When I began reporting news, I was aiming for the top. I wanted to hit journalistic heights.
Little did I know that meant the roof of Hearst Castle and a sheer cliff in Big Sur.
Journalism is full of hazards beyond our control, such as dropped participles, wacky headlines, strange story editing and photo discs that fail. Rarely are the job’s hazards fatal; nearly all are minor irritants, one step above a bug bite.
A few other risks, however, are in our heads, hearts and the muscle reflexes of our digestive tracts.
Ah yes, acrophobia, a fear of heights. Unfortunately, its triggers are frequently unavoidable, especially as job-required destinations.
I’m not really acrophobic, but no, I’m not fond of being way up there, anywhere, with nothing substantial between me and a painful oblivion but my own reflexes and a lot of air.
I am absolutely unenthused about standing on a glass-bottom ledge over the Grand Canyon, taking a rope swing from Yosemite’s El Capitan or, for that matter, jumping out of a perfectly good airplane with nothing to save me but an overgrown hanky.
Despite that, so far in my journalistic career, I’ve been in the bucket of a cherry picker, sliding/clambering/slipping down various ocean cliffs and hillsides, and high atop Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, for openers.
One time at the latter, I gave sympathy, encouragement and a hand to a true acrophobic, Lynn Scarlett, who was then the U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Interior.
Lynn was determined to see the view from the lighthouse-tower roof but was terrified of heights. I climbed out ahead of her and extended my hand, which she clasped with a death grip during her entire visit. There we were, two height-fearers, way up there surrounded by head-spinningly spectacular beautythe light station, Highway 1, Hearst Ranch and the Pacific, all so very, very far below us.
In another high-flying adventure, I “worked” at Hearst Castle for a day, masquerading as a housekeeper, a gardener, an information docent and an art-restoration specialist.
The latter job would have been a terrifying enough task at ground level. Retouching circa-1480 Spanish art, 16 feet in the air on a high Castle ceiling? My terror went into overdrive.
Tribune photographer David Middlecamp wasn’t any happier than I was about climbing that tall, quivering, wobbly scaffold. But stalwart journalists must prevail, right?
We saw, we sucked it up, we climbed, we didn’t look down. I painted (under the watchful gaze of the real restoration specialist), Dave photographed and, no we didn’t hang around for a visit. We said a quick “thanks,” and hot-footed it back down to solid ground.
But my scariest acrophobic episode was against the face of a Big Sur mountainside.
In 1984, Caltrans had almost finished clearing a massive landslide that had kept Highway 1 closed for 13 months. I was to meet at the top of what was left of the mountain with Gov. George Deukmejian, who was flying in by helicopter, lucky duck.
Caltrans escorted us up the face of the cliff.
How? As crews had carved down through the slide, layer by layer, they also had scooped out a narrow trail that zig-zagged up what eventually would become the front of the mountain.
The trail was barely wide enough to accommodate a small, open Jeep. Just. Wide. Enough.
The driver had obviously done this a bunch of times before, thank goodness. He drove briskly forward on the zigs and backward on the zags. Forward, then backward, then forward again, back and forth all the way up that dauntingly tall cliff.
Have you ever noticed that some Jeeps don’t have doors? So there’s nothing for a passenger to grab onto when she’s purely terrified?
Life flashing before my eyes doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Eventually, we were so high up on the mountain that the monster D-10 Caterpillar earthmovers so far below us at road level appeared to be the size of their Matchbox-toy counterparts.
After the governor’s visit? We had to go back down the way we came up.
Down was worse.
All in all, ‘twas quite a ride. But then, I keep reminding myself, hitting the top always is, right?