On Friday, June 7, after two hours of slogging through the rain on my belly and shivering from high winds, I figured that my performance art project was doomed. Our team of three performers—Caitlin Tucker, Maggie Schneider, and myself—had only made it halfway across the Francis Scott Key Bridge, heading toward Rosslyn. By this point we’d originally planned to be done with the bridge, past the George Washington Parkway exit ramp, and mounting the skywalk over Lee Highway. Instead, we were still fumbling over the Potomac and soaked to the bone—and all of our simulated climbing effort and bravado was quickly turning into real misery and panic.
Months earlier, I had proposed this surreal, slightly joke-y endurance challenge: For the SuperNOVA performance art festival, I would lead a team of urban rock climbers with ropes, helmets, and other protective gear on an expedition through Rosslyn. We would move horizontally, not vertically, getting up close and personal with Rosslyn’s quirky, inadequate pedestrian amenities—narrow sidewalks, obsolescent skywalks, and gross stairwells. And although it would definitely require stamina to crawl for eight hours, there would be no danger of falling, and nothing like the strain and physical demand of actual rock climbing.
Or so we thought.
It was all tougher than we’d imagined. We had trouble finding our rhythm and adapting our motions to real conditions, and it was seriously slowing us down. Days earlier we’d bought a bag full of sunscreen and icepacks—but the sky was a wall of dark storm clouds and we were all freezing our asses off. And it wasn’t clear if we’d ever reach a bathroom. “Any astronaut will tell you: Urine is sterile,” I joked, as we all discussed the possibility of pissing ourselves.
The Key Bridge was beating us—yet we had only ever envisioned it as a warm-up for the main event. In the weeks prior to the festival, we had walked our entire route several times, stopping here and there to try crawling up a staircase, down a parking garage ramp, or through a crosswalk with a brief signal. But we had never calculated how long the bridge would take. It was relatively flat, and had a big barrier separating car traffic from the pedestrians. Easy-peasy, right? Somehow the fact that it was more than 1,700 feet long didn’t register.
Multiple photographers had met us at the bridge a little after 9 a.m. that day despite the tropical storm-related downpour, along with a film crew that was speaking in a foreign language. Cars stopped in the middle of traffic to take pictures of us. Someone called NPR about rappellers on the bridge, and we’d been mentioned in their traffic reports. At first we were chatty with all of the people who had braved the rain to see us. But as the crawl bogged down, and as we became increasingly wet and filthy, we turned inward, focusing on our breathing and yelling our tongue-in-cheek climbing commands—“On belay—belay on! Climbing—climb on!”
We picked our way through a ruined breakfast—muffins, wrappers, and other rain-soaked sludge—tossed into our path from a passing car. We picked pine needles and bits of broken glass out of our spandex. And we confronted unexpected gear problems: Fingerless gloves had seemed like a great idea initially, but our fingertips, pruned up and softened from all of that water, were bleeding on the concrete. Buckles and loops on our climbing belts were digging into our hips as we flopped on the pavement, eventually leaving grapefruit-sized purple welts.
It was nearly 1 p.m. when we finally finished that goddamn bridge.
The George Washington Parkway ramp was our next obstacle, and it scared us a little. Sure, there’s a traffic light and a pedestrian signal, but in the days prior I’d watched a constant stream of cars zipping through the intersection without stopping, despite the red light. On our first trek on foot through Rosslyn to map our route, I’d almost gotten hit, and the driver gave me the horn—-despite the fact that I had the right of way.
So when it came time to clamber across, we were taking no chances. Yes, we would crawl, but we’d do it three abreast, instead of in the relay formation we’d been doing all morning.
I can pinpoint the exact moment when Maggie Schneider—-a dancer, a fearless Baltimore performance artist, and our only honest-to-goodness rock climber—-was finished. Allison Gulick, a former grad student of mine, took about 100 pictures of that crossing, and she captured Maggie getting hurt. We were scrambling, breathing hard, bumping into one another, and when we reached the curb, Maggie made a terrible face, clutched her shoulder, and toppled over, collapsing headfirst into the grass. There was serious talk of a torn rotator cuff, and that was that.
We paused for 15 minutes in the lobby of the Key Bridge Marriott. We used the much-dreamed-about bathroom. Artist Rachel Schmidt fed us Lara bars and plopped weird Alka-Seltzer-like fitness tablets in our water bottles. Catherine Akins, another former student and the leader of our support crew, couldn’t get towels for us from the Marriott, so she ran down the street to the Holiday Inn, walked up to the second floor, and blithely asked the first person she saw for “extra towels for her room.” Soon we were all drying off.
There was no talk of quitting. Caitlin and I would keep climbling; Maggie, though injured, would belay us on foot. We looked at our map and began revising our route. We would still climb all day; we just couldn’t climb as far.
Once we were back on our bellies, in the rain, climbing the steps to our first skywalk, I began to lose track of everything but the stretch of concrete directly in front of me. New photographers arrived to document this second leg of the journey, including Steve Strawn, who kept telling Caitlin to show him her “pain face.” I began making preposterous childbirth noises without really meaning to as I threw first one hip, then the other to the pavement, pushing myself along with my toes the entire time, like a good fake rock climber.
On the skywalk, we encountered a three-inch deep puddle that appeared to be about 50 feet long—-from my viewpoint, anyway. As I floundered and sputtered my way through it, and as the rain became more intense, Kim Ward, former Washington Project for the Arts director and current public art coordinator for the Rosslyn BID, followed alongside me, telling me a strange story about how she and her sister once swam across the Chesapeake Bay. I didn’t know whether to thank her for distracting me or to beg her to drown me.
At one point, I lamented to her that we didn’t have much of an audience, aside from photographers and people connected to the festival. “Are you kidding?” Kim said. “You should look up.” I swiveled my head to the glass tower to my right and saw about a half dozen faces peering through windows, gawking, snapping pictures.
We crossed over the six or so lanes of Lee Highway. We descended a slippery and truly disgusting stairwell to North Moore Street. We passed a queue of people boarding some buses. It was nearing 4 p.m., and we only had an hour more of climbing ahead of us. Suddenly Philippa Hughes, Pink Line Project founder and festival director, was standing over me, asking where and when we were going to finish.
“Whatever route we take,” I spluttered, “we need to get to Freedom Park.”
“Why?” she asked.
I blinked. “Because that’s where the Festival HQ is.”
“Not anymore,” she replied. “It’s been moved indoors. In fact… it’s just a few blocks away, right around the corner.”
Caitlin, Maggie, and I looked at each other and laughed. About 45 minutes later, we were crossing an impromptu finish line, greeted by a crowd of people cheering and clapping. Two guys tried to hand me water bottles. I stared at them blankly. All day long in the rain, people had been offering to stand over me with their umbrellas—-as I was lying face down in filthy puddles. Now, incredibly, someone was offering me even more water.
“Obviously this is what I need more of,” I said as I grabbed one, uncapped it, and dumped it over my own head. To hell with being dry.
Photos by Steve Strawn