There’s a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in which Jimmy Stewart stands on a chair in order to change a light bulb. Stewart is a tall man, so the ceiling is within easy reach. But when he glances downward at the short distance to the floor, suddenly everything is spinning. He can’t move, he can’t breathe; frozen in the moment, he’s overcome by vertigo.
Vertigo. It’s often irrational yet deeply physical, a sense of destabilization and, for me, that the ground isn’t quite trustworthy. In my nightmares, I’m walking uphill when suddenly I realize that it’s too steep. The soles of my shoes are slippery, and with every step it becomes more difficult to dig in and find enough purchase to propel me upward. At the top of the hill, there’s something important that I need to do. If I miss a step, I’ll plunge into freefall indefinitely.
That wariness of heights and inclines dogs me in my waking hours as well. At Grand Canyon, I could spend a few precious, dizzying moments next to the guardrails on lookout points before I imagined that the gritty ground beneath me was tilting ever so slightly forward – just enough to make me slip through the metal bars like sand through strong fingers, tumbling down and down past scrubby trees and gnarled bushes toward the distant canyon floor.
When I booked my Highlands tour back in April, the website glossed over the itinerary. Loch Ness, Isle of Skye, the Wallace monument in Stirling – it would be a “Best of Scotland,” a trip based around hitting all the highlights with long stretches of bus travel in between, I thought. In reality, the itinerary posted on the website was a bare-bones guideline. We did see these famous and worthy places, but the long stretches in between were hours where our creative and fast-quipping driver Carol could show us her favorite spots along the way.
It started out small. Day one featured a whisky distillery where we sampled shots of pale liquor on fire with bitter peaty smoke. On day two, we spent a sunny hour clambering around an ancient stone castle. Day three was a free day at Loch Ness, where we hiked through deep mossy woods and swam in the cold, inky loch water.
All of which lulled me into a false sense of security by day five.
It started out like any other day of the tour. As mentioned on the website, we planted two trees to help offset the bus’ carbon footprint. Photo stop at Urquhart Castle, which was once featured on The Simpsons. A wander around Corrimony Cairn, a system of Neolithic burial chambers. Lunch.
But once we had all piled back on the bus after lunch, Carol switched on the microphone that amplified her voice so that we could hear her at the back of the bus. “When you get out to the Falls, you’re going to come to a bridge,” she told us as the bus sped down the curving roadway. “It’s a wibbly-wobbly one. Only fifteen people can cross at a time, so just mind that.” She must have noticed some surprised faces in the rearview mirror, because she added, “And the next bridge can only take six.”
I felt a shiver shake over me as we hiked out toward Rogie Falls – one that wasn’t caused by the chilly breeze sweeping through my thin rain jacket. With clammy palms, I gripped a skinny tree at the first overlook. To my left, a wiry bridge wavered over a churning stream far below. To my right, the falls crashed over huge boulders and jagged rock faces, inky water shooting off in white jets of foam. The foam’s brown color, we later learned, was caused not by pollution but by gases produced by the slimy layer of peat lining the bottom of Highlands rivers and lochs.
Directly in front of me, six footsteps away, the ground fell away in a sheer cliff face.
Quietly containing my fear, I stepped back from the skinny tree that anchored me as soon as my head began to spin. I took a deep breath and walked toward the bridge where my tour mates were already swarming, eyes widened to capture the dramatic scenery. I watched the bridge sway, so high over the fast-moving water, and I waited for a moment. Calm on the outside, I told myself again and again that I would be safe. And as soon as there were only fourteen people on the bridge, I stepped on, white knuckles gripping the handrail tightly.
In the middle of the bridge, I carefully paused. With both hands on the rail, I forced myself to look down through the metal grate underfoot to where foam swirled past rocks smoothed by millions of gallons of water racing downstream. I looked ahead and stared at the falls, memorizing the sight because part of my phobia involved a vivid image of fumbling hands and an iPhone slipping into the water below me. If that happened, I felt certain that fumbling in my hands would lead to slipperiness in all of my other joints, and like my iPhone, I would slip and slide through the railing and all the way down to the bottom of the gorge, whisked away by the rushing stream. Lost in this troubling visual, I stiffened when I felt hands on my shoulders.
“Gotcha!” our tripmate John crowed, scampering away to see what lay on the other side of the bridge.
After twenty minutes of recovery on the bus, we arrived at Corrieshalloch Gorge. With a six person limit on the bridge and huge rocks tantalizingly close to shore, Corrieshalloch Gorge was even scarier than Rogie Falls. Higher and narrower than the last bridge, this one swayed wildly as people stepped on and off. We craned our necks toward the rapids, trying to spot salmon leaping futilely up the vertical falls. (We did glimpse one fish flop successfully over the ridge of rocks!)
Across the bridge and up a path along the river, I came to the biggest obstacle of the excursion: a narrow strip of metal that served as a bridge between two chunks of concrete sunk into the river. From the farther platform, you could nimbly jump out onto the big boulders, a vantage point from which you could see clear downstream. “This is the test,” I thought to myself. I had kept my fear more or less quiet until now. Three steps – one onto the little bridge, one in the middle, and one on the other side – was all it would take.
On the other side, Susan held out her hand. The strip of metal was the width of a ruler, and the water beneath it rushed by darkly. The trees around me seemed to sway.
One, two, three. Shaking, I stood on the other side. Too unnerved to make it out to the middle of the river, I looked back at the little makeshift bridge with a shudder. “Are you sure you don’t want to come out?” Janet called. No, I absolutely did not want to climb out onto a slippery rock in the middle of a dangerous river. But even though I hit a wall, I still felt that I had accomplished something, even if the something was knowing my limits in spite of pushing them.
Classes at St. Andrews started today, bringing with them a different type of vertigo. I felt the familiar nervousness and excitement I’ve felt every first day of every new semester. My heart beats and feels twice as much, it seems – collapsing in on itself in fear of saying something stupid, swelling twice as big with sheer love for the literature I’m studying and the way it makes me think. Pu-pump, pu-pump.
Today has of course made me recall my first day at University of Virginia two years ago, when the blistering Virginia sun made me sweat-soaked by the time I made it to my philosophy class, slightly late in keeping with my inability to arrive anywhere quite on time. Both times, there was a little dizziness. A pile of new books, a long list of assignments yet undone, a final exam worth 50% of my grade! But this time, the newness didn’t faze me. Although I had a moment of deja vu as I pored over my map of St. Andrews as I searched for the English department building, being a first year at St. Andrews does not feel the same as being a first year at U. Va.
At St. Andrews, my fear of falling is actually my fear of falling too much in love with this seaside town with its crooked cobbly streets and the quirky flatmates who I’ll have to leave all too soon. It’s a delicate thing, forming attachments that will somehow have to endure an ocean and a time zone. On the other side of the Atlantic, I haven’t been able to Skype my parents or my boyfriend for almost a month due to my currently limited access to wifi (which is itself a long and twisted story). It’s exciting, it’s sad, I don’t know. I didn’t realize that studying abroad would mean creating and maintaining two lives, one there, one here.
I wanted to step out of my comfort zone, and here I am.
*Note: I lost my wifi connection yesterday, per usual, before I could publish. So, classes started yesterday, but that’s when I wrote this post.