January 23, 2020
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Leaping, slithering and rolling out of my comfort zone

FORT KENT, Maine — In one of my all-time favorite movies, the residents of the fictitious and made-for-television town of Pleasantville find the notion of traveling beyond their borders too foreign to consider.

But as the characters slowly come to grips with the larger world and revolutionary ideas, they begin to step further and further outside their individual comfort zones.

I had occasion to relate to those characters over the past couple of weeks as I took a meandering trip outside my own personal “Pleasantville.”

Thanks to a trip for travel writers organized by the Georgia Department of Economic Development, and the efforts of an Atlanta-based friend and fellow writer Hope Philbrick, I did not so much step outside my comfort zone as quite literally leap out of it.

Now, those who know me are well aware of my fondness of zip lines — cables suspended between two points to which a person is attached by way of pulleys and harnesses and sent “zipping” from point A to point B.

As it happens, Georgia is home to the longest zip line in the northern hemisphere — the half-mile “Screaming Eagle” at Historic Banning Mills in Whitesburg (www.historicbanningmills.com).

The Screaming Eagle is one of more than 45 zip lines — covering seven miles — making up the lodge’s eco-canopy tour.

I’d been thinking about that half-mile zip for months but in all that anticipation I had either not heard Hope talk about, or had blocked out the second part of the canopy tour — the 44 “sky bridges.”

And I do use the term “bridge” loosely.

As much as I love zip lines, I dread those rope and cable bridges.

In fact, on a media trip a few years ago into Quebec, I froze on one of those cable bridges and had to be slowly talked down. It was not pretty.

So imagine my delight to learn not only were we accessing the zip lines by cable bridges, but at least one was the 600-foot-long Sky Trek Bridge of narrow board steps swaying close to 200-feet above the Snake Creek Gorge.

What could be more fun than that?

How about the 300-foot-long “bridge” made of narrow boards, each about 12 feet long, placed end-to-end and attached to each other by cables.

Now, the folks at Banning Mills take safety very, very seriously and at all times guests are double-clipped to safety lines so there is no way a person can plunge to her doom off any of the bridges or suspended walkways.

Which is all fine and dandy except for the fact all I could think of was plunging to my doom off each of the swaying and shimmying bridges as I inched my way across.

There were bridges made of narrow boards placed at irregular distances from each other; bridges of round wooden blocks, of narrow strips of wood; heck, there was even a tightrope.

Hope, no stranger to Banning Mills, danced across each bridge like a pro, lightly stepping off the far end with a smile and encouraging word.

Equally adroit at scampering across were our two guides, who managed to find a kind word to say every time a bridge was met and — slowly, cautiously — conquered.

They almost lost me on that 300-foot-long narrow-board cable bridge.

About halfway across I could feel the boards beginning to sway out of control and a few feet later I was quite certain they were going to make a full circle, flipping me into the abyss below.

Of course that did not — could not — happen, but I am not ashamed to admit being very close to tears by the time I stepped onto the small platform secured several hundred feet up a tree.

Several things kept me going — the aversion of falling, the thought of the humiliation that would come with having to be — again — talked down off a ropes’ course, and — most importantly — the knowledge that all bridges led to the Screaming Eagle.

Perched atop a giant tower, the start platform for the Screaming Eagle is up 15 flights of wooden stairs.

Once there, the guides clipped us in and pointed us toward the landing platform somewhere beyond the tree line far below.

A deep intake of breath, a small jump and — WHOOSH! Gravity immediately took over and, thanks to my fancy GPS watch, I can report at my fastest, I was zipping at 50 mph.

It took us about five hours to complete the course and we ended up spending the night at Banning Mills in their individual guest cottages.

Turned out, my cottage came equipped with a lovely whirlpool tub — something well within my comfort zone.

But Georgia was not done testing me.

Several days later, as part of the Georgia Media Marketplace tour, I and a score of other writers were the guests of Georgia Southern University where we toured the campus’ raptor and reptile facility.

Now you’d think I’d been around the block enough times to know the time to volunteer for anything is NOT at a raptor and reptile show.

But I did, and a few minutes later found myself holding the working end of a 9-foot-long python.

As the massive reptile rippled muscles and attempted to constrict on my arm, I jokingly asked the snake handler when it had last eaten.

“Oh, about four weeks ago,” she said cheerfully.

Great, I thought, feed it the Maine travel writer.

But it could have been worse. The writer volunteering just before me ended up with a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach placed in her outstretched hand.

Things were pretty smooth over the next few days, with just a mild feeling of panic while kayaking through a cypress swamp in the George L. Smith State Park with our guide Wesley Hendley of Mill Pond Kayak.

I am fairly certain my kayak had simply brushed over a sunken log, but it was sure hard to drive the specter of a giant — and hungry — alligator lurking just below the surface out of my head.

My last day down south was in Atlanta where instead of stepping out of my comfort zone, I rolled out.

Hope had arranged for the two of us to take part in a Segway tour of the city with City Segway Tours.

For those who may not have seen one, a Segway is an amazing two-wheeled device operated by an electronic motor. Thanks to an internal gyroscope, it is all but impossible to tip one over.

Of course, if anyone could outwit a gyroscope, it would be yours truly.

I figured it could not be much harder than driving a sled dog team, however, I rarely — if ever — mush my team through crowds of pedestrians on busy metropolitan sidewalks.

They really should outfit those Segways with bells or horns.

But once I had mastered the subtlety of forward, reverse, left and right I felt like the inhabitant of a futuristic world whizzing along as the guide pointed out various Atlanta sights and landmarks.

The fact the Atlanta nightly news did not include a piece on a woman from Maine mowing down pedestrians and small children was simply a bonus.

But now I’m home and safely ensconced back at Rusty Metal Farm, where, according to my neighbors, the levels of bear, moose, fox and coyote activity have been unusually high this spring.

That’s cool — we all have to live in our “Pleasantville” together.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at jbaylybdn@gmail.com.

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