Photo on the right by Jessica Peterson
This brunette has wanted short blonde hair for thirteen years, ever since I saw one of my friends unravel curlers from her shoulder-length natural-blonde locks. I’m like that with a lot of things. I can’t describe what I want but I know it when I see it, and that image stuck. I just needed a little nudge, or as life would have it, a sudden jolt, courtesy of a handmade zipline in a small village in Guatemala.
Dan and I spent a weeklong charity trip there with the company he works for. We built a school by day and went on local excursions each evening. We signed up for the zipline — something we had done before in Mexico — along with friends Courtney and his wife, Brittany.
We ascended the course on a rickety rope bridge straight out of an Indiana Jones film, swaying side to side, stepping over missing planks of wood. I began second-guessing our decision and wondering about government-regulation laws for tourist attractions in a village so remote, we were building the local school with non-electrical equipment. No bulldozers or drills, just shovels and hammers. Roads cankered with potholes. So what, I wondered, had they used to build this rope course?
Our guides spoke little English, enough to give us the rules. We each received a thick glove with a strip of leather glued across the palm. To brake, we had to grab the rope above out heads “here” — they pointed behind the cable wheel from which our harnesses hung – but “not here” — they pointed in front of the wheel, gesturing that if we did so, our fingers would get caught between the zip line and moving wheel. And then it would be adios as those fingers gave a final wave while in freefall to the jungle below.
I was the last to go on the zipline in our little group and indulged an imaginary scenario where my husband would receive me at the end platform holding a scorecard with the number 10, picking me up and telling me how great I did. Can’t help it — I’m a Danny’s girl. So I aimed for good form, straightening my legs and crossing my ankles like one is instructed to do on a waterslide. You know, because ziplines are so similar. I’m embarassed to admit I even pointed my toes, a hail back to my dancer days. As I soared through the air, I pretended a zipline assembled with tree sap and chicken crates didn’t scare the crap out of me. We made the first two runs just fine and climbed higher for the third rope.
“No brake,” our guides said, motioning that we should not use our gloves or we wouldn’t make it across the length of this especially long zipline. I watched Court and Brit go first, followed by Dan. Without using the glove to keep them facing straight, each spun round and round as they flew over the jungle canopy. It looked terrifying, especially when Court nearly collided with an overgrown branch from a neighboring tree.
But the only way out of this was through it. I jumped off the ledge and began spinning, slowly at first, then faster as I picked up speed. Screw pointed toes and crossed ankles. I was clutching the harness trying to avoid bashing my skull on that tree branch. I participated in the ritual screaming, not because it was natural but because somehow, that was an indicator of degree of fun being had. And I felt as though I should be having fun, so I faked it. I think roller coasters started this nonsense. And unsatisfied women in the bedroom. So I went squeeeeeeee, twirling on my harness, terrified to even try to brake because when one is rotating through space at high speeds and one second the cable wheel is in front of you, the next, it’s behind, one does not eff with the odds of successfully braking versus losing her fingers.
My hair, which I had been growing out for a year and a half, was piled into a high bun. Two thirds of the way across the rope, when I’d reached maximum speed, it got snagged in the cable wheel. My head jolted to a dead stop but my body swung with the momentum and collided with the zipline. A riiip from my scalp filled my ears.
Honestly, my first thought was to double check that I was still in this realm. My next thought was that I had been scalped. It had happened so fast that I didn’t feel pain along my roots, just a little rawness. Logically, I concluded that the lack of sensation meant that my nerve endings were gone, that my skull was showing.
“Are you okay?” Dan and our friends shouted.
“I don’t know,” I shouted back. I didn’t want to freak him out, plus my bare skull was showing, right?! How embarrassing.
But seriously, I mentally and physically existed in this strange place between trembling at such a high frequency, it’s more like you’re buzzing, and being so alert that you are something close to calm. I just needed to assess what had happened, learn whether or not I needed a doctor. And stitches. And a collection of wigs. But my hair was wrapped up in the wheel and I couldn’t do anything but hang there. I refused to raise my gloved hand to my head, afraid I’d pull it away covered in blood. Something trickled down my cheek.
The guides made their way to me, one coming from each side of the rope. Gently, they dislodged my hair from the wheel. “Am I bleeding?” I asked quietly but repeatedly. I’d forgotten they didn’t speak English. One of them wiped the trickle I’d felt on my cheek. It wasn’t blood, just a tear.
They pulled me to the platform where my group was eager to assess the damage.
“Am I bleeding?” I asked again.
They answered no, but I found out later they were kind enough to lie, and I mean that. There was blood, but only a little where the hair had been ripped from the scalp. Not enough to raise alarm. There were still seven ropes to go, and all of us were ready to be back on the ground. I tried really hard not to burden my group with how shaken I was. They still needed to make the rest of the course safely and were freaked out enough. When they went on ahead, I pulled the elastic from my disheveled bun. Enough detached hair fell to the ground that it looked like I’d gotten bitch slapped by Edward Scissorhands.
Honestly, I didn’t care about the hair. I cared about the potential of what could have happened. As luck would have it, I’d swung directly backwards, keeping my neck and spine straight. Best lumbar adjustment I’ve ever had. If I’d swung from a different angle, who knows? I have a tiny neck. And the cable wheel traveled up my bun and along the ridge of my head, giving me a fohalk but also awesome volume. The bun gave the wheel something to eat. Had it started nearer my roots, it could have pinched my scalp or forehead, the friction between the wire rope and wheel singing off skin as it had my hair. So many possibilities. I had lived the best-case scenario on a worst-case scenario game card. I’m so grateful.
I caught up with my group on the next platform, cried just a little, tried to cover it up under a joke about how I’d always wanted bangs. The hair was so thrashed and uneven, I knew I’d have to cut most of it off and find a way to blend in the fohawk. An old memory of my friend unravelling curlers from her short blonde hair resurfaced with verve.
Dan and Court and Brit took great care of me, telling me I was brave, bringing over coconut oil to put on the wounds and burned edges of hair. The VP of Sales, Chance, gave me the rest of his water and his wife, Brooke, put a band aid over the burn on my shoulder where I’d hit the rope. The rest of the company members in our charity group were equally kind and supportive throughout the week.
So I didn’t get my imaginary perfect 10, but I’m happy with a score that is “good enough.” Good enough is spinning like a madman but missing the tree branch. Good enough is losing some hair but keeping my health. Good enough is leaving Guatemala with a scar on my shoulder but all my fingers intact, which I used to wave a hearty goodbye to that excursion, and to give it the bird. Good enough is relinquishing the goal to grow my brown hair, long, and instead, finally checking a thirteen-year-old item off my bucket list.
Aubrey Nelson is the hair colorist that brought my hair back to life! Find her at