Fear doesn’t always have the same smell, but it usually has a smell. This time it was metal and salt and something too earthy to be palatable. I looked up at Em, climbing 3m above me, and then down at where we’d come from. We were halfway up a mountain on the almost-vertical Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park, and there was no turning back. We’d passed three signs on the way up saying this was a one-way trail, meaning that if I ever wanted to grow old with my genderless children, I’d have to climb this motherfucking mountain.
We’d taken a shuttlebus to get to the trailhead, herded on by a driver who was told once by a well-meaning aunt or cousin or deranged librarian that he was funny, and he quite obviously clung to the compliment without having any further raw data to back it up.
“The Precipice Trail,” he said when we told him where we wanted to go. “You know you have to go through a psychiatric evaluation before you go on that one.”
Em and I laughed, but obviously not hard enough, because the driver pulled out his microphone so the entire shuttlebus could hear his joke.
“Folks, these two young ladies here seem to have a death wish. They’ve just told me that they want to climb The Precipice Trail, the most challenging trail in the entire park.”
We looked around at everyone else on the bus all looking at us. They were all between 30 and 300 years older than us, and every one of them was wearing a lanyard from a cruise ship they’d just gotten off of.
I nodded at them, and Em nodded at them, but our driver wasn’t done.
“Take a good look folks,” he said. “We lose at least one person a year on The Precipice Trail. There’s a good chance these two will be coming back in body bags.
I looked at Em, capital D Dazzling Em who was rarely ever phased by anything, and she wasn’t phased by this either. It was easy for her, though. She was made of lightning, arctic wind and a little bit of silver dust from who knows where. Meanwhile, I was made of rocks and chewing gum and splintered popsicle sticks, and if one of us was going to die on this hike, it would definitely be me.
“Should we be doing this?” I asked.
“He’s just exaggerating for the crowd,” Em said.
And when we got off the bus five minutes later, the driver made all the oldies from the cruise wave to us like we were doomed sailors on our final voyage.
We waved back and laughed, but now an hour had gone by, and I was on a thin rock ledge looking up at a series of metal rungs shoved into the cliff face. If I slipped while climbing, I’d fall about 20 stories, and maybe I’d die instantly or maybe I’d die slowly, feeling the blood pour out of everywhere all at once, but I’d most definitely die.
“I don’t know about this,” I called up to Em who was now on the next rock ledge about 15m up.
“Just take it slow and don’t let go.”
“Sure, that’s easy.”
“It’s just like climbing a ladder. The only way you’ll fall is if you let go.”
“But what if I spontaneously become paralyzed or have a seizure?”
“What if you have a seizure when you’re driving or riding an escalator?”
“You’re right, I shouldn’t do those things anymore either.”
“When have you ever had a seizure anyway? she asked.
She was right, but that didn’t make me any less scared.
I put my right hand on the first iron bar and then my left. There was the smell of metal again and wind coming off the ocean. I tried to breath, and I tried not to die. Then I stepped onto the rung by my feet and pulled myself up.
“You’re doing it,” Em said.
I climbed to the next rung and then the next, at first not looking below me, and then sneaking glances at the ocean shining in the sun and the grey face of the rock where someone fell off and died every single year.
Here, I said at each rung secured into the side of the mountain. Someone maybe fell from here.
And then my foot slipped, too, the smallest wobble of over confidence and nothing but air below me for way too long. I was not a bird and I was not a mountain lion and I was not graceful enough to be attempting something like this, but somehow I caught myself, and most surprisingly of all, a laugh ripped out of my chest.
It was a slip more than a fall with Em looking down at me and my hands sweaty and smelling of metal.
“Holy shit,” I said up to her. “I almost died just then.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“I guess not because here I am.”
I pulled myself up again, and found myself on the next rock ledge, looking down at where I’d almost died but hadn’t and feeling something blooming in my chest, wild and uncontrollable.
There were the rocks and the trees and the ocean, and there was this almost vertical cliff face were climbing with just our hands and our feet.
“This is so fucked up,” I said, but I was smiling and Em was smiling, too, something wild in her eyes and not exactly human.
There was dead and there was alive and there was this third state that Em was in and I was in, an unlocking of some secret way of being that maybe I’d felt before and maybe I hadn’t, close to dead, but more alive than ever.
“I’m scared,” I said to her. “I’m scared because I’m scared, and I’m scared because I’m so happy, and I think being scared like this shouldn’t make you so happy.”
Em laughed a laugh made of silver confetti. She held onto a metal bar bolted into the cliff face, and leaned until she was half hanging over the edge.
“At least we know we’re alive,” she said, and I held my breath and she pulled herself back in.
“For now at least,” I told her, and she just smiled at me, this smile that had the whole world in it, sadness and happiness and the fact that we were born. The fact that we met each other and were married and in love and lived in a bus. The fact that we could climb a mountain with just our hands and our feet and nothing holding us except ourselves and the fact that we wanted to live, live, live.
“Should we keep going?” Em asked.
“We have to,” I said.
And so we did, the metal under our hands, the rockface before us, and the feeling that we could do anything at all.