Walking across fire…don’t let the camera flash fool you…those embers are glowing red hot.
Dan raked the embers—glowing, each like their own mini world of fire. Fire is beautiful. Perhaps, it is the pyromaniac in me that was really called to walk across the fire. Maybe fascination drew me in. It seems unreal. Humans shouldn’t be able to walk on fire. It’s like running on oobleck—a solid and liquid in the same moment. It was time. We gathered in a circle around the fire. There was no pressure. If you decided you didn’t want to walk, you did not have to. There was no order. When you felt ready you walked to the front of the fire and went. Dan went first. Then he decided to rake down the coals again—it was a little too hot. He tried again, and announced it was our turn.
People started walking across the coals without hesitating. They all survived and ended with a round of applause from the group. I was ready. I went to the front of the fire, took a deep breath and stepped somewhat fearlessly onto the coals. “Holy, Fuck,” I thought by my fourth step. “This is hot. My feet are burning. It hurts so bad. I think the coals are stuck to my feet.” And then the ten steps were over. I was across. I don’t remember hearing applause. I was too busy trying to assess the damage to my delicate tootsies. I was pretty sure I had blisters. The entire foot was stinging and about five specific spots really hurt. Ouch. Why had I wanted to do this?
I was so disappointed. It wasn’t what I’d expected. Clearly, I had thought there would be some level of pain-free magic in the moment I stepped on the coals. Instead it felt like, well, walking across burning, red, hot, 1000-degree-plus coals. And now I was more afraid of firewalking then when I’d arrived. You can walk on fire, but it really does hurt. It bothered me that I suddenly had such intense fear. So when we all finished and Dan said, “if anyone wants to walk again, you can.” Most of us laughed. It was worse than we’d expected.
What was I afraid of? The fire? Burning my feet? What was the worst that could happen? If I got blisters on my feet I might not be able to run for a week and I’d look foolish in front of all my classes when I hobbled in on sore soles. But I was also now afraid of the actual pain. There was a part of me that was really frustrated that a piece of my goal was overcoming a fear and now I was going to leave more afraid. I decided to do it again. It was unlikely I’d ever firewalk again. If I didn’t try one more time I knew I’d be disappointed later. It couldn’t possibly be worse than what just happened, and I could live with the pain I was in.
I went to the head of the fire again and walked. It was warm, but it was like walking across the softest, finest, warm sand you’d ever touched. Pockets were hot but it didn’t hurt. When I finished this time I was euphoric and couldn’t wait to go again. That was my experience. Some people went a second time and it hurt just as much as the first. I went a third time and it felt just as good as the second. Maybe my feet are tough. Maybe I’d lost all sensation after the first go around, when my nervous system decided I was behaving too irresponsibly to feel anymore. Maybe I randomly stepped on cooler spots. Maybe the embers were cooling fast. I don’t know what accounts for the different experience. I think a big part is the ability to keep your balance, roll evenly across the foot and maintain somewhat even weight over your foot as you move.
My last time out, somewhat timid and fearful that I was pressing my luck, I walked the twenty-feet across, turned around on the coals and walked back, for a forty-foot fire walk. It only hurt during the last four steps. I was thrilled. Satisfied. I’d come to do whatever it was I still didn’t know I wanted to do. But I knew I’d done it. Firewalking was exhilarating. Nerve wracking and exhilarating. It woke me up. I announced to friends on the ride home, “This is the first time I’ve felt awake in five years.” That’s adrenaline for you. But it’s not true. I have felt that alive and that awake surrounded by butterflies migrating in Mexico. I have felt that invigorated when a mother and baby whale swam under my small boat. I felt that alive when I swam with dolphins. If felt that elated when I saw Machu Picchu in the sunrise after hiking for four days through the high altitudes of Peru. Perhaps that is the answer to why. If an adventure appeals to you, you’ve got to try. It just might become a permanent, imbedded memory of joy, even if there is pain. It’s a reminder that what is hard and what hurts can be valuable. I remember watching one of my friends give birth. I was overcome by the intense pain that instantly transformed to love when that new baby was out in the world. I was one little person, standing on a small spot in the world, and I got to see the energy of the world change in an instant. Perhaps that sounds cheesy or dramatic, but we only get so many moments in life that rock us that intensely.
As an added bonus, I now feel truly bonded to the people who attended. They all knew why we’d all come even if none of us could articulate that. They all knew how it felt. Most understood the need and desire to do it again even though it hurt like hell the first time. Or they knew that one go around was enough for them. They had all conquered something they needed to conquer that night. I know I did.