Ever been paintballing? part 1

In November 2009, I attended the Evangelical Covenant Church‘s Pacific Southwest Conference Women’s Retreat at Alpine Conference Center in Blue Jay, California. My parents have long been members of an ECC church in Pasadena—for as long as I can remember. Though I’m not a Christian (my parents don’t really know this; they just think I’m “searching”, which—in a way—is true), my mother never turns down my asking to go do churchy things, and this was no exception.

Wait, let me back up a little more. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I was part of the EDGE group at my parents’ church. EDGE was for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders and about twice a year, we attended Alpine Conference Center for a weekend of learning about God and worshiping Him. I think it was during one of these trips that I (re)dedicated my life to Christ, in the spirit of the moment. When one is surrounded by enthusiasm and doesn’t know that sometimes that can be mistaken for love (and one is only 11 or 12 years old), it’s easy to get caught up in the swing of things and truly believe. Thinking has very little part in weekend conferences, in my experience, at least for older grade-schoolers.

At the bottom of The Centurion, 2009
The sign at the bottom of The Centurion reads:
JESUS said to his followers…
“I tell you the truth, I have not
found anyone in Israel with such
Matt 8:10

Alpine Conference Center had (still has) a ropes course which had(/has) both low and high elements. The low elements include walking a maze blindfolded and getting an entire half of your group across a “chasm” while being blindfolded and not letting anyone “fall off”. The low elements are team-building and trust-your-partner(s) exercises. The high elements are what people think of when they think “ropes course” and include things with names like “Tree of Life” (similar to rock climbing, but with a tree), “Leap of Faith” (in which the climber climbs to the top of a telephone pole and leaps out to catch a trapeze bar suspended in midair six feet away), the “Narrow Way” (walking across a rope bridge on “faith”), and “The Centurion”. Because Alpine is a Christian camp, all the parts of the ropes course include things like, “Now trust Jesus. He’ll see you through this. Believe in him.” Blah blah blah. Whatever. I could do without that, but it’s their thing, so fine.

Anyway, our two leaders in EDGE were Doug B. and Joe L. and—as far as one sixth grader can tell—they were best friends. During one EDGE retreat at Alpine, Doug bet Joe Lakers tickets that he (Joe) couldn’t climb to the top of The Centurion and hang by his knees from the trapeze bar suspended at the top. The Centurion is 106 feet high. (It was 100 feet when it was created, but the tree keeps growing, so it’s 106 now.) According to the website, The Centurion is “the tallest rope element in the nation, is a sight to behold and a life changing challenge. The participant climbs up the tree to a platform then walks out to the end of the platform and leaps for a trapeze 5 feet out in front of the platform” (italics mine). In other words, it’s serious business. Joe took the bet.

We all watched as Joe climbed the tree and made it to the platform. He paused for a minute to catch his breath, and he and Doug (still on the ground) exchanged friendly taunts. Then, the moment of truth. He took two running steps and launched himself at the trapeze bar. When he grabbed it and hung on, we all gasped. He slowly maneuvered himself without letting go of the bar so that he was hanging, more than 100 feet in the air by his knees. I remember him swinging up there like a monkey and telling myself that, next time I was at Alpine, I was going to climb The Centurion. Because seriously, it was awesome. The little brochure about the ropes course at Alpine says that The Centurion is life changing, and for me at that moment (sometime in 1996 or 1997), it was.

Okay, back to November 2009. Upon realizing that the Pacific Southwest Conference Women’s Retreat was going to be at Alpine, and they were going to be offering time on the ropes course as part of the weekend, I asked my mom if I could go. She said, “Sure, of course you can go.” And that was that. I signed up and on the Friday of the weekend, packed my bags and carpooled with three other women (much older than me) from the same church up to the camp. The weekend was fine; the theme was “Gracebook” (a play on Facebook) and had been intended to bring in more younger women. That, I suspect, was also the reason the weekend offered the ropes course and paintballing (which I’ll get to in a second).

Whatever the reason the ropes course was offered, I jumped at the chance, so I signed up. When the day came, I saddled into the training and belay ropes. I put my name in to try The Centurion; it was the only one that required a line because it was so involved to climb the thing. And, after I’d tried the Leap of Faith (also nerve-wracking), I was called to rope in—Climbing The Centurion, 2009attach my safety gear to the gear already attached to the tree. I was really nervous, but the whole point of my attending the retreat was for that very moment, so I bulled through the extra “make sure you’re safe” lecture and then I was standing at the bottom of the tree.

I looked up at the platform. I looked back at my belayer, and then back at the platform. I took a deep breath and started to climb. Slowly, I wound my way up the tree, trying to remember to push up with my legs instead of pulling up with my arms. I stopped every fifteen feet or so to chance a look around. The trees were swaying in the wind above me, and it made me want to just give up right then and there, but I knew I had to at least try. I’d been dreaming of climbing The Centurion for more than ten years, for gods’ sake. A friend on the ground was, at my request, graciously taking pictures for me (two of which are shown above). When ever I stopped, my belayer would call up to me to make sure I was okay and would give me encouragement in the best way she knew how, by telling me that Jesus was with me and that if I relied on him, she knew I could do it. The thought, at least, was appreciated.

Finally, I made it to the platform. There’s a plaque attached to the tree just above the platform that says something like, “Jesus helps those who help themselves; very few people have made it this far. Congratulations!” and has some statistics about how high the tree actually is (106 feet), how long the average climber takes to reach the top, and how far away the trapeze bar is from the edge of the platform (five feet). Five feet from the platform may not seem like much, and maybe on the ground it isn’t much. But that high in the air, and that far from the tree (the platform itself sticks out from the tree about six or seven feet, and the trapeze bar is five feet beyond even that), it’s seriously scary. Just downright frightening. It is truly a leap of faith (faith, at least, that the belayer will catch you if you fall). I stood anxiously at near the edge of the platform trying to gauge my jumping ability.

It seemed like a long time I stood there, though must’ve only been two or three minutes. After a pause, my belayer called up to me. She said I had to do something, even if I decided not to jump for the bar, because I had to get down somehow. That part, at least, was true; I did have to get down somehow, and she wasn’t going to stand there forever. I doubt she’d have left me alone, but I didn’t want to find out. I suspected that if I waited too long, they’d send a freeclimber up after me, and I didn’t want the possibility of that going wrong on my conscience.

So I stood there, looking out at the bar and then, just like Joe had before me, backed up to the tree, I took two running steps and leaped into the air toward the trapeze bar. I think I may’ve yelled, but I don’t remember. My hands grabbed the bar and for a second I thought I had a handle on it, but then I slipped and I was tumbling towards the ground faster than I could think. For a moment I saw the ground and then I saw the sky straight up above me, trees in the air like stalagmites.

And then it was like a swing caught me. I realized I actually wasn’t going to die, and the belayer had managed to catch me and slow my decent to a not-fatal speed. Seriously, what a rush. I could see why people like ropes courses (and, as an extension, rock climbing). It was like flying, just for a second. And it was perfect.

What does any of this have to do with the title? Let me explain.

Viannah E. Duncan

Viannah E. Duncan is a writer and activist hailing originally from Los Angeles. She lives outside of Baltimore, Maryland, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She has a cat, Cleo.

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