“High Places” by Heather N. Martin

30 September 2016 on Nonfiction   Tags: ,

When I was sixteen, I jumped off a bridge. It was the Rexford Bridge in upstate New York—the languid Erie Canal shifting two stories beneath. And the reason was not, as my mother later queried, because my friends did it. Alone, I hoisted myself onto the guardrail and clung to a girder. Breathless, I wanted to jump. And for the first time, I did.

When I was twenty, I went parasailing on the so-called “Queen of American Lakes,” Lake George. For the unfamiliar, parasailing is the activity whereby a person is rigged to the back of a speedboat, tethered to a parachute, and volleyed by air resistance some 100 feet into the atmosphere. Once aloft, I felt the urge to jump. I managed to unhook one shoulder harness, but not the other. The boat operators cut the engine when they saw me dangling by a single carabiner. They assumed it was an equipment malfunction. “You must have been terrified,” the driver said. I nodded, lying.

When I was thirty, I visited the Royal Gorge Bridge in Cañon City, Colorado. The bridge was a scrawny thing, looming 955 feet above the Arkansas River, once ranked the highest suspension bridge in the world. I held my young daughter’s hand as we walked across the bridge. The wood planks buckled under our feet from the weight of the cars and trams ambling by. The wind buffeted our faces at intervals as we strolled. Again, I was dizzy with the urge to jump. It was then, my sticky palm locked with my child’s, that I remembered the fairgrounds Ferris wheel. I’d ridden the ride with my grandmother as a young child. At its most vertical point, she’d pitched our cab forward and announced, quite plainly, that she hated such rides because when she rode them, she wanted to open the gate and jump out.

I’ve since discovered that, like my grandmother, I have a condition called HPP—High Place Phenomenon. Unbelievably, it’s a real thing. I have no interest in killing myself, no “suicidal ideation” as a psychologist might say, yet I and others like me have the sudden and narrowly controllable urge to jump when in a high place—buildings, bridges, the Grand Canyon. This is not to be confused with acrophobia, or a severe fear of heights causing the afflicted to suffer anxiety and panic attacks at elevation. To the contrary, I have what they call a head for heights. I just experience urges, every now and then, to leap. My compulsion is most severe when I’m in high places over water. I don’t usually do it—you know—jump. But the impulse alone is no picnic, as you can imagine.

My family vacationed quite a bit in Niagara Falls when I was a child. It was a half-day’s drive from home, and the town was a haven of motel pools, penny arcades, and soft-serve. It teemed with nervous honeymooners and the kneesocked offspring of blue-collar parents. The amusements in town were fun enough, but my interest was always with the falls: the downrush, the deluge, the ease with which the water curved and rolled over the edge; the noiseless fall of each bead floating to the pools below; and the thunder drone of the water’s collective impact, hitting the plunge pool with 2,500 tons of force. It never stopped—all day and night, the same.

Noticing my growing fixation, my mother warned that if I put so much as a finger in the Niagara River, I would be sucked under and swept over the edge to my certain death. As it turned out, this display of parental concern had unintended consequences. Having not before that moment even considered the prospect of going over the falls, I was instantly, wholly seduced by the idea. The notion was furtive; lusty.

The town of Niagara was and is thick with lore of the stunters who rode the falls in barrels, kayaks, giant rubber balls, and even one foolhardy attempt on a Jet Ski. I learned that the first person on record to go over the falls in a barrel was a woman named Annie Taylor. Like me, Annie was born in a sleepy town in upstate New York. Her life was reasonably comfortable by all accounts, but in middle age, she suffered the death of a son in infancy and then her husband shortly thereafter. Her biographers report that she was a widowed teacher with aspirations beyond the clamor of the schoolhouse, and that her feat was in the name of fame and fortune. As a young admirer of this female daredevil, gazing across the precipice at the gushing torrent, I found this difficult to believe. I thought surely she was like me: illogically, hypnotically drawn to the silver cataract and its breathtaking, vertical spill.

There was something voluptuous, something fleshly about the falls, the impossible plunge, and Annie herself. There is a photograph of Annie in the Niagara museum standing beside her barrel. She wears a long black dress and a large brimmed hat. Her moniker, “Heroine of Niagara Falls,” is emblazoned in white letters across the barrel. She looks hard into the lens. At me, perhaps.

When Annie fixed her sights on the Falls, she reinforced a wooden barrel with iron bars and lined the interior with a mattress. She had great trouble finding people to help her on her mission—friends not wanting to assist in what was, they presumed, an obvious suicide mission. On October 24, 1901—her birthday—Annie climbed into her reinforced barrel and instructed a friend to propel air into it using a bicycle pump. When the barrel reached 30 psi, the hole was plugged with a wine cork.

Annie went over the falls that day. She survived. Were Annie seeking fame and fortune, she never got it. She died poor. But her body was laid to rest in the “stunter’s section” of the Oakwood Cemetery in the town of Niagara Falls.

When I’m in high places, I remember this, and Annie, and her daredeviling. It gives me a kind of comfort. My family and friends do not share this feeling. Once aware of my condition, my loved ones watch me carefully in high places; they flinch and squinch their faces when I belly up to the edge. My mother even went so far as to shriek, don’t jump!, as I approached a steep overlook at the Colorado National Monument with one of my daughters.

The most recent research on HPP suggests that the impulse to jump does not represent a death wish, or a sign of desperation or misery; rather, it’s an affirmation of the desire to live. It’s cognitive dissonance, a misread of mental cues. It is, in fact, my urge toward life that causes me to snap back from the edge of a precipice, blood pressure spiking (don’t jump!). My brain is reminding me not to leap, reminding me of my fragility. This makes good sense to me most of the time. But some days, I do jump. And when I do, I close my eyes and think of Annie.


Heather N. Martin is a writer and professor at the University of Denver. Her work has been recently anthologized in The Best of Electric Velocipede and published in regional and national publications including Baltimore Review, Matter, and Cobalt Review. To see more of Heather, check out heathernmartin.org.

Photo credit: Kelly Dalke

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