The Zip Line: A True Story from the ‘Slow

You’re probably familiar with the zip line. Climbers use them to move supplies—and people—over rough terrain. Boy Scouts use them to for mild, drug-free, adrenaline rushes. The zip line is a useful and fun invention when used properly. My cousin, Josh, used the zip line to kill unwitting victims.

This is Josh. He was a bright kid—probably the most mechanically gifted of all the Hancock cousins. He was a wunderkind with gadgets, an architect who built forts of epic proportions, and a lethal opponent in cousin-wide games of capture the flag or midnight ghost in the graveyard. Josh could also bite harder than the rest of us, which helped in a fight.

Josh’s genius extended to almost every facet of life. He could leap between branches of two closely-set trees with simian agility. He could climb the rope in Grandpa’s barn before any of the rest of us could spit. And he was the most prolific child inventor since Edison. (Edison, however, never invented a three-story fort made out of scrap lumber. Josh=1, Edison=0.)

Josh was also a thrill-seeker. He’s the kid who would run the horses, even if we were only supposed to gallop. He cocked the BB guns three times when we were supposed to cock them once during gunfights. He was one year younger than me and the kind of person you could trust 100% to do something insane.

My little brother Paul and I were city slickers. In our small town, this meant that we lived on the border between Winslow, Arizona (population 9,000—on parade day) and Bushman Acres (population zero—on parade day), which was unincorporated Navajo County land. It was only a five-minute bike ride from our house in Winslow to Josh’s home in Bushman Acres, but we were slickers nonetheless.

In Bushman Acres, people could burn their trash in barrels and have horses. The cousins in Bushman Acres could brand cattle, bail hay, and mend barbed-wire fences, but we didn’t—couldn’t—although we tried. We were slickers, through and through.

One Sunday, my family went to visit my Grandpa. We visited Grandpa on Sundays and holidays, and we usually got together for cousins’ birthdays, too. We got together all the time. That was the way the Hancock clan showed love. Josh lived right next door to Grandpa, and when we arrived to visit that day, I could see him from the window of our minivan.

In the driveway of my Grandpa’s yard, just before you got to the carport, was a mammoth, 50 ft. tall, gnarled cottonwood tree.

Josh had constructed a fort high in the tree. As we drove up, he sat in the branches, fiddling with some sort of handlebar connected to a cable. The cable ran down from the tree at an extremely steep angle—87.93 degrees at least—and ended on the top rung of a pull-up bar that my Grandpa had created out of metal plumbing materials.

I think Josh had been waiting for an audience. As we pulled in, he wrapped his hands around the handlebar, and—“whoosh!”—down the zip line he went, supersonically. When he hit the end of the line, he swung up, swiveled back, and dropped three feet to the ground.

“Whoa!” I said.

“That’s crazy!” replied my brother as we got out of the car. My parents walked inside to visit with Grandpa. Paul and I stayed outside. This was awesome.

“You like it?” Josh asked, beaming. I nodded. Paul raised an eyebrow.

Now normally, a zip line will do several things to keep you safe during travel:

  1. The line will be made of thick wire.
  2. The line will have a harness that keeps you from involuntary ejection.
  3. The line is placed at such an angle that you can slow down at the end. This ensures that you don’t plaster yourself to the pavement at a bazillion mph. These precautionary measures prove invaluable, which is why you don’t hear of many people dying on zip lines.
  4. Oh yeah, there’s also a brake and something to cushion your landing.

Josh’s zip line followed none of these safeguards. It was made with a discarded scrap of orange and black rope—the nylon kind you use to pull trucks from the mud. The handle (a generous name by any stretch) was a 12-inch wide piece of 1/4-inch rebar, attached to a rickety pulley with bailing wire and more discarded rope. Perhaps most ominously, instead of leading you safely to the ground, this zip line stopped abruptly, at maximum velocity, in midair.

“You should try it!” Josh said, as Paul and I approached. Josh was clearly exhilarated with the success of his invention and the excitement of his recent descent.

“That’s crazy!” Paul said again, shaking his head. I should have been similarly convinced but wasn’t. After all, Josh had done it. Why couldn’t I?

Stupid, stupid, stupid. It’s hard for me to understand my motivations, even now. Was I driven by ambition, seeking to show my prowess at something so daring? Was it peer pressure? Adventure? Something in Winslow’s water? What could possibly have convinced me?

After some hesitation, I took the bait. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll do it.”

“You’re dumb,” Paul shook his head. “Really dumb.”

Josh was elated. “Here,” he smiled triumphantly, “I’ll show you how.” He and I climbed the rickety scrap lumber rungs to the launch platform.

In case you’re thinking Josh was trying to trick me, he wasn’t. He really thought, somehow, that I could go down this contraption. Okay, maybe he knew I wouldn’t be able to do it and wanted to show his superiority. Either way, once I got to the platform, I knew this was a bad idea.

I looked down. There it was: a 20-foot line extending from the tree to the pull-up bar. Upon closer inspection, the 1/4-inch rebar was even thinner than I had imagined. I eyed it cautiously. “That’s not a handle,” I told myself. “I can barely hold on to that thing!”

“You have to hold on really tight to the handle,” Josh said, reading my mind. “If you don’t, when you get to the end, you’ll just fly off.”

“Are you sure about this? I don’t think I can do it.” I hesitated.

“Yeah, it’s easy!” Josh reassured me. “Look,” he said, sensing my growing skepticism, “I’ll go down again.” Josh tightly grabbed the rebar and leapt effortlessly from the platform. Again, when he hit the end of the line, he swung up into the air, pivoted back, and dropped to the ground.

As he slowly brought the pulley back to the platform (he had tied a rope to the handle for this very purpose), several thoughts raced through my brain:

“Should I go down the line?”

“Should I just climb back down the tree?”

“I can’t just climb back down the tree!”

“Why am I doing this?”

“I’m still in my church clothes!”

“All I have to do is hold on to the bar.”

“How hard will that gravel be if I do fall?”

“See? It’s easy!” Josh said, handing me the rebar. “Here you go.”

I paused. I grabbed the rebar and ignored my screaming conscience. I took a deep breath, tightened my grip on the handle, and dropped—not jumped—from the platform. (This would slow me down, I reasoned.)

Television shows and films use certain words to depict what people say or think when facing peril. Usually, they’re swear words. Those words are, I think, inaccurate. People don’t think those words when they’re in real trouble. At least, not when plummeting to their death on slapdash zip lines. In moments of true peril, there’s not enough time for words. There’s probably only room for two letters: O-H.

“OH, that was dumb.”

“OH, this is faster than I thought it would be.”

“OH, I don’t think I’m going to be able to hang on tight enough.”

“OH, I think my life might end today.”

“OH, hold on.”

“OH!”

“THWACK!” I hit the pull-up bar at breakneck speed. (Do the math: I was about 12 or 13 years old. 87–96 pounds. 20–30 feet up. 20–30 foot zipline. 9 foot pull-up bar. Average gripping power of a 13-year-old around a .25″ piece of rebar…Yep, I’m dead.)

I let go.

I couldn’t handle the speed. My hands weren’t up to the task of hanging on, not even when they were clinging to life itself. I soared—flailed really—into the air…

falling

…landing flat on my back in the gravel.

All I can remember from that point is wanting to breathe but not being able to. I gasped and choked and fought for air, but it wouldn’t come. There was no wind in my sails.

gasp1
gasp2.1
gasp2

It seemed an eternity before I inhaled. When I finally did, all I could do was cry. I was certain I had broken something. I lay on my back looking at the sky.

sky

Hours passed in those few seconds. Paul and Josh ran up to me.

“Are you okay?!” they asked, wide-eyed.

“Ye-es,” I sobbed/moaned/croaked. They started laughing as tears flowed from my eyes.

“That was so funny!” they both chortled. “Dude! You were supposed to hold on!”

I wanted—and tried—to laugh, but my crying and gasping got in the way. Mentally, I checked my vital signs. Brains? Check. Heart? Check. Limbs? Aching, but check. I was alive. I had survived!

I rolled on the ground, writhing in pain. Then, I slowly pushed myself up, dusted off my pants, and wiped my teary, dusty, now muddy face. My shirt was ruined. I’d ruined my pants, too. Mom and Dad would be livid, but they’d be relieved to know I was unbroken. It served me right for zip-lining on the Sabbath, anyway.

Slowly, and with Paul’s help, I limped the fifty feet to Grandpa’s door.

I didn’t turn around to see where Josh went, or what he did. My guess is he pulled the rope back to the platform, climbed the tree, and happily whizzed down the line again. Maybe he just went home and ate dinner. Either way, I’m sure he was glad to be a Bushman Acres boy. Glad to have a better grip and an even better invention. Glad about his three-story fort made from scrap lumber. Josh=1, Sam=0.

The End.