We flew across the choppy water. A stiff breeze blew out of the northwest. The air rushed past my face. The boat was going forty in the open water of Lake Champlain. We were hurtling towards the cliffs in the distance, the red hue of the rocks a smudge on the horizon. Scott drove, sunglasses down, hair whipped back, and a huge grin on his sun-swept face. I turned to Tom, “Great day for a jump.”
He smiled back, long hair flapping, blue eyes set on the water. In the front of the boat sat Evan and Robbie. They starred forward. It’s hard not to look ahead and want to feel the air rush past you; to feel like you are flying.
Scott cut the motor and coasted as we came to Red Rocks. The seventy-foot cliff loomed above us. The limestone rocks, true to their name, had a reddish tint of iron. Years of water lapping at the limestone had left straight walls, perfect for jumping. I looked at the others. Scott wore a goofy grin, Tommy’s face was emotionless, Robbie ran his hands through his hair and sighed, and Evan smiled as he glanced up at the seventy-footer. Scott pointed to the bottom of the cliff, near where the water met the rocks, “It’s pretty low this year. Lowest I’ve ever seen it.” There was a clear line of black delineating the high water mark of the summer – five feet above the current water level.
“Let’s do it,” said Evan as he took off his shirt.
“Not to be a buzz kill, but someone’s got to stay with the boat,” Scott said sheepishly. “I mean, I can do it…”
“No it’s cool, I got you man.” Tommy spoke with confidence. He wasn’t worried about any of us thinking he was a wimp. He had jumped off so many things in his life that another jump like this would be routine. “I jumped it last week.”
I stood at the bow, bobbing with the waves, and jumped into the dark blue water. We swam towards the rocks, the four of us: Scott, Evan, Robbie, and myself. We found a spot at the bottom of the cliff where you could pull yourself up and climb a steep path that angled off into some scrubby pines. The path switch-backed up the steep slope until it plateaued at the top. There were already a group of guys hanging out at the top with a cooler of beers. They looked our age, maybe older. They smiled and we made small talk. One guy, a short, stout man in a Red Sox cap and dark blue swim trunks had a cut on his arm above the elbow. Scott pointed and asked “That from today?”
They guy laughed, “Ya, hit a rock when I jumped. Could’ve been worse.”
Scott looked back at us, a mixture of disbelief, amusement, and worry in his eyes.
“Don’t worry,” chimed in one of his friends, “he always has the worst luck. Seems to hit bottom every time we jump. Besides, he’s got a few more pounds than any of you.” He seemed to think his words were encouraging.
“Where’d you guys jump from?” asked Evan.
“Right there, the forty footer.” Said the bloodied friend.
“Right. Well, I’ll jump from over here then.” Scott walked over to the edge of the cliff, a little to the left of where the guy had indicated.
“Got to hope for the best huh?” Robbie said, scratching his head, looking far out towards the wind swept water.
Without warning Scott took two big steps and jumped. He flew up and out for a second, touched the branch of a pine tree that precariously hung out over the cliff, and proceeded to pull a gainer – a back flip facing forward. He fell forty feet, slowly rotating, landing feet first. He emerged from the water, grinning. “Let’s see it you pansies!”
“Dude’s crazy huh?” asked a beer-toting observer.
“Ya, pretty crazy.”
Evan went next. He jumped out, spinning in the air while doing a flip at the same time – a rodeo.
I looked at Robbie, “I think I’m just gonna jump.”
“Me too. It’s tough following those acts. Makes you feel like a real wimp.” Robbie and I laughed.
It was time. I peered out over the precipice, gauging where I would land. I took a quick look over at Robbie; he nodded. One step, two, and then air, all around me. Under my feet the water churned below, pulling me down, but for two beautifully long seconds I was soaring through the air, flying over the waters of Lake Champlain. Then a sharp impact at my feet and the world went black. I felt the water suddenly all around me, and then, surprisingly, the touch of the bottom on my toes. That’s probably not supposed to happen, I thought to myself. I floated up to the surface. There’s something about seeing the light of day after you jump. It is everything you want and need to see in that moment. I began to swim towards the boat. I heard a splash behind me and turned. Robbie bobbed to the surface, a grin stretched from one ear to the other.
“That never gets old!” He laughed and we swam to the boat.
Evan and Scott were already drying off. I pulled myself aboard and took a towel. I looked down at my foot; a small trickle of blood oozed from my big toe. I looked closer – the Zebra Mussels of Lake Champlain had apparently left their mark upon me. Zebra Mussels are an invasive mollusk species that have razor sharp shells. They came to Lake Champlain two decades ago and have since spread at an alarming rate. Apparently the mussels found their way to the waters below Red Rocks.
“I hit bottom.” I stated, still gazing down at my bloodied toe. It looked far worse than it actually was, the water from the rest of my body causing the blood to dilute and run across my foot.
“Gnarly dude. That’s wild. You all right?” Tommy asked, looking cautiously down at my foot.
“Ya, it’s fine.” I dried off the blood with my towel to reveal the tiny scrape.
“Oh, ya that’s nothing you big baby,” said Scott.
We laughed. Tommy turned the key. The engine roared to life. Tommy put the throttle down and we were off, chasing the setting summer sun.
The problem with Red Rocks is that everybody knows about it – Vermonters, UVM students, even out-of-staters. Thrill seekers have frequented the red cliffs of Lake Champlain for years, and over time, the place has become somewhat of a mythical spot for adventure seekers. Not that this is necessarily a problem, but I decided, somehow, that I was searching for something more. I didn’t know for certain what “more” meant – a bigger cliff? An exotic location? A dangerous jump? What I did know for certain was that I had an itch to jump again, so when my friend Evan asked if I wanted to go to the marble quarry one day in early autumn, I literally jumped at the opportunity.
The sign read “No Trespassing” in faded black lettering. It hung from an old piece of rope that blocked the path. I didn’t take much stock in the rope or the sign for that matter. Never had really. Neither did Evan apparently – he lifted up the rope and ducked under, continuing on down the path lined with golden rod and tall grass. I followed close behind. “No Trespassing” signs protect many of Vermont’s woods, rivers and natural wonders, and if you were to heed every sign that warned of legal action you wouldn’t see much of the state.
As we walked the worn path, a wall of trees rose before us. The path tucked its way behind an ash, its silver bark marking the way. Behind the trees lay the quarry, a glimmering pool of paradise set into the Vermont landscape.
On this early September day the water lay still as we emerged from the woods and walked a path of crushed white stone to the edge of a cliff. The water was bathed in a golden glow of late afternoon sun that warmed my neck. The air was clear and had a subtle sharpness to it – a reminder that fall would soon come. As I looked over the edge of the twenty-foot cliff I surveyed the quarry. It looked like an ad from one of those Caribbean travel magazines. If I closed my eyes then opened them and just focused on the water I could have been standing on the beach at a resort in Jamaica. At the deepest point in the middle of the quarry the water is more a dark blue than black, and spreading from that point in the center the water turns exotic shades of blue and green until the white walls of marble rise up, connecting water with sky.
Vermont is full of marble quarries – some are old and forgotten, others remain in use. The white rock serves as a geological reminder of what once was – an inland sea that covered western Vermont. The shells of ancient creatures had collected on the sea floor and over time these calcium deposits were subducted under the Earth’s crust and subjected to intense heat and pressure. Vermont’s marble deposits are what remain of this geological process that occurred over millions of years. The calcium carbonate found in the marble reacts with the water to create the brilliant turquoise color. Though beautiful, the water is devoid of any life. The chemical process that makes the water so beautiful to the human eye also makes the water too acidic for any aquatic life.
Luckily the water is not too acidic to swim in. With one quick glance over the edge, I took my faded gray tee off, threw it on top of my sandals, and jumped. The silent swoosh of the air as I fell was interrupted by the crashing of feet and body meeting water. I rose to the surface. Evan jumped and surfaced next to me. We treaded water and stared out over the calm scene, enchanted by the Caribbean colors.
“Want to try the big one?” Evan asked, pointing up to a white wall of marble on the opposite side of the quarry. “It’s a fifty-footer.”
“Why not?” I could think of a number of reasons why I wouldn’t jump from that height. At the same time, the height of the rock and the appeal of flying from it into the air tugged at my being, or at my underdeveloped frontal lobe. Regardless of the exact reason, I was determined to jump.
We swam to the far side of the quarry, working our way slowly through the crystal clear water that shimmered with flecks of light. Evan reached the rocks first, and proceeded to rock climb his way up a twenty-foot marble wall. There were sufficient handholds and the wall sloped slightly so that it did not stand completely perpendicular to the water, making it easier to climb. I clambered up and over the white rock. At the top, Evan led me over to a gap in a grove of ash trees and we began to climb up a steep embankment. There was a worn footpath, which reassured me. It’s nice to know that someone else has done this before. We emerged from the trees into a clearing that looked out over the quarry. The quarry is shaped like an upper case Q – fittingly. On the southern shore lies a rocky white beach of crushed marble, but everywhere else the water is surrounded by cliffs. Some stand ten feet tall, others fifty. We happened to be standing on the fifty-footer – lucky for us.
I passed Evan and went to the edge to look down. The bright blue water winked back at me from below. It was intoxicating; the height, the water, the thrill of just thinking about jumping. Evan joined me at the edge.
“It’s plenty deep so don’t worry about hitting bottom.” I believed him; he had jumped this cliff before. Evan pointed. “Look how clear it is. What, you think that’s sixty, seventy feet deep?”
“No idea. Looks good to me though.”
“In one of my geography classes we visited a working quarry. The same company that mined this one owns it. A geologist there said that the company purposely cuts the rock on a slant inward, so when it fills with water you can’t hit one of the steps in the rock if you jump. Smart huh, avoids lawsuits.” Evan chuckled.
“That’s nice of them.”
We fell silent, gazing down at the water.
“Well, I guess it’s about that time?” I smiled and looked at Evan.
“You going to go first?” He asked.
“Sure, get it over with, you know?” I was beginning to get a little nervous. There’s a feeling you get when you know you are really about to jump. It’s one thing to get to the top of the cliff and shoot the shit for a while with your friends, but once you get it in your mind that you are actually going to hurl yourself off a fifty-foot slab of rock, well, you start to get some jitters. At least I do. My legs get a little stiff and weak and my shoulders tense up. I take shorter, quicker breaths. All the while I try to act cool, calm. I visualize the jump – hitting the water straight on, arms tucked at my sides, knees bent slightly in order to absorb some of the shock. If you mess up and land on your side off a thirty-footer it will hurt. Your skin will sting and you might get a small bruise. It doesn’t feel good, but it’s sure better than landing wrong off a fifty-footer. You mess that up, you could be coughing up blood for a few days. At least that’s what kids say around school, and I didn’t want to find out.
I took one last glance over the edge. I set my feet. I took a deep breath – and jumped. Flying through the air, the sun and sky and water and glint of light all a beautiful blur. Complete silence, until, suddenly, a muffled thud and rush of water and darkness. Then relief, floating up to the surface, more and more light, until finally my eyes open and I can see the quarry.
“Haha how was it?” Evan yelled down.
“The best.” I was being honest. Flying through the air, nothing but sky all around, is a feeling that stays with you, nourishes you, and keeps you coming back for more.
It was a crisp fall day. I imagined the cool breeze blowing through my hair and the smell of wood fires mingling with the afternoon sun. I, unfortunately, was stuck in lecture. We were discussing democratization in the Middle East, or was it Southeast Asia? I drifted in and out, half-listening to the drone of the professor going on-and-on about some dictator and jotting down the occasional note from the power point presentation projected onto the board. My eyes kept fluttering over to the window in the left corner of the room. The world outside was where I wanted to be. A crisp fall day is like kissing your longtime crush – you wait for it and wait for it and then when it finally happens it is even better than you had hoped for. Today was a kiss from above and I could not wait for the clock to hit one. I kept thinking of all the swimming holes I could explore. And then there was The Quarry. Peter, one of my Professors, sent me a lead earlier in the day about a new quarry jump to explore. Apparently there are some huge cliffs there. Eighty-footers. There is one catch though. This quarry is on private property and apparently the guy who owns it, a sculptor who works in metal, chases trespassers away with guns. The guy sounds crazy, so of course I want to meet him.
Dennis stood in front of Thomas Jefferson. He ran a calloused hand through his thinning blond hair and sighed. “I’ve been commissioned to fix him up. He’s all rusted and broken. I’ll have him as good as new.” He paused, and laughed, “It might take me a long time though.” Dennis was talking about Jefferson, a metal sculpture of human proportions. When Dennis spoke in his calming voice, his eyes fixed on a point somewhere on the sculpture, but you got the impression he was looking off into an undiscovered world, one in which Jefferson was shinny and new again.
Dennis was the “crazy” owner of the quarry. I had called him up and asked if I could come over and meet with him. He had said yes. I had alluded to the fact that I was interested in jumping the cliffs at his quarry. He didn’t like the sound of that – he had muttered something about signing some papers and getting approval from the college. I figured I might as well go over and meet the guy. If I didn’t jump, at least it would make for a good story – so I drove out to New Haven.
Dennis turned from the sculpture and asked, “So you want to see the quarry?”
“Ya, that would be great.” I smiled, trying to contain my excitement.
We began to walk the leaf-strewn path out to the quarry. Dennis strolled a step ahead, leading the way. His leather work-boots crushed the dry leaves on the path. As we went, he asked what I was studying at school.
“Political science, huh? What exactly is that?” He asked.
“That’s a great question, I’ve been less and less sure of that as the time has passed.”
Dennis chuckled to himself. We came around a bend in the path and there stood the quarry. The jagged edges of gray rock rose up, in some places eighty feet, out of the dark blue water. A light breeze brushed ripples across the surface, painting a Monet out of the reflection of trees and rock.
“You have any idea what you want to do when you graduate?” Dennis asked as he pulled over a blue Adirondack chair. He motioned for me to sit, and then pulled up another and plopped himself down with a content sigh.
“No, not really to be honest.”
“That’s ok.” Dennis did not offer any further comment; he just sat there and looked out at the quarry. He smiled to himself. His wrinkled face was lit on one side by the late afternoon sun, streaming through the newly bare birch trees. His blue eyes were glassy as he sat there, silent, taking in the autumn day. He seemed content, but in a weary way; as if the years of cold Vermont winters had left him with a tiredness he could not shake but an even greater appreciation for times like these, spent sitting and watching the world. He let out a deep breath and turned toward me.
“So, you got any questions for me?”
His bluntness caught me off guard. “Well, uh, ya.” I paused and collected myself. “I guess I was wondering about the history of the quarry. How it got to be here. How you got to be here.”
Dennis sat still for a moment. “Where to begin,” he muttered to himself. He tilted his head slightly up and closed his eyes tight. He slowly opened them.
“It all started way back when I got out of college. I was going to be rich you know.” He laughed at this. “Start my own business and everything. I came to Vermont for a conference and put one foot in the state and knew I was home.”
Dennis weaved a story of hippies, love, love lost, and personal journey into thirty-minutes. At times he would pause, stopping to think for a while. I sat silent, enthralled. At other times he would let out a full-bodied laugh, which echoed around the rock walls of the quarry. Dennis loved the act of telling stories – you could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice. There were gaps in the story and sometimes in the logic of the events, but more than anything the narrative was entertaining. It was a folk tale of a young man settling down and trying to turn his dreams into a reality. Eventually Dennis fell silent.
For a few minutes we both sat looking out at the quarry, watching the leaves from the trees float down to rest gently upon the dark blue surface. There was a calmness to the experience I could not pinpoint. Whether it was being privy to such a personal and detailed account of Dennis’s life, or because we were both Vermonters and therefore relished these moments of silence, or whether it was simply my surroundings – the quarry, the fall air, the warm glow of the sun on my right cheek – regardless of the reason, I felt full, content, at home.
Dennis stirred in the chair next to me. “I think it’s about time I get back to work,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Yes, of course.” I blinked twice, coming back to the world which was ruled by concepts of time and work, rather than that of myth and memory. “Well, thank you so much for meeting with me and sharing your story.”
Dennis rose from the chair and took one last glance at the quarry. We walked back to the house, shaking hands in the driveway.
“I figure I might as well share my story, you know, I’m here for a reason.” Dennis smiled.
I returned the smile. We were back in the driveway. I was pulling my keys out of my pocket and decided to just go for it – I couldn’t have left without asking; “So, um, Dennis…Do you think I could come back one day and maybe jump the cliffs in the quarry? You know, for fun?”
Dennis looked at me for a long second. His eyes flickered with the hint of a smile but his face remained unreadable. “Well you would have to sign some papers. And I would want you to have someone from the college with you. Maybe that professor of yours.” He paused and looked over my shoulder, off in the direction of the quarry. “If you do those things, I can see letting you jump.”
“Really?” My surprise got the best of me. I quickly backtracked. “I mean that is great. Yes, I will certainly bring someone from the college and sign anything you want. I would love to jump. From your stories it sounds like an amazing experience.”
“Just don’t die on me. That’s all I ask.” Dennis chuckled to himself.
I laughed. “I’ll call you to set up a day to come over and jump.”
“You know where to find me.”
“Well, thanks again. Have a good one.” I got in the car. I smiled to myself as I pulled out of the driveway. It appeared that my dream of jumping the big cliff might become a reality.
I called Dennis the next day. I set up a time to jump. The only problem was that the time we agreed to was in a week. He was busy with work and I was busy with school. My restless feet couldn’t wait that long, so on a sunny Saturday afternoon I went up to the Middlebury Gorge with some friends to find more cliffs. This was a warm-up for the big one.
We pulled over and parked on the side of the road. Robbie and Scott pulled up and parked behind us. Evan and I got out of the car and grabbed our towels from the back seat before locking up. We walked over to Robbie and Scott and began planning which way to explore the river – to follow it up into the gorge or down into the valley.
We decided to go up the river into the mountains. We walked through the woods until we got to the river’s edge, then descended into the channel. Hopping over rocks and wading through pools we made our way up the river.
The Middlebury River winds its way down from the Green Mountains – through forests, around rocks, and over waterfalls. In the spring, during the snowmelt, it churns with a vicious ferocity; a frothy, cold, mass of water. Now, in the fall season, the river is gentle, yet in some places it flows fast and deep. Rivers like the Middlebury River cut down the sides of the Green Mountains throughout the state of Vermont. Many were formed millions of years ago by glaciers and their melt. The glaciers first flattened the Green Mountains, which, some geologists estimate, once stood as tall as the Himalayas. Not only did the mountains get flattened, but in some places the glaciers gouged deep depression into the earth. When the glaciers began to melt at the end of the Ice Age, the water churned down these low-lying areas, creating rivers. The best cliffs for jumping in the Greens are where the force of glacial melt carved deep holes into the bedrock, leaving large pools of water behind. Other great swimming holes exist where the force of water over thousands of years has eroded weaker layers in the metamorphic bedrock, leaving behind cliffs of schist and quartzite from which to jump. The Middlebury Gorge is an example of the latter – large cliffs of metamorphic bedrock stand on either side of the river. The jaggedness of the gorge’s cliffs tells a story of a river that has sought out and found weaker layers of rock in its journey from the tops of the Greens down to the valley floor.
On our trek up the gorge we kept our eyes peeled for good cliffs with enough water below to make for a safe jump. Finding cliffs was not the hard part –they were everywhere, rising, in some places, over a hundred feet above the river. There were, however, hardly any pools deep enough for a safe jump. We kept on up the river, until finally, after about an hour of cold river crossings and crawling over boulders, we found a decent looking cliff.
It was a ten-footer on the left side of the river. If you wanted to, you could jump from higher, but the water didn’t look extremely deep. Evan suggested we test the water depth by wading into the river. It was the safe thing to do, the smart thing to do. The only problem was that the water was freezing. If I was going to go in I wanted to jump in, not slowly wade in.
Nobody wanted to volunteer to test the water depth. So I volunteered to jump first. If it was not deep enough I would find out the hard way. I took my shirt and sandals off and left them by an evergreen tree that hung over the water. I climbed up a natural ramp of dirt and pine needles at the side of the river until I stood at the top of the small cliff. Looking down into the water I squinted, trying to find any sign of a giant rock or the bottom. The water flowed by below, dark and mysterious. Evan, Scott, and Robbie were behind me, waiting for me to go.
“You’ll be fine,” Scott said encouragingly. He laughed. “Can I have your car though if you don’t make it?”
I knew from looking at the water below that the pool was deep enough to jump into without the risk of serious injury. The rush of the water over the years had worn smooth the boulders on the bottom. Cutting my feet was not a worry. It was the unknown – not being able to see exactly what lay beneath the surface – that’s what stole my breath from me.
I took one step back from the edge, collected myself, and then stepped forward again. I jumped. I slapped the water, landing with my arms out to slow my entry. First there was coldness, and then there was the somewhat expected yet unwanted feeling of my feet hitting the bottom. Luckily most of my downward momentum had been stopped, so that when I did hit the rocks on the riverbed, it did not hurt.
I popped up to the surface and let out a shout.
“Oh man, you OK dude?” Evan peered over the edge from above. His eyes were wide.
“Ya” I laughed. “It’s just freezing.”
“Oh.” Evan looked relieved. “Did you hit bottom though?”
“Ya, but it wasn’t bad. It’s deep enough. Just make sure you land with your hands out to slow you.”
Evan jumped, then Scott and Robbie. They all hit bottom, but nobody got hurt. The water was invigorating; the cold stung your body with a sharpness that made your blood pulse and your heart race. Scott joked about doing the jump again, but this time from higher up. We laughed. One jump was good enough for today. After some time spent lounging on a big boulder in the warm sun we decided to head back to the cars. As we weaved our way through the trees on the river bank, sunlight streaming down in slivers onto the soft brown forest floor, I thought about the next time I would jump. It would be the quarry. Dennis’s quarry. The big one.
I woke up the day of the jump and realized I was thoroughly unprepared. I had class in the morning, and afterwards I had to scramble to find my swimsuit, a towel, and my camera. Also, I had let my friend borrow my car the day earlier and he had somehow managed to park it far from my apartment. Logistics are not really my thing. I was so excited for the jump the night before, and now, the morning of the jump, I was stressed, running around to try and get everything together. I was supposed to meet John, my co-conspirator in this jumping feat, at noon.
Dennis’s one caveat to jumping his quarry was that I have a college “official” there with me. I wasn’t sure whom I could convince from the college to watch me jump off a cliff.
The last person I would have guessed to help and encourage such a non-academic activity was the squash coach at the college. Squash is a game known for being infused with wealth and tradition. But John Illig is not your typical squash coach. He is not your typical forty-five year old for that matter. Hearing from one of my professors about the jump, John volunteered to not just come and watch but to throw himself off the cliff with me. The guy is an absolute dude. From my professor I found out that John lives in a cabin up in the foothills of the Green Mountains. The only way to get to his cabin is by crossing a river in a tram – a zip line of sorts. He has hiked the three major North-South trails in the continental United States: the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. He lives for adventure.
As I sped down country roads on my way to meet John, I wondered what he would be like in person. I had heard so much about him in the past couple of days from my professor, Peter. I was excited to meet him.
I pulled into a parking space on Main Street and hopped out of the car. I was running a few minutes late, so I walked briskly towards the Bristol bakery. As I went, I heard my phone ringing in my pocket. I didn’t recognize the number, so I picked it up, thinking it may be John. I was nearing the bakery at this point and could see a man outside talking on his cell phone.
“Hi Zach, I just wanted to make sure you knew where the bakery was. I realized I didn’t give you directions.”
“No, that’s OK,” I said. “I know where it is. Actually, I think I see you now.”
John looked up, waved at me, and hung up the cell phone.
“John Illig. Nice to meet you.” John extended his hand with a warm smile.
I took it and gave him a hefty shake. “Zach Dayno,” I said. “Great to meet you. Thanks so much for agreeing to go jump with me. I really appreciate it.”
“Let me go get my wife Lolly. She’s in the bookstore over there. She wanted to come along for the jump too!” John’s eyes sparkled with excitement. I could tell he had been waiting for the jump with eager anticipation.
The three of us stood in Dennis’s driveway. We had driven the short distance from Bristol over to Dennis’s house in New Haven. Lolly and John waited behind me as I went over to tell Dennis we were here. He was bent over Thomas Jefferson’s left foot with a welding torch in one hand.
“Dennis” I shouted over the roar of the flame.
Dennis stood up and set down the torch before turning around to face us. He smiled. I introduced him to John and Lolly and then we began to walk up to the quarry. John, in his friendly tone, began firing questions at Dennis about the quarry and the property. Dennis loved the questions – he answered each one with a smile and then was quiet, waiting patiently for the next one. I walked behind the three of them, taking it all in.
We soon came out to the quarry.
“Wow!” John looked wide-eyed at the water and cliffs that rose up all around.
Lolly let out a gasp. “Oh, this is amazing!”
“It’s my favorite place in the world.” Dennis said with a wry smile.
Dennis repeated what he had done the last time I was there – he pulled up Adirondack chairs and motioned for us to sit. There were only three chairs, so John remained standing, bouncing back and forth on his feet as we talked. Everyone was relaxed and talked freely.
John, after a few minutes, opened a bag he had carried in with him and took out a green bandana. He tied it tight around his balding head.
“So, can I do a warm up jump?” He looked first at Dennis and then at me, raising his eyebrows.
“Go for it. Just be careful,” said Dennis.
“Where do I jump from?”
“Over there. The thirty footer.” Dennis pointed.
John took off his brown Carhart sweatshirt and handed it to Lolly, then unzipped his wind pants. In just his bathing suit and sneakers he took off into the woods, headed for the cliff Dennis had indicated. When he got to the edge, John announced in a voice that boomed out across the water that he was going to do a back flip. He took a minute to visualize what he wanted to do, then stepped up to the edge, turned, and floated a back flip as he fell thirty feet. He landed perfectly. ‘That’s some warm-up’ I thought to myself.
John swam to shore, every other stroke exclaiming how fun the jump was or commenting on the freezing cold temperature of the water.
Dennis chuckled to himself, “I remember when I could do that.” He smiled, and looked out across the quarry.
“So Dennis, can we go and do the big one now?” I asked as a formality. He had said yes during my last visit.
“Well, I don’t think so.”
I was confused. “What?”
“I don’t want you to. It’s too dangerous and if you get hurt I’ll have the school suing my ass faster than I can blink. I just can’t afford that now.” Dennis continued to look out across the water.
“But Dennis, you said I could jump if I had someone from the college here with me. That’s why John is here. And we can sign any type of release form you want us to.”
“Not today. I just worry that you’ll get hurt. Last summer one of my son’s friends got really hurt. I just don’t want that.” Dennis seemed unmoved by the disappointment in my voice.
John joined in, “I’m here as an official of the college and I promise if I sign anything you won’t get sued.”
“Not today guys, I just can’t have anyone getting hurt here.”
I didn’t know what to do. I had been looking forward to this for a whole week. I had been excited, nervous, ready. I stared at the side of Dennis’s face with an incredulous look. Dennis kept looking out at the water.
John seemed to realize what was going on and had accepted the fact that we were not going to jump the big one today. “Can we keep jumping the thirty footer?’
“Oh, ya sure. You can jump from that all day.” Dennis smiled at John. Then he looked concerned and added, “I’m sorry, I hope you understand.”
“Yes. Of course, I totally get it,” said John.
I understood but I didn’t want to. I wanted to jump. I wanted to jump the big cliff, the eighty-footer. I was disappointed, even a little angry. But maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe this was a funny way of some larger force telling me that today was just not the right day to jump the cliff. Maybe the right day will come, maybe it will not.
After John and I jumped off the thirty-footer, we threw our sweatshirts back on and headed inside with Dennis. My teeth were chattering from the cold shock of the water. When I had landed in the water, it took several seconds before the cold had seeped into my body, but when it did, it took a hold of me with a force that made my bones shudder. At the same time, the coldness was invigorating.
Dennis invited us into his home to warm up. Inside, on the bottom floor, was his studio; a hodge-podge of tools and scrap metal and sculptures. Upstairs was the kitchen, dining room, and bedrooms. The house glowed with an artists touch. The ceiling was painted in a golden mural. Paintings hung from the wall. Metal and ceramic sculptures stood in the corners and on shelves. Exotic hats and costumes from around the world lay draped over railings. Creative relics lay throughout the room – paying homage to the imagination and the patience of working with ones own hands.
Dennis made Irish Coffees for us all, taking great care in the creation of the beverages. He heated each of the glass mugs and then coated the rim with cane sugar. He whipped cream into a froth and added it to the top of the steaming concoctions, along with some foreign spice. With a smile he told us to take one and head into the living room.
What ensued in the living room was fascinating. Dennis first explained to Lolly and John how he came to meet me. He then dove into his life story, only parts of which I had heard in our first meeting. Dennis explained how he went out to California after college and opened an art studio with one of his friends in San Francisco. After some wild times on the West Coast he decided to come east to try and start a company with his friend. He came to Vermont for a conference, met his future wife, and the rest was history. After buying the quarry and surrounding land he built his first house. He got divorced, moved down the driveway, and built a new house – the one we were sitting in.
As Dennis told his story his eyes shone with the passion of a man who had seen many things in his life and thought it crucial to share his experiences with others. He loved telling his story and he loved holding everyone in the room captivated. He swore, was crass, and did not flatter himself. Occasionally he would turn toward me, pause his story, and deliver advice in a prophetical tone.
“Get out there and live. Experience the world. Without experiencing the world you know nothing.” He spoke with conviction.
“Don’t do cushy. You’ve done cushy. Go out into the world and see how people in other countries are living. See how people are struggling with the land. Go light a fire under your ass.” Dennis was serious. You could tell by his voice, his eyes, his energy. Dennis, the Vermonter, who lived off a tiny dirt road in a sleepy country town, was concerned with the direction of humanity. He worried we were losing ourselves, becoming divorced from the very Earth we were born from and that we rely on to survive. I was captivated by what he had to say.
What started as casual coffee turned into a three-hour discussion – on life and following one’s passion. It was not what I had expected the day to be. Instead of being outside and jumping off an eighty-foot cliff, I was sipping coffee and talking about everything from modern art to the origins of humanity.
John and Lolly eventually had to leave. I took this opportunity to get up and go as well. Everyone took their empty glasses to the kitchen and then we went down the stairs and out to the driveway. Thomas Jefferson stood silently under a gray Vermont sky. We walked past him. I shook Dennis’s hand and thanked him for having us.
“Anytime. It was nice having you all over.” He smiled.
I thanked John and Lolly for coming with me. They got in John’s truck and drove off. I got into my car.
I drove the rolling country roads through fields of recently harvested corn. The cut stalks stood solemnly in the ground, unmoved by the breeze. The earth was brown and the sky was grey but I felt alive. My mind wandered back to the conversation with Dennis, John, and Lolly.
“Go out and live. Light a fire under your ass,” these lines stuck with me – rang in my ears. I did not feel the disappointment that came to me earlier in the day when I realized I would not get to jump the big cliff. I felt oddly happy. In a weird way my several months of jumping off cliffs made more sense. I did the jumps because they were fun. I did it for the rush. I did it for the time spent with friends. Maybe I also did it to feel alive.
My car now hummed along Route 7, taking me back to school. I looked up as something in the sky caught my eye. A flock of geese, headed south for the winter, flew side by side in a giant V. They moved and shifted in the sky, to a rhythm known only to their beating wings. I let myself fly with them for a moment, remembering what it felt like to cut through the air with the wind rushing past me and my body free from the contact of the earth. To fly, in any form, is a splendid thing. The geese continued on their way and I went on mine.