The young man and the cliff
Written by Christopher Boyce
It was a formidable cliff. Even standing there in the deathless indestructibility of my 18 years, it was a very formidable cliff. It scared me. Standing at its foot gazing upwards, I felt my pulse quicken. I was no climber. Still, this would be my cliff to climb one day, for halfway up its massive face on a ledge perched between heaven and hell was the nesting eyrie of falcons.
I had glassed the pair for most of the day as they flew home a varied fare of magpies, bluebirds and horned larks for their raucous, ravenous, flutter-flying young.
It appeared to be an ancient eyrie. Telltale whitewash underneath it was extensive, inches thick from centuries of use. This white giveaway was visible for miles. When I spotted it, I knew I had found the nesting ledge of these very secretive falcons.
My elation at its discovery was tempered by the vertical dismay of its placement. I consoled myself with the idea that I had a whole year to worry about this descent. I intended to fly a rabbit hawk, not a falcon, that summer. There would be plenty of time to hone my climbing skills – and more importantly, to gather my vertical resolve.
It would be nine years before I again stood at the foot of the cliff. I was alone. In the interim, I had seen death all around me. I had watched it and heard it and stepped in it. Mostly, I had feared it. My life as I had known it had been destroyed by my own folly.
I gazed upwards and my pulse quickened, but not at the incredible height above me. I trembled at what was following behind me. It would never give up. It would never stop searching. It had stalked me from the night I had escaped from the penitentiary. It was patient. It waited only for my mistake.
I had been placed number one on the 10 most-wanted fugitives list, and only dying or capture would stop the hunt. But at that moment, all was silent except for the wind. And I was filled with a profound feeling of triumph. I had beat them. No matter that it must one day end – for now, I was standing free in front of my magnificent cliff.
After a while, I squinted upwards at the whitewashed eyrie. The familiar enormity of the cliff face was comforting and I could see for miles behind me. I was safe here. After an hour of watching, a falcon shot down the cliff face and headed off to the west, intent on its falcon business. Surely, I thought, the progeny of the pair I had seen years before.
This was a good place for falcons. Vast. Undisturbed. They would always be out here, with me or without me. I lingered for a long while, breathing it all in, imprinting it on my mind. I wanted this memory. This bridge to who I had been once. A memory like this could one day keep you alive. I held it for another moment and then fled, northeast into the Cabinet Mountains, where the grizzlies were just emerging from their dens.
And now I am 60. The bloom of youth is off me. It was off me a long, long time ago. The night sweats have ended and people have stopped shooting at me. I’m glad it’s all over. Even my parole officer has faded away. But the cliff remains. For decades after I was recaptured, its memory kept me alive. I woke up most mornings in prison, remembering my cliff. My cliff was a prayer. It was the way home.
Today, for the third time in my life, I have come back to my formidable cliff. I sat this morning beneath its towering face in stillness. Though I am not a navel-gazer, I waited for what would be revealed to me. Nothing was, but that is all part of waiting.
The falcons, though, did appear. Great-grandchildren, no doubt, of the first falcons I saw here a lifetime ago. I glassed them for hours as the male performed his courtship stoops. His mate chup-chup-chupped her approval from the eyrie ledge. And I did, too.
What a show. What an aerial delight. These falcons showed no self-pity, no self-absorption, no self-hatred and no self-directed rage or shame. Perhaps there were some things revealed to me, after all. Falcon things.
I have gathered up my ropes, harnesses, carabiners and rappelling gear. I’ve even practiced for the big event. Soon, my friends will lower my carcass over the formidable cliff. I have waited over 40 years for this adrenalin rush, and I’m going to savor every horrible second of it. May God have mercy on my soul.
Christopher Boyce is the co-author of the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman. Convicted in 1977 of espionage, his story was the basis for the book and movie The Falcon and the Snowman. American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and other online retailers.