The Unmoving Coaster

I’ve always been a risk taker. Growing up I relished every chance to fill my personal “jar” of adrenaline complementary to dangerous experiences. Some jars were large, and some small, but by my early college days I had accrued quite a collection.

It began when I was a wee lad. On the many family camping trips during childhood, for example, my parents would fruitlessly attempt to stop me from pinpointing the largest behemoth of a tree and poking my head above the highest (rather thin) branch. Nature called and I simply had to answer.

But, if my risky mentality was a roller coaster ride, it would come clanking to a halt one warm February day in 2019. This story begins with the very thing I’m dedicating my career to now: The ocean.

Where I’m from warm days don’t exist in February, so let me explain. Two years ago a small crew and I were sent to the lush island of Puerto Rico to assist local engineers with restoration efforts in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. A rather exquisite perk of the job, outside of the wonderful people, fried pork, and cheap beer, was the opportunity to stay at AirBnBs during our operation.

One such abode was a quaint two bedroom house nestled against a thick leafy forest. This specific AirBnB happened to be situated mere seconds from a sandy beach, sprinkled with shy fish and the occasional hazardous sea urchin (warning: do not pet the animals). If you take a careless 5 minute meander along this beach, you will come to an abrupt halt, your way barred by an outcrop of limestone, like a larger than life hedgehog permanently keeping the sea at bay.

It was on this hedgehog’s back I scrambled as I made my way to a view of the watercolor blue horizon beyond. Have I sold you on Puerto Rico yet? So there I was, the bottoms of my shoes cut from razor sharp limestone, running up this rock to catch a glimpse of the oceanic expanse. As I summited and looked down, I noticed a rather large finger of rock jutting from the outcrop. This particularly bowl shaped cusp happened to be situated mere feet above a gaping sinkhole. The frothy chasm was the size of a large trampoline, but rather than bounce you back to safety, you would most likely get swallowed only to become quick friends with the ocean floor. The endless waves lapped at the edges of the overlying buttress as I made my way down. Oddly enough, if you sat in the bowl atop this horn, as I promptly did, not even the slightest salty mist would reach your outstretched hand. It’s like you’re on a stationary roller coaster, everything moving below you while you stay put. Soon I felt like that chick in Titanic, except without DiCaprio, of course.

Me to the right of the coaster. Thanks to Gabe Pelletier for taking the shot.

After several minutes of bliss I decided to take the 5 minute jog back to the house and tell my coworker Gabe about the experience. Intrigued, he donned his flip flops and we ambled back to the site. He mainly took pictures of the limestone (see snapshots above and below) while we swapped turns on the “unmoving coaster”. After my rather large daily bottle of adrenaline reached the point of overflowing, we sauntered back to the house and switched on Netflix over plantains and chicken.

Fast forward to the next morning. After a quick breakfast I started packing food for the day, stuffing processed lunchmeat into my old backpack. As I washed my hands I suddenly realized one thing: It’s high tide. With a bolt I ran to the living room and asked if my compadre wanted to take one last ride. Through at least two full eggs worth of scramble I received a muffled, “Nah”. So off I went.

Now here’s what I did not realize:

One: Waves are loud. I could have screamed a slur of profanities at the top of my lungs and no one (save God) would have been blessed with my remarks.

Two: As I scuttled down to the cusp I don’t have the foresight to realize that a soaking wet horn of rock meant something more than rain the night before (which it hadn’t).

Three: Not a soul is there.

I’m sitting in the bowl as the waves surge and break underneath me. My adrenaline meter is off the charts. I’m on the moon. And then, just after I had settled into a divine euphoria, it hit.

In a split second I glanced up and saw a foaming wall of white. I hate to say I can now to some extent relate to the many poor souls caught in an avalanche. When it’s right in front of you there is nothing you can do but brace and hope for the best. My hands grabbed the slippery rock to my side as the impact hit me with full force. For what seemed like an eternity I was at war with the ocean, it’s watery claws successfully starting to drag me from my perch. Slipping. Soaking. Clinging on for dear life. And then…. It’s over. In that split second the ocean funneled back into the sinkhole’s greedy mouth. Like a tossed salad, I was utterly shaken and drenched. You know when people tell you they have an out of body experience? I used to snort, laugh, ask for further explanation. Now I’m quiet.

I sat there too shocked to laugh or cry as the next wave merely sent a gentle mist in my direction. Snapping too, I launched myself from the perch, and from a safe distance above, turned back to look at what may have been my doom. My emotions kicked in and I started crying like those kids who got their candy stolen on Jimmy Kimmel. Crying and thanking the Lord I am alive.

My perception of risk changed that day. As I looked down one last time to that sinkhole I saw a version of myself fighting, trying to escape as the waves crushed my frame against the sharp limestone. Would I have made it? Only God knows.

Next time you think about taking a risk, try looking around, assessing your situation, and knowing what you’re getting into. You may just look down in time to find that your seat belt is unbuckled before takeoff.

5 things I’ve learned at 25

In light of now being a quarter of a century old, I thought I’d share some lessons learned along the crazy, bumpy, and invigorating ride of life.

1. Learn to say no

This is a hard one for me. As someone who likes to please others, I tend to want to say yes to every invite thrown my way. I’ve learned that it’s just not possible to do that and be consistent with the people that mean the most to me. Learn to say yes to the important things and people in your life, and realize that it’s OK to sacrifice some ground in other areas.

2. Try something new

This is a typical one, but in all reality, the times I’ve tried new things have been quite enlightening and worthwhile. I’m not saying travel to Thailand and shake hands with a monk dwelling in a cave on the side of some snowy cliff. That’s just too far. But try to get out of your comfort zone. Do something that stretches you. We live in a world that continually seeks comfort. It’s time to swim against the flow and try something uncomfortable. Volunteer at your local homeless shelter. Strike up a conversation with someone on the bus next to you who seems lonely. Those things really count. You’ll feel better for it too.

3. Break some rules

For real. Some of you won’t be happy hearing this, but you can’t live by the book all the time. I’ve seen people that have, and they tend to live cut and dry lifestyles. It’s no fun. Do something on the edge. Once a year my brother and I sneak under a fence into a “no trespassing” area near town (no details) and bring a laptop loaded with a new movie we haven’t seen. We’ll chill and watch the movie out on a beautiful overlook where we shouldn’t be. But let me tell you, those are some of the most crucial times of bonding I’ve had with my brother.

4. Learn to give

Yes. My friends, most of you have been given extraordinary opportunities that so many people in this world would do anything for. Don’t take that for granted. Living in Kenya showed me circumstances in which people can survive and yet emanate a surprising happiness. You’ve heard it said, but I’ll say it again. The love of wealth will not bring you happiness. Learn to give some of what you’ve been given away while you’re younger, and you’ll thank yourself for it when you get older.

5. Learn to be yourself

This is a tough one to swallow for me. The above phrase is a staple in many self help books, discussed in many groups, and constitutes quite a bit of inspirational media, so it must be easy, right? Wrong. I still tend to fall into the trap of agreeing with everything people say, regardless of opinion. I’m continuing to learn that it’s OK to disagree with people and leave it at that. For example, I am a Christian, and hold certain values and ideas for a way of living that I believe works. This rubs many people the wrong way, but that’s all right.

So there you have it. The five things I’ve learned at 25. Thanks for reading, and I hope you got something out of this. If you want to add what you’ve learned or continue the conversation, please comment with your thoughts.

Much love, Jay.