Ransom looked nervously at the coil of rope next to his backpack. His left eye twitched as though to say: get on with it, they’ll be here any second. Daniel and Yvonne would be pulling their beat up Volvo into the driveway, ready to head out to Yosemite, and he was still debating what to pack. Ten minutes later, at precisely 5:40 AM, they had indeed pulled into the driveway, and ten minutes after that Ransom was on highway 24 headed east out of Berkeley, crammed into the back of the old Volvo with three backpacks and enough food for four days. And no rope.
Since he was an infant, Ransom’s mother had been consumed with the fear that her son would float into the sky and disappear. An early visit to an expensive medical specialist brought the news that although Ransom was no floater, he was a spinner. Ransom’s mother took this happily enough, because spinning was not fraught with the life-threatening dangers of floating. Spinning meant nothing more than discomfort and social stigma, whereas a true floater could never be sure of his next footfall.
Ransom’s great uncle Jay had floated out of his own backyard hammock one summer afternoon in 1934 while his horrified family watched from inside the house. By the time they got outside, he was nearly out of sight, though they could see him struggling vainly against the wind as he ascended. Since there was reason to believe that floating was hereditary, Ransom’s mother fretted over each of her children just in case.
Spinning was a more mundane affliction by far; more common and less dangerous. The tingling along the scalp and blurring vision gave enough warning to most victims to prevent accidents. Ransom was unusual in that most people don’t discover that they are spinners until adulthood. His first episode occurred during a stressful midterms week in graduate school. It was almost a relief when it finally happened, because Ransom had spent his entire life agonizing over the diagnosis he had received as a child. While walking back to his dorm room after a wretched fluid dynamics exam, he was overcome by a disconnected dizziness and a profound spastic twitching in his neck. He made it back to his room just in time to see the world lurch and spin steadily around, clockwise in his case, for twenty minutes straight. The first episode didn’t last long, but being the first it was by far the most miserable he ever experienced.
After several years, it was just another fact of life, sometimes even a good excuse to miss a boring party. The attacks occurred infrequently, maybe once or twice a year, and they never lasted more than a half hour. Furthermore, many of his closest friends were also spinners, most of them clockwise, that he had met at the Rotational Disorders Clinic in Menlo Park. Ransom discovered that spinners shared many common traits, being clever and creative as a rule, though plagued by a strong sense of dislocation. Spinning gave them a bond and a closeness that, paradoxically, tended to lessen the severity of the condition.
In fact, all would have been well with Ransom if not for the fact that yesterday morning he had started awake from a dream about Yosemite valley and dropped with a thump approximately eighteen inches onto his bed. He was unaware of anyone in the world who suffered from both spinning and floating, but he was terrified enough to rush out and buy some rope and several books on floating. Floating was extremely rare, though well-documented, and it had the reputation as an artists’ affliction, an almost romantic way to fall off the world. Generally the attacks came while the victim slept, though in some extreme cases heavy weights were worn literally around the clock.
Anxiety kept Ransom up the night before his camping trip. The anxiety made him light-headed, which only served to make him more anxious still. He debated calling his mother. He debated cancelling the trip. But in the end he kept his mouth shut, stayed up all night reading and then buckled himself into the back seat of a crowded Volvo. Without his rope. Perhaps it had just been a bad dream, he reasoned, and besides, how could he possibly explain the rope to his friend Daniel?
Predictably, he was stumbling and exhausted by the time they set up camp that night. Being low on sleep and extraordinarily anxious, he was concerned he might touch off a spinning episode on top of everything else. Daniel, in a misguided attempt to soothe, tried to talk Ransom into sleeping under the stars, but Ransom insisted on sleeping in the tent, the tent that was staked securely to the ground, and weighted down with his entire backpack and a half dozen good-sized rocks.
So it was that he awoke from a disturbing dream of drifting past Nevada Falls and found his whole world distorted and misshapen. The tent was wobbling wildly, and he heard through his grogginess Daniel’s voice yelling: “Yvonne, where are you? Run up the hill! Ransom, don’t move!” An instant later, he heard the sound of shredding nylon just as he realized a black bear was pulling his tent apart. Several things occurred to him at more or less the same time: he was terribly terribly frightened, he had left all his food in the heavy backpack, and Daniel was trying to yell something very important from far away. “Ransom, play dead! RANSOM, listen to me! I’m trying to scare him away, but for now, stay still!” The bear ripped into the backpack, flinging food across the ruined tent floor. This is how Ransom came to find himself under the large paw of an American Black Bear. His heart rate skyrocketed, something shifted quickly inside his body, and suddenly he knew he was losing his grip on the earth.
“Ransom! Play dead!” shouted Daniel, hurling rocks toward the bear. The bear snuffled around Ransom, then looked him in the face with a queer and knowing look. At that moment a rock struck the bear squarely on the side of the head and he lurched, removing his paw from Ransom’s chest. The next twenty seconds were a sheer panic of vertigo and disorientation. To his great surprise, this panic was replaced by total calmness. End over end over end; Ransom was amazed how much the twinkling fires in the valley looked like the burning stars in the sky.