Call John Kockelman half-right. Fear of heights is primitive. But conquering that fear - through, say, 180-foot leaps of faith from abandoned bridges at the end of an industrial-strength rubber band - doesn't necessarily equal genetic transcendence, however much of it might scramble your DNA and any other loosely anchored body parts. It does, though, throw a kink into Darwinism: It's not the kind of behavior one would associate with the survival instinct. In fact, in the animal kingdom, nothing so much resembles the daredevil's bungee jump as the swan song of the lemming, which, sadly, lacks the technology to write about the adventure.
But as long as humankind retains the capacity for boredom and the imagination to invent ever more dangerous pastimes to escape it, thrill seekers will continue to flirt with disaster in the name of recreation. And writers, who as a rule will do anything short of a day job for $100 and expenses, will tag along.
The idea of the bungee jump seems to have originated with the "land divers" of the New Hebrides. Young men would shimmy to the top of 80-foot towers, bundled vines tied tightly around their ankles, and leap in ceremonies that had more to do with initiation and less to do with elasticity than the modern version. Sometime in the 1960s, a group of presumably unpopular students at Oxford University read about the land divers, modernized the technology and began calling themselves the Dangerous Sports Club. A trend was born.
It was an illegal trend, but when's the last time the law kept anyone from jumping off a bridge? The bungee jumper's favorite launching pad, the gorge-spanning mountain bridge, more often than not belonged to humorless persons wholly uninterested in assuming liability for death-flaunting kooks, and for years the sport was practiced surreptitiously-in the early morning hours or under cover of night. Adrenaline-charged leapers were arrested on the rebound.
But no more. Inventive entrepreneurs, recognizing the money to be made by commercializing the sport, bought cranes, hot air balloons, anything private you could fall from, and started charging weekend daredevils anywhere from $75 to $100 for a shot at a suicide rush without the eternal consequences. Usually. The operators of Bungee Masters, a Portland company, acquired a bridge in southern Washington and went into business. I paid $99 for two jumps and went to see them.
The woman who took my reservation at Bungee Masters, perhaps accustomed to lame last-minute excuses, had made it clear that the jump would take place rain or shine. So when I woke up that Saturday with an oppressive drizzle trailing down my window, I had no choice but to get dressed and trek into Washington to redeem the deposit check I'd mailed. I was being accompanied by nine friends; one second-time jumper, another first-timer like myself and two carloads of camcorder-toting well-wishers who must have known, somewhere beneath their darkest fantasies, that a successful jump wouldn't be worth watching.
We piled into our cars and caravanned up I-5 to a nondescript exit, where we stopped for an ill-advised indulgence in Big Red sodas and convenience store egg rolls before proceeding up a twisting mountain road in search of the "Black Gate" that marked the bridge turnoff. Stiff-butted from an hour and a half in a cramped import with four might-be mourners, I was met by a black Chevy Blazer. This was the first checkpoint. We gave our names, had them checked off a list and were handed a two-page legal document requiring one signature and something like 18 set of initials.
Standing in the rain at the back of the Blazer, I asked the woman in charge, "So, basically this says that whatever happens to me on that bridge out there, you take absolutely no responsibility for any of it, right?"
"Uh, well, yeah, that's pretty much the gist of it."
I had more questions but wasn't sure I wanted to hear the answers, so I signed, pocketed the two jump tickets and drove the 50 yards to the jump site.
The bridge, a one-lane concrete affair perched in forested mountains, spans a thin blue and white line of river below. The leftmost edge is unprotected catwalk without so much as a hint of railing. Anyone with the urge to skip the mechanical formalities of bungee jumping is free to step right off and take a whitewater ride to hell, or wherever. I had a byline riding on this day; I steered clear. On the right was a waist-high yellow steel railing lined with those who would jump, those who had jumped and those peculiar hybrids of morbidity and voyeuristic exaltation, the watchers. Clamped to the railing was a small, blue steel platform with a standing surface of about 2 square feet. As I approached the railing to check out the apparatus, a short, overweight man flung his tubby self out into the abyss with the shameless shriek of someone suddenly afraid to die.
Throughout the next hour and a half, shivering and huddling in the freezing rain, I had the opportunity to watch another two dozen crazies, including two of my friends, inflict the same terrorizing ordeal upon themselves. They stepped into groin harnesses, squeezed into helmets, attached themselves to a bundled cable of bungee cords, clambered over the railing, endured a crowd-chanted countdown - three, two, one - then stepped, swan dived, Nestea plunged or otherwise removed themselves from the bridge. Some screamed when they jumped, some screamed as they fell and some screamed when the cord jerked them skyward. Others maintained a stoic, spooky silence throughout. But all, reassuringly, snapped back.
The fact of the matter is, bungee jumping, when supervised by an outfit with experience and the proper equipment, is relatively safe. Bungee Masters uses a combination of two body harnesses and a bundle of four bungee cores to break the fall. The bungees, the proprietors are quick to point out, were manufactured for the purpose of dropping tanks from helicopters and are rated to break only under 1,500 pounds of pressure. That's 6,000 pounds of support. If you weigh more than a tank, they wryly recommend, don't jump.
There have been very few reported deaths from the sport, most of them, for some reason, in France. With the increasing legalization of the endeavor, fly-by-night jump companies have been replaced by more conscientious practitioners who rely on two or three levels of equipment redundancy. Weight-distributing double harnesses have taken the place of the ankle knot, and, consequently, once common complaints of broken facial blood vessels and ear ringing have decreased.
None of which make the actual leap any more soothing. As it turned out, I was the last jumper of the day. Dusk was falling, and as I climbed over the railing to test my mettle I could just barely discern something that I hadn't noticed before: the rusting green hulk of twisted automotive metal that lay below on the riverbank. As the countdown began, the camcorders were poised, waiting, almost begging, for some last-minute drama. Three-two-one and I went. I had been told to keep my feet together, to jump straight out with my back arched and my eyes on the horizon. The idea being that I would swan dive out into space and gravity would slowly rotate my body so that when I reached the end of my rope I would be belly-up to the bridge, suspended from the unentagled umbilical of the bungee. Don't, I was told, grab for the bungee cord, or you'll rip the skin off your hands on the way down.
I still have my palms, but aside from that I have no idea which rules I followed and which I broke because when you leave that bridge, you leave all hope of motor control. It's impossible to jump with grace because your feet invariably resist the strange command your brain has given them. And instinct does not take kindly to being overridden with such violence. Your body panics, flailing for something to hold onto, and you crash through an exhilarating descent that, at three seconds, is uncomfortably long. Then the cord catches you, snaps you into an entirely unnatural floating upward arc to the other side of the bridge, then down again, then up and, finally, to a dangling rest.
A rope was lowered, and I attached it to the harness ring at my abdomen. An electric winch wound my limp body back up to bridge level. I kept my eyes closed during the ascent.
"Beautiful form! Perfect arc! Just right! How did it feel?"
"Great, good; it was good. . ."
"How do you want to go this time?"
This time? Oh, hell. Two jumps. Ninety-nine bucks for two jumps. I closed my eyes, decided to give those camcorders one last shot at the evening news and fell off the damned bridge again.