I’m watching Free Solo, the documentary about rock climber Alex Honnold. Free soloing is the term for climbing with no ropes, carabiners, harness, helmet, or belayer. What. The. Hell. My first question really is why does anyone want to do this? I can’t even understand why people climb, ever, even with all the gear. It just seems too dangerous to be motivating or fun. Honnold is the only climber to free solo El Capitan, a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park. From base to summit, it’s about 3,000 feet. That’s just over half a mile.
This guy reasons that anyone could die at any given moment in the course of a normal day. His logic is F-L-A-W-E-D flawed. Because dying might happen anyway, he climbs free solo. I’m skeptical about this dude’s mental health. Now, I’m all for living your life the way you want and choosing experiences over things. I just don’t understand. At all.
It must be the adrenaline rush he knows he will achieve if he succeeds. Truly though, his fight or flight response must kick in immediately, and so he must keep going, but that’s once he’s already a hundred feet up the side of a flat rock. What is driving him to start in the first place?
He started, he says, because he was shy and introverted, and it was a thing he could do to get away. He loved to climb trees and roofs as a kid. Didn’t most of us? And we didn’t become insane pursuers of death.
Climbing has allowed him to travel. I get to travel, too. But I don’t have to test my strength and determination in unique, terrifying feats just to go to Europe.
He says he would choose climbing over a lady. This is life, his passion. Alex Honnold is a rare breed.
There are climbers, hikers, nature lovers by the million. I love to bathe in nature, traversing paths beneath the trees and losing myself along hidden trails. It’s euphoric and healthy to get out there and move in the world. And I may be in danger of spraining an ankle, or maybe even getting pulled into a bush by a maniac. But I’m pretty careful and vigilant. And I’m big. I’m not the smart choice for an abduction.
Maybe my logic is flawed, too. However, I’m not willingly throwing myself into a daily routine where one slip, one mistake causes me to immediately plummet to my death.
Climbers readily acknowledge that “anyone who made climbing a big part of their life is dead.” And yet they continue to climb.
Honnold got an MRI to check his brain for abnormalities. “Maybe there is something wrong with me,” he thought. Why else would he want to do this, doctors asked. See, even science suspectshe is off his rocker a little bit.
Scans revealed Honnold has no amygdala activation. His brain actually needs a higher level of stimulation to satisfy his emotional center. That makes sense. Mystery solved. This is something I can fathom.
Now I’m going to watch this uniquely motivated man scale some rocks.
“I think when he’s free soloing is when he feels the most alive,” his mother says.
I feel alive when I write. We are just as different as two people can be. I’m okay with that. I have no death wish, no adrenaline bankruptcy. I used to feel most alive when I ran, or after playing the full 40 minutes of a basketball game in college. I can’t achieve that kind of rush anymore because physically, my body won’t allow it. And I think I’ve had enough brushes with death to say with certainty I don’t relish the opportunity for more. When annihilation has stared you in the eyes, you learn it’s wise to back away rather than surge toward it like a medieval warrior with a sword.
Honnold explains that he feels a bottomless pit of self-loathing—that nothing he does is good enough—which is part of his motivation for climbing. He acknowledges there’s satisfaction in facing a challenge, and the result is heightened when you are facing death. He says it allows him to be perfect, because if he’s not perfect, he falls and dies. Done.
Listening to these reasons and watching Honnold in action has put me a little closer to his world. It doesn’t make me want to climb; I just don’t get excited by the promise of death. I don’t want to skydive or bungee jump. I don’t want to cliff dive. I don’t even want to ride on the back of a motorcycle. I’ve done that before. Any rush I might have experienced was stamped out by sheer and utter panic. Feats like this put me into overdrive, flooding my amygdala with the kind of fear that says run! And this is the typical response—it’s why humans have survived over the centuries.
Our flight response has kept us safe from danger. Imagine if, from the very beginning, cave people started approaching the fierce lion, standing up to the hungry bear, throwing themselves off the cliff. There’d be about three people in the world, and that does not make a civilization. In order to thrive as a species, we had to fear and flee. And that’s okay with me.
Free Solo. Dir. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. National Geographic Society, 2018.
Hours passed, and Mom finally said, “Okay, time to go.”
“But it’s not morning.” I sat up on the soft couch where I’d been trying to sleep. William slept in a recliner by the window.
“Leslie.” Mom stared at me. Her heavy voice seemed to come up through her from the ground.
William jolted awake.
“Can’t you for once, just stop going against every single thing and do what I say?” Mom lit a cigarette.
I thought back to the time she beat me when I’d done nothing wrong. It was William who’d kicked my top bunk from the underside, making it lift off the frame and fall on the diagonal. Mom should’ve known I wouldn’t scream without a good reason. But she didn’t care. When her mind told her to do something, she did it, no matter how strange, dangerous, or terrifying.
I didn’t want to get hit, so I shut up.
Mostly, Mom didn’t hurt us, but the possibility of it hung over me always, like a rain cloud, heavy and ready to burst.
Mom glared at me, puffed on her cigarette, and crossed her arms. She cocked her wrist to hold the cigarette away from herself a bit.
William and I followed Mom out of the house where Mom slid the key under the doormat.
The sky was dark blue-grey and held a wet chill. A dog barked in the distance. The three of us climbed into the car and drove.
“Are we going to Gramma’s?” William asked. A glimmer of hope trailed out of his voice.
“We’ll be there soon,” Mom said. “We have to keep driving for now, so they don’t find us.”
“Who?” William asked. I knew her answer before she spoke. I suspected William did, too, but maybe he thought there was a chance she’d surprise us.
“The government.” Mom’s head bobbed and shook slightly as she spoke. “We’ve been over this before. See all those bright headlights approaching? They never stop. Those are the semi-trucks. Big-rigs. That’s the message from the government that they’re after us, so we better keep running.”
“They’re just trucks, Mom.” I couldn’t help it. I was annoyed. I had to make her understand. “That’s what they do, drive. And it’s dark now, so they have their headlights on. Duh.” Why did she have to make everything so complicated?
“Don’t be a brat. Leslie.” Mom smashed her cigarette in the metal tray below the radio. “They are just trucks, but with communists behind the wheel. And you can’t tell a communist just by looking.” She was rambling now like she sometimes did when she had ideas rolling around in her head too important to keep inside. “That’s why it works. It has to be something easy to fool people with—the general public. We’re smarter than that. They hide behind all these machines and medical procedures and political agendas. And the trucks are their way of telling us they’re going to ram into us to immobilize us before they rape us and hang us by our feet. William knows, don’t you, my sweet boy?”
Mom faced him briefly, the whites of her teeth flashing as she smiled.
“Uh-huh,” William said in a slow, low voice. Mom patted his left leg with her right hand and then punched the lighter knob in the dash. A ring of orange glowed, and when it popped, she removed it and brought it to the cigarette she had just placed in her mouth. A singeing sound came from her mouth as she set the cigarette’s tip on fire. New smoke filled the car, and my lungs burned.
Stomach growling and eyelids drooping, I moaned, “I’m hungry. When are we going to eat?”
“You just had a sandwich,” Mom said.
“But that was forever ago.” I threw my back against my seat, again and again, at first in protest but then because I found comfort in the rhythm.
We pulled into a Stater Bros. grocery store parking lot. We went to the back of the store to use the restroom. Then, in the aisles, I grabbed a bag of Oreos. William asked Mom to get Mother’s Animal Circus from the top shelf. I wandered off on my own without realizing it and spotted a miniature baby doll in a sky-blue polyester dress. She had a beanie body and plastic arms, legs, and head, with a wisp of painted-on hair. I picked her up. She fit in the palm of my hand. A helpless little baby with the power to comfort me instantly.
“Put her back.” Mom pointed at the aisle behind me.
I ignored her and carried the baby around while Mom pulled a six-pack of Pepsi off the shelf before pondering the produce section.
At checkout, I laid my baby on the conveyor belt.
“I told you to put that back.” Mom’s eyes settled on the cashier. “Kids,” she said and shook her head.
“No.” I expected her to look me right in the eye, but she avoided me, laughed unevenly, and handed the cashier some money. And I got my baby doll.
In the car, I ate Oreos and caressed my hairless doll. I looked more closely at her face every time another car passed, letting flashes of light in. She seemed so sweet, her face frozen in mute happiness. I couldn’t get over how small she was. And how perfect. And how mine.
The next thing I knew, Mom called my name.
“Leslie, wake up.” Her fuzzy voice reverberated in my head.
“Are we there?” I felt dizzy. My nose tingled with chill. I rubbed my hands on my thighs and then sat on them for warmth.
“Not yet. Here, sit up.”
I realized the car wasn’t moving. At some point, while I slept, she’d pulled off the road and parked us in an empty lot in the middle of nowhere. Evenly-spaced halogen lights glowed hazy yellow. Lines marked where cars should be parked, but ours was the only one. And it was just like Mom to ignore the rules and park sideways across two spots.
She faced forward and spoke to the windshield as much as to us. “This is important. Listen very carefully, both of you.”
I rubbed my eyes.
“What?” I said. Then panic struck. My baby—where was she? I felt all over the seat and in the cracks. Then I put my hand as far under Mom’s seat as I could reach.
“Take this.” Mom had turned sideways in her seat so she could give me something.
“What is it?” I held out my hand.
“Nothing.” She dropped two white pills into my hand. “It’s just something to help you stay awake.” She popped the tab on a can of Pepsi, and it made a crisp hiss.
“No.” I shook my head. “I don’t want to. I don’t want to take any pills.”
“Leslie.” Her voice had a mean, firm growl in it. “Do what I say. I am your mother. It’s my job to protect you, so it’s crucial that you listen to me and do what I say.”
“No, please,” I said, blubbering. I didn’t trust her. If I took pills from her, I might fall asleep and never wake up.
“Leslie, take them, dammit.”
“Did William take them? William, did you take them?” Were they teaming up to kill me?
“Yeah,” he said. “I took the same thing, and I’m fine, see?”
I believed him, and I trusted him, but I still was notgoing to take any pills. I pretended to put them in my mouth and then took a gulp of Pepsi. I lowered my hand and dropped the pills onto the floor of the back seat, hoping they would make it all the way under William’s seat so Mom wouldn’t find out I’d lied.
“Good girl.” She clapped once and held her palms together. “Now open your mouth and show me. And lift your tongue.”
I showed her my empty mouth.
“Okay, good. Here’s what’s going to happen.” She sounded the most serious and clear she had all day. Her eyes shone like gems in the rearview mirror. “We are going to stay here in this parking lot.”
Where were we? Would anyone hear me if I screamed?
“And I’m going to get out of the car,” she said. “And lie down with my head in front of one of the tires.”
I held my breath.
“And one of you is going to drive. You’re going to drive the car right over my head. Okay. Which one of you wants to do it?” Mom looked at William and then at me and back at William.
“What?” I couldn’t believe it. “No. No way. Neither one of us are going to do it. That’s crazy. What are you talking about? We don’t even know howto drive.”
“It’s easy,” she said. “I’ll lie down right in front of the tire, and all you have to do is step on the gas. It’ll be over real fast.”
Silence took over for a moment, and the windows fogged up. And so much heavy stuff swelled in my heart it was about to rip apart at the seams.
“I’ll do it,” William said.
“What? No!” My heart pounded super-fast, now, even faster than it did when I jumped on the trampoline. “No, just stop it. Stop saying it. Stop agreeing with everything she says.”
I cried hard, wishing I knew where my baby doll was, wishing she could protect me. But she couldn’t. She was just a stupid little doll with a stupid plastic face and a stupid beanie body in a stupid blue dress. She was no comfort to me now.
“You’ll die.” The words wobbled through a bubble of snot at the back of my tongue. “Then what’ll happen to us if you’re dead?”
“It will be easier this way,” Mom said. “And then maybe they will go easier on you.”
“Okay,” William said once more. He sighed. “If it’s what you want. Come on, Leslie. Just do what Mommy says.”
“No.” I shook my head hard. Could my brain be loose in there? It was all stuffy and achy. “William, stop it.” The words hooked in my throat. “Mom, nobody is going to drive over anybody’s head.”
“Okay,” Mom said. It was that simple—as if I had only just told her there were no more Oreos left in the bag.
“I have another idea,” Mom blurted. “I could just strangle you two, and that way you won’t have to suffer any torture. And then I’ll find a way to kill myself afterward without you trying to argue me out of it. Who wants to go first?”
“Mom, stop it. You’re scaring me,” I said. “You can’t strangle me.” I knew she could if she wanted to. She’d tried it before.
I remembered the night she tied my red knee-high sock around my neck. I’d awakened while she pulled tighter and tighter, and she must have seen something in my eyes that made her stop.
Tonight, with all the darkness, she probably wouldn’t be able to see anything more than a flicker in my eyes. If she’d decided to kill me, once and for all, I couldn’t stop her.
“I’ll go.” William’s voice lilted.
“That’s my good boy.” Mom gave William’s knee a hand-hug.
“Shut up,” I yelled. “God, why do you always have to agree and go along with everything she says? Stop it. Nobody is going to get strangled. Everybody, just shut up.” Tears rushed out, and sickness filled my stomach. I was going to throw up, or explode, or die from trying to make everybody stop saying crazy things.
“Well.” Mom tapped a rhythm on the steering wheel. “If you won’t cooperate, there’s only one thing left to do.”
“What’s that?” William asked. How could he be so calm? Maybe he had been brainwashed to do scary, permanent damage.
“Drive us into a tree.” Mom said it so matter-of-factly as if asking us to kill her were the most common and natural thing in the world.
“Mom?” I grabbed the sides of her seat and shook it as hard as I could. “Then let us out.”
She laughed and turned the key in the ignition.
Where wasmy baby doll? I panicked. I knew she couldn’t help me, not in a situation like this, but I still needed to find her. And I felt sorry for thinking she was stupid. What had she ever done to me? She was just a sweet, innocent baby doll.
I checked between the seams again, to see if she’d gotten stuck, and again, I put my hand between the doors and the seats, to see if she slid there. I ran my fingers over the floor mats, blind in the darkness. She was nowhere.
I felt under Mom’s seat again, to see if I had missed her. Then I remembered I hadn’t checked under William’s seat.
Relieved to feel her polyester body, I clutched her tightly. My heart relaxed as I wiped her on my pant leg and held her to my cheek.
She smelled like cigarette ashes and dirty car stuff, but I kissed her tiny plastic face anyway. I could have fit her whole head in my mouth if I really wanted to.