Climbing up the Golden Gate Bridge on its cable.
– Because it’s there –
I think it was Mallory, the heroic mountaineer of the 1920s who never returned from Mt.Everest to be able to tell that maybe he was really the first one to climb it. He coined the famous answer to the question why he climbed mountains: “because they are there.” I always loved this wonderful answer to this silly question only non-climbers can ask. I loved it and yet I always suspected that it was in fact nothing but an elegant way to completely evade the question. I love it because it transforms this impossible question into something like a beautiful zen-koan: those mysterious contemplative puzzles used in Buddhist practice to unveil the intrinsically hidden insufficiency of the mind. An untrained mind is too biased, too preoccupied to actually understand such koan-questions at first, but in the end, when an answer is found, question and answer shine with clarity, with beauty and elegance. And, of course, the whole process of seeing the answer is the teaching. To answer that we do something because it is possible can expose the unconscious preconception of the asker in a way that can bypass his usual defense mechanisms and unlock his awareness in order to see what actually needs to be understood.
So why do we climb mountains, why do we sometimes undertake supposedly crazy things that can appear so senseless to others? How can actions that essentially only concern ourselves feel uncomfortable, even threatening to others?
I was about 19 when I saw the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco for the first time. I had just escaped high school in Germany and fled the confinement of home and quietly suffered from the disenchantment that finishing school and running away would not really be a ticket to the freedom I had hoped for. I was in America for the very first time, roaming this glorious country in search for adventure. Free from restraint at last, all by myself, free to do whatever I pleased. And yet it was painfully obvious already then: to be able to do what you want is not freedom. Much later – during a wonderful life time – I made the one discovery that blew me away and changed everything: that freedom is in fact a condition in which you are able to not do what you ‘think‘ you want and instead find supreme satisfaction in how things already are. However, all this had gradually to be learned; at that time I was deeply confused about the outlook on life and the world didn’t make much sense to me.
But I was in great shape. I had lived like a bum on almost nothing and crisscrossed the country as if on a mission. Finally completely broke, I’d found a job in S.F. in a place where they built prosthetic devices. I helped building artificial legs for Vietnam veterans and was told to have a special talent to form women’s breast prostheses.
I saw the bridge every day, it mesmerized me. Oh, this heroic gesture to connect, to leap from land to land over ocean. This gigantic and yet so profoundly aesthetical structure, holding up a road across the sea. I walked on the bridge and felt its trembling, its power; I looked down on the raging ocean below and saw huge ships passing through like toys. I followed the cables with my eyes and savored their perfect elegant line. This ideal embodiment of understanding what is and letting be, achieving a purpose that is not reached by continuous effort and power but by calm understanding of how things already are. The wonderful, clear purpose of spanning and holding, the perfect balance of firm strength and resilience. The beauty of noble intention and unpretentious simplicity, no unnecessary effort to express any meaning and yet what a magnificent message.
Was it so strange to have the idea to climb on this bridge? I simply could not resist. At that time I had not climbed many mountains yet, so the concept of climbing with all its metastatic ideas had not yet developed in me. I just wanted to know what it would be like to follow this cable along its perfect curve all the way to the top. I knew it would be steep, it would be airy, there would be a view, I didn’t go to confirm that. I wasn’t interested to see what kind of impressive adjectives would pop up in my mind there in order to describe it. But what would it feel like to be up there? I know that I didn’t ask a question like “why do I do this?” The thinking mind comes up with these opinions, with these demands for justification. And the mind can only refer to what it knows, and that is the past. How can you reach out into the unknown with a mind that only compares to what it knows? How can a mind touch the unknown when it only looks for reference to what it already knows? It rules out that there might not be any reference at all. What is beyond mind? Where does the urge to do these “irrational” things come from, this aspect of us that knows real freedom, that trusts without knowing why?
I know this question now, after a lifetime, I know how it emerges from thinking, from craving and clinging, from craving security and clinging to concepts, and how it loses its power with gradual awakening, how it can never be answered, only be understood. To me it is not: ”why do we do this?” but:” are we aware of doing this?” I wanted to be there, it seemed overwhelmingly obvious to me, not necessarily to my mind.
One day, late in the afternoon, I put on some warm clothes, took a bus to the bridge, and did it. Of course, there were some logistical problems – they just had to be solved, they were not the real thing. It is a little difficult and of course quite illegal to scramble onto the cable in the first place. The only real problem was in fact to get over the barbed wire fence around the area where the cable leaves the road structure and to not get caught, doing it.
It was foggy, as it often is, and a strong wind was howling over the bridge. There is always heavy traffic on the bridge. For a few moments I would be very visible, but people are usually so stressed out when they drive home from work in this traffic that they probably wouldn’t find it hard to simply ignore what they see and mind their own business. It took me less than 20 seconds to execute a few premeditated moves and clear the barrier, jump on the cable, and start climbing out of sight.
The cable is about 2 feet in diameter, and there are two ropes parallel to the cable serving as handrails. Initially it’s not very steep, but the ropes are kind of flimsy and shaky, and the surface of the cable is pretty slippery. Once out of sight in the fog I stopped and caught my breath but then the trip began. The cable was visible for roughly 50 feet ahead and behind, beyond that everything vanished in the fog. I climbed very fast at first, mostly to get out of sight and to get warm, then, with increasing steepness and with deepening awareness of the exposure, I went step by step and paused occasionally. At first some noise from the road still came up from below, but soon there was only the wind and gray featureless nothingness all around me.
“Just one quick decision and it all would be over”. I know such thoughts were there – at the time my thoughts and emotions were in continuous turmoil and life actually seemed strangely frightening to me.
But I was careful with each move I made. Not that this was nerve-wracking or difficult at all, in fact it was easy, efficient, and pleasant. Again later in life I learned much more how it is not attention that drains you but rather the lack of it.
I know I didn’t think much at all, I just perceived with all my senses wide open. It was probably half way up when I felt that the cable was slightly moving, vibrating, and swaying. I stopped, and there may have been a short struggle whether I should return. Was it warmer or was this just my own heat from climbing? One single time I slipped on the wet, steep, and round surface and easily caught myself on the rails.
It got steeper still, and then I thought I saw movement in the gray emptiness above me. Yes, there were slight changes of light moving fast: clouds drifting with the wind. And there was more light above. I moved faster, and soon I was sure the top of the clouds was near. I was puffing and sweating when I finally saw the sky and the tower and the end of the cable, all at the same time. A few more steps and I was bathed in glaring light. “Was this why I did this?” flashed through my mind, “but how could I have ever expected this?” I scrambled onto the platform of the tower, I was totally overwhelmed. The sun was just about to disappear under the blanket of clouds, an ocean of white cotton all around. A few mountaintops peeked out far in the distance, and there was the other tower-tip, barely visible, a blinking light greeting and calling for attention. It was almost warm up there; the wind was not more than a breeze.
I was in heaven, literally. My island in the sky, floating on white cotton – I stayed for hours. The night slowly came, and faint lights began to appear in the distance. Then the clouds gradually dissolved, and the city glowed and sparkled below. The ceaseless stream of traffic deep underneath: like a snake leaping over the ocean. Ships: like ghosts with glowing eyes on the pitch-black sea.
I had to go down again; I was shivering cold and hungry, and – was there fear? Where did that suddenly come from? My wonderful mind, fully in charge again, demanding respect and safety measures.
They finally caught me down on the road deck. No one is allowed on foot on the bridge at night. My English was still truly rudimentary then, so it wasn’t that hard to pretend blissful ignorance. Since they guarded the bridge after dark they were perplexed how I could be there at all in the middle of the night. But they shook their heads and dropped me off. And I went home to my $1 per night hotel.
I made a few attempts in the following weeks to share my experience. Some people were friendly and just politely changed the subject, others rolled their eyes and wouldn’t talk to me anymore. So I left it at that, and I think that was another important lesson: An experience is something beyond words and description. It is the moment itself, it’s here and now. Even the memory of it is only like a translation, a shadow, a picture of it. And far more removed still is the narration, an attempt to share it, to explain it; in fact, the story is itself already another experience.
Whenever I visit the bridge nowadays, I stop and touch it and feel it and wonder whether it has more to say.
Klaus written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010