Yesterday afternoon, I walked into my house for the first time since June. My Dad picked me up from the train station, I hugged my Mom, danced with my dogs, and looked out at the hills of Northern California from my back porch. Then, it hit me–the climbing trip that will forever in my mind define the summer of 2013 as the best time I’ve ever had is now over.
This is going to be a long one.
We spent a few weeks of June in the Bay Area, taking day trips to the beach and touring around my stomping grounds. Unfortunately Joe decided to go back home early, for many different reasons, so it was just me and Alex finishing up the trip. Yes, it’s a little odd doing something as intimate as climbing with someone who I used to date for many years…well, actually–no, it wasn’t weird at all, but people always assume it was weird or awkward or something, but I can’t say that it was. The more interesting part of it is the obvious fact that I was (am?) still in love with him, interesting because we both knew that after the trip was over, he would be heading east and I, west. We both want to be close to our families and our mountains, and unfortunately those things are separated by thousands of miles, expensive plane rides, and the Rockies. I am lucky because the mountains I love the most just so happen to be close to my family–it feels like the only time when geography has been on my side. For years, Alex and I have done the whole sacrificing thing, where one of us will give up something in order to be together. Or when we get stubborn we’ll do long distance, or be half-way together, or say we aren’t together but still text each other goodnight. But this was pulling us out of the present, and it was just too heartbreaking, so we decided that it’s time to stop forcing things and to accept the fact that we are too young to be doing something as mature and selfless as sacrificing. That word is for old responsible people with children.
This is what I have to keep telling myself.
Alex I have always felt like two parallel lines that never touch. Our lives lead similar courses but rarely cross naturally. Trying to pull those lines together is tiring work and we don’t feel old enough to be doing things that require such energy. We also want each other to be happy–I see the way his eyes soften when he talks about home and his family and the granite in North Carolina. His heart beats for the south, and I want him where he is happiest. I truly want that for him, I’m not just saying that because it’s the right thing to say and it makes me look like a nice person. I really feel that way.
So, in late June we headed down to Tuolumne, without Joe but psyched nonetheless. We had big plans for Tuolumne, but those plans changed quickly when one of my wisdom teeth started causing me a lot of pain, a fever, and overall tiredness. Despite my tooth and Alex telling me it was okay if I just wanted to rest, we decided to climb Cathedral peak. I was cranky, exhausted, and in pain, but it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever climbed and seen. I woke up the next morning psyched but knowing I needed to do something about my tooth, so my dentist called in a prescription to the nearest pharmacy which happens to be in Mammoth, on the other side of Tioga pass. Alex’s old Subaru was doing fine going down the pass, but we realized that heading back up the pass to return to Tuolumne might be pushing our luck. So from Mammoth we decided to go on to Utah.
Have you ever driven through Nevada on Highway 6? Do it. There is nothing in that part of the country–no people, no buildings, just a few gas stations and a lot of wind. The sun had just dipped behind the mountains and we both felt hypnotized by the flatness of the road. I already miss the Sierras, I say, after an hour or so of silence. Alex nods and looks at the understated sunset. He pulls over to the side of the road and we stand in the middle of the highway. There are no other cars in sight, just land. The landscape of sand, sparse sage bushes, and our two bodies are hued with a pinkish orange from the dusk. The wind rushes by our ears but there is a quiet around us that doesn’t exist anywhere else I’ve been. Even exhaling feels disruptive. The tailwind is strong and the strands of hair that have escaped my ponytail whip my face. My skirt gets pulled tight on the backs of my legs. The wind is pushing us East and out of the Sierras, with a power that still creates wonder within me as I write this. All of my wishes of still being in Tuolumne get pulled out of my mind, and I know we are going the right way.
I have been to many places where God was quite apparent, but never before have I felt such an undeniable force than I did on that midsummer evening in the Middle of Nowhere, Nevada. God, or whatever it was out there, doesn’t wait to show itself until you’re without a tooth ache, when your finances are all in order, when you’re showered and clear-headed–no, it often reveals itself in the most random of times. Or perhaps it’s in a constant state of revealing itself, and it’s just a matter of recognition.
Or maybe we were feeling ethereal because Alex bought one of those tacky candles with a picture of Lady Guadalupe stuck on it that you can get in the ethnic foods aisle at Safeway, mostly as a joke, but also as a trinket to protect us on our journey. It worked, and she watched over us from the cup holder on the last months of our trip. Sometimes I would kiss my raw, chalky fingertips and touch them to her face after a day of climbing. Mostly as a way to make Alex laugh, but also as a sincere thank you to whatever has blessed me thus far in my life.
We plan to climb in Utah, but it’s 100 degrees outside and Maple Canyon looks like an outdoor climbing gym, filled with people and tour groups and portable speakers. We leave as quickly as possible and start the drive up to the least populated and my second favorite state in our nation, Wyoming. The town of Lander is where we’re headed, with the cliffs of Wild Iris and Sinks Canyon on our minds. Lander is beautiful and the locals are so welcoming, so interested our stories as climbers and travelers that even after almost three weeks we found it hard to leave. Our mornings were spent drinking coffee under the cottonwoods in the park, days were spent climbing, and in the evenings we watched the local theatre group perform a Shakespeare or a band play in the park that the people of Lander so graciously let us call home.
You haven’t experienced Forth of July until you’ve spent it in Lander. For eight hours straight, there were fireworks exploding on all 360 degrees of the horizon around us. There is such an unbridled joy about that town, people love celebration, this country, summertime, and each other. The old ranchers, the cowboys, the housewives, the NOLS kids, the climbers, and the cyclists all get along. This surprised me, because Wyoming is just about the Reddest of the states and in my past experience I have found that most who vote this way have a bit of a problem with people who live in a way different from themselves. In the state of Wyoming, this is not the case. People are interested in different ways of living and want to know your story. They smile a lot and look you in the eye and are pleased to know that your life, however different it is from theirs, is in any way making you happy. It is an approach to “freedom” that is rarely experienced other places–people are really able to do whatever they damn well please. You do what you want, I’ll do what I want, and we won’t fight about what’s right or the best.
This made me think of yoga. And how most forms of yoga are so regimented, do this and don’t do that, this is good and will make you happy and this is bad, how eating meat is wrong and eating kale is good, follow these easy steps to forgive someone, this is how a certain posture should be, experience this, let go of that. Enough already. Yoga should be something that frees us from rules, or that lets us create our own set of rules and break them all over again, without feeling guilt because we ate a frickin’ cheeseburger. Any practice that minimizes your freedom, in my book, is the opposite of what yoga should be doing for us.
Sorry for the side note. Back to the climbing trip. Where was I? Oh yes–Lander, Wyoming: the place where I learned that there is a difference between being a Republican and being an asshole.
And then, Ten Sleep. About two hours north of Lander, there is a town with a population of roughly 200 (and that’s generous) located at the end of a canyon with walls of limestone and dolomite that are my idea of climbing heaven. Vertical walls, beautiful rock streaked with blue and gold, and an adventurous vibe. The canyon goes into the shade at about 2pm, so mornings are slow, spent swimming in Ten Sleep creek and playing cards. By the time midday rolls around you’re so ready to climb that you want to run up the steep trail to the cliffs, and you climb until the light dims so much that you can barely see your friend in front of you as you hike back to the car. The climbing in Ten Sleep is made up of natural, flowing movement that requires grace, balance, and a brain. Brute strength and hours in a climbing gym won’t help you here–you have to be smart enough to read the route, anticipate how it will evolve, and keep your head together as you weigh your feet and trust tiny hand holds. If I could spend every day climbing in this manner, I would, and did–for almost three weeks. Just to add to the perfection that Ten Sleep is, our friends from college, Kyle and Matt, drove up to Ten Sleep from Denver to climb with us. I was climbing in one my favorite places with some of my favorite people. I was in heaven, and I did not, for any reason at all, want to go home.
Since early April, we have chased the springtime. In every place we went, as soon as we saw any signs of late summer–the grasses drying, a stillness to the air, the creek level dropping, back to schools ads, or people being unimpressed with a perfectly warm day–we would flee to a higher elevation, a place still in bloom. For months we avoided any indications that this dream of a trip would one day be over, and it worked. Every one of our destinations was dense with caterpillars, bees, lavender butterflies, wildflowers, and roadside fruit stands. Everything was bursting with water and greenery. Once we left Ten Sleep–with all of its healthy grasses and wild raspberries and afternoon thunderstorms–and drove back down to Lander where we had been just three weeks prior, it was very apparent for the first time this summer that time had passed. The vibrant purple wild iris that carpeted the hillsides near the cliffs had disappeared. The grasses were significantly browner than before. The air felt drier, the winds were soft. It was dusty. It was August.
Time does weird things when you’re on the road. You know on a basic level that the days are passing, but an awareness of someday having to go back home becomes so dim. Every moment while you’re on a climbing trip is so illuminated that the days just flow into each other. You sleep so well and dream so often that waking life and dream life hold the same importance. Even when the passing of time starts to manifest in very physical ways–longer hair, the calendar on your phone telling you to change your contacts, car insurance being due, running out of food–your brain doesn’t fully understand that this means the end of your trip is one moment closer to being over. Because you are so in the present, so in the now, experiencing everything with the widest of eyes. But then one day, you wake up and have hair on your legs, you’re out of water, and you’re scheduled for a shift at work in a few weeks.
We drove down to Denver, to Kyle’s cousin’s house where we all had a fun time freaking out about things like having a roof over our heads, Chipotle, couches, sushi, the refrigerator, taking a shower, toilets, the sound of car horns, and how you smell a different odor every time you inhale in a city. We went downtown one day to get some lunch and buy books, and I got a glimpse of myself in the reflection of a clothing store window. My pants still had chalk on them, my hair hadn’t been brushed in God knows how long, my face was naked of makeup and the shirt I wore hadn’t been washed since mid July. I had deep cuts on my knees. When I shook the hand of a woman who asked if she could sit next to me in the market, I was highly aware of the dirt under my fingernails, the scabs that covered my knuckles, and how my rings no longer fit me because of how a summer of climbing will thicken your tendons.
For a moment I felt so out of place that I wanted to go into Forever 21 and buy something cute and clean, maybe I could duck into a Sephora and coat my bare lashes in some tester mascara. I wanted to be able to tell this woman some normal sounding story when she asked why I was in Denver, I didn’t want to feel different or out of place any longer. I started to feel the glow that the summer instilled within my bones being drained out of me. It is so easy to let that happen, you have some life-giving, joyous experience where you feel changed, anew, so much like yourself, and then you just let it get syringed right back out of you by the city, societal pressure, bad times, or fear. Then you’re left with a body lacking any spark, glow, psych, or love. It has happened to me before, and this time I was prepared for it and ready to hold on to the magic. So after a few minutes of wanting cute clothes and a normal life, I laughed a little, sat up a straighter, and told the woman who sat down next to me why my hands were so torn up and the story of my summer.
So you just went from place to place, climbing up the rocks? she asks. I nod. This is usually the moment in a conversation about my lifestyle where I tense up, change the subject, feel so far from a normal person that I blush. I feel the same way when people ask me about why I went to Georgia for college. Or what I studied in college. Or what I do for work. Sometimes it’s tempting to tell people I studied business at Chico and work in the city at some kind of recruiting firm. Less questions, less judgement, less feeling like a weirdo.
But this time, when this nice woman asked me about my life, I answered with confidence. Although I respected her, I didn’t really give a damn about what she thought of me. It was a great feeling.
I decided to take the train back to California from Denver, and it turned out to be one of the better decisions I have made. The 33 hours on rail gave me the time I needed to transition out of climbing life and back into working life, to tell strangers my story, to write a whole lot, to read, to do nothing at all but look out the window and notice how the country side changes as you travel west. Riding on a plane distorts geography and while it’s convenient and time-saving, I wanted to feel every mile that separated me from being home. Those hours aboard Amtrack were very necessary for my sanity.
I came to many conclusions (I think). I questioned why I love climbing so ferociously, why I live for summer trips and weekends down in Bishop, why I am so afraid of the working world and driving down Ashby. It occurred to me that climbing gives me freedom, freedom from many things, but mainly that it gives me ultimate freedom to be simply just be myself. I am so comfortable with who I am while on the side of a rock, and rather uncomfortable while doing normal things like going to the grocery store. The people I meet while climbing are so easy to be around, because I never feel I have to cover anything up or be anyone other than who I truly am. I laugh more often, admit to every flaw I’ve got, tell stories without wanting to impress, and hug people tight without wondering if I smell bad or if my clothes match that day.
What I truly want is to be able to feel the way I feel while climbing every day of my life, even if no rocks are involved. I want that freedom, even if I am squeezed between a hundred stressed out people while riding Bart, or being honked at on highway 24. This time I want to keep my glow, and not allow the city to drain it right out of me.
This is so important. As humans in the modern world we so easily lose our spark, that wild feeling that comes from being in nature or loving someone or being young. We forget that we are just joy, the human emotion of joy, trying to express itself. That’s all. Even the sadness, addictions, wrong decisions, hurtful actions, the depressions–this is all just joy’s attempt at articulation. When we lose our glow, so goes the joy, because we forget what we’re actually made of.
There are reminders of this joy, that we so innately are, everywhere. Whether it shows itself as a car ride through Nevada, fireworks on Forth of July, climbing something really beautiful, a grove of wildflowers so dense you don’t want to walk through it, feeling like putting on makeup as you walk through Denver, swimming nakie in Ten Sleep creek, wishing a train ride would never end, or loving someone who you just can’t seem to figure out a way to be with–these are all reminders of one very simple truth:
We are love, trying to express itself. When we feel free, we can express this love in a way that will feed our glow.
I got to spend the summer climbing almost every day with people I love very much. At night as I drifted off to sleep, I felt exhausted in the best way, emotionally at peace, and my abs would still be sore from laughing so hard with my friends after dinner. I felt more like myself than ever before, because I had spent the day expressing and declaring to the world: THIS IS ME.
I just have to keep doing that, whether I’m on a rock or not.
I hope you all had an amazing summer as well. Thanks for reading the long post, I appreciate it! Goodnight.