I lost a batch of pictures from my vacation – all from the first day. I suspect something went wrong in the upload and, without realizing that, I deleted them from the camera. They’re the least painful ones to lose – pictures of our CRV holding all it can, bikes strapped to the back, boxes on top; snapshots taken on the drive up to Humboldt; our arrival.
It’s okay that I don’t have them. I’ll remember the subjects of those shots. I wrote about them – our little apartment above Arcata’s Plaza, the sign on the bedroom dresser inviting us to call the police if the noise from revelers below our window prevented us from sleeping. I spent a lot of time chilling (and writing) on the rooftop patio. I’ll remember all that.
But there’s one picture I’m really sad I don’t have. I took it on the way up, in a little redwood park just past Leggett, California, where we stopped for lunch. At the edge of a clearing, a trail wound down to a canyon where families were camped out for the day. The river that flowed through it looked festive, decorated with children, brightly colored rafts; parents, umbrellas and toys scattered along its edge like jewels.
In the middle of a wide river bend was a giant boulder. Kids swam around and scrambled over it. Some boys with water guns stood on top and shot at other boys splashing in the water below. There was something intensely nostalgic about the scene, right down to the fingers of sunlight reaching through the trees that rimmed the canyon.
It looked like a postcard sent to me from my past, like if I looked closely, I’d see my own ten-year-old self playing with my brothers in a Santa Cruz creek behind a rustic old cabin: red hair, crooked smile, freckled, sunburned shoulders. The summers in my youth looked just like this.
As I watched, a boy, maybe eight years old, caught my eye. From the top of the boulder, he looked down at his friends in the river below. He had a giant squirt gun in his hand, which he turned and handed to a little girl who’d followed him to the boulder’s edge. His friends, noticing him finally, began yelling up. He didn’t yell back. He just stood there, poised, tense, unmoving, as high as the balcony of a two-story building.
I felt nervous. I knew he was going to jump and I knew exactly how he felt there on the edge of his moment, looking down. No doubt, many kids had jumped before, but not him. Not until now. He stood so still, knees slightly bent, staring. I put the camera to my eye, watched the little girl say something, the boy turn to her, turn back. I felt my pulse quicken, my stomach dance.
I whispered encouragement.
Several moments passed and I began to doubt he’d be able to overcome his fear. I lowered the camera, until I saw one of his friends climbing out of the water, clambering up the giant rock behind the boy, yelling something I couldn’t hear. I knew then that it was now or never.
Jump or get pushed, I figured, and I put the camera back to my eye, focused on the boy, held my breath like it was me. It was just as his friend reached the top of the boulder that the boy leapt, and I snapped his picture – suspended between earth and sky, legs bent, arms up, so crazy beautiful I whooped in giddy recognition.
A few seconds later, his friend jumped too. I’d lost track of which splashing boy was “my boy,” the one I knew so well, the one who’d stood there thinking how different it looked from the top of the boulder, how much higher. The one whose stomach was leaping long before he did, whose limbs felt uncertain and infinitely breakable. The one who told himself, fiercely, that other people had jumped; he’d be fine, just like they were.
(Even though it doesn’t matter in the moment of hesitation how many people went before, and it matters even less after the fact, when you’re so alive you think you might burst right out of your merely mortal skin.) That boy who sucked in his breath and jumped – on his own, because that was better (so much more triumphant-badass-rock-star-amazing) than being pushed.
I lost the pictures from that day, but I wanted to write this post to make sure I never lose him.