I couldn’t stop thinking about the guy who climbed to the top of Pennybacker Bridge and jumped off into Lake Austin. And not from the road bridge. He jumped from the TOP of the arch. He told the news reporter he did it for the “follows and likes.” Injuries: Brain bleed. Skull fracture. Surgery. Thinking about his jump while I crossed the pedestrian walkway under the colossal, chocolate-rusted beams of the 360 bridge kept my eyes front and center. I walked straight ahead like I was walking across a high-wire, criss-crossing my feet like a ballerina. No balance bar, just my hiking stick clenched inside of my sweat-dripping fist. SUVs and commuters sped up behind me and rushed by, blowing my bangs out of my chongo across my face, the tires pelting the concrete lines like whip lashes.
I have a love/hate relationship with heights. I love the views, but I hate thinking about how high up I am. Like my sister said to me one time about flying, “I just don’t think something this heavy should be up this high.” That always made me laugh. The beauty of the views distracted me, though. They really did. A wake boat passed beneath us, unzipping the water with a gentle wake, and the golden hour’s slush of clouds blushed above with purples and pinks. My wife peeked over the edge on her tippy-toes...and I tippy-toed right by her.
Now you’ve got two choices when you come to this well-known scenic spot. But which one? Most rush for the West Cliff. The Overlook. It never gets old. No matter how many times you go. Whether it was twenty five years ago, for me, when I was in college, or last year during the throes of a pandemic, you feel like Lewis & Clark when you set your foot on top of the rock surveying Lake Austin cutting through the canyon. And then there’s the East Cliff, and we had never been. It’s the same hill, just dynamited many years ago so we could build our highway and drive our 50,000 cars a day on a level path. Loop 360 is a smooth, sweeping highway with red and white radio towers on top of bluffs whose lights blink endlessly above the rolling hills and through the night.
This evening, we parked by the boat ramp so we could cross the bridge by foot and explore the East Cliff. Once we crossed, I was calmed by the fragrance of a tall sycamore tree, its leaves young and evergreen, with white on the other side, dazzling the eye like bracelets in a play of light. We stopped to read the memorial plaque for the engineer who designed the bridge: Mr. Percy Pennybacker, Jr., from Palestine, Texas. He was a World War I veteran, UT graduate, and one of the first diabetics in the U.S. to be treated with insulin. The marker also mentioned his mother, Anna, a prominent suffragette in her time. Stories. They’re everywhere. Just everywhere. And as a writer, this stuff is like throwing coals into the fire of my locomotive mind. I took a glance over at the West Cliff and the three people at the top. I knew they were enjoying the views, the wind in their hair, and the exhilaration of being at the top, like some ram pressing out his chest on a high rock standing above all of creation. I paused to think about the 18 year-old girl who fell from the top there in 2019, a day after Christmas. The story goes she was at the top with her puppy, when the puppy slipped off the edge. She went after it and tumbled down, plowing through the trees at the bottom. She was moved by a rope down to the water’s edge by rescue teams so she could be transported by rescue boat to be airlifted out. This tough, tough girl who went after her puppy, survived. In her own words, she said she broke her spine in 3 places and had surgery to implant 10 screws, 2 rods, and a metal plate in her foot. Her puppy walked away unharmed.
We started climbing the blasted path of rock that led straight up to the top, and I thought to myself, this side is definitely less traveled than the other side. The rock on the West Cliff is covered with a fine, white, pulverized dust, from so much foot traffic. The rocks over there are like powdered donuts. When it’s busy, just follow the white cloud snaking up to the top. So we started up, but as usual, my wife found an offshoot. We never turn down an offshoot. And I’m glad we didn’t. On this path, we were able to round the cliff from the backside, and climb up to the overlook gradually, passing one view after the other. Like a gallery. On the way up, we passed some hikers who were a little unsure of the way out and we pointed them in the right direction. We then came into a small clearing, the trees thinning out for lack of soil, and gazed into the canyon and the lapping lakeshore below us. I was mesmerized a bit, and didn’t notice the teenage couple laying on a blanket just below us on a ledge. I was so happy for them, seeing them reclined, at ease, before all of this beauty, just as they should be. I apologized for disturbing their space. I asked the young man how they were doing, and he said, calmly, “We’re blessed.” I was taken aback and refreshed by his gracious response, uncommon (for me) for young men of his age.
We climbed ahead and found another clearing. The ashe junipers formed what was like a picture frame around the vista of the Pennybacker Bridge and I stood there, standing on the bluff, the hills dark with trees, and the lake below us faintly shining from last light but still dark as lead. We climbed down and followed a path down to a second ledge. We put on our headlamps. This ledge will fool you into thinking it’s close to the ground. It is not. I hugged that cliff wall like a lizard all the way to a hidden precipice. We stood there, mesmerized again, by the passing lights over the bridge. Boats headed for the docks. The breeze brushed over us like rippled waves, and cooled our skin. I wanted to hike more, but I realized I wasn’t here for the miles. Sometimes, I’m just here for the view.