Take a Flying Leap

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I suppose you could say I was a cautious tomboy. Raised in Jefferson County, I spent my childhood biking through woods and dirt fields, running around neighbors' backyard shed-raisings and scaling chainlink fences. But it took growing up and falling in love before I understood that blood-deep joy of making a big jump.

Before I met the guy, in fact, I had never heard the word "gainer." But that first summer at his house in St. Louis' central corridor, far from the vast spaces of deep south county, we walked to the Brentwood Swim Club (2100 South Central Avenue; 314-961-1740 or www.brentwoodswimclub.org), where there was a diving board. Baking on a lounge chair, I watched him perform acrobatics from the low white plank. Because it wasn't a high dive, he jumped on the board once, twice, three times for height before launching into back flip/half-twist/can openers and double gainers, somersaulting backward twice in the air while moving forward, splashing down into the pool to the cheers of neighborhood kids. Clapping, I couldn't understand how he maneuvered his body through space with such precision — I was seventeen, after all, young enough to embody awkwardness and old enough to know it could hurt when you smacked the water.

Later that summer, we crossed that milestone of every St. Louis couple: Our First Float Trip. We drove southwest down Highway 44, randomly turned off at a side road five miles down Highway 19 south of the Cuba exit, and discovered Lucky Clover River Resort (69 Lucky Clover Road, Steelville; 888-404-9154 or www.luckycloverriverresort.com). Unlike Bass River Resort, Lucky Clover is both inexpensive — $9 per person to camp, $25 to float — and blissfully uncrowded. Playing guitar around the bonfire on a secluded point and taking late-night dips in the lake, our rowdy group seemed to be the only campers there.

The next day, our Busch-heavy rafts took a run down the Meramec River. We stopped at a small cave with a cool, clear spring. We stopped to pee on a gravel beach enclosed by bright-green Missouri hills. And we stopped at a twenty-foot cliff, with about six feet of water below. I was worried as he climbed up the hill, but I took a photo as he jumped — arms out for balance, in a seated position to slow himself from hitting the rocky bottom. When the photo was developed, he was a solid blur, suspended among water, trees and sky.

An invitation to join his family vacation at the Lake of the Ozarks signaled another leap. Venturing far from the dam and the hubbub of Jet Skis and tidal-wave-generating cruisers, the guy's family steered the boat straight into the Lake of the Ozarks state park (www.mostateparks.com/park /lake-ozarks-state-park). With no glass houses or boats in sight, we dropped anchor near a sandy cliff face. He and his brothers scrambled up the overgrown hillside and emerged from the trees, miniature at the edge of the 30-something-foot drop. He never pressured me to jump, but somehow, when the boys hurtled into the lake, arms flapping out of their life jackets, the stakes suddenly felt high.

Maybe my hesitation to jump had been formed during my adolescent years in Oakville, a strip-center outpost of St. Louis County, nestled among I-255, the Meramec and the Mississippi rivers. Hidden on these suburban bluffs, in the shadow of an Ameren Union Electric tower, there is a castle. In high school, we used to sneak into the strange ruins, taking an unmarked trail through the woods in Bee Tree Park (2701 Finestown Road; 314-615-4386 or stlouisco .com/ParksandRecreation), veering past the "No Trespassing" sign, ducking through the underbrush and climbing over a spot where the chainlink, razor-wire fence had been trampled by teenagers for decades. Once through, we followed a low stone wall until the trees opened to reveal a grand staircase, sweeping down into a courtyard with 30-foot walls, a sunken fountain, a plaster-roofed stone gazebo and columns that have only been toppled and graffitied in the past five years. Except on those occasions when we were chased off by a patrolling UE employee, we spent countless hours teetering on the stonewalled edge of the bluff, staring out over the Mississippi to Illinois farmland, or getting vertigo looking down 100 feet to the riverbank below. Later I found out this castle was the aborted construction project of George F. Wood-Smith (www.dupontcastle.com/castles/woodsmit.htm), a millionaire Scottish immigrant. But it was the legends of suicide that stuck: rumors that told of a labor of love, an unfaithful wife, a lost child. The story always ended badly, with a rich man hurtling to his fate on the rocks — one final leap from a great height.

So a couple of years ago, when I set off for the Off-Sets — we can skip the metaphors — I was scared shitless. With new friends, I was really on my own. Otherwise known as Mine La Motte (2578 Highway 00, Mine La Motte; 573-756-8300 or www.theoffsets.com), the Off-Sets is located between one and two hours' drive south of St. Louis down I-55 and U.S. 67 — and the only reason to go there is to jump off a cliff. Between May and October, hoosiers and wannabe hoosiers from all over the region pay $10 to descend on this former quarry to get drunk on Budweiser, redden their necks and re-create Jackass clips by submitting their bodies to the effects of gravity.

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