There’s a new superman in the world. I bow down to Nik Wallenda, the high-wire artist who prayed his way across a 2-inch steel cable strung across the Little Colorado Gorge near the Grand Canyon on Sunday.
The 34-year-old member of the famous Wallenda high-flying family put one foot in front of the other for 22 minutes without harness or safety net across a cable strung as high as the Empire State Building.
Acrophobe that I am, I couldn’t watch the event as it was broadcast live. I tried watching the short video of it this morning, but couldn’t. You can right here.
It’s as if it’s me on that wire, and standing anywhere near the Grand Canyon — let alone on a wire above it — makes me feel faint.
I continually try to cure myself of my fear of heights, a fear the American Psychiatric Association estimates I share with 20 percent of my countrymen. But like “praying away the gay,” my efforts — however valiant — have been wholly unsuccessful.
It’s not for a lack of trying.
Whenever in Chicago, I go to the top of the 100-story John Hancock Center. At just over 1,100 feet tall, the John Hancock Center stands shy of the height at which Wallenda crossed the canyon by about 400 feet, or about 40 percent.
My preference, always, is to be the only person on the elevator to the observation deck, but that’s never the case, and among my fellow riders always seems to be a chatty child.
As the elevator doors close, I shut my eyes and begin breathing slowly and deeply, the only thing at that point over which I feel I have any control. Rather than clapping my hand over the chatty child’s mouth, or screaming, “Quiet! You’re freaking me out,” I draw in air slowly, slowly; I hold it to a count of 10, and then let it out slowly. I do this over and over and over again as we ride to the top of the tallest building I’ve ever been in.
The recorded voice on the elevator announces our elevation as we travel upward.
“Mommy, we’re up 500 feet,” the kid always says.
I keep breathing, slowly, calmly, because to me, the voice on the elevator is really saying, “We’re shooting you into a black hole in outer space without protection and you’re going to plummet to the earth and crash into a pile of rocks — so long, sucker.”
It’s interesting that Wallenda told whoever he was in communication with as he crossed the canyon that he really didn’t need to know how long he’d been on the wire. That much I understand about his feat; after all, what does it matter, really? You’re at a point of no return, a prisoner of your location, and you’re focused on where you’re going, not where you are. The information one thinks might be helpful is really a distraction, and distraction can be deadly when one’s whole future is balanced on a 2-inch cable.
By the time we arrive at the observation floor, I am cold and damp, unsure my knees will support me, quite certain the color’s gone from my face.
But I am tough, believe it or not, and I push myself out of the elevator. I unclench my eyes and glance quickly at the view.
It’s at this point that I feel the hands of gravity hungrily grabbing at me. Light-headed and unsteady, I feel as if I am about to fall forward.
The chatty child from the elevator always notices.
“Mom, that lady doesn’t look so good,” the kid says.
I breathe slowly. I walk forward a bit to move about the non-acrophobes, but I am, however, the very first person on the very next elevator down. When I arrive on terra firma, I burst into tears. It’s all I can do to keep from kissing the ground.
The whole experience is spectacularly terrifying, dizzying and embarrassing. While I feel a better person for acting in the face of my fear, I know, too, that I am also a living definition of “insanity,” in which one does the same thing again and again while expecting a different outcome.
When I visited the Grand Canyon, its majestic vastness snatched my breath away as gravity tugged me toward the edge, luring me over the side.
My husband, however, leaned over the railing and snapped photos of the canyon’s awesome beauty while I stood with my back plastered to a tree, my face white, my knees knocking, my skin sweating.
“Stay away from the edge,” I yelled, fearful that gravity would suck him into the abyss.
He beckoned me with a wave.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “You really should come see.”
What I saw of the Grand Canyon from my point of safety was enough; how it felt will remain with me forever.
That’s why I couldn’t watch Nik Wallenda as he walked across the Grand Canyon without net or safety harness. As Monday news reports showed him inching along the steel cable, I felt the knots of fear so familiar in my stomach.
How Wallenda does what he does will remain a mystery to me forever.
In my book, he is the most courageous man in the world. He crossed Niagara Falls last year (though he wore a safety harness for that event). Now that he’s crossed the Grand Canyon off his list, Wallenda’s setting his sights on a tightrope walk between the Chrysler and Empire State buildings in New York City.
Me? I’ll be sweating that one out, too, eyes wide shut.