a potentially catastrophic resonance, I managed to cross (twice) with little panic.
The result? We spent the next mile or so hiking through caves, along the River Monachil, and further into the canyon. It was all worth it, and perhaps the experience was even more personally gratifying for me because I had done something that scared me. Beyond the beautiful hike that continued through the Sierra Nevada, I learned that I could still overcome stupid, little fears, and that I wasn’t too old or too set in my beliefs to make small advances. I certainly didn’t overcome my dizzying fear of heights, but on that day, it didn’t hold me back from having fun.
Movement, Flow and the Overcoming of Stupid, Little Fears
To be human is to experience a wide spectrum of emotions, and fear is a necessary one. It shows us our limits and most importantly, a healthy dose of it keeps us alive. There are moments, though, when fear is irrational, unnecessary, limiting and in the some cases, dregs out the worst behaviors in us.
While so many psychologists and new age meditation gurus promote the concept of stillness and presentness, I argue that we simultaneously need movement, that it is essential for our happiness and feeling of completeness. I have never met a person who enjoyed being stagnant. Flow keeps the water fresh; growth – the flow of our lives from one point to another – keeps us alive with a sense of personal value.
So why do we love these little, personal accomplishments that seem trivial to outsiders? Why do I now care so much about conquering my lifelong fear of bridges, cliff edges and top floor penthouse suites? On our evening walk back to Granada from Monachil (the buses had stopped running), I thought not only of the hanging bridges but of my career, my choices so far in life, and what I most admired about various friends and family.
I decided on this: Even our tribal ancestors, thousands of years ago, felt a need to move. Of course this need came from survival (the food has migrated 200 miles west!), but perhaps it also created a deep desire to conquer the unknown, the wild. Movement is in our DNA and our collective, ancestral history.
In so many ways, our personal endeavors to fight our fears and take on new challenges shows us, if anything, that our deep sense of adventure and limitless personal desire for growth are far stronger than boundaries or fear – to prove that there’s room for change and growth, that the human ambition and desire is far deeper than what we can imagine, and that we love to overcome those things we were afraid of. Most importantly, this flow of growth will continue to reward us with laughter, happiness and a deeper sense of completeness. In this way, these small, nearly trivial acts of movement to challenge irrational fear fill me with optimism about the human spirit.
Here’s my favorite food spots, like an oasis in the desert, during the full day excursion.
Merendero San Garrito (address: Unnamed Rd, 18193 Monachil): Nothing beats a cold cañe and tinto de verano after a long, hard and hot workout. Also, a view of the waterfall and Sierra mountains? Even better. The cafe at the trail head is not well labeled; I had to dig a bit online to find it but it’s really one of the only cafes nearby and hard to miss once you take the right down the gravel path. Anticipating some bus issues, we did not get food there, but I did stalk some delicious looking pork knuckles and oxtail which are local specialities.
Back in the center of town in Monachil, we ate at one of two cafes open during siesta hour (anytime between 4-8pm), Tito y Sabrina. It was one of the few places in Spain where I really enjoyed the vegetables, a dish of “cogollos y anchoas”, or romaine hearts with anchovies. The romaine hearts were perfectly light grilled with olive oil, a healthy dose of garlic and salt, pepper and pickled carrots in the center. Spanish anchovies have ruined anchovies for me forever – I don’t think I’ll ever eat anything as fresh as the ones I’ve had here. We ate these with a plate of chorizo and of course, tapas that came with our drinks. I didn’t have time to take any photos before digging into the food, except for a photo of the tapas (something about a hilly hike at altitude). Sorry, you know it’s good when there’s no photo because it was consumed too quickly. So here’s some tortilla instead.