The rock jutted out in front of me about five feet into nothing, just air and people like legos on the ground far below. I could make out my father flailing his arms.
“Come down!” he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted. “There’s no clearance!”
My girlfriend stood next to him, silent, hands on her head, staring up at me. Others had gathered, and they were staring up too.
I could hear my heart thudding. There was no way I was going to jump. My practical, law-school-educated, nearly 30-year-old brain would never allow it. Too much risk for virtually zero reward. But then again, there was no practical way to climb down, either.
I felt woozy, my vision skipping like a scratched DVD. For the first time in my life, I had vertigo.
Cliff jumping is the poor man’s bungee jumping. There’s no equipment, no instructor, no release form. Just you, a cliff, 20 to 60 feet of air, and opaque brown water. The world record jump into water is 177 feet, and about 30 people have survived the fall from the 250-foot Golden Gate Bridge — yet cliff jumping from lower heights is still dangerous. Last November, a 19-year-old Cal State Fullerton student surfaced unconscious after a cliff jump in Hermit Falls. He was airlifted out and pronounced dead at the hospital. In 1992, a 29-year-old slipped while cliff jumping in Hill Canyon and fell to his death. While Malibu's Rock Pool, where I was perched a relatively tame 40 feet above the water, has no recorded fatalities, injuries are reported almost weekly.
An hour earlier I’d been drinking a Bloody Mary at the Reel Inn, chewing on a fried shrimp and tapping on my phone for somewhere to hike with my dad, who was visiting L.A. from Chicago. We had driven up the PCH, made a right on Malibu Canyon Road and drove three-quarters of the way through the Santa Monica Mountains. Just past a Hindu Temple, right before Mulholland, was a well-marked turnoff for Malibu Creek State Park. We parked, paid the $12 fee, and hiked about a mile to Rock Pool.
Before seeing it, I could hear it. As we hiked, the sound, like a concert in the distance, grew louder. We came to a jagged quarry filled with people laughing and shouting, a surprising sight in the middle of the woods, like some kind of hidden college football tailgate. Beers and joints were passed. People splayed out on the rocks sunning, peeling sandwiches out of tin foil. Families and friends floated in the green-brown water.
A ring of cliffs populated with jumpers surrounded the pool, which was probably eight to ten feet deep. Jumps from the higher ledges caused cheers, while any hesitation was heckled with cries of, “Jump! Just jump! Do it!” Younger kids cycled through the lower jumps, around 15 to 20 feet, while braver, older guys climbed the higher ones. The tallest jump looked to be about 50 feet high. Only one man, an overweight, purple-shirted Asian in his forties, had the balls to do it. He got the loudest cheers.
My natural instinct is to say yes to the risky thrills I happen upon in my travels, not so much to impress locals but to arrive at a level of respect. "Just give me the beating snake heart already," I think, "so I can eat it and we can get on with the drinking." Or at least that's what I like to think I'm thinking.
So before dwelling too much on what I was doing, I climbed the steep rock barefoot and made my way out onto the cliff. My chosen jump wasn’t the highest, but it was the most hazardous. First, it was blind – the edge of the cliff was too steep to stand on, but not sheer enough to see over. Second, the rock face sloped somewhat outward, a distance the jumper would have to clear.
I remained frozen. Twenty minutes passed, then 30. On the ground, my girlfriend looked increasingly pale and my father was getting hysterical, pacing back and forth, shouting and gesticulating. He had always lacked admiration for my risky behavior: He condemned pleasure-seeking and useless displays of so-called "manhood," and his inability control the current situation was clearly driving him crazy. But from the tree-covered oasis other voices shouted. “Just fucking jump!”
Jump I did.
It was the longest two seconds of my life — falling through the air, then crashing into the deep, dropping hard until I could feel the soft bottom on my feet. I popped out of the water to a round of cheers. My father stomped away. My girlfriend smirked.
For days, I felt disproportionately happy about it, as if I’d made some big achievement, hit some pinnacle to be proud of, not jumped off a stupid 40-foot-cliff like a thousand other people before me, like probably ten others that day.
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But there’s something in the air at Rock Pool. It might not be an expensive thrill, but it is an authentic one. There are no guides or safety harnesses. It’s not an amusement park ride or a skydive. It’s not an actor on a green screen pretending to float through space. At Rock Pool, you’re doing something ancient, something cavemen could do, and probably did. There's a purity to it that more expensive adventures can't touch. Even now, weeks later, I find myself more in control of my anxiety. I worry less about the future. The chasm of failure doesn't seem quite as deep. The edges aren't as terrifying once you've thrown yourself off one.
Los Angeles is the ultimate nanny society — we can’t have a dog in the park or a fire on the beach. No beer on the street or cigarettes within 10 feet of a restaurant. We park between the lines, we pay the meters.
But they can’t control us everywhere. There’s still a place in the woods where you can be free.
Follow the writer on Twitter @Isaco525.