Maybe it was because of what happened on a rainy late afternoon many years ago driving in the hills near the Santa Barbara Mission in my Triumph sports car, seeing the lovely twinkling lights of oil derricks in the distance as the sun set into the ocean. Noticing that my downhill speed was too high I put my foot on the brake but it barely slowed, and as the car barreled into a turn I knew two things: I couldn’t make the turn and the physics of my predicament would take me plunging down a steep hillside that I doubted I’d walk away from. But luck was with me and instead of being in free fall I hit a high embankment and my tire blew. I staggered from the car and looked down at what I had barely avoided. Fortunate me, but then like a perverse miracle, I suddenly developed a fear of heights.
Me, one of the founding members of Dorsey High School’s Flying Club! I was the young man who couldn’t wait to squeeze into a Piper Cub with the colorblind Mr. Fieldsman who taught driver’s ed during school hours but took us flying every Thursday after school. We were a sight, the little Jewish dude and his many black students getting into small planes of his friends, and away we went — soaring to airports around Southern California. All of that was lost to me after that near-disastrous car accident, and since then I’m inclined to stay firmly on the ground. A long flight I endure, but don’t enjoy turbulence that reminds me I’m more than 3,000 feet above the ground.
Then I got the call from Arroyo Monthly for an exciting assignment to write about the Ziplines at Pacific Crest in Wrightwood. Suddenly, I was Scottie in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, trying to find his balance on a stepladder and almost fainting. Visiting the ziplines’ website had my heart racing as I saw those taut cable lines stretching endlessly along mountain passes that were as alluring as they were daunting for a man with my propensity for acrophobia.
Then I showed this to Jinghuan, my wife and personal trainer, who regards running the Boston Marathon on a stress fracture as an opportunity for character building. She insisted I had nothing to fear, that all I needed to do was educate myself and I’d be fine.
I took her advice and did due-diligence research until I was ready to strap myself into the rig. I fervently convinced myself that ziplining was just as safe as riding the Matterhorn at Disneyland, and a hell of a lot more fun. I wanted to believe that I could jump from a high platform 80 feet above ground and be chill about it. That I could enjoy leaping into space and rolling at up to 55 miles an hour more than 100 feet about the ground, surrounded by a lush canopy of pines and assisted by an enthusiastically friendly staff who are as diligent about safety as I am paranoid about heights. I could only conclude that my fear was something the zipline crew at Pacific Crest had to be used to and knew how to reassure the faint of heart that we wouldn’t splat against a tree, Daffy Duck–style.
On an early Sunday morning after Jinghuan’s short 10-mile run, we got the kids together and started the drive to Wrightwood. It was a pleasant one, a beautiful lunar-looking landscape along the 138 Freeway, and the mysteries of orchards with Korean Hangul script dotting the highway that Jinghuan puzzled over.
I had never visited Wrightwood before, though my brother had a cabin there for many years. It was a charming town nestled against the slope of a pine-dense mountain range. When we reached Ziplines at Pacific Crest the young crew was ready for us, though the staff seemed in constant motion, some rigging folks into various harnesses and doing various safety checks. When they weighed me I discovered that I was too heavy for their safety regulations. I was crestfallen — or at least I pulled it off as though I was — and Sammy, my 11-year stepson, stepped up and was raring to go in a way that my false bravado couldn’t come close to.
While they were gearing up and departing in the grim black Pacific Crest van to the ziplines, I searched for a good place to hang out with Colette, our 3-year-old girl, and I found The Village Grind. The Village Grind is an extremely charming multipurpose restaurant, bar, coffeehouse, art colony and outdoor music venue. The Village Grind is so cool and charming that I’m seriously thinking we need to bribe them to relocate to Altadena.
Jinghuan and Sammy returned from their supposed 90-minute zipline tour about two-and-a-half hours later, exhausted but thrilled. Jinghuan had much to say about the adventure:
The zipline rides were just as I had imagined and seen on TV. You wear a helmet, gloves and a harness with ropes and hooks; you go on a ride to the top of a mountain and zipline down from one side to the other. We were a party of eight tourists, with [brand-new] nicknames like Birthday Boy, Pineapple and Happy. I was, of course, Mom, and the last one holding the line.
The tour we signed up for had six ziplines and a free fall [rappel to the ground]. We started with a short line and the length and fun increased with each one. The heroes were the guides — they were extremely patient, gave clear directions about what to do and what not to do (e.g. to slow down, just gently tap the top of the zipline and don’t grab it hard. It’s called “pet the cat,” and do not try to strangle it!). Our guides, Marisa and Sarah, were relaxed, helpful and always giving everyone encouragement.
Neither Sammy nor I had much fear going on the zipline at all. They didn’t feel very long, nor risky. We felt in control the entire time. At each “stop,” which is essentially a small platform made of wood planks, we gathered the group together and waited for others; the platform was so small that the group had to squeeze in, which made you on high alert at all times just so you didn’t fall off the platform. It was a great chance to take in the gorgeous view of the SoCal mountains and fault line. Trees were all down below us; from afar, you see nothing but more mountains and snow on top of them. The air was clean and crisp. We were happy to be wearing jackets and not just a T-shirt.
The only part where everyone had the most fear was the free fall. You were tied to the zipline still, but were supposed to jump off a tree platform. All my life, I had dreams of adventures such as bungee jumping, wind surfing, sky diving and rock climbing in Yosemite, which all involved great heights and some form of free falls, so I thought I was totally prepared. Everyone ahead of me had some fearful moment, but all jumped beautifully, including my 11-year-old, who had told me, “Mom, my legs are trembling!” I thought, ‘‘Hmmmm, I must be the only one who isn’t feeling terror.’’
I was wrong. The moment I stepped to the edge of the platform, I was seized by fear. Holy smokes, am I really going to jump off this platform? It looks like 10 stories! What’s it going to feel like? Is my heart going to jump out of my lungs? How long am I going to be free falling? All these thoughts were racing in my head, while the rest of the crew was chanting, “Do it, Mom! Do it!”
I inched forward. Half of my feet were off the platform. I thought, what the hell, and gave it a gentle jump. Well, that wasn’t successful. My “jump” was way too gentle. I landed on my butt on the platform. I laughed so hard that my fear melted away. Our third guide, Ben, kindly asked if I was okay. I said yes and wished he would just give me a big push off the platform. That would’ve been better. The chanting from the crew grew louder: “Do it, Mom! Do it!”
I stood up and embraced all my fears. Next thing I knew, I was flying down… I didn’t dive too far before the rope pulled me up again and I started to bounce in the sky. I saw only trees, beautiful trees around me. It was a moment of joy, tranquility and peace before I landed in the arms of our guide and the crew erupted in cheers. Birthday Boy teased me, “Oh, I saw you wanted to go, but not the legs!”
The last zipline was the longest, and the one where you had two parallel ziplines. Sammy and I were the mother-and-son team. I made sure our GoPro, courtesy of our friend, was recording, and off we went!
I thought for sure I’d be ziplining faster than my son, but not this time. By now, he’d already grown into a more deft zipliner, knowing how to angle his body for speed; three-quarters of the way in, he was still ahead of me, but I was catching up, possibly due to heavier weight. This is the only [Pacific Crest] zipline where you don’t have to slow down on your own — it had some kind of smart braking system. The lower we’d go, the higher the speed. I felt like we were about to crash into the end when there was a sudden stop, so forceful that I bounced back. Another line pulled us and made us stop. It ended so fast and I already wanted to do it all over again!
The high speeds, the views, the mediated recklessness of it all were intoxicating for them both, while I enjoyed the opportunity to drink a hoppy, mango-infused IPA at The Village Grind. It was a great day for us all, the high-speed offerings of Pacific Crest zipline adventures and the sedate pleasures of Wrightwood were about as perfect a Sunday morning as you could hope for.
Ziplines at Pacific Crest is located at 6014 Park Dr., Wrightwood, about 68 miles northeast of Pasadena by car. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Tours range from the 90-minute Quest tour, with four zips for $85 per person, to the Ultimate All-Day Adventure, with 15 zips as well as rappels, bridges, hikes and lunch for $209 per person. Book your tour by calling
(760) 705-1003 or visiting ziplinespc.com.