In July of 2016, I lost three fingernails clinging to a coral shelf in Guam. A reflected ocean swell was threatening to pull me under, and I dug in with what little leverage I could. I consider myself lucky, though, knowing how many have lost more. 20,000 men, for instance, lost their lives at the Battle of Guam in 1943. But, unlike other islands in the Pacific, the death toll didn’t stop there. It never has.
A sinister lure creeps beneath the crystalline waters of Mariana’s Islands, an armada of skeletons ground into coral, blending with the picturesque cliffs and bays. There’s a sharper contrast of light in that part of the world, embodying paradise’s paradox. A greater violence in the beauty.
I’d been brought to Guam by my old friend, Taylor Grieger. The idea was to tell a story about female helicopter pilots in the Navy. The book I was writing lacked their representation, and I was eager to hear more from women in the military. What I didn’t expect, however, was for Guam to become the story. “Crewmen deploy here to implement their training,” said Taylor. “To save lives.” Taylor was a rescue swimmer and helicopter crewman for six years. Guam produced 99% of their division’s rescues. “We get around forty to sixty a year,” he explained. “Most other squadrons get none.” By the time he flew me out to help with his story, Taylor was wrapping up a four-year commitment on Guam that left him with an outstanding record of rescues and a mouthful of bitterness.
The surplus of rescues on Guam implied a lack of coast guard or some other “first line” of search and rescue (SAR). This isn’t the case. Guam has SAR police operating on jeeps and jet skis, trained in paramedics and first-aid. So next I blamed tourism—children panicking in a rip current; foreigners unfamiliar with the terrain; kids cliff-jumping into shallow waters—but on my second day in Guam, we stumbled upon a statistics board outside of Taylor’s squadron office. It posted figures and dates like when their last “Class A” incident was, or how many DUIs the squadron had. At the bottom was a number for how many people had died.
“What’s this?” I asked, pointing to an acronym beside the number three. It was a hot day—every day was hot in Guam—and I had to squint through my sunglasses to read the letters.
“DOD,” said Taylor. “Deaths off Duty.”
“Like what, car accidents?”
“Yeah,” said Taylor. He winced, almost perceptibly, and wiped his sunglasses clean. “All of them died during my four years here.”
For whatever reason, maybe the heat, I didn’t catch Taylor’s hesitation. “What happened?”
“Well,” said Taylor, “two of the guys fell off of a cliff. They were drunk. But Rodgers”—he hesitated—“Rodgers was a rescue swimmer. He went spearfishing on the reef and disappeared. Usually we stop a SAR mission after two or three hours, but we spent the whole day in the air. Birds looked around the clock for his body. But that’s Guam,” he said, wiping sweat from his face. “One slip on the reef and you’re gone.”
Rodgers, as it turned out, was a veteran swimmer with more rescues than half of the squadron combined. He wouldn’t have gone spearfishing drunk; he’d seen too many times what a single misstep could do to a man, what the current could do. It was the island that killed him.
Guam’s position in the Pacific gives it intoxicating scenery, but makes it simultaneously lethal. Being perched along the edge of Mariana’s Trench, the island’s highest point, Mount Lamlam, constitutes the steepest elevation climb in the world. That's an absurd statement, given its rolling hills and elevation of just 1,332 feet, until you consider that Guam is only the summit of a much larger mountain. In fact, Guam as an island breaks the ocean's surface just below its peak. That’s why the shores have no continental shelf. The ring of coral surrounding Guam is the only thing separating cliffs and coral beach from the deepest point in the entire world.
“See that green line in the water, there?” said Taylor. We’d hiked Lamlam’s peak and were soaking in a view of the island surrounded by water. I followed Taylor’s finger to a ring of turquoise that separated the shore from a dark and violent blue. “On the other side of that,” he said, “is the steepest cliff on Earth.”
Practically every coast in the world has a continental shelf. The shelf serves as a buffer to the shoreline, descending gradually for hundreds if not thousands of yards out to sea. Water pushes inland and returns via rip currents, carving a path through the incoming waves. But when the shoreline is not gradual, water can be reflected downward instead of out, cycling underneath the incoming waves instead of cutting a path through them. The result, as you can imagine, is one hell of an undertow.
The shores of Guam feature a circular current similar to what you’d find at the bottom of a waterfall. But instead of being faced by the singular threat of drowning, there’s a razor wall of coral that the current slams you against as well. Incoming waves drag you down the coral before pulling you out so that—by the time you manage to fight your way to the surface—you’re already being dashed against the coral again.
We spent a lot of time walking along the coral shelf, mostly because there are no natural beaches in Guam and the coral shelf is the only place you can find water deeper than a few inches. “By the time we get called out to fly,” said Taylor, sweeping his foot for a safe plot to set it down, “the people have probably been missing for a few hours. The Guam police either couldn’t find them or couldn’t access where they went missing.” Taylor was always on edge walking through the water. Before I knew about Rodgers, I assumed this was because of the Pacific coral. Walking across it in knee-deep water is a lot like tiptoeing across a field of rusted glass. He stopped to say, “Whenever we get called for a search and rescue mission, it’s safe to assume they’re already dead.”
I stopped in my tracks. I even looked up from my feet to see if he was joking.
“A lot of times,” he continued, moving on, “all we find is a pool of blood. Body parts in the water. Arms, legs, a head. The bodies would’ve been dashed against the coral a hundred times already.”
Water lapped calmly against my shins and behind us, about twenty yards out to sea, ocean swells rolled easily over the coral shelf. It seemed impractical, impossible even, that such an insidious force was at work beneath the surface.
“Do you have to retrieve the bodies?” I said. I regretted asking it the moment the words left my mouth. Five years of interviewing combat veterans and there I was, asking the exact kind of questions I prided myself for avoiding. But Taylor had a laconic indifference to my blunderings.
“No,” he said. “By that point they’re considered IFOs, and we aren’t responsible for those.” He paused before lunging across a patch of sea-moss. “Besides, there are the sharks.”
We were heading back to shore after laboring in vain to find a patch of coral deep enough to submerge in. The dark blue on the other side of the coral looked provocatively inviting, and in the midst of the sauna-esque afternoon I was tempted to go and test myself against the current, against the ocean itself, just to cool off. Then I considered the same situation from a tourist’s perspective, completely ignorant to the phenomenon of Guam’s surf. Why wouldn’t I? There were no signs warning of a strong undertow, no videos on my flight explaining what happened to those who ventured too far out or slipped on the reef. What would’ve stopped me?
Movement flickered at the edge of my vision and my focus wavered at the sight of an eel swimming for my feet. It was as thick as my calf, and close enough for me to make out the line of its teeth. It ducked into the coral inches from where my foot had been—vanishing through a dip in the rock—but I’d already yelped and fallen forward. My elbows dug into coral, knees scraping sea urchins as I scrambled for shore.
“Yup,” said Taylor. “The eels’ll get you. Look out for stonefish, too. They look like rocks, but their spines are the most poisonous in the world.”
I laughed because, all together, it seemed comical. If I couldn’t step on rocks and the sea moss was notorious for housing eels and sea urchins, then there was literally nothing else to walk on besides the razor-sharp coral. I inspected the abrasions on my knees and found scratches on my hands and feet. Meanwhile, Taylor kicked out his feet and leaned back, tallboy in hand. He stared at the ocean and pointed.
“See that kid?” he said.
I looked up from my inspection and spotted a boy, maybe ten or twelve, hopping along the edge of the coral about a hundred feet out. Beyond him the ocean turned a stark blue, almost violet. I turned back to find Taylor reclined, his eyes closed behind a pair of polarized Costas. “Yup,” he said, answering my expression. “He’s a gonner.”
Taylor and I went to the same high school together. He was a grade below me and new to the swim team, but we synced up all the same. Fast-forward eight years, and we’re marveling at how easy it was to pick up where we’d left off. I arrived in Guam at midnight—a miserable 30 hours after leaving Scotland—but managed to help drain a bottle of Scotch whisky before three in the morning.
“It’s like we never left,” said Taylor, “but that’s exactly what it’s like. You know what I mean?”
I did. Partially because of the whisky, but also because I was having the same paradoxical revelation. Taylor and I had painfully different backgrounds. My parents divorced while I was in high school, but Taylor grew up in a divided family. My father funded my undergraduate studies, while at the age of seventeen Taylor was getting kicked out of his home. He joined the Navy as a rescue swimmer (one of the most competitive career options for enlisted sailors), and I went on to study a PhD in Scotland.
Eight years chasing opposite sides of the spectrum, and yet there we were in a remote corner of the world, picking up where we left off. He was still Taylor and I was still, I hoped, myself. He’d bulked up and was more confident than before, but the only noticeable difference seemed to be his impressive tolerance for alcohol. That, and his idea of an adrenaline rush, which—after years of jumping out of helicopters for a job—almost cost me my life the next week. There was a connection between us that seemed to transcend our polarized backgrounds. We were, for instance, wounded idealists: me by my travels and a near-decade of intellectual posturing in academia; and Taylor by remaining true to himself within the corrupt military complex on Guam.
Taylor was explaining this corruption to me at a Fourth of July cookout on the island. The entire squadron of crewmen had come out for barbecue and beer at an apartment complex where a few of the swimmers lived. One of Taylor’s close friends—a university graduate who played quarterback in college—was showing me how to throw a spiral. “This is exactly what happens when you’ve got a standing military,” said Taylor. He was holding a beer in each hand, and another tucked under his arm. “The divide between officers and enlisted expands. They work in separate offices, train on separate pipelines, get higher wages and better living stipends. Then, after years of being propped up on a pedestal, they start believing they’re hot shit. Then there’s Beau,” said Taylor, and I watched his friend launch a football almost forty yards with the flick of his wrist. “Beau went to a great school, played division one football, and graduated cum laude.”
“Did better than some of our COs,” he said.
“Than most of our COs,” said Taylor.
“And they still treat me like shit.”
“Not just that,” said Taylor, “but when they found out that Beau went to a good school, that he graduated and got all A’s, it’s like they went on the offensive. Like his education threatened their ‘authority’.”
We moved under the shade of a nearby canopy. On the other side of the pool was Tumon bay, brilliantly jade in the afternoon sun. Taylor tossed me another beer right as I opened the last one, and the three of us settled down to a pair of benches.
“But it’s not just the military,” said Beau. “It’s the whole island.”
“Take the police bikes,” said Taylor. He was a natural storyteller, presenting case studies that embodied the tone of a greater whole. “Guam’s a territory of the United States, right? But their police force is shit, so the US government sends over 10 brand-new motorcycles as a subsidy.” Amos, another crewman, tossed Taylor a pair of Miller tallboys. He cracked one open and handed it to me. I had to set down a beer just to receive the next one. “But only one of those bikes found their way to the police station. The other nine went to government officials.” I thought this was a kind of island myth, some conspiracy for venting, so I laughed. Nobody else laughed. The other guys were staring at their hands. They hadn’t just heard this story; they’d witnessed it. “It’s election season,” said Taylor. “So we’ll probably see one on the road tomorrow.” When I asked where we were going, he said, “Waterfall Valley.”
That afternoon blurred into a haze of beer and humid heat. The sun dropped over Gun Beach and I found myself sitting alone on an oceanside cliff, staring up at more stars than I’d seen in years. The beer had finished (which was shocking considering how much we brought), and Taylor came to drag me off. He wanted to wake up early for Waterfall Valley. “This isn’t a vacation,” he said. “This is work.”
Taylor was determined to expose the underbelly of Guam. On our first day, he drove me out to the governor’s house. I’d been warned about the island’s corruption, so I was expecting a mansion of impressive magnitude. Instead, we pulled up to modern-day palace perched on a coastal cliff with golden gates, an esplanade, acres of manicured lawns and monuments to match the National Mall in D.C. We slipped through the gates and explored the grounds, then drove around the rest of the island. Taylor led me up mountains and over waterfalls, along cliff edges and across military bases. He even rented a Navy fishing boat to tour me by sea, detouring only to rope-swing out of an ocean-cliff grotto. We went to bars and strip clubs, met officers and crewmen and American strippers lured over for the free accommodation and misleading island pay. Taylor even took me on a discreet tour of his squadron hanger, tossed me inside of a helicopter and told me to man the control panels. He wanted me to experience the island, all of it, and so on my last day he took me cliff jumping...
The road we took to the coast could’ve been taken from a post-apocalyptic film set. Overgrown and derelict, foliage spilled over the two-lane pavement so much that palm leaves scraped both sides of Taylor’s truck. Abandoned refrigerators, car shells and miscellaneous trash littered the roadside, engulfed by weeds and low brush. It should’ve been the clearest red flag of our whole trip, but being in the company of a rescue swimmer who’d just spent the week telling me stories of bodies ripped to pieces by coral—Japanese tourists slipping on the reef and local Chamorros jumping off cliffs into ravenous ocean currents—I felt comforted by the seclusion of the road, as if its abandonment suggested that we were driving toward some isolated cove, a sheltered pool where the coral formed a protective wall so that the current couldn’t sweep us off to sea. But after an improvised hike through jungle thickets, we emerged at a clearing that promised nothing of the sort.
Before us was a coastline of rocky cliffs that stretched to the horizon. The coastline plummeted to a deep and violent surf, and swells rushed against the cliff face, slamming the exposed wall in a spray of mist that shot up to our feet.
“Hmmm,” said Taylor. It was difficult to read his expression, though I could tell he was eyeing the swells. Still, I knew enough from our talks and my own experiences to know that the violence below was anything but favorable. The coral ring was pressed right up against the cliff face on this part of the island. Froth gave way to azure to a stark and violet hue. The colors were mesmerizing.
“At least the scenery’s nice,” I said.
Taylor took off his shirt.
Taylor had a tendency to joke about making rash decisions. He began moving toward the cliff wall. “What are you doing?” I said.
“Well,” he shrugged. “We came all this way.”
I was still laughing when Taylor started to inspect the surf below. He was searching for a place to jump. “Taylor,” I called. My laughter had simmered out. “You can’t.”
“We’ll just have to time it,” he said.
Taylor was moving toward a ledge where the coast cut in and then out. Below him, the surf was a surging roar. “It’ll be fine,” he said.
I felt something between wonder and despair at the sight of him teetering on that pointed ledge. He studied the swells, counting the rhythm in his head between the larger and lesser waves, while I stood twenty feet back watching. All I could see, though, were the body parts from his stories: the daughter of a local Chamorro whose face had been torn off by coral, the sharks that inevitably came.
The cliff he aimed to jump off dropped fifty feet to an impenetrable rush of blue, but all of the water was funneling to where the cliff cut inward. Incoming swells surged into a crevice where the coral had eroded completely. Swells filled the corner almost half the height of the cliff before rushing out to crash against oncoming waves or, worse, add to their size. All of this was happening directly beneath Taylor’s feet: a choppy slice of death that could thrash a human body around like a dingy in a hurricane. So, Taylor explained, the plan was to jump out past the death trap. There was a pool there that went dark blue just before the coral on the opposite cliff face. That was our route of escape. A coral shelf leading to a cliff wall being rammed by swells. It sat like a platform across from where we would jump. Swells rolled easily over its sea-level surface to spray the cliff we would have to climb. When the waves receded from the coral, it was like an overcharged infinity fountain. The entire swell, hundreds of gallons of water, spilled back into the ocean at a weight and velocity that could pull even the most embedded swimmer out and under the violent blue of the surf.
I couldn’t find a single, non-suicidal reason to jump. Taylor, meanwhile, was adamant. “You just have to jump past the current to avoid getting swept into that crack,” he said. “But don’t jump too far. If you jump too far, you’ll hit the shelf.”
So we had an ocean crevice (i.e. the trap of death), our own cliff’s face, and the coral shelf, creating a three-sided border opening up to our fourth (and somehow least concerning) threat: the open ocean. “We’ll have to time the swells,” said Taylor, “so you jump when the ocean is the least rough.”
I wasn’t listening. Taylor had perched himself on the edge of a cliff, ready to jump into a pool of water bordered on all sides by forces of imminent death, and he was trying to coach me into following. “If you watch the waves,” he said, “you can see how they’re really rough for a while, and then they mellow out a bit.”
I’d been watching the waves for at least five minutes. I hadn’t seen them mellow out at all. “Here it comes!” he called, pointing to the swells rolling in. “Watch!”
And he jumped.
Taylor disappeared into a heaving swell. Another rolled over him before his head surfaced, and when it did what amazed me most was his composure. After resurfacing, he wiped the water from his face, glanced around to gather his bearings, and only then did he begin swimming out to sea. The idea was to ride a swell into the coral, rather than approach it from the side. A swell washed over him just as he approached the shelf, but Taylor planted his feet and arms like a four-pronged anchor, bracing himself before it could roll back over him. Afterward, he popped straight up and trotted forward with plenty of time to start climbing the cliff.
I felt humbled, silly even, for having doubted him. Taylor was back at my side in minutes, laughing and challenging me to do the same. While I’d jumped off cliffs in Greece and Italy—waterfalls in Mexico and bridges in Colorado—I have no real defense for why I succumbed. It was as likely as anything my irrationally competitive nature. I didn’t really want to do “better” than Taylor. I had been faster in high school, but Taylor had gone on to become a rescue swimmer in the Navy. And yet I couldn’t back down. I had my pride, of course. But the deciding factor, I’d like to think, was that if anybody could jump in and save my life without risking theirs, it was Taylor: a certified and experienced rescue swimmer in the Navy. So I went to the ledge that Taylor had jumped from, and listened.
“Once you come up,” he was saying, “you’ll want to swim outward. Don’t go straight for the shelf, because you’ll get sucked in to that wedge over there.”
I had to look with the gorge of death in the foreground, so when it was time to start timing the swells, I refused to watch the water crashing in. This was, according to Taylor, the most telling area to judge the intensity of incoming swells. “Just tell me when,” I said, looking out at the rolling blue.
So he did. “Jump,” said Taylor. “Jump now!”
There’s a funny sensation that accompanies falling from that kind of height. You feel your stomach rise into your throat, catching your breath midair, and then you still have time to think, I’m still falling.
My feet slapped the water, and in the first second I could feel the current curling around my legs. Chilling hands wrapped around my ankles, pulling me toward the ghosts in the fissure. Later, Taylor would admit that he’d mistimed the swells—that I jumped right when a swell reflected back—but in that moment, I couldn’t tell if I’d jumped into the ocean or a black hole. I kicked. I kicked hard. My head surfaced in a whirlwind of arms and legs and I drew breath into the vacuum of my lungs. I’d been an all-American swimmer in high school, but after years out of the water I must’ve looked like a drowning child. Some corner of my mind was still practical enough to swim out to sea rather than straight for the coral shelf, but my timing was off, the swells too high.
I felt myself thrashed between waves. With each one came a rush of water slamming against my face so that it was all I could do to not drown above water. My body tumbled over the waves like I were on some broken rollercoaster, and when finally I turned to swim toward the platform a swell slammed me against the coral so hard that I had the conscious thought that this was it. I would die.
Water washed over my head, pressing me into the shelf. Then the surge slowed. I could lift my head and breathe. It was like jumping off a trampoline, that moment in the air when you stop ascending but aren’t yet falling: you’re just hovering in the stillness. A moment of clarity struck, and my mind told my body to move! But I was so dazed, so disoriented from being tossed like a ragdoll, that I didn’t even have time to brace myself for the reflection.
That’s when the water came back.
It’s hard to describe what a hundred gallons of water rushing over you feels like. Imagine clinging to the edge of a waterfall, with the weight of a river shoving you into the rocks below. I can’t now imagine the weight of a water bottle without feeling the ocean’s pull. It was the weight of a filled-to-the-brim camelback—a gallon of water at the grocery store—multiplied by a hundred. I clung to that shelf like Mufasa, digging my fingernails into the coral and scrambling for a foothold, a knee hold, anything to leverage my body against the grip of the sea. Then, right as I could feel my own hands giving, my fingernails breaking against the rock, it lessened. The swell was gone. My lungs could breath.
There was a split second before the next wave rushed in. I dove forward like a sprinter off the blocks, springing for the back of the shelf to the cheering cries of Taylor. He was perched on the cliff edge, jumping and hollering and ready to dive in after me. He was yelling like I’d just scored a game winning touchdown, but it was all I could do to keep my knees from giving out. My heart was pounding so hard that my whole body shook. I even had to stop a few feet above the surf, taking deep breaths to calm myself down. My hands were shaking so bad that I worried I might fall back into the surf.
“You did it!” Taylor said. He was shouting and I could hear relief mixed in with the laughter. “You made it!” He grabbed my hand at the top and hoisted me up with a single pull. I rolled onto my back, panting. “Holy shit,” Taylor said again. “That was intense!”
Taylor was taking pulls from his vaporizer as he waited for me to catch my breath. His own breathing was steady and slow. He’d been jumping out of helicopters for the past several years on a regular basis and likely viewed the whole thing as “a good rush,” so when I could finally sit up straight he helped me onto my feet and led me to the cliff’s edge. Together we peered at the cavern that should’ve shredded my body like meat in a grinder. It occurred to me then—after feeling the very real tug of the current, and almost being swept out to sea—how unlikely a spot this was for Taylor and his group of rescue swimmers to go cliff jumping. With their first-hand witnessing of what happened to tourists who came to places like this, a deliberate cliff-jump here seemed like taunting death. Then I remembered the countless times that Taylor had said he wanted me to “experience the island,” to get a feel for the undertow of Guam. After nearly drowning, I wasn’t so confident about the limitations he was willing to set on that experience, or whether he’d meant it literally. So I asked him, “How many times have you jumped from here?”
Taylor hesitated. He was looking out to where bone dust settled on coral, where ghosts waited for the next careless tourist or adrenaline junky to join their ranks.
“Never,” he said, grinding his foot into the rock. “People die here all the time.”
I didn’t notice my fingernails, then. I didn’t even notice them on my climb up the cliff, when my hands left blood in crevices on the rock. It wasn’t until our hike back that Taylor pointed out they were bleeding. The nail on my pointer finger, I discovered, was gone. Another was mangled and would come off in pieces over the next few days. But the third had been bent backwards. There was all sorts of rock and dirt underneath, which I had to clean out before pushing the thing back into place. It fell off 3 days later.
It’s hard to say the whole thing wasn’t worth it, though. Digging fingernails into coral might not have been the smartest attempt at leverage, but even with the injury I didn’t blame Taylor or regret the jump. The last time I’d even come close to a “near-death” experience was years ago on a year-long roadtrip around the United States. I don’t believe that proximity to death lends any kind of mystical understanding—my life has never flashed before my eyes, the mind being too filled with a desperate compulsion to survive—but after climbing that cliff, I had a moment of reconciliation. My physical self resurfaced: that animalistic base whose presence, after three years of studying a PhD in Scotland, came as a surprising relief. And while my body shook uncontrollably, it was liberating to realize how helpless I was, how infinitesimally small and, ultimately, given to the whims of a force beyond my control.
I would fly back to Scotland the next day, so we spent the night riding the wave that follows such encounters. I promised to incorporate the interviews I conducted into my short story collection, and Taylor decided to write a book based on his experiences in Guam. We'd reached the bottom of a Patron bottle and the future was swelling ahead of us like a rogue swell. Taylor was going to run for congress. I was going to publish my book and help him with his. We were going to work together. We were going to instill change. Then Taylor told me about his plans to sail around South America, his dream to tame Cape Horn: the 'Everest' of sailing. “I want you to come with me,” he said, tequila gleam in his eye.
This was a year ago, and immediately after Taylor almost sent me plummeting to my death. I realize now that our cliff jumping had been a kind of test; that my whole week in Guam had been an accidental trial run of what was to come: exploring, traveling, and exposing the darker corners of the world. But I was so alive from the thrill of it, from the potential for what happened next, that I didn’t even hesitate. “I’m in,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
What he meant was "are you going to back out." I knew even then that with Taylor it was all or nothing. "You're either all in or you're not" was a phrase we'd thrown around half-jokingly all week. But I’d made up my mind already, and it hasn’t changed since.