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Tourist for a Day: The Gorge

See that billboard? That could be you zip lining

Oh my God!

I couldn’t believe I was standing on a wooden platform 80 feet up in a tree with four strangers, my wife and a guide — eye-level with woodpeckers and hawks — with the expectation that I would step off into the nothingness, glide through the upper branches to another tree while dangling from a wire and actually enjoy the experience!

I had thought long and hard before agreeing to zip line at The Gorge in Saluda.

I had seen the billboards on the interstate. I had read a couple of articles about it and looked online at the pretty pictures of blue skies, green mountains and smiling faces. All of the testimonies said it was a great and wonderful experience.

Exhilarating! Breathtaking! Awesome!

But as a man past his prime, I was hard pressed to try zip lining for the first time. I’m not a fan of heights, and my athletic prowess is confined to meditative dog walks on paved roads.

And people actually pay nearly $100 for the privilege of being scared to death?

The online pitch read…

THE GORGE – AMERICA’S STEEPEST AND FASTEST ZIPLINE CANOPY TOUR, OFFERS A THRILLING TREE-BASED AERIAL ADVENTURE IN SALUDA, NC. BEGIN YOUR EXPERIENCE PERCHED ON THE RIM OF THE GREEN RIVER GORGE AND PLUNGE INTO UNTOUCHED WILDERNESS. DESCEND AN UNPRECEDENTED 1,100 VERTICAL FEET IN ELEVATION ZIPPING FROM TREE-TOP TO TREE-TOP ON 11 ZIPLINES, TRAVERSING A SKY-BRIDGE, AND DESCENDING 3 HUGE RAPPELS, ALL THROUGH STUNNING OLD GROWTH FOREST, OVERLOOKING 18,000 ACRES OF PROTECTED GREEN RIVER GAMELANDS.

Wow! Sounds fun, if you’re an adrenaline junkie.

The short soaring videos were synced to upbeat and contemporary music, and narrated by confident young voices. I read it all and was impressed, in a virtual sort of way.

Watching a scenic website video from the safety of my cellphone, I was slowly building my confidence. It took a while, but eventually, it was game on…

From the very beginning, The Gorge as a facility (166 Honey Bee Drive, Saluda) was impressive. Lots of wood, decks and railings: like being in a giant high-tech treehouse with cool views of the mountains, spacious seating, glass walls, branded souvenirs and snacks and beer.

The three-hour long zip line tours are scheduled and staggered, so people are seemingly always in some state of prep, if only watching and gathering their courage. The staff was helpful, reassuring and nonchalant.

Even though I knew I was within the weight limitations of 70 to 250 pounds, they weighed me and everyone else. I met the suggested minimum age recommendation of 10, and there was no age limit.

“Reasonable good physical condition?” I was not sure I could pull myself hand-over-hand, upside down, and backwards along a cable, but if the folks I saw coming back from their trip were any indication of how strong I needed to be, I was OK. And I wasn’t pregnant.

I was deemed fit to fly.

I signed the waiver of liability, and there I was, being fitted for a safety harness, straps galore, really thick work gloves and a crash helmet. No one else in our little group had ever zip lined before, either.

We were all nervous, some more than others.

“Ah, excuse me, what about this strap, where does it go? Is this helmet on right? Can I have another pair of gloves that are thicker? Should I go to bathroom now that I’ve got all this gear on?”

The nice young people who were getting us ready were informative and patient. They had a spiel and a process, and I had the sweats.

First things first: a quick group class, mostly about how to get into position to launch and how to arrive gracefully at the next platform.

Once you step off that platform, there’s not much you can do but hold on, and even if you don’t hold on, about the worst thing that can happen to you is the public embarrassment of flailing arms and legs and little-girl screams echoing through the valley. The momentum will carry you to the other side pretty much no matter what.

Dignity aside, they take safety seriously, and you are always tethered to something.

And if you need a helping hand on the other side, the two guides are well trained, and in constant two-way communications: one to launch you; one to catch you.

The first to go was one of the guides.

She made it look so easy. With a smile on her face and the wave of a gloved hand, she slipped effortlessly off the platform and into the wild blue yonder, the sound of her suspension equipment hissing against the cable.

About half across the expanse, she let go of the handles, her arms and legs spread eagle for just a moment as she let out a joyous “wahoo!” In the blink of an eye, she pulled herself back together in time for the hands-free braking system to kick in, turn around upside down and pull herself hand-over-hand to the platform, where she would help those yet to arrive.

“See, nothing to it,” the guide on my side of the wire said. Now, it was our turn. “Who’s first?”

I knew that if I didn’t go first, I might not go at all. I stepped forward, and the guide double checked my straps.

I had been prepped well and knew what to expect, but standing on the edge of the platform, looking at the great beyond, was terrifying. The cable looked so thin, strung from one platform to another, like a spider’s thread stretching from tree to tree.

Below was the Green River Gorge, dense forest, rocks, the ground. And the blue sky, white clouds and sunshine before me seemed to reach out forever.

It was perfectly beautiful, but I was frozen in place, not at all sure I could take that first big step.

The guides were waiting. The other guests were waiting. My wife was waiting.

I stepped…

There’s no getting around it those few seconds were terrifying. But I quickly got over it and wanted to do it again.

And again.

That first time, I actually made it across in one piece and with dignity intact. It does feel a bit gangly at the end of the ride, when you’re trying to remember how to turn around and how to start pulling yourself to the platform. It’s easy to screw up that part, and most people do at some point.

It was probably not until I disembarked onto the second platform that I began to decide if I liked zip lining or not.

Not that I really had a choice at this point. The expectation is that if you start the zip line, you finish the zip line. Scaling down a tree into the forest for any reason is frowned upon.

Like nearly everyone, once I did it, I loved the momentary rush of doing something so unnatural in such a natural environment.

I began to feel secure in the quality and safety of the experience. I could relax a little.

Oddly, foremost in the immediate rush was the desire to do it again — to quickly conquer the fear once and for all and be left with the pure thrill of it all.

From that point on, each guest took that first step toward zip lining at The Gorge. We shared our personal and similar experiences, and were soon cheering for each other. The guides told jokes, relayed odd bits of information about trees and continued to create a sense of adventure and fun.

Having 11 zip lines of different heights, speeds and scenery was just enough. I was basically zip lining down the mountain at speeds up to 40 miles an hour. When you add the 11 zip lines together, they add up to 1.25 miles, which seems impressive.

I will add that getting used to the rappels is not unlike the zip line. Again, you have to take an almost leap of faith in technology and knowhow to step off a platform and trust that harnesses and straps will take you down safety.

It, too, can be an enjoyable experience, once you conquer that fear.

Because I’m local, I can go to The Gorge anytime I want — and so far, I’ve been three times and counting. It’s a great way to challenge yourself, spend the better part of a nice day in the great outdoors, with a few old or new friends.

You don’t have to, but tip the guides. They make the experience so much more enjoyable. •

Steve Wong is a writer living in the peach orchards in Gramling, South Carolina. He can be reached online at Just4Wong@Gmail.com.