Friday, November 6, 2009
It was a summer in the Rockies and love presented itself as if the answer to a dream. Later, lust made its appearance confusing everything, and as the summer was unwinding I felt compelled to let the women of my summer fade into memory, and drift towards friendship and nature and climbing.
I finished my last writing assignment for work, fired off the email, and shut the computer down. After my first year, at my first 9-5, I knew it was time to step away. Time to decompress, recharge; get back to the climbing life for a little while.
The climbing life is like poetry. Being somewhat removed from this existence with the demands of steady employment, I sometimes forget the feeling: the clarity the mind finds after a long hard climb, the satisfaction of living very close to nature, the bond that grows out of trust and sweat between climbing partners. With that in mind I set off from the Gunnison Valley, Colorado into a great expanse that separates us from another holy, sacred place: Yosemite Valley, California.
The women of life, I can’t live without them, and really I was never given a choice. They (or you) are poetry too, but sometimes too exhausting and consuming. Dating is thrilling, but awkward, and the older one gets the more one desires to find a soul mate, or just gets bitter or indifferent to the situation. The heart cries out for physical and spiritual love, and often it has to find it in another soul that it has not known long; the older I get the more strange that seems. The less that you know someone, the greater risk for the body, mind and most of all the heart; oh the heartache and time that dating demands. But, oh the desire to just slip into the hot spring that is love and just bathe in there and be comfortable. But, God always seems to make me face the stark cold that follows the dip in the hot spring, the sober reality of the difficult challenge that all humans are faced with in love.
It was a tremendous coincidence that my good friend and summer couch surfer Brian was driving to Yosemite the very day that my summer vacation was set to start. I was nearly broke, so the couch surfing karma was important; I knew Brian would let me catch a lift without paying for much gas. Brian would be staying at his new home in Santa Rosa, California, so I could look forward to a slow train ride back home for reflection.
I like Brian for many reasons, and on a cross-country journey I knew he’d be infinitely entertaining. He’s one of those people who’s always verbalizing most of his thoughts so conversation could go anywhere from sustainable building to the little ‘Seinfeld’ like scenes we all go through in life. (He’s an engineer who has worked as a timber-framer, who also enjoys taking three months at a time off work, hence the couch surfing.) Since he’s always talking he always makes you think. This notion was confirmed when he wholeheartedly agreed that we should bring a dictionary along on our journey, to test each other’s vocabularies. He also thought it was a great idea to do twenty pushups every time we stopped and got out of the truck. My kind of guy.
Just over a hundred miles west we left my car in Grand Junction train station parking lot. Fifteen hours to go till Yosemite. Leaving Colorado into Utah is always about stepping out of the comfort zone. Seeing that Leaving Colorful Colorado sign sometimes I can’t help but think if I will return alive, those thoughts are followed by the comfort that even if I don’t return living, my friends, ones I know and ones I’ve yet to meet will continue on in the path of climbing and friendship and all that comes along with that.
When we couldn’t drive any more we slept, then we ended up in a town, close to Yosemite, where there was coffee and groceries and climber looking people. I was barely surprised when I saw a climber we knew from the Gunnison Valley in the coffee shop. “Yeah, I’ve been out here in California for awhile now,” he said in that California way. “It got a little too cold over in Crested Butte.”
The climbing community stretches from sea to sea, offering endless couch surfing and opportunities for fun and fitness; a culture and economy of its own.
Our connection in Yosemite was Mark, who was ‘living the dream’ more than any other rock climber I knew. I can’t help but wonder if his experiences in his college days at Western State in Gunnison shaped his psyche and his attitude towards living for the moment. During his senior year he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which led to surgeries, radiation treatment, and finally chemotherapy. During this entire time he remained a climber, surprising the hell out of more than one friend when he’d asked to stop at a climbing area on the way back from the five hour round trip for radiation treatment. Then he’d climb his way to the top of some difficult crack route; and many times the friend could not even repeat the route that he’d just completed.
He’s also Brian’s best friend from childhood. Brian once told me a story of Mark climbing in the gym after a chemotherapy treatment. Mark was trying his damnedest to climb up a vertical wall with small holds, grunting and giving it his all. As innocent, young and dumb climbers will do, a bystander started yelling beta (info.) about the climb up to Mark (a pet peeve to many a traditional climber), “Put your left hand up to that crimp, move your right foot up to the hold with red and white tape….”
Mark, bald from the chemo, dangling from the rope, could have responded, “Shut the fuck up,” but he simply yelled back in frustration, “You don’t understand….I’m on chemotherapy.”
Four years later and still cancer free, he’s settled into a life of guiding rock climbing and then climbing a ton of his own and enjoying the leisurely stretches between work by traveling, couch surfing, skiing, yoga, and he’s even picked up surfing, not only couches, but actually waves of the ocean. On a recent climbing trip/work assignment he met Norma, an architect from Mexico. Now ‘Normita’ had joined him in California where Mark had somehow secured two hundred dollar a month rent at some prime real estate in Yosemite. When he’s homeless an old camper on top of his Ford truck works as home.
The Green House
Mark had told me that he was living in The Best House in Yosemite, and he’s not one to hype up things that aren’t great. We rolled in to The Green House, slightly haggard from our travels, and ready for some rest. It was mid-day and late-summer, hot and humid, nearly oppressive. I took refuge on their trampoline under a tree and drifted off into sleep.
The house wasn’t the greatest because it fit into a definition of luxury; it was the greatest because of the location and rustic feeling. It was a mere ten minute drive from the famous glaciated granite walls for climbing. The floors creaked when you walked on them, the kitchen had a bucket of water that constantly needed to be changed as water was used, and there was no bathroom, only an outhouse.
Later I began to learn the stories of The Green House. It was another Basecamp, hundreds had stayed within its doors, and the journals in the living room recorded this. They brought the place alive, all the way from its rustic roots of being farmland and a stop along the way for the railroad, to the current role of housing outdoor educators and couch surfers passing through Yosemite.
On the Rock
Our story, our climbing, well….it was hot in Yosemite, so much that there were not any other climbers there really, so essentially we had the Most Famous Walls of America to ourselves. Once the mileage and toil of the road wore off I began to feel free and content, I was here to climb them walls, and when we weren’t climbing there was food and beer and there were the people who make this Climbing Life worth living.
There was some structure to our days, I would fall asleep on the trampoline and then awaken later to the coyotes howlin’ in the middle of the night. The sun was the natural alarm clock but hitting the snooze button of the heat was impossible. Mark was off to the park in the morning to work nearly every morning. If he didn’t work we would climb, if he did we would climb later after he was off work.
Some climbers used to call Yosemite the Center of the Universe. It is the most popular big wall climbing area, perhaps in the world. It also sees millions of tourists from all over the world. In mid-August it was busy, like a city, while the daunting granite walls and small trickles of waterfalls stood above it all.
I was looking for release, and it was coming. Haunted by the desires of the flesh from a woman that I lusted for, but did not love I began to forget about her by being immersed in the day-to-day meditations of living for climbing. Like all women, from the ones that break your heart to the ones that simply fulfill the urges all humans have, she slowly faded into the memories. After the fiendish feelings I was pleased that my consciousness and body were content with the simple life.
Mark, Normita and I hiked up to the Cookie Cliff. The objects of our desire were some crack climbs, ones that went for a hundred or two hundred feet; practice climbs for the big walls that always lay ahead in dreams. Normita let us go. I suppose if you are going to date a climber, you must let them go. Normita was the coolest, tranquillo, we just went and she stayed content at the base of the walls.
Somewhere in the climbing the past fades, the voice in your head moves on from rewind or fast forward, and the poetry begins. My memory comes in when I began leading; which basically means you’re climbing with the rope placing gear in as you go, so you fall and when you fall you go until your protective gear stops you. The knot in the stomach and the butterflies compares to asking someone out that you really dig.
I reached into my chalk bag, and powdered up my sweaty hands, jammed my fingertips into the crack, the tips of my shoes barely going in…it’s an instinctual thing climbing, a flow and a pace is developed by measuring fear, fitness, and fun. More or less for forty feet now, three hundred feet above the towering pine trees below, I’m moving up the perfectly vertical, straight up rock, looking for anything on the side of the crack, dimed sized edges to stand on with my feet. I place cams into the crack, a rush surging through my body as I pull up the rope to clip in. I’m working as hard as I can, the limit when I reach up to slide the tips of my fingers into the crack, and I pop off falling fifteen feet in a split second weighting the rope, with a scream that echoes into evening, something primal. I get back on, and keep climbing.
Normita seems content when we return, rappelling down the granite face shouting nonsense loudly in the air because we can, because we like the feeling of yelling jokes that we only get. The language barrier between Mark and Norma enhances their true communication of love.
At dinner, over soy sausages (Mark tall and muscular could be a model for vegetarianism) we explain slang to Norma. Somehow we talk about love, and all the slangs and directions that love could take. She says quietly to Mark, “I love you,” with no idea of how sincere and poetic she was.
“Livings’ mostly wastin’ time,” a lyric in a song by Townes Van Zandt I used to listen to all the time. I guess I wasted a lot of time on that trip. Climbing demands rest to build those muscles and to be psyched on pulling your body up the granite cliffs day after day. So I’d just walk around there, feeling some yin and yang attraction and looks from women with their summer aura about them, as we were dwarfed by the towering granite walls, the blue sky above, the ninety degree heat, the trees; and the deer and squirrels all running around. Eating ice cream for calories and energy and to stay cool, and when that didn’t work, finding release in the river, which instantly energized and cooled off that oppressive August heat.
Our next memorable moment on the walls came a few days later. I had to leave back to Gunnison for work soon so we planned around Mark’s work schedule, and the energy that comes with the steady pace of conditioning with a bigger, physically demanding goal ahead. That goal became a thousand foot wall, that faced north, got shade all day cause that that was the only way to make it enjoyable. Just open to climbing after being closed for months to peregrine falcons and their nesting, it’s called The Rostrum, and it finishes up as a hundred foot wide pinnacle, right at the top of a canyon, where beer and the car are right there. But I’m getting ahead of myself with thoughts of celebration and ending.
Mark was off work around four in the evening, four or so hours of daylight to go. The plan was to rappel down into the canyon, attempt to do the entire route in that remaining time, but if our ambitions were unrealistic, we could sneak off the wall via a simple escape with minimal trickery.
I’d heard of the route for years, even saw video of a man climbing it with ease: without a rope. It was always closed to the falcons that were nesting up there; or out of my realm because I wasn’t strong enough on previous trips. I went into the thing a little cocky, thinking it would be vertical hiking. It was more like the master that is Mother Nature had to teach me and my consciousness a lesson. I wormed up a chimney to reach Mark’s perch, as he belayed me up. We did the transfer of the gear, my mind not at all present, we had eight hundred some feet of rock towering above us, and the daylight was nearing an end. “I need progress,” my ego said, “and I need it soon.”
Confused by a rating on the topo, the piece of paper that described the route, the range of the rating made it seem well within my ability, and it was, but it was not vertical hiking, it was vertical finesse that was needed, the brain needed to be calm, the body needed to perform in a yogic way; the vertical terrain above me would demand everything I possibly had.
I was traversing on small edges again with my feet reading the rock for handholds, trying to dance with the rock; but I wasn’t dancing at all, I was tense, the mind demanded “the clock is ticking.” But no clock was ticking, the rock wasn’t going anywhere, it would be patient, the err here with in the form of the human. Since I wasn’t dancing, wasn’t using the yoga I had in me, I tried to muscle. Muscl-ing it I didn’t correctly strategically put my gear in the rock, an eighth of an inch crack was all there was….I climbed awkwardly with fear, putting my feet and hands in all the wrong places, my inner voice doubted, sent negative thoughts all around, I couldn’t tell ya for sure, but I bet my anus was gripped. I relayed my fear and doubt to Mark, “I don’t know man. Can you just do this. I just don’t think I have it.”
As patient as the rock he refused to let me further slip into my spiral of doubt. “No, you’ve got it, you can do this.” Kind words from a true friend.
I eventually struggled my way through it, not pretty, not dancing, but our journey continued….Of course we took the mellow option sneaking off the climb with perfect cracks above us for seven hundred more feet. But I was tired, humbled, just in need of food and the rock above didn’t inspire, but it would soon enough, the rock always inspires the climber. Love always comes back around if you believe in it, maybe not in the same place, but if you keep climbing up the hill, keep waking up with the hope that with the new sunrise are new possibilities, you’re bound to find that magic again. Climbing, athletic and masochistic, silly at times for a grown man to be infatuated with it, it’s about love really, if you don’t love it, and the experience, well there are other things to do with your time.
I had a pizza dinner with my new favorite couple the night before returning to the climb again. I felt the love, no awkwardness being the third wheel. We talked like people talk when someone is about to leave. We explained more words to Normita, made plans to all meet up in Mexico over New Years. Norma would introduce me to all her friends. I’d get to keep working on my Spanglish.
It’s a great feeling to be ready for the big climb. Proper conditioning, nutrition and attitude; when those things come together, the dangerous activity of climbing is joy to share with your partner. You get out what you put in.
I woke up that morning and just had that good feeling in my mind and my gut. We leisurely got our things together, had a breakfast of soysauge and eggs, good protein, visited with the newest arrivals to the hostel of the Green House, Outward Bound instructors wrapping up their summer. There would be a small party, with more coming in tonight for beer and a bonfire, toasting to the end of the season.
We started late, not too late, just in time where we knew in our internal clocks of climbing experience that we could climb the thousand feet before it got dark. I asked Mark if I could lead the pitch that gave me such a mental battle before, he obliged, I knew he would. I went into the climbing aware of the difficulty the risk, not over-gripping the handholds, carefully placing protection into the crack. Still the nervousness-in-your-stomach-like putting it all on the line to ask a woman out was there, but that’s good, it lets you know you’re alive. The move sliding my right-hand pinky and ring finger barely into the crack then leaning left putting my weight on barely an inch of those fingers. I had pulled through. I was dancing, it was yoga, positive vertical progress ensued.
The climb was the best-ever because I had to try, really had to do, and I did. Mark, a Yosemite master showed me his vertical walking, but still grunted in sections. Some of the climb demanded that in the moment precision with just the fingertips and edges of my shoes on the wall, other parts half my body chimney-ed in a crack, with my elbows and knees and feet making the slow upward progress.
It is the physically demanding climbing like this that demands the mind stay in the moment. The breaks in between, when you are sitting on a two by two foot ledge tending to the rope waiting for your partner to join you, dangling a thousand feet above the river below is when the mind spaces out and thoughts travel.
I often think at these moments of repose, where is she? The next woman in my life, the one that will make all the awkward dating worth it, the heartache, the guilt, the woman that I’ve convinced myself exists. The one that has to be alive and struggling in love just like me, the one I’ll fall in love with that I’ll live from season to season with, finding intimacy and self awareness at an entirely new level. All the past lovers have given me great gifts, but past loves are like past climbs, they only exist in memory and don’t add up to much. I wonder, where is she, and when will she be ready for me, and am I truly ready for her? I look off into the distance, dangling my feet off the cliff looking into the trees, up to the sky, and say the unspoken prayer of what I want out of the rest of my life in love.
The last pitch was one of those bigger cracks where you have to figure out what side of your body to slide in for progress. It got so wide at one point I had no gear in, had I fallen it would have been big a disaster, a possible tumble fifty feet down the vertical rock.
Reaching the top of that crack, there we were, through the struggle. We shook hands, a team that had won, accomplished the goal. We were there, mentally, spiritually and physically.
The Outward Bound bon-fire, beer drinking party was full of outdoor educators who had wrapped up their seasons. The next morning folks would be off to Seattle, and Oregon, and the East Coast, and me to Colorado. On the phone, I tried to buy a last minute train ticket, only to find out they were working on maintaining the tracks between Utah and Colorado, I’d have to take a bus if I wanted to make it back for work on Monday.
You Can Go Back Home
The bus was less romantic than an old train, across the desolate strange vastness that connects the two Valleys, Yosemite and Gunnison. It was painfully slow, but I had a high and a feeling of satisfaction from the climbing. Part of the pain was that we had to go all the way down to Los Angeles when the direct route was just to head east. But in L.A. when I got on the bus a cool black fellow, asked me “what are you a base jumper or something,” when he saw my rope on my backpack. We went on to have the best conversation I’d ever had with a stranger. (Normally I bury my head into literature or fade into my headphones to avoid awkward conversation.) He told me his background, of being a young drug dealer, who’d spent a lot of time in jail, of witnessing first-hand killing in L.A. But he was a plumber now, who was into cars, and listened to any subject I wanted to talk about with sincerity. We talked about spirituality, of God, and he told me about his beliefs, I told him about mine. We talked about the power of prayer, and he told me that was why he believed in God. He told a story of his obsession with sex, and how he needed to move past it, how he could not focus or think of anything else, he prayed, and he was able to free himself from that bondage. I wondered if we were best friends in a past life, we looked deep into each other’s eyes when we talked.
It was almost exhausting the conversation, it was deep. I was relieved when he got off the bus to meet his woman. The bus ride went on forever. I listened to the same songs over and over on my MP3 player, and looked at rolling hills and thought about where all the other occupants of the bus were going; with little interest of actually talking to them to find out.
After an eternity the bus crossed over past that wonderful Colorful Colorado sign, and I realized I’d survived another climbing trip back into my home, and that I was going home again, and alive, and it was the end of summer, and the beginning of something.
I’ve slipped back into my 9-5 world, which is fine. I pay the bills and eat good food and have a roof over my head and I get to climb frequently and get to taste that feeling. We’ve got the Black Canyon here, our own Yosemite, even better in some ways, less crowded, more wilderness, and more pristine. A place that if even for a day, the mind and body can forget the troubles of flesh and indulge in the magic that is called rock climbing.
I’ve learned a thing or two about what I want out of love. I want what Normita and Mark have, I want the desires of flesh to be met, but to have that happen also with love and not lust. I can’t slip and give into the desires without it.
A couple months after returning Dave, another kindred spirit and mountain guide passed through Gunnison staying on my couch. Dave spends a great deal of time in the mountain climbing consciousness: months on Denali, the highest mountain in the U.S up in Alaska, and countless days on the rock in various Western States. Over a beer we talked about what mountain guys who are much softer on the inside than the outside talk about: climbing, the desire for home, and of course love. He’d met a woman that weaved into his intricate and delicate climbing life.
“You know,” he said. “Women are the greatest thing on this planet.”
I imagined Dave as a mystic searcher, like many climbers are and all human beings have the potential to be. He’s seen the freedom on a thousand days in mountain environments that many of us only glimpse in television commercials and in the pages of National Geographic. He’s been to the mountaintop and that was his gem to share to the valley below.
I thought about what he had to say, and I hoped on his next visit, that I would have a woman in my life to tell him all about.
Posted by Luke Mehall at 9:27 AM
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