For my first year in college I attended The Evergreen State College in my almost hometown of Olympia, Washington — where my real hometown was may be the subject of another column.
Founded in 1967, The Evergreen State College is a non-traditional school.
The first year the place was open, chairs stood stacked and packed in classrooms, if they called them classrooms. Students voted on whether or not they wanted to sit in them.
Students didn’t enroll in several different classes like at a traditional college.
I enrolled in what was called a coordinated study program. I and about 30 other students spent the entire school year with three faculty members from diverse disciplines studying “ethics and politics.”
We read fiction books like “All the King’s Men” and “Cry the Beloved Country.” We read non-fiction books on ethics and philosophy. We held seminars and discussed our books. We wrote and read papers. We learned about social science research and spent the entire Washington State Legislative session in 1976 on the capitol campus. We observed the Legislative process, held seminars in committee meeting rooms. We eventually each wrote our own research paper applying our ethical studies to our observation of a legislative issue that we chose to follow through the session.
It was wonderful, but what does that have to do with throwing yourself off a cliff?
One of our professors — I don’t think we called them that, first names were used, it was informal — was Willi Unsoeld, an experienced mountain climber. Among other things, he had scaled Mt. Everest. He also once confessed to us, around a campfire, that he got a master’s degree in divinity just so he could get a visa to enter Nepal and climb mountains.
Early on in the school year he took us up to Mt. Rainier where we camped for a week. We did service projects, talked around campfires, learned to crawl on ropes 150 feet over a raging river, walked on a glacier, and tried rappelling.
The rappelling experience is the one I remember the most.
We went to the edge of a cliff above a road.
It was the scariest cliff I had ever seen and have ever seen since. The top jutted out at an angle, so if you looked over the edge you couldn’t see the bottom.
He tied a rope to a tree and threw it over the edge. You could hear one of his sons at the bottom of the cliff that grabbed the rope.
He took some webbing material and with a few quick motions of his hands, he wrapped a sling around me, clicked on a carabiner and handed me the rope.
I think there was a belay rope too, but I was too nervous to get all the details.
Willi has long gray wavy hair and a thick beard. His eyes were deep, well again I can’t remember the color, but at this point they may have been glowing red.
He handed me the rope.
I looked at him. I tried to look over the cliff. I asked Willi, “What do I do now?”
With his flowing gray hair and fiery eyes full of determination, he commanded me to, “Jump, just jump!”
Yeah, easy thing to say when it isn’t your life going over a cliff.
I tried to jump, but my feet would not move.
Despite my feeble intent to jump, my feet weren’t crazy. Animal survival instinct overrode the command to jump.
“No way,” my feet replied to my brain.
I tried one more time and summoned all my inner energy I could.
I told my feet, “Hey I’m in charge here and I say ‘jump.’”
And it worked. I went off that cliff.
Not much to say after that.
You know how it ended or I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it.
I survived the jump and made it safely to the bottom.
I rappelled once or twice after that at a Boy Scout camp where I worked.
Despite throwing myself off a cliff, I still get nervous on a zip line and my children used to laugh at me at Lagoon when I refused to ride that little thing that carries people across the places while you sit on bench high up in the air.
But nevertheless, there are times in life when you just have to summon that voice inside you that overrides the instinct to stay safe and tell yourself to “jump, just jump.”
And when you’re done, it feels good — but don’t forget to hold the rope.