The Forty Thousand Steps

My ass still hurts.

The Wagner/Keller World Tour continued this weekend, this time with a stop in Newport, Rhode Island.

Newport was founded in the Seventeenth Century by Puritan castaways whose radical principles — namely, the separation of church and state — were later codified in the town’s statutes. An early seaport like Boston, New York, or Charleston, Newport’s industrial growth was frozen after British occupation during the Revolutionary War. Newport became a summer colony for artists like Henry James during the Civil War. It was the during the Gilded Age (the post Civil War era named thusly by Mark Twain after Shakespeare’s “King John,” “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily” — in other words, why paint a flower which is already beautiful?), though, when industrial families like the Kings, Griswolds, and Vanderbilt built the outsized mansions for which the town is known.

Today, there is a three and a half mile National Recreation Trail called the “Cliff Walk” along the eastern shore of town that passes many of these stately old granite wedding cakes. One Saturday morning Abbi and I began our ten-mile training run on the trail. It was a crisp, cool, see-for-miles sort of morning. The sky was cloudless, and deep blue. The ocean was dotted with white sails and multi-colored spinnakers. The sidewalk soon gave way to boulders, and we leapt from one to another, rarely breaking stride. Though I was running blind (I got into town at ten Friday night, and hadn’t even so much as looked at a map), it was a spectacular run past ridiculously beautiful homes (“There’s a lot of money in the world” was my constant — and probably annoying — refrain).

Back home with our hosts Karl and Taryn, I was asked if I’d leapt from The Forty Steps. The steps, leading from the Cliff Walk at the end of Narragansett Avenue to a terrace overlooking the rocks below — are a National Historic Landmark.

“You just have to be sure you time your jump right,” Karl warned.

There was a new item on my To Do list.

Fast forward to Sunday morning. We’ve seen town. We’ve taken in The Newport Jazz Festival. We’ve had a terrific birthday dinner for our pal Lindsay. I wake up. Abbi’s still asleep. I’m thinking three things: New York Times, coffee, and cliff jumping. So I sneak out of bed, and start pulling on my swim trunks…

“Where are you going?”

Moments later, Abbi and I are walking down Narragansett Avenue. The camera is in my hand to document the adventure. I’m sore from Saturday’s run, and maybe a little hung over, but I’m giddy like a five-year-old on Christmas Eve.

The Cliff Walk is teaming with tourists. I make a b-line for the steps, and immediately jump from the terrace to the rocks. I start to climb around to the right when I notice a beautiful patch of green moss next to a small waterfall above the surf.

Next thing I know, my Converse All-Stars are parallel with my sunglasses. I’m going down fast and hard. My right hip and left wrist hit the mossy rock. My sunglasses go askew. My baseball cap flies off. And I begin sliding towards the waves. The cliff is slick. I can’t do anything to arrest my descent. And then — miraculously — I come to a stop mere inches from the water.

“Are you all right?”

I’m not. My legs are covered in brown, wormy slime. My shirt is caked in mud. And it’s not just my ego that’s bruised.

“I’m fine.”

I try to stand, but slip once more and slam into the rocks a second time.

Finally — winded and disoriented — I crab walk my way up the rocks where Abbi pulls me to a dry spot.

Worse case scenario, I would have cracked my skull open and fallen into the waves. Abbi’s strong. She’d have fished me out. More likely, I’d have swum to safety short a camera, baseball cap and sunglasses with little more than some cuts and scrapes. Both were averted.

I lived on top of a hill during my junior year of college. There were two ways up: the street (which was more distance), and The Thousand Steps. Smokey Junglefrog had a song about it. The lyrics weren’t the best (I was nineteen-years-old, for God’s sake), but sitting in the backseat on I-95 last night, shifting my weight to keep off my bruised tailbone, I was reminded of it.

Looking to the future of my faded past
It’s clear to see unconscious me is moving far too fast
Tryin’ to tramp my way across expansive land
I know I could succeed if you’d only lend a hand

“If I could know,” I sang — first song, first album — “The way back home across the water.”

“If I had known, surely I alone…”

“Could walk on water.”

The fall shook me up. It was a dramatic reminder that I’m not in control of every outcome. It was a painful reminder that flesh and bone are weaker than rock and water. And it was a tiimely reminder me that’s it’s great to have a teammate lookin’ out for you. We may not always be able to catch each other when we fall, but at least we can help each another stand up again afterwards.

Still, leaping from the Forty Steps remains on my To Do list.

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