I am not by nature a risk-taker. In general I prefer to play it safe, at least in real life. But even the most cautious people can have their moments of insanity, especially in their teen years.

One summer day I visited Fort Williams with my family. I had spent several of my formative years living almost across the street from Portland Head Light, so the environs around the light were as familiar to me as my own backyard.

That day, a particular headland caught my eye. It jutted out over the beach and into the surf. On one side was a swirl of tide pools, on the other a field of smooth rocks. The narrow neck of the formation curved upward in the middle, then settled into a flat, wide expanse. I was seized with the desire to climb to the end and look out over the waves.

I scrambled on my hands and knees over the rocky spine of the headland, and down the other side. Victory! I walked around, taking in the view, before I started back. I climbed up to the top of that hump of rock, and began to inch my way across. That’s when it struck. Vertigo!

The formation, perhaps 15 or 20 feet high, now appeared to have a drop of at least a hundred feet. Wet rocks on one side, dry rocks on the other.

Which was worse? My legs stuck out over nothingness on either side. I couldn’t get a grip on anything. I was frozen in place in a paralyzing panic, unable to move forward or back, unable to stand.


“Help!” But there was no one in sight. My vision pixelated like a poor television signal, and my stomach dropped out.

“Someone help me!” I cried again. Still no one. I’m going to die, I thought. What a stupid way to die. Why did I have to go out there? I could have enjoyed the ocean just as well from behind the cliff fence.

I felt myself beginning to faint. I have a history of fainting quite easily. Not a good thing to do in my predicament, obviously. I brought myself up short with a stern, internal lecture.

“Listen, fool, no one’s coming to rescue you. Even if someone does see you, they can’t come out there and help. Quit your fainting now before you really do fall. You got yourself into this mess, and you can get yourself out!”

Gathering the tattered remnants of my courage around me, I hitched myself along across those rocks, without looking down, until I had reached the mainland. Oh, the joy!

My husband and I enjoy several visits a year to the park. Every time we walk the trail that loops along the cliffs, I see that giant rock, and remember that long-ago day. Did I ever try to climb out there again? No, once was enough. We all have to take some risks in life. I’ll save mine for something worthwhile.

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