This One Time, When I Fell Off a Cliff …

As a kid, both my brother and I were pretty fearless. We grew up in a part of Southern California that still had a lot of open space (we called it “the fields”) and we spent much of our childhoods running around, picking up tarantulas and lizards and snakes, building forts out of yucca stalks, stuff like that.

My big brother.

While the fields were fun, even more exciting was The Canyon. (We said it like that, with those initial caps, because in our kids’ minds it was a formal name for an awesome place.) The canyon, which is actually called La Barranca, is a couple of miles long. From our house, we’d hike down about 300 feet to a creek and then work our way upstream with a mix of trail and boulder hopping. At the far end of the canyon, there is a waterfall with a swimming hole below it, and if you continue beyond the waterfall you ended up at the far end of our neighborhood with a couple miles’ walk on streets to get back home.

As teenagers, we’d go down there and jump off the cliffs into the swimming hole. But as a younger child, it was just an adventure to hike it.

One time, about two-thirds of the way to the falls, there were three owls sitting high up in trees. We watched their heads pivot as they followed our progress on the canyon floor.

Another time, I hiked up to the falls with my friend, Rachel, and her two yellow labs, Kimmy and Max. They were great water dogs, but by the end of the hike their claws were worn down and bleeding. That was pretty traumatic, but they made it (as did we).

But this story is about the first time I went down there.

I was six years old, and I went with my big brother, who was ten, and our dog, Bootsy. It was a grand adventure, and boulder hopping across the stream was a big deal for me. There were a couple of times I was scared and hesitated, but I really wanted to see the waterfalls my brother had told me about so I sucked it up and made my way upstream.

When we got to the waterfalls, I was pretty stoked. But when it was time to start heading home, we had a dilemma. I really didn’t want to go back downstream and deal with the boulder hopping because it was kind of scary. My brother said he thought there might be a trail that’d take us past the falls and up to the streets, and I was in favor of that.

So we made our way up a slight trail to the cliff band above the waterfall and swimming hole. As we inched along the cliff, there was a place where the rock wall jutted out slightly, making the trail quite narrow. My brother and I were able to get past it, but Bootsy couldn’t do it.

This is where my version of the story and my brother’s version diverge.

Here’s what I remember: Somehow I ended up back down on the canyon floor with the dog. I thought my brother was going to proceed upstream and see if the trail went through, and then he’d come back for me. At one point, he did come back and stopped at that point where the rock pushed out into the trail along the cliff and hollered down to me. But with the sound of the falls, I couldn’t really understand what he said.

After waiting a while, I went looking for him. I scrambled back up to the cliffside trail and went back and forth several times looking for him and yelling his name. Each time I couldn’t see or hear him, and I returned to our dog.

I finally pushed my luck and went past that place where the rock jutted out once too many. I lost my balance and fell.

Here’s what I remember: I remember thinking “oh no, I’m falling!” I remember sitting cross-legged in the air and starting to tilt to one side, and I thought, “I don’t want to fall on my head,” so I tilted myself back upright. And then I remember finding myself sitting on the canyon floor on a little beach at the base of the cliff. The “beach” was at a bend in the river and was covered with small rocks and pebbles, maybe the size of ping pong balls. Next to me was a small “boulder” that was about waist height on me when I was sitting there; my left arm had landed on that boulder and was just resting on it like it was an arm rest on a chair. I remember it kind of buzzed, but it didn’t hurt.

I think I only sat there for a minute or two, and then like any smart six-year-old, I started yelling for help. I could hear some voices downstream, but apparently they couldn’t hear me. Bootsy quickly found me, though, but she hated swimming and stayed on the opposite side of the creek. I realized nobody was coming and that I needed to find help on my own, so I waded through waist- and chest-deep water until I had made my way to the dog. I again hollered for help, but again nobody responded, so I started working my way back downstream toward the voices I could hear.

Once I rounded a bend, I found a mom with two kids. I think they were fishing, but I’m not sure. I told the woman that I had fallen off the cliff and she looked at me like I was crazy. In retrospect I’m not surprised, as in subsequent years when I returned I realized I had fallen approximately 25 or 30 feet. Really!

The woman’s children were older than my brother and me, and she told them to stay put and she guided me up this totally crazy trail that scrambled up the side of the canyon. I remember telling her I thought I had broken my left arm because whenever I went to use it, it kept feeling “buzzy,” but she kept saying she didn’t think it was broken. Ultimately, and I have no idea how, we made it out of the canyon and to what is now the North American Science Center.

(At the time, the Science Center was owned by one of the aerospace companies—Northrup? Lockheed? I don’t remember. If you check out this photo, you’ll see a white rectangle about halfway vertically and more to the left; that’s the Science Center. La Barranca is visible running more or less vertically just to the left of it. Our home was a the end of the developed area curving up and to the left of the Science Center.)

The woman brought me to the front desk and told them my story. Everyone looked very doubtful, but I do remember that they asked if I knew my phone number (I did!), and they called my mom. In the meantime, they had an onsite medical clinic and they took me there; the nurse may have checked me over, but mostly she just kept me company until my mom arrived.

What I later learned is that my brother arrived home alone, and my mom freaked out. When she asked him where I was, he said, “Isn’t she here? I told her to go back along the river the way we came.” My mom ran down the trail to the bottom of the canyon, yelling my name, and then ran all the way back up. She was preparing to call the police when our phone rang with the call from the staff at the Science Center.

It ended up that I did break my arm, and I was in a cast for six weeks. It was one of those horrible ones, where you can’t bend your elbow, and made of white plaster. Of course it didn’t really slow me down, and we had to return to the orthopedist twice to get it patched.

Me and my cast. I can see my mom’s and my dad’s signatures on it in the photo, but not my brother’s!

To the day, my brother insists we had a miscommunication. He also has confessed that he was scared to go past the spot where the rock jutted out into the trail (smart boy). I, however, didn’t let him sign my cast for a week because I was mad at him!

I guess I was lucky. Today the best part is having a story to give my brother a hard time. I really have forgiven him and don’t blame him.

The thing I think about the most is how lucky we were to grow up where we did and how we did. Sure, there was the time I ran into a jumping cholla and had needles all over my knee. Or the time I split my lip open while my brother and I were playing in the pool with PVC pipe. (I have no idea why we were doing that!) Or the time my brother and I as teenagers got caught in a rip tide at Zuma Beach, and after swimming in, collapsed on our towels exhausted … until a half hour later, when we looked at each other and said, “That was fun!”

#optoutside is a popular hashtag today, and I love it! Outside, being active, exploring, learning about our world and all the beings that inhabit it, is the healthiest place for us and for our children to be. Experience the world around us, be fearless, charge forward, go for it, live your life … but be careful around older brothers! 😉

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