Monday, May 18, 2009

Up a Tree

This was me a couple of weeks ago. You can’t tell from the photo, but I’m thirty feet up in the air, and I’m about to walk across this log to another tree.

Bear in mind that my natural habitat involves couches, novels, and central heating. At any given time, I have at least one knee or shoulder bruised from slamming into doorjambs and/or table legs. In my entire life, I’ve never been able to cross a log without falling off, and yes, this includes logs lying flat on the ground. Crossing one thirty feet up in the air on a cold Sunday afternoon is an act completely foreign to my inclinations, my sensibilities, and my talents (ie, anything requiring physical prowness and a sense of balance.) The number of people in this world who can induce me to do such a thing are few indeed.

Among those few, however, are my fabulous co-workers. So when it was announced that our annual staff retreat would involve a “challenge course” in the woods, I took a leap of faith. If anybody could make this fun, I thought, surely they could.

I was right. Little did I know, though, that the leap of faith would be literal.

First, though, the Camp Tillikum staff divided the forty of us into smaller groups, then led us into the woods to learn about teamwork and problem-solving. My group’s first challenge: move ourselves along a series of four small wooden platforms, using only two boards, neither of which was long enough to reach between any of the platforms. If a board touched the ground, we’d lose it. If any body part touched the ground, the person to whom it belonged would be penalized with a handicap.

We lost one of the boards in the first five minutes. Then Rob’s foot accidentally hit the dirt, and his penalty was having to negotiate the rest of the course blindfolded. But we did it! Here are the eleven of us on the last platform, about a millisecond before we all fell off.

Our challenge course leader told us we made it look too easy. And we were having too much fun, to boot. “My job is teaching people how to work together,” he complained. “You guys aren’t giving me anything to do.”

We’re a veterinary hospital, we told him. This is what we do all day long: solve problems as a team. As far as having too much fun, well, that’s the fault of the guy in the red jacket. He’s Dr. Don McCoy, boss of the whole dang outfit, and he has a couple of key philosophies:

1. Hire the best people and then get out of their way
2. If it’s not fun, why do it?

Dr. McCoy is also a believer in pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. So when, after lunch, we were led back out into the woods for the grand finale of tree-climbing, he was the first one in the safety harness scrambling up the pine. Then, one by one, the rest of us gave it a go.

...Climbing (that was the easy part.)
I’m not normally afraid of heights, but I’ll tell you—thirty feet in the air looks skyscraper-tall when you’re standing on a narrow, curving log with nothing but empty air below. Some of my co-workers strolled across that thing as if they were in the park on a sunny day, but me? Ha! After only five or six steps, I knew there was no chance I'd get across on my own two feet. So—bolstered by shouts of encouragement from my colleagues below—I reverted to quadruped form. Hey—if it works, it works.

But simply getting across wasn’t the end of the challenge. Leap of faith, remember? We were supposed to jump off the end of the log—yeah, that’s right—and grab a trapeze bar suspended about five feet away. So far, every else had fallen short (literally.) A few had been too nervous to try. I figured, I’ve come this far…and I thought maybe I could reach it, if I really jumped hard.

But I was terrified. My mind knew I wore a safety harness and that my team had firm hold of the ropes. I knew nothing would happen to me. But no amount of higher reasoning could quiet the racing heart, the shaking, the absolute gut-level conviction that I was about to plunge to my…well, if not death, then at least a whole lot of unpleasantness.

“You’ve got me, right?” I called down to my co-workers. Classic stalling tactic.

“We’ve got you!” they called back. “You’re doing great! Go for it!” Ten voices shouting with such sincerity and enthusiasm that even my gut believed them.

So I jumped.

And my fingertips brushed the bar.

And I fell. A second of sheer terror, and then the ropes caught me. Thirty seconds later, I had sweet, solid earth beneath my feet.

It took half an hour before I stopped shaking. Some folks have experiences like this, and they say, I couldn’t wait to go back up again! I knew I could do it even better the second time!
This was my thought process: I did it, yay, thank God THAT’s over. Is there any potato salad left?

But mostly, I was enormously grateful to my co-workers. Their support made all the difference. I’m incredibly lucky to work with people who are not only the best at what they do, but who are committed—every day, not just at a Sunday staff retreat—to pulling together as a team to get the job done right. Who look out for each other and care about each other. And who never let an opportunity for a good joke pass them by, because—as the bossman says—“If it’s not fun, why do it?”

Here’s to you guys, and to an outrageously fun staff retreat. And here's a suggestion for next year. I vote we push our comfort zones at sea level. Maybe even indoors. Surely, if we can just put our minds to it, we can come up with a challenge involving coffee. And doughnuts. And comfy couches. Don't you think?



Anonymous Walter said...

Great Post! I really enjoyed it. Sounds a bit like you started with a handicap :-)
And marvelous pictures! Wow!

4:27 PM  
Anonymous Walter, again, said...

Oh, and I must comment on the difference between bravery and courage. Bravery is facing danger without fear, courage is facing danger despite fear. You clearly are a courageous person (Irregardless of the couch), and this speaks far better about your character than those of your teammates who were brave and walked straight across. Although it may be laudable to be brave, it is not difficult, but it is hard as hell to show courage, as you found out. My God that jump must have been hard! Good for you, Chris!!!

4:51 PM  
Blogger Melissa Marsh said...

That sounds like an awesome retreat! I am not an outdoors girl, so I would have felt the exact same way as you!

6:54 AM  
Blogger lkmadigan said...


I suddenly appreciate my company that much more for avoiding those kinds of team-building activities.

But yay, you!


3:39 PM  
Anonymous Gabi said...

I was just curious, have you ever thought about writting a book about horse racing? There aren't many horsey YA books out there.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Christine Fletcher said...

Thanks, Walter! I was surprised how scared I really was--jumping off a tree isn't THAT big a deal. Eye-opening for me.

Melissa, yeah, I'm a total indoor girl, so this was a really different experience!

Lisa, the funny thing was that we really don't need team-building exercises; we all get along really well. But most of the staff wanted a more active retreat than we usually have, so voila: tree climbing! :)

Gabi, I haven't thought about writing a book about horse racing (although I LOVED the Black Stallion books when I was a kid!) It's a subject with a lot of drama and suspense, though, so maybe someday...

4:46 PM  
Blogger Laini Taylor said...

Wow, that sounds like so much fun! I've always wanted to do one of those outdoor courses, and zip lines, and maybe some tall tree-climbing camp; I read a great book a year or so ago about redwood botanists in the early 90s and how they pioneered this whole new style of canopy climbing for their research; I think it was called The Wild Trees -- and they were Oregonians, too :-)

Glad you came away unharmed, and proud of you for taking the leap!

2:27 AM  
Anonymous Sally Nemeth said...

I'd have LOVED that retreat. I'll climb anything and throw myself off of it...but maybe not blindfolded.

10:41 AM  
Anonymous Lisa Nowak said...

I know what you mean about your brain understanding that nothing can happen to you but your body being terrified. Good for you, following through with it in spite of your fear. I can sympathize. I hate heights. I hope you got that potato salad. :)

8:15 PM  
Blogger Christine Fletcher said...

Laini, this is the organization that puts together the challenge courses in the Portland area:

Sally, you leap...while I cheer you on from the sidelines! ;)

Thanks, Lisa! The funny thing is I'm not afraid of heights...or I didn't think I was. Maybe I'm afraid of logs.

9:10 AM  

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