It is one of the most tense places in the world. A tightly packed geographic meeting of three major religions and a nervous geopolitical flashpoint, the area sits within the inner circle of major foreign policy decisions for most countries. Needless to say, the Old City of Jerusalem does not regularly serve as an exhibition stage for fringe outdoor sports.
On May 2, 2016, however, visitors to the Tower of David on the western edge of the Old City saw something unique: a woman from Jackson, Tennessee, walking on a two-inch wide nylon line 145 feet above the ancient ground, balancing in poses that few gymnasts could copy on a floor.
Over the long parade of Jewish, Roman, Muslim, Byzantine, and Ottoman history that has marched through, torn down, rebuilt, celebrated over, and mourned at the base of the Tower of David, Heather Larsen’s walk represented a very brief but unique and personal mark on land that frames a significant facet of our collective human story.
Her small gift to the history of Jerusalem was a symbolic display: a series of light and elegant but daring strides above ground that for three millennia has often defined the chaos and complexity of global power politics. For those who happened to look upwards, her grace on the line challenged the most entrenched minds to appreciate a level of peace, steadiness, and balance rarely seen in the region.
May 2008 was a bad time to walk the graduation stage. Only three months before the collapse of the investment bank Lehman-Brothers, which would serve as a tipping point into the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression, it was an especially bad time for a twenty-two-year-old to receive a bachelor’s degree in finance and economics. The U.S. Labor Department identified it as the worst year for jobs since 1945 with 2.6 million jobs being cut, just as Heather Larsen was trying to find her first.
Despite a well-earned degree from Union University, Heather recalls, “I simply couldn’t find a job anywhere close to a bank. Because of the layoffs, I was competing for the same jobs as people with twenty to thirty years of experience and really didn’t have much of a choice except to get creative.”
Heather moved to Jackson at age eleven and is a product of the public school system having graduated from Northside High School. She returned to volunteer as a Young Life leader through college dedicating Monday evenings to leading and mentoring students who were trying to set their bearings.
“As a little girl, I loved playing in the outdoors,” she says. “In college I was drawn to organizations that were authentic and working with youth who felt a bit lost in the clutter. . . . In many ways, those are situations that I could relate to and hopefully was able to help kids with.”
But as the Great Recession continued, Heather eventually had to bid farewell to her community in an effort to find work. Of the 35,000 vehicles that pass over the 211 mile stretch of I-40 between Memphis and Nashville every day, hers was one of the local cars that found its way across the Mississippi River. She landed at the rim of the Grand Canyon in early 2009 and began to weave her days as a hotel manager together with a growing passion for sports, one that is best housed in spaces as open as those that the American West sets out in such extraordinary measure.
Moving without a plan or destination was an outlier among traditional post-college paths.
“I wouldn’t say that anything I have done has been reckless, but because of the circumstances, I was forced to think beyond what I had studied and outside the area where I grew up,” she says. “Something did draw me out West. In many ways, I guess my heart knew before my head came around to understanding what it was all about, but the national parks gave me the freedom to explore what makes me tick.”
For those that have made the journey to states such as Arizona, Colorado, or Utah, it is clear the interaction with the wide, open space can be as emotional as it is physical. The mechanics of stretching one’s physical limits on rock faces or ski slopes are often constructed of the same gears and screws as those found in picking apart one’s fears and hopes that fill the quiet moments of a person’s day.
In this land of adventurous and inspiring misfits far beyond the artificial light and nine-to-fives of the white collar world, Heather found a home. With 6.6 million acres of world-class protected wilderness within a half day’s drive of her front door, she began to master tools that allowed her, beyond limits that ground us all, to more fully experience the stature of a mountainside, the sculpted nuances of a rock face, or the personality of a backwoods trail.
“Almost immediately I got into skiing, rock climbing, and mountain biking,” Heather recalls. “In their downtime a lot of people were doing this thing called slacklining, and I began to find a new level of peace, excitement, and freedom being in the air.”
Soon, the same gene that led her to the Grand Canyon down the 1,300-mile line due west of Memphis was driving her to walk hundreds of feet above valley floors, developing a unique style that would catch the attention of top industry sponsors such as Adidas, Mountainsmith, Slackline Industries, and Native Eyewear.
“I have a different way of doing things: I don’t walk the same lines,” Heather says. “I like static poses. I like to challenge myself with perfecting movements and balances.”
To the extent that she has defied the limitations of strength through poses blending gymnastics and yoga, as well as the limitations of gravity doing so at neck-straining heights, she has also defied norms of the growing slackline community.
“I love my slackline community, I love my sport, but in the end, the best thing I can give back is an authentic, personal style that is a little piece of who I am,” Heather acknowledges, identifying as one of the older athletes on the circuit. “I just don’t feel the pressure to conform.”
It is this blend of creativity, curiosity, and confidence that has captured crowds from Vail, Colorado, to the worn and torn city of Sarajevo and the ancient towers of Jerusalem.
Though Heather’s unique superpowers of balance, athleticism, and focus are beyond the reach of most, the courage, dedication, and willingness to use those skills in new ways are not. There remains, however, a level of humility.
“Sometimes I don’t know why people think it is so big: I balance on a rope,” she says. “I’m not rich, I don’t speak another language, I can’t play an instrument, and I’m not necessarily saving the world. . . . I’m as normal as normal gets. . . . I guess the only thing that is different about me is that I was willing to start something new and fall a lot—quite literally—until I didn’t anymore. I was willing to have a life, at least for the time being, that is unconventional and less stable compared to what people might see as a normal suburban day-to-day.”
This hesitancy to start, aversion to fall, and over-embracing of the conventional serve as all too easy-to-erect barriers to reach beyond the known. These barriers can guard us from entering spaces where we can discover, test, and refine, as Heather has done, our uniquely powerful contributions to the families, schools, communities, or cities where we find ourselves.
It is this realm of perceived risk or discomfort that we often fear most. For Heather, more so than any geography, this beautifully chaotic space is her true home. Of the tens of thousands of steps she has taken in the air since she began slacklining in 2010, each movement, maneuver, and reaction on the line has represented a physical projection of the flexibility, courage, and adaptability that she has relied on throughout her life. Whether it was stepping into a Jackson middle school as an eleven-year-old outsider from Wisconsin, stepping off of the graduation stage into a difficult job market, or stepping on to a nylon line 1,000 feet above rocky Tasmanian cliffs, Heather has been able to find peace and stability where others would be consumed by fear and uncertainty.
As we explore our respective paths across all areas of life, hers is one that can remind us of the joy and adventure that can be found in walking on new lines.
A native of Jackson, Jon Mark Walls is a social entrepreneur, lecturer, and speechwriter who is driven by the idea that better communication can lead to better politics. Having worked for the United Nations as well as various governments and NGOs, he co-founded GovFaces which aimed to improve interactive communication between citizens and representatives. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, Jon Mark has sought to blend traditional communications approaches with new technologies and develop ways of delivering ideas across all levels of society.
Photography provided by Heather Larsen.