So, this intense thing happened to me 4 years ago, and I took snapshots and scribbled things (as I often do) in hopes that the memory of those few days would not reduce to a simmer and eventually fade away into oblivion. I didn’t want to ever forget this very peculiar, frightening, and grandiose thing that I experienced, and so I tried to remember it the only way I knew how - through writing and pictures. This journal entry was written crudely, in the moment, and just recently deciphered from an almost illegible scribble in a crinkled Moleskin notebook. These obscure hieroglyphics of mine were perpetuated by the fact that I wrote this story in the passenger seat of my car, head in a fog, while blazing across the rolling highways of the American South West.
This is a story (accompanied with blurry photos) that I reluctantly but freely want to share because it’s a real thing that happened and something that I think about quite often. Special shoutout to Darby Mae for sprucing up this unseasoned writing of mine, and to Kristen and Andrew for sharing the weight of the waves with me that frigid April morning.
Hastily written / scribbled sometime in April 2013
Edited and revised with help from Darby Mae Wagner, July 2017
4/6/13 (Two days prior to cliff jumping)
I am writing this while still pretty bugged out. I just had the wildest drive to Santa Cruz. I thought that I was flying. Or dying. My entire body felt as if it were burning, on fire. I just woke up, lost in a daze at the Jungle House.
The story starts in Los Angeles, or a few days before we left for a road trip to Santa Cruz. Kristen and I were released early from work - it was the last and final day of our 4-month internship. We were ecstatic. We said our goodbyes, swiped a whole case of sugar-free Redbull from the basement, and prepared ourselves to soon take off along the California coast. Free, liberated, and ready for a change of scenery. We take a photo in the alley by the trash cans that we no longer would be pulling out onto the street every week.
I hastily moved myself out of my Craigslist sublet in Santa Monica. My friend Charlotte who lives in a one-bedroom flat in Little Armenia was letting me crash there for a few nights. We had a great little dinner at this French café. She had mussels and cassis; I ate her French fries and had a lavender gin martini. Afterwards, I met Mike for beers at Barney’s Beanery. He was flirty, and professing his real estate prospects. I was exhausted and not attuned. I told him about my plan to jump off a cliff in Santa Cruz, and asked him to sign my advice book.
The next morning Kristen and I began our 6-hour drive to Santa Cruz, and my eagerness and desire to escape got the best of me. I stared at a bar of chocolate with wide eyes and wonder. It innocently laid in my lap and stared back at me, and without thinking once or even twice, I took a big ol’ bite.
The thing was that it hit me all at once. I was waiting to get slowly filled up, like when you leave a hose running on in the summertime to fill up a plastic pool. Nope. After an hour of slow trickling, I was full to brim in a matter of a few seconds, and began to rapidly overflow. I started feeling lighter and lighter, closing my eyes as I soared through the sky.
I should have waved my white flag right then and there. This foolish overzealousness was just a preview to an unforgettable weekend.
It started off as an ordinary morning, or as ordinary a morning can be when you wake up on a floral couch in the Church House. I had been talking about cliff jumping for nearly a month now, and had psyched myself up to doing it. Kristen’s warnings of icy cold northern California waters were of no concern to me. I was unwavering in my decision. I was going to jump off a cliff.
And so early that morning, just a couple hours after the sun had risen, Kristen, Alyssa, Andrew, and I piled into Alyssa’s car, our swim trunks and towels in hand. I shoved a piece of dry toast in my mouth, and it makes my mouth even drier. Eventually we found ourselves hovering over the Santa Cruz coastline, scoping out the scene below us...so far, we could already tell the conditions were a bit questionable. 58-ish degrees. Maybe 60. My hair was whipping across my face through strong gusts the moment we stepped onto the cliffs. The ocean didn’t necessarily reflect the wrath of the wind, but it wasn’t looking very calm either, just a bit wavy from afar.
We climbed down the rocks to the beach to set our stuff down and test the water. We had already committed at this point, no matter how frigid the water proved to be. And yes, the water was indeed frigid, stinging my feet as an electric shock soared through my interior. But I was so oblivious - so silly happy running up and down the coast to psyche myself up and keep warm. My arm hairs stood up straight, still feeling the shockwave of the waters I recently dabbled, and there were goosebumps on my legs. I remember looking down and noticing a bright bruise atop my bad knee that looked particularly purple; ah yes, I thought...trampoline, Kristen and I going berserk, Jungle House - it was all coming back to me.
Kristen, Andrew, and I met eyes as we contemplated the icy Pacific water, but oddly never the wind and wave conditions.
I laid my towel out on a rock and changed from my underwear to my swim trunks. I think I was completely naked at some point; none of this seemed to matter much in Santa Cruz. Or to me at least. Alyssa got comfy on the rocks with a book- she is a lit major after all. She wished us good luck as we set off towards the cliffs.
I was bouncing shivering and shaking all over the place, as we climbed to the alleged jumping off point. The cliff apparently hung over a ‘toilet bowl’ of water. It was U- shaped, and waves were crashing onto the outer rocks. We hung our heads skeptically over the edge, as we observed our jumping off point. All of us raised our eyebrows, likely feeling the same polarities of fear and excitement, but no one dared to verbalize anything resembling skepticism. A young couple in Patagonia windbreakers (more appropriately dressed for the weather conditions) walked over to us. We chatted hastily only to discover that the husband jumps all the time! He suddenly recommended, as if we had no idea what we were doing, that we jump after a wave has crashed, and not before, so that we don’t get tumbled into the toilet bowl. So basically, the idea was to jump after a wave has crashed, hope you timed it right, then swim past the giant bowl over to shore.
I became so apprehensive.
But it wasn’t long before I heard the man saying, “If you’re gonna jump, go NOW!!!” Right after the wave had crashed. And then I turned my head and saw Andrew was full-speed bolting, and off the cliff he went, splashing into the water.
As I write and recall these events, my chest still hurts from it all and begins to tighten. After all, it’s only been five days.
...So Andrew is in the icy Pacific, head bobbing out of the water, laughing and screaming. Kristen immediately follows and plunges off the cliff. And I just might throw up, knees shaking all over, but I quickly come to realize that I’m all alone on this cliff and my friends are in the water. I’m still over here dawdling. OK Jo, just do it. Whatever, I thought, for one split second. But in that split second ‘whatever’, my feet detach from my brain and start going pat-pat. That’s the sound they make when they smack a flat rock. Three big, baby steps. Three ‘pat-pat-pats’ and I feebly lunge off. Definitely not nearly far enough for comfort. That was strike one. I realized how ridiculously close I was to skimming rocks, but that thought evaporates as soon as my pat-pat feet hit the Pacific water. Ahhh. Breathe is GONE. Fuck, it was freezing… just like sucking in a mouthful of icy air, or after being punched in the stomach, or how I think it should feel after eating a tube of Mentos.
I’m nauseous writing this.
So, I’m thinking, the idea now is to start swimming past the toilet bowl, away from cliffs and around towards the coast to get back to the shore. But realization and reality quickly comes down hard, and the current pulling me BACK towards the jumping cliffs is really fucking strong, and I kind of can’t breathe because the cold water is constricting my chest. I start with a simple breaststroke. I can see Kristen not too far away doing the same, while Andrew is much further out in the sea.
I’m starting to get tired.
I shout to Kristen. HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO GET BACK. My voice sounds inaudible under the winds and waves, but she hears me. YOU SWIM.
I switch to froggy style. Then I get tired again and switch to my backside. Belly up, like a goldfish afloat in a toilet bowl, and I’m kicking and breathing heavy. The thought briefly occurs to me that maybe I should feel a bit self-conscious and embarrassed. I can see people-dots from the corners of my salty eyes standing on top of the overhanging cliffs. Their thoughts seem to penetrate my skull... Crazy dipshits.
I feel immeasurably small in that moment.
But I didn’t even have enough time to process that feeling because a wave is suddenly crashing over my head, and the tide is pulling me away from the coast. Landfall never seemed further away.
And now it’s been five days since THIS day, so I can’t remember exactly how many more of these waves choked me before the ultimate one came crashing down. My head was barely bobbing above water, and I was gasping for air when I saw a white avalanche through my stinging eyes -- a wave that had already broke and was rolling full speed and force ahead. I was scared before but now I am terrified.
And this monster sends me straight down through the cavernous black ocean, swirling in a whirlpool of salt and sand. And the top is probably 20 to 30 feet above me but how the hell do I even know. I can’t see or think a damn thing right now, and then I’m viciously smacked across the face with reality. This is drowning, Jo. You are drowning. You cannot fucking breathe because you are swallowing gulps of seawater and stuck under the sea where there is no air.
STUPID GIRL STUPID GIRL STUPID GIRL.
I think of washing up onto the shore, or slowly drifting to the bottom like a limp anchor. I think of family finding out that they have to fly to California to retrieve my body. I think of friends finding out that I died cliff jumping in Santa Cruz. I think of Jack and Rose jumping off the butt of the Titanic and being sucked down to the ocean floor. (Quite a strange thought, in retrospect.) I think of how people would think of me. Would they think I was suicidal or maybe just a daredevil? I’m not particularly either, just rash and impulsive and stubborn and stupid and twenty-one fucking years old.
And then, I think, I possibly hit the ocean floor, kick myself up with all of my might and just pray that the water will dissolve and disappear. Eventually, it does. At this point I have no more qualms regarding the reality of my situation.
HELP HELP HELP ME HELP HELP, I’m screaming over wind and water and distance. No one moves or musters.
A few more waves maybe - I can’t remember it anymore. My memory has been floating in some kind of purgatory since this day, and writing about this clouded experience will never do it justice. The raw emotions get diluted with each passing moment that goes by.
Why is no one saving me?
Then I see a glimmer of hope. As I struggle to keep breathing and afloat, I see Kristen standing not too far ahead of me. Still in the water, but on solid ground. KRISTEN HELP ME, I scream out.
She screams back something, but it’s inaudible. My feet hit something soft and solid, as they start to drag into sand, but I keep on flapping in distrust and disbelief as my limp, lanky, utterly frozen, hung, hanging, not dead body emerges from the icy Pacific, once and for all.
GIRL FINALLY GOT BAPTIZED.
Catching breath, catching breath, catching breath. Chest heaving. Where is Alyssa? Where is Andrew?The fact that we couldn’t even be concerned with his whereabouts when we emerged from the water shows exactly how fogged we were...still mentally trapped in the haze of the waves.
We run and hungrily snatch out towels and cocoon ourselves, while still shocked and shaking. I see Andrew bobbing, finally closer to shore and felt the potential tragedy of everything so deeply in that moment. This was my stupid idea. I run into the water and reach out to him with a towel. He takes it, but doesn’t say a single word.
We walk to our distant spot on the rocks, where Alyssa is still sitting and reading. It’s finally apparent that no one saw or took notice of anything that had just happened but ourselves. How is that even possible?
I lay my body belly-down on top of a slab of rock. Like road kill that you’ve just treaded your tires over. Or like a gingerbread cookie that you’ve just flattened out with a rolling pin. I just lay there, breathing deep breaths into the rock.
Minutes go by in total silence.
We all start making eyes at each other, as if we all starting feeling a bit more human again. We slowly break into smiles and start laughing. What else is there to do at that point? We accept the fate of what nearly just happened and I have been vigorously thinking about it ever since this day.
My chest hurts for the next two days when I breathe. A humble reminder. Sea water runs from our nostrils every time we hang our heads low. That was also a humble reminder. Later, I made paper survivor medals clipped from an old Nat Geo, and strung them onto silver yarn. Those serve as a reminder; I refuse to take mine off of my neck for the next few days.
We chat quickly with our Patagonia friends who came down later to say hi. They met in East Asia. He is from Santa Cruz and she is from Canada. They had no idea of our struggle. After we calmed down, I hastily snap photos - thoughtlessly as if I was on autopilot. I have to remember, I say to myself.
I immediately make Andrew and Alyssa sign my advice book, and we all sit on the rocks as we slowly come down from all the adrenaline spikes and surges.
The rush doesn’t fully go down for the next two days or so, and I constantly feel afloat.
We drop Andrew off at the bus stop and say our quick, sheepish goodbyes. Kristen, Alyssa, and I go for a hike at Wilder Ranch after casually proceeding to get Fro Yo, as if nothing remotely remarkable had happened that day.
I feel so awkward all day long, my head still swimming in deep, clouded thoughts. Kristen and I go to a coffee shop that is unkempt, mismatchy, and only takes cash. I meet Daniel and we share stories. I photograph him, and he also signs my advice book.
Kristen and I meet Marley and Gregoria at the pier. We ride the Fireball, and I really just want to vomit at that point.