Toward the end of our urban nature walk, our hiking club (well, we silver-haired ladies were more of a moseying club than a hiking club) stopped along the trail to admire the view from the top of a waterfall. Five hundred times taller than Niagara, the falls plummeted over a sheer rock face and roared down to Cliff Drive, the crash landing throwing up plumes of poison steam and radioactive mist. The trail meandered away from the falls, in a sensibly horizontal fashion—a gently sloping circuitous route that, eventually, also ended up at Cliff Drive, which led to our parked cars.

Our leader, Kelli, glanced at the trail and then peered over the cliff. “Looks like a short cut.”

it looked like a short cut to certain death.

Kelli sat on the ground beside the waterfall and then disappeared over the edge. Her voice floated back to us. “Get down, and scoot on your butt.” A cloud of dust eddied up. “Go slow.” A branch snapped. “It’s not bad, really.” Rocks crashed onto the concrete below. A blue jay screamed. A vulture circled. Kelli reappeared—a speck at the base of the waterfall—and dusted off her backside. (She didn’t need to. She was a fashion icon, who slid down dirty hillsides without getting dirty, her fab style completely un-mussed.) The Kelli-speck waved. “Don’t do it if you’re uncomfortable,” She cupped her hands around her mouth like a megaphone. “But you can do it.”

Repel down Niagara Falls Times Five Hundred. Or follow the circuitous route—equally problematic, given my propensity for getting lost. Dawn the Nature Weenie panicked at either choice.

I squatted, prepared to scoot. Squatting failed to provide a sense of security. Instinct said to reach in front of me for the safe hand-holds, but there was only empty air in front of me. And after a couple scoots, I was no longer scooting on my rear. The cliff was perpendicular—I was more standing than squatting. With space turned backward and upside down, I lay on my back, but vertical, for god’s sake. The ground was behind me instead of underneath, which put my feet in charge of searching for hand-holds. My feet were not qualified for the job.

Below us, on the street, Kelli filmed our descent on her phone, while shouting instructions. “Put your foot to the left.”

Okay, Kelli, my husband’s going to be mad at you for killing me.

I stretched to find footing. I reached downward until my trembling foot found the thick root of a shrub that was clinging to the precipice as desperately as I was. Stretched again. Slid. Crept. Wet my pants.

Kelli said, “Almost there. One little hop.”

Was she talking to me? I pushed off with one foot. Mist from Niagara Times Five Hundred splattered my face. I fell through cloud cover. I startled the pilot of a jumbo jet. Tumbled through a flock of migrating geese. Bounced off an eagle’s nest. Twisted myself end over end in midair to find vertical, until my feet hit terra firma.

Not quite sure I was alive, I froze, knees still bent in landing position. A quick anatomy check confirmed both legs intact. Arms, attached. Head, still screwed on. “Hallelujah!” Dawn the Nature Weenie had evaporated into the mist. With my chest puffed out, I strutted in front of the falls. Kelli took my victory photo—Dawn the Conqueror, Warrior Goddess of Everyfriggingthing.

Dawn Downey

Dawn Downey writes to incite compassion. Whether she’s challenged by Mother Nature or the nature of her wild mind, she hopes readers will recognize themselves in her stories—and then lovingly accept their own wild minds. Downey is the author of Blindsided: Essays from the Only Black Woman in the Room; Searching for My Heart: Essays about Love; From Dawn to Daylight: Essays; and Stumbling Toward the Buddha: Stories about Tripping over My Principles on the Road to Transformation. Learn more at