That Time Jasper and I Almost Fell Off a Cliff

The last few months have been utter bullshit on both global and personal scales. While the world shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, my dear sister was diagnosed with blood cancer. As protests erupted in response to police officers murdering people of color, our next door neighbor overdosed, requiring CPR at 5 a.m. from my husband and me. (Giving chest compressions when you’re not sure whether or not the person is already dead is not something I would wish on anyone. It is haunting.)

Also, somewhere in the midst of all this crap, our sweet cat Shmee died.

We are not amused.

Others have written about the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement far more eloquently than I could ever hope to, and right now I could use a distraction from current horrors, if only for a few minutes. So I am going to tell a story about the day my dog and I almost fell off a cliff.

This was back in 2006, soon after we adopted Jasper as a goofy, big-headed, 1-year-old pup. We headed out on a hike with a couple of friends, intending to find a waterfall none of us had seen before. One of the friends was a paramedic and had a shift scheduled later that afternoon, but we figured we’d have plenty of time to complete the 8-mile loop before she was due to arrive at work.

About four miles into our journey, we saw a Trail Closed Ahead sign and merrily stomped past it. “How can the trail be closed?” we joked to one another. “Caution tape? A stop sign? This is the forest! It can’t be closed.”

Two miles later, however, we came to an abrupt halt as the trail dropped straight into a fathomless abyss. To our right, a cliff rose into the sky. To our left, the cliff plummeted into a ravine. About ten yards ahead, we could see where the trail picked up again, but in between our feet and the trail’s continuance was an insurmountable void. “Well…shit,” we said. We were a couple miles from the end of our loop. If we had to backtrack, we’d have six miles left, and our paramedic friend had an ambulance waiting for her.

I looked back the way we’d come. “Okay,” I said, “we’re not the first people to hit this point. Someone’s figured out how to get around it.” We searched along the cliff beside the trail until, sure enough, we found a rope. I tugged, and it held fast. Handing Jasper’s leash to my husband, I said, “I’ll climb up. If there’s a rope leading down the other side, I’ll let you know.”

I pulled myself up the cliff about fifty feet to discover – hooray! – another rope dangling down the other side. I called to my friends, then lowered myself down the rope to land victoriously on the trail at the other side of the ravine. After doing a little happy dance, I called to my husband, who was now at the top of the first rope. “I’m back on the trail!” Knowing it would be impossible for him to repel down the rope while holding a leashed dog, I added, “Go ahead and let Jasper go!”

What I didn’t consider as these words left my mouth were the ramifications of a 60-pound dog running free down a steep, 50-foot slope. That reality became clear, however, as I heard the amplifying thunder of a high-velocity canine hurtling my way.

Hmm, I thought. I looked over my shoulder to confirm what I already knew: directly behind the thin ridge trail on which I now stood was that cavernous ravine we’d been so careful to avoid. Hmm, I thought again. Jasper and I are about to go flying off a cliff.

As Jasper’s stampede grew ever louder, I took a deep breath, assumed as wide a stance as possible on the 18-inch trail, put all my weight on my back foot, and waited. The moment my flappy-eared, happy-as-could-be dog burst into view, I pitched forward and threw myself at him with full force, smashing us both into the cliff side in a shower of sweat, terror, and drool.

We lived. Our paramedic friend made it to her shift on time. And although I’ve been known to say I didn’t learn much of any value in high school, as I look back on that experience, I’ve gotta admit:

Physics saved the day.