Jumping Off Places

An essay on my love of leaping, the wonder of momentary weightlessness.

January 8, 2018 | by

This past summer, it was Moxie Falls, Maine—a little over an hour south of the Canadian border and west of Moosehead Lake. The trail to the falls was level and well-worn, mostly dirt but with sections covered in pine needles or leaves. The place to jump was at a swimming hole below the falls, with a steep descent down a slope of dirt and loose rock. It was my twelve-year-old son, Jonah, and his friend, Jasper, who found it: a boulder with a flat surface about five feet above the water. By the time I’d caught up with them, they’d already checked the deepness of the water below. We must have jumped for an hour, each of us over and over, the water clear and cold, the nearby falls roaring and boisterous, the late-afternoon sun finding its way between clouds and over the green mountains. It was very near sublime.

The summer before, it was two places—one in Portugal, one in Spain. We were staying in the Geres Mountains region, and I told Eduardo, our guide, that we really liked jumping off of rocks into water. He drove us north, over the border into Spain’s mountainous Galicia region—arid, remote. He parked the truck, and we hiked down the wide, gravel path of an old Roman road built almost 2,000 years before. “No one knows about this place,” Eduardo said as we continued our hike off the road and into the mountains. “No one is ever there.”

Someone was there—two people, in fact. A middle-aged couple from Germany who admitted the only reason they found the place was that they got lost. No matter. It was small cenote of pure, cold, turquoise water surrounded by boulders and cliffs. The boulder we jumped off was about ten feet high. The Germans joined us, and even my wife, who despises cold water, could not resist.

Two days later, my son and I took a canyoning tour with two expert guides deep in the Portuguese Geres, which included a day of repelling and jumping off cliffs 30 feet high, like this one featuring my son:

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I don’t know why I get so much joy out of jumping into water. At my local swimming pool, I am something of a cannonball legend on the diving board. (I bring some formidable Midwestern girth to that table.) Whenever I head to the diving board, many of the kids hurry to the deep end where they tread water in anticipation of my splash. And like the mailman (or The Mailman for you Karl Malone fans), I always deliver—dousing and deluging the kids. But when I jump off diving boards, I get mentally tired before I do physically; I get bored before I get winded. When I’m jumping into water out in nature, however, I never get bored. Ever. I just finally get exhausted. Or cold, as those natural settings often entail water that never approaches warm.

There is great and pure joy in the act of jumping, and it’s got its own cliché to prove it: No one is ever described as running or squatting for joy. When baseball players clinch the World Series and come together to celebrate, they are almost always jumping. At Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin, at the end of the third quarter, there is the “Jump Around,” when all 81,000 fans stand up and jump repeatedly, a scene so raucous that it was temporarily suspended in 2003 when the stadium was undergoing construction. And fun, as is obvious by the faces of the fans. It is a unique moment of unbridled joy for 80,000 plus, and all they are doing is jumping.

That simple human move has astonishing power and allure. A few years ago I went to a family reunion near Fayetteville, West Virginia, where stands the New River Gorge Bridge. While we were whitewater rafting down the river, our guide told us that the third Saturday of every October, officials there host “Bridge Day,” when they close the bridge down for people to rappel and BASE jump. The bridge sits nearly 900 feet above the river—a mighty leap.

But for me, in places like Moxie Falls, it’s more than just jumping; it’s also about the landing in water, that playful sound of a splash, the exhilaration of the cold water, the sudden change of sound and sense when your head is immersed, descending, and then submerged in momentary suspension before you slowly ascend toward sunlight and air, like a growing plant. Those moments feel common and natural yet still magical and holy, like when your child falls asleep in your arms. The promise of those moments is why my favorite swimming holes have always been in rivers or lakes. When I was a kid in rural Illinois, a large group of us went to the Current River in Missouri for a canoe trip every summer. Invariably we younger ones found a cliff to jump from, which we did for hours. I do enjoy the waves of the ocean, the rougher play in its foamy tumult, but I’d opt for a calm lake with a floating dock any day of the week.

But even take away the water, there still resides the fun of jumping. I suppose that as an act of elevation, it simply can’t help elevating our souls, our selves, even if only for a moment. There are many reasons why I feel so great after an Elev8d workout, but for the ones that include, say, Stump Jumps or Invisible Jump Ropes, one key reason is that I jumped. And jumped. An action infused and informed by the spirit and essence of play.

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