Cliffhanger

At the beginning of the year I sat on the edge of one of the many cliffs at Secret Beach (What beach? I keep telling you people, I can’t tell you…it’s a secret!) and made one more resolution. That this year I would dedicate myself to getting to know this mysterious stretch of coastline more intimately. I see clients for outdoor sessions at this spot, and as I seek to know my clients better, so too do I want to deeply understand the earth beneath our feet.

I had some extra time after a session yesterday and I wanted to walk around more. I was feeling foggy headed and a little heavy hearted and thought I could use my own dose of ecotherapy. I checked in with Jeff and got the all clear. “We’re still measuring apartments, Fern is running around opening cupboards, and we still have to stop by the Arizmendi Bakery. By the way, do you want anything?” “No, I don’t need a treat, I’m still trying to lose the baby weight. I’ll pass.”

Leo was with me, and it has been a while since just he and I got to go on a little hiking adventure, so off we trot. A note about Chow Chows: They have short little legs, with the hind ones being quite stiff, so they have a little prance when they walk. Also, not only is their fur extra thick, but there are two coats, two layers, and combined with all the loose skin, especially around the neck, they are rather….padded. This is one of the reasons they are used in dog fights. Dogs often go for the neck when fighting…with Leo, all you would get is a mouthful of fur and skin. So despite being perpetually overheated, and pathetic at climbing, Leo has still managed to be quite the outdoorsman.

We headed south, down a trail I had been down before at the beginning of winter. With all the rain at the end of last year, it had eroded considerably. I stood just before a more narrow section, strategizing how to lead Leo across, when, in an uncharacteristic burst of energy, he tried to push past me. Tried being the operative word.

He didn’t make it, and began to slide down the cliff side, butt first. He clawed frantically, but it was useless. We were on hard packed dunes, only held together by Ice Plant, and the ground just gave away beneath him. I still had the leash, and held on tightly, trying to reel him back up like an old salmon. Then, he lost his footing all together and was left hanging just by his neck. Thank goodness for all that loose skin, but still, I had no choice. I had to let go or he would strangle. The leash clattered down on top of him and he descended in a roly poly cloud of dust. First just sliding and then, to my horror, toppling onto his back and rolling, head over heels down the 20ft. drop.

Calling (ok, screeching) to his deaf ears that everything would be ok, that I was coming, just wait, I then had to figure out how to get down myself. There was really no trail, and if he hadn’t fallen, I would have turned back. But there was nothing for it, so I scrambled down, leaping, sliding, skidding. I could see that he was still breathing, and standing, and although I was frantic to reach him, I knew he was ok.

He was unscathed. Frightened, chagrined, but otherwise unharmed. I looked back up to where we had just come and thought “Fuck.”. I didn’t know how we were going to get back up, but now that we were at the bottom, I figured we might as well go find a place to take in the view and rest. Sitting down at the edge of the world, I pulled Leo in close to me and we sat looking out at the water. Well, I looked. Leo’s eyesight is failing so I’m not sure what he was looking at. Arms wrapped around him, I cleared the dust off his nose and sat that way with him until I noticed his expression had changed, from one of panic and distress to one of relaxation and bemusement. I knew he was ready to go back up.

Over our heads flew the same Red Tail Hawk I have been seeing there for weeks. Missing flight feathers out of his left wing, I see him frequently with his mate. Today he was being hassled by…1,2,3…4 crows. At the base of our Matahorn, I craned my neck looking up, blocking the sun with one hand and watched, as they flew just a few feet above. The crows chased the hawk. Then, wheeling around and speeding up, the hawk chased the crows. The crows picked up the pace, flying away together in pairs, one of the pairs flying so close together that their wings overlapped and touched. Back again they would go, crows vs. hawk, hawk vs. crows. It was territorial and protective. It had an element of strife. It was also…playful.

I looked back to the challenge before us. Mustering courage and channeling the adventurous spirit of Doctor Who, I gingerly began to climb. I tried to get Leo to go ahead of me, but he resisted, almost knocking me back. So again I went ahead, dragging him along, praying he would keep his footing. Slowly, gradually we made it to the final ascent.

Which was almost vertical. No foot holds. No trail. The small concrete remnant of an old road and a few small pipes offered stability at the top. But Leo was behind me and refused to even attempt a last leap. Tying his leash to one of the pipes, I scrambled up to the ledge, took off my coat and bag, and tried to come up with a plan. This was the only way up. I could descend far below to the beach, about half a mile, walk another half a mile to another trail head and then climb all the way back up, far away from the parking lot. Everything else was cliff cliff ice plant dunes cliff cliff. I was going to have to get behind Leo, and lift him over my head.

A note about me: I have spaghetti arms. Hip and thigh strength for days. Arms that were strong when I was 21. At 38, I can barely lift my coffee cup.

What to do? Call Jeff, and wait for an hour or two and hope that there would be something left of us after the hawks finished picking over our bones. Wait for another hiker to pick our obviously terrible choice of trail. Yell for help. Or attempt the impossible. Crows vs. Hawks. Hawks vs. Crows. You do what you have to do, and you do it with relish.

I got behind Leo. I rooted my feet on the deteriorating sandy stone. I leveraged him up to my thighs. My waist. He began to struggle and I screamed as I almost fell backwards. I pushed us both into the cliff wall and inched him up. His head was at the ledge. And that was as much strength as I had. Except I remembered there was no other option. I pushed him up with a shoulder and placed one of his paws on top. He got scared again and went stiff. I began to yell so he could hear me, “Leo, up! UP! UP UP UP! PUT YOUR PAWS UP! NOWWWWWWWW!” Doctor Who indeed, some kind of superhuman strength came over me, I hoisted him above my head and shoved his fuzzy ass onto solid ground.

After we could both breathe again and my hands stopped shaking, I took a picture of our moment of triumph. We ran back to the car, both of us energized and exuberant.

Then I called Jeff and told him I did want a treat from the bakery, and to get the biggest piece of cookie brittle that they had. I was alive and I didn’t care if I gained back all 700lbs of my baby weight…life is short and I wanted chocolate.

I look nothing like myself and Leo looks utterly relieved.
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11 thoughts on “Cliffhanger

  1. Are you willing to make a side-deal secret beach location exchange? Strictly on the down low of course. You’re such a thrill seeker! They would have loved you on that 70’s show.

  2. As a 22 year San Franciscan (for now, anyway, until the landlord sells the building and we get evicted by the new owners and have to move to the east bay), i could relate to so much in this post. i know exactly what you are talking about, the sand, the drop offs, the ice plant, the decayed concrete and pipes, the time of day, how it feels; the view of the hawks and crows…! But i think it’s extra vivid because your writing is so good! My favorite line has to be “…some kind of superhuman strength came over me, I hoisted him above my head and shoved his fuzzy ass onto solid ground.” Chuckle!
    In any case, I will take an Arizmendi choc chip cookie anytime. I plan to have something tonight at their newish location on Valencia street. Thanks for the great post and glad you are both OK. Glad you don’t have spinal problems, because they would be worse now if you did.

    1. jackie, are you really facing owner move-in eviction? that SUCKS. when our building switched owners in 2000, the upstairs flat got evicted, even though they fought it. was sad too, as one of the longtime tenants was HIV positive and was keeping his room as a city base for treatments and such. the owners only lived there for about 3 years and then moved. it’s a hard deal when this kind of thing happens.

      i like that you could relate…the light and the air and the landscape *was* very very iconic for this area. i feel happy knowing you can get a feeling for the story internally too. 🙂

      i hope you had an extra cookie in my honor.

  3. Good story and I love love love leo’s expression in the picture! Damn that fuzzybutt. I have spaghetti arms too. Art thou a wee bit sore today??

  4. gosh, how scary! i’m glad both you and leo made it out of there!

    (p.s. as someone who is not a fan of diets/restricting food i encourage you to enjoy your treats whenever you want – you never know what’s around the corner!!!)

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