The first time I saw the canyon I was 21 years old, fresh out of college, and hungry for a wild adventure.
We drove from south Georgia up the east coast–through the mountains of North Carolina, up to West Virginia, further north to upstate New York, over to Chicago, and through South Dakota. I still remember the morning that we reached the mouth of Ten Sleep canyon; I looked up at the limestone cliffs that jutted out of the grassy hillsides like smiling teeth, and knew that the canyon contained something that I needed, something that would feed me.
I was just a baby climber at this point, with only a crash pad and a few leads under my belt. I had hardly any knowledge about climbing destinations other than the ones in the South close to my college. That morning, I had no idea that I was about to drive through one of the best sport climbing destinations in the country. All I knew was that I had to come back, soon, and that I’d better bring a rope and quick draws.
The next summer I packed up my van and hit the road again, this time driving from California to Colorado. My friends from the south and I had made plans to meet in Ten Sleep in July, and my stomach filled with butterflies the morning that I left Colorado to make the drive north to Wyoming. My dream was coming true.
Well, almost. Within five minutes of driving, I flipped my van making a sharp turn on a loose dirt road. I crawled out of my upside down van and started crying as I looked down at my body to find that everything was still there, and in working order. A tow truck came and an old man with white hair named Gary took me and my van into the nearest town.
How you doin’ girlie? Yer not sayin’ much, Gary said, turning down the radio.
I’m not doing so great right now, obviously.
Gary laughed. Not so great, huh? You don’t get it, girl. You’re sitting real pretty right now. It could have been a whole lot worse.
Lesson number one: Never fail to notice when you’ve gotten really, really lucky.
After a few days in Craig, Colorado, it was clear that my van wasn’t going to be fixed in time to meet my friends in Ten Sleep. I tried to rent a car, but regardless of my attempts at charming the woman working behind the desk, she said it was illegal to rent a car to someone under the age of 25. So I went to a place that rented Uhauls, and within ten minutes I was given the keys to a huge Uhaul truck. I drove it around town for a bit to get the feel of it, and then headed north.
My friends gave me a lot of shit (and still do) for showing up to Ten Sleep in a damn Uhaul. But that’s how bad I wanted to go. For two weeks, we climbed on the walls that I had dreamed about since the summer before. I felt held by that canyon and my friends, and I was blown away by the power that’s offered when you go do something that your heart yearns for. I had always thought that following big, wild dreams was just something that happened in movies, and that it was kind of reckless and juvenile. I had no idea that getting my ass to the canyon that summer was not only important, but also imperative to my well-being.
Lesson number two: The best way to take care of yourself is to go do what it is that you have always wanted to do.
The summer after that, I had been on the road for a few months before I made it to Ten Sleep. We went to Red Rocks and Joshua Tree and the Sierras, stopped in Maple Canyon and Lander, then drove north, to the place we had all fallen in love with the summer before. That trip was one of my favorites, because now that we all had a little more climbing experience, we could really start to push ourselves and test our limits. We all found out that we were a lot stronger than we thought. I climbed my first 5.12 and didn’t stop smiling about it for a week. Four of us made a pact to return to Ten Sleep every summer, no matter what directions our lives went.
Lesson number three: You’re a lot stronger than you think you are.
In the summer of 2014, none of us went to Ten Sleep, and it felt weird and wrong and as if we had betrayed something.
Summer of 2015. I knew I had to go to Ten Sleep, even if I had to go alone. Thankfully I heard word that all of my friends from the South were planning on going to the canyon in July. I hadn’t seen any of them in over two years, and I was nervous that maybe things would be awkward between us since I hadn’t seen them in so long and I had such a different life than when we all used to hang out. I thought that maybe the conversations would be strained, and that the easy, laid back dynamic would have been lost by time spent apart. What if they didn’t think I was funny anymore? What if they thought I was lame?
I pulled into Ten Sleep and once I hugged the shit out of each of them, I knew that nothing had changed between us. I could still be myself around them–I could do weird dances and make lame jokes and be a little stubborn and get cranky if I was hungry, and all of that was just fine with them. In fact, they liked me for it. And I still loved all of them so much. Nothing had changed.
Lesson number four: Regardless of how much time you spend apart and how different your lives become, you’ll always be able to have a blast with your real, true friends.
We got back at the car after one of our last climbing days of the trip, and we all kept saying how badly we didn’t want to leave. After a few group pictures, we piled into the car and started the drive down the curving canyon. All of the windows were down and the wind blasted my hair back, it trailed and whipped behind me. The setting sun turned everything in the canyon rosy and golden as it reached its long beams along the hillsides. We had the music turned up loud and no one spoke, we just looked out at the canyon walls with small smiles. I closed my eyes and felt the wind beating on my face. I wanted to make a wish for that moment to last forever, but I knew it wouldn’t change the fact that soon I would be away from my friends and out of the canyon again. So I only had one choice–I had to sip it all in, in that very moment. It was all too good–the light, the song, the canyon, my friends. My eyes got teary and I let out a long sigh. I opened my eyes and caught the glance of my friend in the rearview mirror, he was driving. We smiled wide at each other, laughing almost, at how ridiculously joyful life was in that moment.
Lesson number five: The only way to enjoy this life is to really notice when things are good.
I didn’t want that drive to end, but eventually it did. We said goodbye early the next morning, and I waved at their car until I couldn’t see it anymore.
I’m still in Ten Sleep right now, typing away on my computer at a general store called Dirty Sally’s. I woke up early this morning and watched from bed as the sun came up and bathed the canyon walls in a bright, summery light. The air smelled like pine and last night’s campfire. I was all alone, but felt less lonely that I had in a long time.
I’m delaying having to leave this place. I don’t want what the canyon has given me to fade away. I want more of its joy.
I thought my phone was broken today when it displayed the date as August 1st. But it’s true. The air is different, and there’s that slight feeling of winding down, of waning. But there’s really no use in fighting the fading of light. It won’t make a difference, fall is coming whether we want it to or not.
I’ve noticed that the more I allow myself to feel completely heartbroken, the higher capacity I have to feel joy. And joy is the best thing in the world, and I want more of it, and I’m going to keep doing things that bring it to me. So for now, I’m just trying to be open enough to receive that joy, and making it a point to relentlessly say thank you, thank you, thank you, to every place, experience, and person that has ever helped me feel loved.
Thanks for reading! Enjoy the rest of your summer. All my love,