My first Christmas in the Navy, I stayed at the school over the Christmas break. I spent a lot of time in Big Sur over those two weeks. Big Sur is less than an hour south of Monterey down Highway 1 in California. This is one of the most spectacular sections of road in all of the United States, with cliffs down to the Pacific ocean to your west and cliffs and hills up into the mountainous forest to your west. I first heard Enya on that stretch of road and the beauty of her voice juxtaposed over the beauty of the scenery was enough to make me cry.
Big Sur is a magical place. Deep in the California forests, far from the bustle of city life, it boasts some of the most gorgeous locations in the world. Over that Christmas break, I explored Pfeiffer State Park and Pardington Cove.
To get to Pfeiffer State Park, you turn west towards the coast and drive down a quiet road with ferns carpeting the ground to either side under the giant trees. Five minutes later, you spill out into a humble parking lot that doesn't even begin to prepare you for the wonder you are about to behold.
From the parking lot, you walk another few minutes up the trail before the majesty of nature reveals its full splendor. As you step out of the treeline, the beach opens up before you, framed by a swiftly climbing ridge on the south, the crashing pacific on the west and cliffs running up to the north. Directly before you are two giant monoliths jutting up from the sand at least 30 feet, one barely in the surf on one side and constantly barraged by waves on the other, while the other is too far from the sand to reach without a hairy swim.
I used to climb on those massive boulders, sometimes during the day, sometimes at night. I once climbed over the top of one and stood on an outcrop of rock five feet above the crashing waves just appreciating the power of the ocean. Suddenly a huge wave crashed in, sending spray a good ten feet over the top of my head. I was so overwhelmed that my mind blanked and the next thing I was aware of, I was stepping back onto the sand on the other side with no memory of climbing back over.
Another time, I hiked up the south ridge while my friends went to the beach. I climbed up at least 100'. I could see miles of ocean and steep drops to the water. Somehow, I got it into my head to climb down to the water. I scampered across sandstone ledges and slopes until finally, I slipped down a smooth 15' slope and realized I couldn't climb back up the featureless stone I had just slipped down.
At the bottom of this one way stone slide was a sheer drop 60' onto jagged rocks and cold surf. Unable to go back up and unwilling and probably unable to call for help, I surveyed my situation. There was a small chimney breaking the smooth expanse. As I slipped into it, I knew there was no way for me to go back.
I climbed down about four feet before the chimney opened up on both sides leaving me a good six feet above a tiny blade of rock, coming up along the face of the cliff. With barely two inches to land on and a sheer drop to a bloody, cold, lonely death on the rocks below, I continued to work myself lower and lower until my feet, my legs, my waist, and even most of my upper body was below the edge of the stone and the only support I could find. With at least another four feet to go, no way to climb back up, and quickly tiring, I suddenly realized I was going to die on the rocks below. I thought about it for a couple minutes as I hung in my final predicament, and what I realized was I didn't care. I was not afraid of death. It didn't matter to me.
Having come to this stunning realization at only 18 years of age was quite an eye opener. I still don't know how I managed it but in my contemplation, I managed to slip down even farther and finally dropped to the ledge below. The rest of that climb is a blur. My thoughts had turned inwards and I navigated the rocks around the cliff face until finally I made it back to the beach from the most unlikely direction. For weeks, even months, I was haunted, not by my near death experience, but by the stark, cold fact that death didn't frighten me. You aren't supposed to be aware of your own mortality in your teens. And certainly, if you are, it should hold more fear than it did for me.