There’s a moment of clarity, just before you begin, when you think calmly to yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Then the calm is shattered by sheer terror as you are flung out over the abyss. Now your brain is screaming “WHY AM I DOING THIS?!”
This was my experience with the “Casa del Arbol” in Baños, Ecuador. Sometimes called “the Swing at the End of the World”, this site was made famous by a 2014 photo taken for a National Geographic “Traveler Contest” that caught someone swinging, apparently over empty space, with the Tungurahura volcano picturesquely erupting in the background.
Since then, this sleepy farm at the top of a mountain has become a must-see tourist site in Baños. The rope swing has been replaced with reinforced cables attached to a steel beam instead of a tree branch, a second swing has been added, a new “kiddie” swing pulled a bit back from the edge, a small zipline for kids, and a few other photo op areas. Incredibly, the family that owns the land still only charges $1 to park, and $1 to ride the swing.
Not that any of that mattered to me. I was happy to pay the dollar to enter the park with my son-in-law and two of his kids, but I knew there was no way on God’s gray earth that I was going to get on that swing. I mean, my altimeter app on my iPhone was showing us at just over 9,000 feet. We had just pulled over on the way up to take a look at Baños some 3,000 feet below us. Why would I do something so foolish?
The answers of course, are peer pressure and a child.
I stopped to take a few pictures (and to breathe) on the steeply inclined trail to the entrance, so when I arrived, my granddaughter Elle was already being flung out into space with gay abandon. She’s sixteen, so can be forgiven for believing that she is indestructible.
I dutifully took pictures, and marveled at the bravery (and stupidity) of youth. Although Tungurahura was swaddled in clouds that day, the view of the valley below was mind-numbingly unobstructed.
Next up, 11-year old Charlie climbed the concrete launch ramp. If I expected nervousness, I was disappointed. He seemed even more anxious to taunt Fate than his sister.
I even took the time to video some of this young man’s time on the swing. After all, I wasn’t going anywhere. My feet were staying firmly on the ground.
Notice in the video how gently the helper is pushing him out? Barely a little nudge each time. That all changed when my son-in-law David took his turn. He told me later he also had no intention of leaving the earth, but after his kids did it, he felt shamed into giving it a shot.
Okay, everyone’s done, time to move on, right?
Wrong. The helper and our driver started motioning for me to take a turn. Being sane, I naturally said no. They motioned again, more emphatically, and I again shook my head no.
But my traitor feet had other ideas. As if standing back and watching, I noticed my feet moving forward. I took off the camera and handed it to Elle, and moved inexorably toward the ramp. What the hell?
I think something in me decided I couldn’t be the only one not to do it, and I couldn’t think of a reason why I shouldn’t. Other than the “I’m going to die” one.
In a last gasp of rationality, I heard myself ask the attendant, “Cuánto peso puede llevar?”, hoping I would be over the weight limit. Somehow, I was not encouraged by the answer of “one ton”. Frantically, some part of my brain was trying to remember force vector equations from high school physics. I mean, a force in motion remains in motion, right? I don’t want to remain in motion!
I barely had time to notice that my fat ass did not quite fit easily onto the seat, and that the laughably named “safety strap” hung loosely in front of me, when whoosh! Off I went into the wild (and scary) blue yonder.
There’s an immediate moment of terror. There’s no other word for it. Pure, unadulterated terror, the kind you vaguely remember when you wake up from a nightmare. Swinging out into the sky, with the valley far, far below. A blurred look at the operator and the ramp again, only to shoot out once more as he puts his whole weight into launching you back into space.
It’s odd – I’ve certainly been on swings before, and the whole time your brain is telling you, “relax, it’s just a swing”. Unfortunately, your brain is drowned out by your eyes screaming “Look at this shit! We’re going to die!”.
As William Toles Father drolly observed, “You can get used to hanging, if you hang long enough”. After a few cycles, I began to unclench my butt-cheeks a bit, and while not exactly relax, at least I lost the keen edge of panic and began to actually enjoy the experience.
Or at least I tell myself that. It didn’t help that after a few more swings the operator likes to spin you a bit. While I didn’t scream to stop the ride, I will admit that I have never been so happy to hear the phrase “Uno mas vez!”.
So I feigned reluctance as they gradually stopped my momentum, and somehow managed to walk away without my legs collapsing under me. I will say the next few pictures I took seemed strangely blurred, like the camera was shaking or something. Odd.
Now that it is over, looking back I am glad for the experience. I think everyone should experience a few seconds of good old fashioned terror – nothing like a like existential shock to make you appreciate life!