While traveling through Europe in the summer of 2015, Asheville resident Kyle James encouraged himself and his then-girlfriend (now fiancée) Ashley Grigsby to confront the various risks they faced — taking death-defying plunges into the Adriatic from Balkan sea cliffs, for example — by repeating the phrase “not afraid of the fall.”
The phrase came from the couple’s first night in Europe. Their loaned apartment boasted a 4-foot-square ledge looking out over Paris to the Eiffel Tower. Their host welcomed them to sit out there if they were “not afraid of the fall.”
Those words now serve as the title for James’ travel memoir, which he will launch at Malaprop’s on Thursday, July 13.
James and Grigsby had already taken a leap of faith by going on their journey. At that point, in his mid-20s, James envisioned a standard career track for himself, and he had just taken a lucrative marketing job. But marketing meant cold calling, all day, every day, and halfway through his first week, James called Grigsby where she worked as a kindergarten teacher.
“He said, ‘Let’s quit,’” Grigsby recalls. “And I said, ‘Yes! Quit, quit, quit!’”
“She was really excited, but I was terrified,” James says. Then, after his first email from the road— sent from Paris — had the folks at home asking for more, he took up the challenge of writing about the adventure.
Given a purpose and a way to keep busy, James wrote on boats, planes and trains, and on the back seats of the hitchhiked rides (obtained through a mobile app) that they used to keep within their $150-a-day budget. Writing became a means of letting go.
“I don’t usually express emotions really well,” James says, “and, honestly, writing was what released it. Every night, I would read it to [Grigsby]. And there were parts where she was like, ‘You’re still worried about this? I had no idea.’”
A reader of Not Afraid of the Fall might not catch James’ doubts, either. Some of them made it into the book, but for the most part, it’s a vibrant account of two 20-something free spirits hitchhiking across Europe from Paris to Croatia and then flying to Thailand to pick up their adventures again. Nevertheless, it took nearly the entire European leg before James settled in.
By that point, they had reached a remote Croatian island, almost their last stop in Europe. “No cars, one market, very little English, one cafe to eat at,” James explains, “and it was our favorite place. That was the first time when I started thinking, ‘Hey, maybe this wasn’t a bad idea.’”
Now engaged (James wrote his proposal into Not Afraid of the Fall’s dedication and presented Grigsby with a ring, along with her advance copy), James and Grigsby interact like people who have shared an ordeal or adventure, each full of respect and admiration for the other.
James relates how an un-air-conditioned night in Croatia led Grigsby — who wore her hair long — to choose practicality over appearances by giving herself a bob with a pair of rusty scissors.
“When you stopped worrying about material things and makeup,” James says to his fiancée, “I could see this weight lifted off your shoulders. You started learning how to nurture yourself, which has changed you a lot.”
For her part, Grigsby admires the way James has opened up to the world. “I watched you go from very business-oriented to being free-spirited,” she says. “Now you’re [like], ‘I want to see the world, I want to be happy in my everyday life, not just figuring out my end goal.’”
Neither Grigsby nor James currently has plans to do any more writing, but that doesn’t mean they’ve put the lessons of their travels behind them. While he’s not sure where his career will take him now, James says he’s at least sure he knows what he doesn’t want to do. “And that’s almost just as important.”
He hopes, too, that Not Afraid of the Fall will give others a push to take their own leaps of faith. “It’s really a book to inspire people to get out and not be afraid to fall,” he says.
WHAT: Kyle James launches Not Afraid of the Fall
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Thursday, July 13, 7 p.m.