My legs are shaking and I’m fighting to remain upright. I have literally zero control. I didn’t think slacklining — walking suspended on a thin rope between two trees — would be easy, but man, I had no idea it would be this hard.
My jaw is clenched shut, the rope cuts into my feet, and I hold my breath, every muscle in my body rigid. “Unclench, but do not fall,” I think. Do not fall. Do not…
But I fall. Again and again, I fall.
I’m Steve Vasquez and for the past few weeks, I’ve been driving around the country searching for adventures that you can have just an hour or two outside of major U.S. cities. It’s been thrilling, exhausting, and (at the moment where I fall off a slackline for the millionth time) more physically demanding than I was expecting. But it’s also been one of the best trips I’ve ever taken.
Today, I’m headed just outside of Los Angeles to the San Bernardino mountains to learn how to slackline. Slacklining is an age-old hobby that’s just hit the mainstream. Basically, it involves going into nature and tying a chord between two fixed points — then walking from one to the other. Those two points can be trees or boulders or buildings, and you could be suspended a few feet or a few hundred. It just depends on your skill level and how far exactly you want your heart to leap out of your chest. It’s like being a tightrope walker, except that the slackline generally has more give and bounce than a tightrope.
Still, the concept is the same: A person suspended in the air like a superhero, balancing like a bird, and then gliding across what might as well be dental floss with total zen-like concentration and grace. So…. “shouldn’t be too hard,” I think.
With me is slacklining master, Ray Diaz. Ray is fearless. The kind of guy who walks up the face of near-horizontal boulders without breaking his stride. He’s chill in the way most of us can only wish we were. Ice in his veins, and all that.
Nothing seems to phase him. Not even walking on a thin rope over a canyon.
Ray and I leave L.A. early — ditching the congested freeways and oceans of commuters behind for the winding switchbacks that will lead us above the smog line and into the mountains.
Unlike some of the other trips I’ve taken, this one is within a stone’s throw of where I live. That makes it more challenging, in some ways, to turn off that work/city part of me. It feels like less of a vacation than the other adventures, because I know I’ll be heading home after to laundry and dishes and a million other things I’ve been putting off.
I know that after my micro adventure I’ll be back to deadlines and emails and conversations about the minutiae that feels crazy important when you’re in an office. So I find myself a little more distracted in the early going — thinking more about the traffic I’ll face on the way home than the adventure I’m about to embark on. But as we drive past groves of evergreens and the sounds of urban living fade, I begin to grow more peaceful.
The air is crisp and clean, and that distinctive pine scent calms my worries. It’s tranquil living.
It’s so wild to think that this is right near LA. And the further we go, the harder it is to remember why I don’t come up here more often. Living in a city where reality is often a blurred, manipulated concept driven by “the industry,” you can start to get lost. But this feels real. It’s restorative.
After parking, Ray and I start to hike, climbing higher, and moving through the canyons to get to Sphynx rock. This is where Ray is going to high-line. It’s immediately intimidating. I’m not afraid of heights, per se, but I do have a healthy fear of them. Like I’m not usually putting myself in situations where I might plummet to my death. And helping Ray set up his high line, where he’ll walk between two peaks with a 100-foot drop between them, that definitely sparks a healthy fear in me. He has a harness, and so it isn’t any more dangerous than mountain climbing, really. But even setting up, I feel my adrenaline kicking.
After we set the line, Ray takes his walk. It’s intense. Each step is measured, the possibility floating through the air that he’ll slip, but he looks fearlessly calm. Any time he tenses up he just repeats, “relax, relax, relax,” and then you see every muscle loosen, his focus becoming soft and serene.
Ray walks, and I stand — perched on the edge of a cliff, looking out from the peak. I know L.A. is somewhere out there, but from my vantage point, the natural world goes on forever. Mountains and trees stretch as far as the eye can see. “Relax,” I tell myself, and I begin to soak up some of the peace and chill Ray is emitting as he walks a hundred feet above the earth.
It’s inspiring. And now, I am so stoked to try slacklining for myself. At a much lower height, of course.
After Ray safely gets to the other side, and after some mishaps trying to slackline in the desert, we end up in a park for my first attempt. With all the build-up, I’m ready for it. I studied Ray’s approach and I think I have it down. I’m good at most outdoor activities, and so, I think, “how hard could it really be?”
But slacklining is wild. The thing that makes it so hard is that it moves as you go. So as you try to walk, you’re constantly making little micro-adjustments with your body to counterbalance. At the same time, you’re trying to be as calm as possible and hyper-relaxed. So all those worries from your day to day life, you have to let go of them. And clearing your head is way harder than I expected.
Rays says you have to feel the line, trust the line, and let it tell your body what to do. If you’re too tense or stiff, you’ll fall. To balance, you have to realize the world’s going to move underneath you, shift, try to throw you, and accept it. Fighting it is just going to make it worse. It reminds me a lot of surfing in Oregon. When you feel the wave coming, you have to let it take you. Or mountain biking when you realize that you’re going to fall. You’ll get hurt if you tense up, so you have to let yourself fly.
As I slackline, I have to let go of my expectations and operate in the moment. Balancing isn’t about being perfect, but rather letting the imperfections of the moment roll through you. So I fall. And then I get back up and try again. And I keep falling. I mean, man, I keep falling. But each time is a little better than the last.
Balance is an easy concept that takes a lifetime to master. That goes for slacklining and for finding a healthy split between work and play. That’s been the point of my trips this month: To find adventure under our noses, in a place where anyone might participate no matter how busy. I’ve been going on these micro-adventures that are super close to major cities because we can all get out to nature if we try.
This month, I’ve discovered more ways to take the waves as they come, the falls as they happen, and to just ride out the rough roads. And I’m not going to stop here. Adventure is close to all of us, and more balance in our lives totally achievable. You just have to take a few steps into the unknown. Even if your legs are shaking and you’re fighting to remain upright.