Carrabelle, Florida seems to be the perfect place to have chosen for my first official “Chasing Light” stop. Saturday I obtained my official Lighthouse Passport and got my first stamp by a nice lady at the Crooked River Lighthouse.
Then I climbed that sucker.
I just want to say up front, I do not like heights, and I’ve really never been able to get over that. (I do not like them when they’re tall, I do not like them, not at all.)
My heart races, I feel out of control and panicky. My system floods with adrenalin. I breathe as if I’m in the transition stage of labor, in through my nose, out through my mouth, hoovering in air, then blowing it out in a long steady stream of “whoooooooooooo.”
But I always try to make myself do it – ride the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier, walk the Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain, creep to the edge of Hollmenkollen Ski Jump in Oslo (pictured left), zipline in a rainforest on a dormant volcano (Mombacho) in Nicaragua. I don’t love it, in fact I sort of hate about every other minute, but I still do it, because I hate being a chicken shit even more. (The minutes in between I sort of dig.)
The worst ever was on a 1994 trip to Israel, riding a cable car up to Masada (built by King Herod sometime between 37 and 31BCE, and later site of the famous siege of Masada during the First Jewish-Roman War that ended in mass suicide of the rebels encamped there).
In the first place, there were about thirty people wedged in the car, and of course nowhere to sit down, so there was no such thing as personal space, something Americans care more about than a lot of the world, by the way, and the man pressed up close to and breathing on me a) had eaten a raw onion sometime in the previous hour and b) did not believe in bathing; and in the second place there were about six nationalities represented, and halfway up, as we were hundreds of feet off the ground, an argument broke out between some Germans and some Spaniards about whether the back window should be opened or closed. One of their group would open it, then someone from the other group would close it, all the while loudly exchanging words and gesturing as the car swung and bounced beneath the cable, and pretty soon an Italian got in on it and then a Frenchman. Meanwhile I am standing in the middle of the car, white-knuckling the metal pole, grinding my teeth and thinking, well, feckitall, this is a really a stupid way to die.
But we made it okay, and I cannot tell you how grateful I was to feel the metal plate beneath the gondola, and to know we were on solid ground! Hallelujah! Praise and thanksgiving!! Still shaking, I followed my group out the door, pulling in deep gulps of air, pointedly avoiding taking in any scenery just yet so I wouldn’t have to see how far up we were, and then…oh, shit. Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
See, the cable car didn’t actually take us all the way to the top. Almost but not all the way. No, that was to be accomplished by climbing those rickety-looking metal stairs that are attached on one side to the fucking rock face, thank you so much, the kind that you can look right down through to the ground that is by now miles away. And, oh, by the way, you can’t ride the gondola down from here, so the only way is up the stairs. In other words, no turning back.
My armpits were soggy, my mouth dry as the desert air, and my lungs seemed to shrivel inside my chest. But go up I did, because by then I had passed some sort of line, and I was just plain pissed. I might have even stomped a little on those steps, causing them to ring in the midday sun, muttering quietly, “God damn it. Just God damn!”
I was traveling with a group of other pastors, all men. They got a kick out of me that day, but they also were smart enough to stay clear of my I-will-smite-you-hip-and-thigh range.
The view, by the way, was spectacular – other-worldly and majestic, one of the most marvelous I’ve seen – and the archaeological site was utterly fascinating, and the cable car ride back down a piece of lekach.
The climb to the top of Crooked River Lighthouse is nothing like that.
And yet, all the way up the narrow staircase my heart raced and my hands trembled and I did not look out any of the windows on the way, forcing myself to breathe, breathe, breathe.
Some gracious soul put a marker at the halfway mark, and in my head it sounded like this, with cheering: “You’re almost there! You’re gonna make it!” I stopped there and looked at the mark and said a prayer of blessing and thanksgiving for the one who marked it, and for the household of the one who marked it, and tenfold for their progeny generations hence.
Then I went to the top.
The door faces north, so it opens out over a blanket of rich green pine forest as far as the eye can see. There is a metal railing and a circular walkway with room for one person. I grabbed the railing and walked around to the front.
“You’ll be able to see forever today,” the lighthouse lady had said while she was ringing me up, and she was right. Leaning back against the wall, spread out before me were the sparkling waters, sun glinting like diamonds. It was absolutely breathtaking.
The Crooked River Lighthouse was built in 1895, replacing the one on Dog Island (one of the barrier islands) that was destroyed in the hurricane of 1873. It was decommissioned in 1995 and through efforts of the Carrabelle Lighthouse Association is now property of the city of Carrabelle.
It currently features a Fresnel lens (fun word-nerd fact: “lens” comes from “lentil,” because of the shape, thicker in the middle, tapered at the sides, that bends and intensifies light rays).
The lighthouse keeper’s shift is described this way in the U.S. Lighthouse Service Regulations book: “Lights must be exhibited punctually at sunset and kept lighted at full intensity until sunrise, when the lights will be extinguished and the apparatus put in order without delay for relighting.” Keepers’ duties extended far beyond turning the lights on and off, including all maintenance and repairs, and search and rescue as needed. Lighthouse keeping required constant vigilance; lives depended on it.
During the day the lighthouse served as a “daymark,” as navigators used it and other landmarks to chart their way through the tricky and sometimes treacherous waters. Lighthouses were purposely designed to look different and unique so navigators could easily recognize them.
Thirty lighthouses remain in Florida today. Three of them are in my current vicinity (Crooked River Lighthouse, St. Marks Lighthouse, and St. George Island Lighthouse), and I plan to climb all of them. Without any whining whatsoever.