LIFE IS A SPECTRUM

Between A Rock and A Good Place

I'm about as outdoorsy as taffeta. It's not that I don't like nature. I love the National Geographic Channel, and I'm glad that there are people with the time and wherewithal to follow the annual migration patterns of the caribou, but my idea of camping is a hotel room with a balcony.

It has to do with risk-aversion: You can't choose how you will eventually leave this earth, but you can eliminate certain death traps -- an overwhelming majority of which exist in the great outdoors.

I call it "Amanda's List of Ways I Will Not Die." For instance, I will not die because I decided to play with a bear cub and its mother bit my head off. I will not die because my tank ran out of air at the bottom of the ocean. I will not die because my brain froze on the way to the top of Mount Everest ...

In 2001, I had been living in Los Angeles for about four years. I had discovered indoor tanning, 24-hour gyms, and container gardening - who needed nature? It was the year I turned 30, with all the soul-searching and self-examination that brings. It was the year that I came out of the shower to find out that nearly 3,000 people died as the result of the lunatic death wish of 19 terrorists.

Like a lot of people, I watched non-stop coverage on CNN, and like a lot of people, I felt gutted after only a few hours. There's just no way to get your head around that kind of loss, played out in front of your eyes again and again and again. Everything that seemed to matter on September 10 just sort of flitted away.

I'd like to tell you that I completely reorganized my priorities and immediately started following caribou across the Great Northwest or joined the Peace Corps. But actually, I went to see the movie "Rat Race." The plot couldn't have been stupider if the script had been written by an actual rat, but I did laugh. A lot.

Then I decided to go rock climbing. Me. I don't even like step aerobics, but for some reason, it just seemed right. I wanted to get away from emails and cell phones and air conditioning and CNN -- until I was actually away from air conditioning. Turns out, Joshua Tree National Park is really freaking hot in September.

I signed up for a 48-hour crash course in climbing. From the start, I didn't like the sound of the word "crash," and I had serious doubts about my hippie instructor, who described himself as a "surfer of the rocks," and lived out of his van.

There were two other people in the class, both guys, and for the first hour, Hippie Joe mostly talked about the philosophy of climbing; the Zen of it; how most of climbing relies on visualization and takes place in your head.

Cool. We were just going to sit around and imagine that we were climbing rocks. I suggested we go sit in his van, with the air conditioning running, to do our imagining.

But from imagining, we graduated to "bouldering" on actual rocks, though thankfully, small ones. We practiced finding hand holds and foot holds and scooting along horizontally across the middle of a ridge of six-foot high rocks. I added No. 66 to "Amanda List of Ways I Will Not Die:" I will not bust my skull open because I fell off a rock.

But I hadn't seen anything yet. Our instructor guided us to what appeared to be a sheer cliff face, and pulled out this nest of cables and clasps. We were paired up, with one climber from each team - attached to a rope at the waist -- climbing to the top of the cliff and the other teammate holding the other end of the rope on the ground.

In order to match us up as evenly as possible, we were asked our weights. You would think that my out-of-all-proportion fear of death would supersede all other fears. But it turns out, I'd rather die than tell people how much I weigh.

I lied by at least 15 pounds, and though my skinny male partner looked skeptical, he seemed pretty sure that I was going to be able to sufficiently anchor him when he went spidering up the side of the mountain.

I was up first, though, and the entire time I was making my way up, I was terrified that if I slipped, I would go crashing to the ground, while all 90 pounds of him whizzed upward, flung over the top of the rock by the sheer weight of me.

Singularly focused on this image - when I wasn't frantically pawing at the surface of the rock for something to cling to - I hardly noticed the progress I was making. I was aware that there were three people below staring up at my butt.

I could hear my instructor and my classmates shouting from what seemed like an incredible distance. At first I thought they were saying, "You look fat!" which seemed kind of harsh, but I was too out of breath to explain that everyone's butt looks big in biker shorts.

But as I slowed down a moment, stilled my heart and my breathing long enough to "read" the rock as our instructor had taught us and find the next good foothold, I made out what they were actually saying: "You can do it!"

You can do it. I can do it.

And the very next handhold was the top of the cliff. I cannot describe the sheer exhilaration of it. I pulled myself up top and stood up, unafraid, buzzing from the physical exertion and the thrill of viewing the world from that angle.

I was grinning like an idiot, and I started to cry. Just a little, and I don't know why. It could have been from the dazzling beauty of the desert at sunset. Or I could have been choked up by the sight of my rock climbing pals cheering below. Or it could have been that, as I stared at their ant-like bodies, I realized, "Oh god, I have to climb back down there."

All I know is, as I stood up there, alone in the quiet, I breathed fresh air, I wept for people I didn't know, and I wondered why I couldn't have gotten that kind of catharsis from a nice, long walk.

Again, I'd like to tell you that everything changed after that. But you're probably aware that I haven't written any best-selling books on my year with the gorillas and if I were building schools in Tibet, I wouldn't have time to write this.

But over the past seven years, when I've found myself in need of that kind of peace, I've turned to nature. Whether it's a walk through the woods with my giant Great Pyrenees -- sold to me on the grounds that he could fight anything from snakes to wolves - or a family picnic by the lake.

Or collecting acorns with my son. Two years old, he hurtles himself out the door at the first whiff of fresh air, as though he's been shot from a cannon. He can spend more time studying an acorn than I spend doing my taxes, and you know what? He's right. It turns out that acorns are pretty fascinating.

I haven't recently added anything new to my list of ways I won't die. I have, however, found a whole lot of wonderful new ways to live.

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Risk

As I remember it, Hippie Joe was also very, very stoned . . . No. 67 -- I will not die for the amusement of desert pikeys.

No. 68

I'm not going to die because I pitched my tent in a national park where a serial killer was hiding out, went out to pee in the darkness and got hacked to death. I couldn't sleep that entire night, remembering all those episodes of Dateline where the suspect was eventually tracked to a national park...

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