My husband and I are paddling along the peaceful Shenandoah River when we come upon it: a thick white rope, knotted and frayed, that hangs down from the uppermost limb of what would be a very tall tree, were the tree not bent forward like a woman stretching out over the water.
At the moment, the rope swing is taut in the clutches of a teenage boy, roosting precariously high on the top rung of a makeshift ladder. The ladder is made of sawed-off sections of 2-by-4, nailed every few feet along the tree's arching back.
Half a dozen teenage boys, gathered on the muddy riverbank, shout encouragement: "C'mon, you big chicken! Jump!"
Suddenly, the boy leaps from his perch. He sails through the air, swinging over the placid water. As he lets go, he stretches out his arms and legs as if to gather the air in a heartfelt embrace. He whoops merrily, and his body breaks the surface of the water with a glorious splash.
The other boys erupt in cheers and scramble over one another to be next.
James and I watch from our canoe. In the aftermath of the boy's triumph, it's almost wordlessly decided between us: We, too, must attempt the rope swing. It beckons us like a youthful temptress, and we cannot say no.
Of course, neither of us is crazy enough to attempt the rope swing in front of a posse of teenage boys. With chiseled muscles, sun-streaked summer hair and peach fuzz mustaches just above their impish grins, the boys form an intimidating audience.
James and I set up camp and pledge to take our turns later that night.
But near dusk, another group -- this time college kids -- arrives to take over the rope swing. We paddle out from our camp to watch. The feat -- climbing up wobbly planks and flinging oneself high above cold, opaque water -- is made all the more audacious by the nuance of darkness, and the obvious fact that the boys are drunk.
"Hey, canoers!" the first jumper shouts from among the branches. "Are y'all ready to call 911?"
"Our cell phone doesn't work!" I respond urgently. I don't want to ruin their good time, but my latent maternal instinct has me genuinely concerned. At the same time, I want to see the guys do it. The more people I witness conquering the rope swing, the easier it will be for me.
The boys manage to go off one by one without injury.
By the time they're moving noisily down the river in their canoes, darkness has fully descended. James and I decide the swing is better left until daylight.
In the morning, James launches the canoe and I walk the short distance from our camp to the swing. The idea is for James to paddle out and take pictures of me as I jump.
I tentatively crawl up the water-worn tree. As I place my foot on the first plank, no more than three feet above the river, it's clear to me that I can't do this.
The tree looks much higher than it did from other vantage points. Stripped of all its bark, the surface appears dangerously, if not lethally, slick.
"I can't do it," I call to James.
He hesitates for a moment before coming back with what I consider a feeble retort, "Sure you can!"
"No, really, I can't!" I try to recall a time when such an endeavor wouldn't have scared me. As children, neighborhood kids and I would hurl ourselves from a 30-foot-high rock ledge, into a deep spot that had been discovered in the otherwise shallow creek. In high school, I used to gallop unruly horses over jump courses. During college, I was a rock climber, for goodness' sake.
But now I'm a grown woman who is terrified of a rope swing. I can't even make it up the ladder.
"I'm not going!" I shout again, shinnying back down the few feet I've ascended.
What has happened to me, I wonder, that I can be so thoroughly daunted? Where has my courage gone? I sit dejectedly on the muddy riverbank as James paddles toward me.
"You can do it," he says. "Look. I'll go first."
I'm somewhat gratified to see that James doesn't exactly scamper fearlessly up the tree. He's shaky, too. His eyes stay riveted to the tree as he slowly works his way up.
At the top, he counts, "One, two, three!" His body sways ever so slightly before he leaps. He swings like a pendulum across the morning fog that rises from the river. James hits the water, disappears under it, and then emerges seconds later, grinning like a kid. I can't help but smile, too.
Suddenly, I remember: It was not wanting the neighborhood boys to know I was terrified that had compelled me to jump from the rocks. As a teenager, it was the hope of proving to my father that I could overcome fear that had enabled me to guide an unpredictable horse over one barrier after another. It was fear of the activity itself that initially attracted me to rock climbing and that later pushed me to excel.
Suddenly, I remember: It's okay to be scared. And also: James will love me whether I go off this swing or not.
James is back in the canoe with his camera when I start up the tree again: one handhold at a time, and one foot placed carefully on each successive plank. Without even realizing it, I'm where I need to be: high above the water, my right leg bent and lodged beneath me, my left leg shaking like a sewing machine needle as I reach for the rope. I fix my hands above a large knot and feel the tension pull me toward the open air.
Nothing has changed in the past several years, I realize. I am just as eager to please and just as willing to prove. The fear is still deep within me, but I am only seconds away from letting go.