Memories – The Cliff

The first slice of my life I’d like to share goes back to my childhood.

We lived on about 3/4 an acre in a town just outside Atlanta. Although we technically only owned a small slice of land, that land backed up to a massive forest, completely with its own creek and and wildlife and log bridge. It had all the good stuff kids need for a spending all day outside.

You just had to go down the cliff to get there.

Our property ended at a cliff. I don’t mean some little dropoff or a step down. I mean a multi-story fall that reasonable people would have put a fence up to block (and one of our neighbors ultimately did). As a kid, I would have sworn the thing was a hundred feet, although looking back as an adult, it probably wasn’t much more than thirty. The cliff was a soft gray-green color. You could look back and see the house from the top of the cliff, but more than that you could see down into the playground of my childhood.

Directly below the cliff ran a small creek that in some parts you’d do little more than get your feet and ankles wet, but in others it opened up into a full-on swimming hole.

The base of the cliff held the former. There were lots of jagged rocks with the water flowing around them. Ten or twenty feet away was a giant smooth round rock with a mossy green hide that we used to call “Turtle Rock.” The water pooled around it and we used to catch horny head fish with bread there as a means of wasting long summer days. I never ate the fish, but it was something to do.

There were four ways to get down the cliff.

The first way took you to the right, and far away from Turtle Rock and the fishing hole. It led you down a relatively cleared forest trail to the backyards of the subdivision with what I considered the rich kids. You went that way when you were heading out to the swimming area with the log bridge.

To the left was another long, cleared path down to a quartet of large angular rocks that would wobble when you stepped on them. The fourth created a sort of slide down into the water that we used to sit on and dangle our feet into the cold stream, knee-deep stream.

The next two paths are the ones of more interest. The most direct way up and down the cliff was to scale it. The area was generally a thick pine forest dotted with your occasional oaks or other deciduous life and small bramble bushes, but the top of the cliff in our backyard was cleared away save for a single tree. Some of the older kids, used to climb up in that tree (I want to say it was a beech tree) with its branches reaching out over the steep and sudden drop. There was a giant black ring probably fifteen feet up put there by a bolt of lightning (the same that burned my house to the ground – Another story). The truly brave (or foolish) would climb up to that spot and see the entire world.

This tree had roots that wove in and out of the cliff face going down about half the way. A strong climber could grab these roots. Below the roots, the climber had to make do with the myriad of rocks jutting out of the side. My sister, being older and in better shape, was able to climb up and down this route long before I was able to, but eventually I was scaling like an old hand.

Before I could use it, however, I had to make do with the fourth path. This one was somewhere between the one on the left and the direct scaling. It began at the four rocks, but rather than going up a lengthy trail through the woods to the top, it went up a narrow walkway along the side of the cliff. This walkway was maybe a foot or two wide and constantly covered in pine straw. This often made your footing unsure, so you would hold onto one of the many roots and rocks popping out of the cliff face for balance. Even at the end of this path, you had to do climbing, but it was probably less than ten feet, all highly supported by the tangle of roots from the beech tree.

When I was 10 or 11, I thought it was time to have a new path up and down this cliff. My sister and I had been going up the narrow path along the cliff and I decided to make a direct climb about halfway along it. I was shoeless for this endeavor; we had often shucked our shoes at the top of the cliff to prevent them from getting wet or muddy. My sister continued up the path normally, but I was going to make the climb somewhere long before the standard.

This was going to be our new path.

I began my ascent. There were probably fifteen feet above me and fifteen below; maybe more. I had never had a problem with heights, but the climb was pretty nerve-wracking. Everything I grabbed seemed to pull right out of the wall. And the wall wasn’t a thick, hard rock. It was a combination of soil and rock, and often crumbled away as you worked on it. And that wasn’t considering the pine straw clinging to the side like a shirt. So I cleared straw and leaves, and tested rocks and roots to find just what would support me.
And up I went.

My sister reached the top long before I did. She stood at the top and watched me climb one grip at a time until I had very nearly reached the end. I had devised a plan, and we now had a new way up and down this cliff.
Until my plan failed. The last thing I grabbed was a small bush, some undergrowth standing on its own at the edge of the precipice. I grabbed it and immediately wished I hadn’t. It was some kind of thorny bush. My right hand jerked free of the cliff side and my feet fell out from under me. I was dangling over a massive cliff holding only to a thorn bush for life.

I don’t know how long I hung there. I was screaming, but no one would hear. It was the middle of the day in the middle of summer. My mom might have heard if she was paying attention, but if she had windows shut, she’d never know. My sister was paralyzed. She stood watching me in horror. I remember staring at my thumb, watching the nail turn black as blood flowed under it. I’d never make it.

Then a miracle happened. My dad came home from work early that day. He normally turned the truck around in the backyard before parking and heard me screaming. He dove from his truck and raced to the top of the cliff where he saw my sister staring at my shrieking form. He reached down and grabbed my free hand, pulling me to safety and life.

I don’t remember if I got in trouble for this or not. We certainly weren’t barred from the creek and the cliff… But I never tried finding a new path again.

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