The road we took to the coast could’ve been taken from a post-apocalyptic film set. Overgrown and derelict, foliage spilled over the two-lane pavement so much that palm leaves scraped both sides of Taylor’s truck. Abandoned refrigerators, car shells and miscellaneous trash littered the roadside, engulfed by weeds and low brush. It should’ve been the clearest red flag of our whole trip, but being in the company of a rescue swimmer who’d just spent the week telling me stories of bodies ripped to pieces by coral—Japanese tourists slipping on the reef and local Chamorros jumping off cliffs into ravenous ocean currents—I felt comforted by the seclusion of the road, as if its abandonment suggested that we were driving toward some isolated cove, a sheltered pool where the coral formed a protective wall so that the current couldn’t sweep us off to sea. But after an improvised hike through jungle thickets, we emerged at a clearing that promised nothing of the sort.
Before us was a coastline of rocky cliffs that stretched to the horizon. The coastline plummeted to a deep and violent surf, and swells rushed against the cliff face, slamming the exposed wall in a spray of mist that shot up to our feet.
“Hmmm,” said Taylor. It was difficult to read his expression, though I could tell he was eyeing the swells. Still, I knew enough from our talks and my own experiences to know that the violence below was anything but favorable. The coral ring was pressed right up against the cliff face on this part of the island. Froth gave way to azure to a stark and violet hue. The colors were mesmerizing.
“At least the scenery’s nice,” I said.
Taylor took off his shirt.
Taylor had a tendency to joke about making rash decisions. He began moving toward the cliff wall. “What are you doing?” I said.
“Well,” he shrugged. “We came all this way.”
I was still laughing when Taylor started to inspect the surf below. He was searching for a place to jump. “Taylor,” I called. My laughter had simmered out. “You can’t.”
“We’ll just have to time it,” he said.
Taylor was moving toward a ledge where the coast cut in and then out. Below him, the surf was a surging roar. “It’ll be fine,” he said.
I felt something between wonder and despair at the sight of him teetering on that pointed ledge. He studied the swells, counting the rhythm in his head between the larger and lesser waves, while I stood twenty feet back watching. All I could see, though, were the body parts from his stories: the daughter of a local Chamorro whose face had been torn off by coral, the sharks that inevitably came.
The cliff he aimed to jump off dropped fifty feet to an impenetrable rush of blue, but all of the water was funneling to where the cliff cut inward. Incoming swells surged into a crevice where the coral had eroded completely. Swells filled the corner almost half the height of the cliff before rushing out to crash against oncoming waves or, worse, add to their size. All of this was happening directly beneath Taylor’s feet: a choppy slice of death that could thrash a human body around like a dingy in a hurricane. So, Taylor explained, the plan was to jump out past the death trap. There was a pool there that went dark blue just before the coral on the opposite cliff face. That was our route of escape. A coral shelf leading to a cliff wall being rammed by swells. It sat like a platform across from where we would jump. Swells rolled easily over its sea-level surface to spray the cliff we would have to climb. When the waves receded from the coral, it was like an overcharged infinity fountain. The entire swell, hundreds of gallons of water, spilled back into the ocean at a weight and velocity that could pull even the most embedded swimmer out and under the violent blue of the surf.
I couldn’t find a single, non-suicidal reason to jump. Taylor, meanwhile, was adamant. “You just have to jump past the current to avoid getting swept into that crack,” he said. “But don’t jump too far. If you jump too far, you’ll hit the shelf.”
So we had an ocean crevice (i.e. the trap of death), our own cliff’s face, and the coral shelf, creating a three-sided border opening up to our fourth (and somehow least concerning) threat: the open ocean. “We’ll have to time the swells,” said Taylor, “so you jump when the ocean is the least rough.”
I wasn’t listening. Taylor had perched himself on the edge of a cliff, ready to jump into a pool of water bordered on all sides by forces of imminent death, and he was trying to coach me into following. “If you watch the waves,” he said, “you can see how they’re really rough for a while, and then they mellow out a bit.”
I’d been watching the waves for at least five minutes. I hadn’t seen them mellow out at all. “Here it comes!” he called, pointing to the swells rolling in. “Watch!”
And he jumped.
Taylor disappeared into a heaving swell. Another rolled over him before his head surfaced, and when it did what amazed me most was his composure. After resurfacing, he wiped the water from his face, glanced around to gather his bearings, and only then did he begin swimming out to sea. The idea was to ride a swell into the coral, rather than approach it from the side. A swell washed over him just as he approached the shelf, but Taylor planted his feet and arms like a four-pronged anchor, bracing himself before it could roll back over him. Afterward, he popped straight up and trotted forward with plenty of time to start climbing the cliff.
I felt humbled, silly even, for having doubted him. Taylor was back at my side in minutes, laughing and challenging me to do the same. While I’d jumped off cliffs in Greece and Italy—waterfalls in Mexico and bridges in Colorado—I have no real defense for why I succumbed. It was as likely as anything my irrationally competitive nature. I didn’t really want to do “better” than Taylor. I had been faster in high school, but Taylor had gone on to become a rescue swimmer in the Navy. And yet I couldn’t back down. I had my pride, of course. But the deciding factor, I’d like to think, was that if anybody could jump in and save my life without risking theirs, it was Taylor: a certified and experienced rescue swimmer in the Navy. So I went to the ledge that Taylor had jumped from, and listened.
“Once you come up,” he was saying, “you’ll want to swim outward. Don’t go straight for the shelf, because you’ll get sucked in to that wedge over there.”
I had to look with the gorge of death in the foreground, so when it was time to start timing the swells, I refused to watch the water crashing in. This was, according to Taylor, the most telling area to judge the intensity of incoming swells. “Just tell me when,” I said, looking out at the rolling blue.
So he did. “Jump,” said Taylor. “Jump now!”
There’s a funny sensation that accompanies falling from that kind of height. You feel your stomach rise into your throat, catching your breath midair, and then you still have time to think, I’m still falling.
My feet slapped the water, and in the first second I could feel the current curling around my legs. Chilling hands wrapped around my ankles, pulling me toward the ghosts in the fissure. Later, Taylor would admit that he’d mistimed the swells—that I jumped right when a swell reflected back—but in that moment, I couldn’t tell if I’d jumped into the ocean or a black hole. I kicked. I kicked hard. My head surfaced in a whirlwind of arms and legs and I drew breath into the vacuum of my lungs. I’d been an all-American swimmer in high school, but after years out of the water I must’ve looked like a drowning child. Some corner of my mind was still practical enough to swim out to sea rather than straight for the coral shelf, but my timing was off, the swells too high.
I felt myself thrashed between waves. With each one came a rush of water slamming against my face so that it was all I could do to not drown above water. My body tumbled over the waves like I were on some broken rollercoaster, and when finally I turned to swim toward the platform a swell slammed me against the coral so hard that I had the conscious thought that this was it. I would die.
Water washed over my head, pressing me into the shelf. Then the surge slowed. I could lift my head and breathe. It was like jumping off a trampoline, that moment in the air when you stop ascending but aren’t yet falling: you’re just hovering in the stillness. A moment of clarity struck, and my mind told my body to move! But I was so dazed, so disoriented from being tossed like a ragdoll, that I didn’t even have time to brace myself for the reflection.
That’s when the water came back.
It’s hard to describe what a hundred gallons of water rushing over you feels like. Imagine clinging to the edge of a waterfall, with the weight of a river shoving you into the rocks below. I can’t now imagine the weight of a water bottle without feeling the ocean’s pull. It was the weight of a filled-to-the-brim camelback—a gallon of water at the grocery store—multiplied by a hundred. I clung to that shelf like Mufasa, digging my fingernails into the coral and scrambling for a foothold, a knee hold, anything to leverage my body against the grip of the sea. Then, right as I could feel my own hands giving, my fingernails breaking against the rock, it lessened. The swell was gone. My lungs could breath.
There was a split second before the next wave rushed in. I dove forward like a sprinter off the blocks, springing for the back of the shelf to the cheering cries of Taylor. He was perched on the cliff edge, jumping and hollering and ready to dive in after me. He was yelling like I’d just scored a game winning touchdown, but it was all I could do to keep my knees from giving out. My heart was pounding so hard that my whole body shook. I even had to stop a few feet above the surf, taking deep breaths to calm myself down. My hands were shaking so bad that I worried I might fall back into the surf.
“You did it!” Taylor said. He was shouting and I could hear relief mixed in with the laughter. “You made it!” He grabbed my hand at the top and hoisted me up with a single pull. I rolled onto my back, panting. “Holy shit,” Taylor said again. “That was intense!”
Taylor was taking pulls from his vaporizer as he waited for me to catch my breath. His own breathing was steady and slow. He’d been jumping out of helicopters for the past several years on a regular basis and likely viewed the whole thing as “a good rush,” so when I could finally sit up straight he helped me onto my feet and led me to the cliff’s edge. Together we peered at the cavern that should’ve shredded my body like meat in a grinder. It occurred to me then—after feeling the very real tug of the current, and almost being swept out to sea—how unlikely a spot this was for Taylor and his group of rescue swimmers to go cliff jumping. With their first-hand witnessing of what happened to tourists who came to places like this, a deliberate cliff-jump here seemed like taunting death. Then I remembered the countless times that Taylor had said he wanted me to “experience the island,” to get a feel for the undertow of Guam. After nearly drowning, I wasn’t so confident about the limitations he was willing to set on that experience, or whether he’d meant it literally. So I asked him, “How many times have you jumped from here?”
Taylor hesitated. He was looking out to where bone dust settled on coral, where ghosts waited for the next careless tourist or adrenaline junky to join their ranks.
“Never,” he said, grinding his foot into the rock. “People die here all the time.”
I didn’t notice my fingernails, then. I didn’t even notice them on my climb up the cliff, when my hands left blood in crevices on the rock. It wasn’t until our hike back that Taylor pointed out they were bleeding. The nail on my pointer finger, I discovered, was gone. Another was mangled and would come off in pieces over the next few days. But the third had been bent backwards. There was all sorts of rock and dirt underneath, which I had to clean out before pushing the thing back into place. It fell off 3 days later.
It’s hard to say the whole thing wasn’t worth it, though. Digging fingernails into coral might not have been the smartest attempt at leverage, but even with the injury I didn’t blame Taylor or regret the jump. The last time I’d even come close to a “near-death” experience was years ago on a year-long roadtrip around the United States. I don’t believe that proximity to death lends any kind of mystical understanding—my life has never flashed before my eyes, the mind being too filled with a desperate compulsion to survive—but after climbing that cliff, I had a moment of reconciliation. My physical self resurfaced: that animalistic base whose presence, after three years of studying a PhD in Scotland, came as a surprising relief. And while my body shook uncontrollably, it was liberating to realize how helpless I was, how infinitesimally small and, ultimately, given to the whims of a force beyond my control.
I would fly back to Scotland the next day, so we spent the night riding the wave that follows such encounters. I promised to incorporate the interviews I conducted into my short story collection, and Taylor decided to write a book based on his experiences in Guam. We'd reached the bottom of a Patron bottle and the future was swelling ahead of us like a rogue swell. Taylor was going to run for congress. I was going to publish my book and help him with his. We were going to work together. We were going to instill change. Then Taylor told me about his plans to sail around South America, his dream to tame Cape Horn: the 'Everest' of sailing. “I want you to come with me,” he said, tequila gleam in his eye.
This was a year ago, and immediately after Taylor almost sent me plummeting to my death. I realize now that our cliff jumping had been a kind of test; that my whole week in Guam had been an accidental trial run of what was to come: exploring, traveling, and exposing the darker corners of the world. But I was so alive from the thrill of it, from the potential for what happened next, that I didn’t even hesitate. “I’m in,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
What he meant was "are you going to back out." I knew even then that with Taylor it was all or nothing. "You're either all in or you're not" was a phrase we'd thrown around half-jokingly all week. But I’d made up my mind already, and it hasn’t changed since.