I didn’t use to think much of shitting in the woods. Or carrying toilet paper out of doors.
But in these times where the white fluff is in such high demand, I’m reminded of a woman I dated who wilded me. For the first time, scatting outside was temporal.
Those were the days when toilet paper was abundant and antibacterial gel was a small bottle one of your germ-conscious friends touted around on their backpack or purse, attached by that silly little plastic lanyard thing. It always struck me as excessive, until you really needed it.
Gel and TP. These consumer products have become symbols of basic needs gone unmet. They are the tip of the spear; the trifling consumer-end of an axis with a lack of healthcare and job insecurity at the other. When people worry about their long-term viability we compensate by hoarding the graspable representation of safety. Think cash runs on the bank or re-stocking your “french toast” supplies ahead of hurricanes.
Anyways, let’s talk about pooping outside.
I’ve been outdoors.
I go hiking, backpacking, and climbing. I was in the Scouts.
Still, I can’t remember ever pooping in the woods. I’m not sure why, but there are some guesses: I’ve held a slight aversion; There has always been access to an outhouse; Strong bowels. Really strong bowels?
Then a funny thing happened.
A few years ago a woman came into my life that liked to relieve herself outdoors. Dang it if every time we went on a trip to nature did she take advantage to plop one down in it.
Take Poland. 16km outside of Krakow is a valley with lots of old rock. We stayed at a well-made campground with a restaurant and plenty of toilets. A road winds through the grounds to access the climbing areas. One morning, we decided to go further afield. The path was quiet beside the clanking of metal carabiners that matched the tempo of our stride. Then, abruptly, she handed me her gear and darted up the hill. “Don’t look this way,” she called as I milled around. “And maybe walk on a bit.”
Take two, in Turkey. We had a routine at camp: Morning coffee, breakfast, and milling about. We’d wait for the sun to warm the rock and stir our souls. She had a routine at the crag: Harness on, about to rope up, and a dash off to the woods. It was uncanny and consistent, no matter the efforts made ahead of time. “I think it’s something about the walk here,” she’d begin. “And knowing I’ll be high up on a wall.”
I found it amusing, a touch annoying, and often preposterous in that, “Really? Again, really?” kinda way. But shame on me for expecting a different outcome. Call me mad.
Still, you have to hand it to her. She was always prepared. In the least, she had a package of tissue—a roll of toilet paper at best—and one or two of those fiddly transportable antibac bottles.
Even then, in the presence of an incontinent conspirator, I can’t say I took advantage of the opportunity.
Her preparation has stayed with me.
Now, always a package of tissue paper in my bag. Rarely antibacterial gel. It seems like a waste of plastic. But certainly water. Always a bottle of water. Which is close enough.
Alas, the time came. (Drumroll, please). A few weeks back I did the deed out of doors. (I’m waiting for your applause).
Walking about an expansive high desert mired by red dusty dirt swirling about red dusty spires, my stomach became tense and fraught with discomfort. There was no way I was holding it in.
I plopped down behind the cover of a dry dusty shrub. Seek if you will, under pine needles and small stones, lays my forever accomplishment.
In this time of seriousness and tension, her mannerisms for relieving pressing personal needs makes me laugh. That she was ready, inclined, and consistent speaks to her comfort and adaptability in the outdoors. Which I always did admire.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some duty to attend to.
The sun sets over the hills northwest of the city. Where I’m staying.
A darkening sky fades into a dusty crimson. Mojave red and carnation pink simmers at the edge of the light, before settling below the tree-less mounds. I watch from the steps at the Plaza de la Alhondiga, as has been the case the past few days.
I get sick of being cooped up. Walking sets my mind free and clears the day’s mental cache. It’s the simple movements, I think. Like molasses spilling over the edge of the kitchen counter and pooling on the floor.
Yesterday, the trees across from the OXXO shone brilliant in blooms of robin egg blues. It’s an indication that spring is here. Or on the way.
Already the flowers are falling. Perhaps one-quarter of all that have blossomed have fled. They sit on the grey sidewalk, browning.
The grass, too, is starting to green. Interspersed as it is among the low stalky chaff, the color stands out. Again, spring is here. Or on the way.
Yesterday, they mowed the young grass. You know the smell.
Anyways, through the park with the fresh cut you eventually get to the grandstand where I watch the sun downing and people milling. Some are smoking, none are social distancing. Twenty steps up, or so, I sit.
The plaza opens below, and a young boy is dancing. Or rather, he’s half-running and half-whirling dervish. His mad cavorting is a public display of irreverence and imagination. He’s wholly smiling in ecstasy.
Part of me wants to join him, and then I see his mother (or is that his sister?) eyeing me. She’s far, and you can’t really make out the details, but something says she’s cute, and probably too young.
I go back to watching the sun slowly smolder behind the hills. The shadows grow long, and the boy keeps twirling. Keeps smiling.
I think, spring is here. Yes. And with it, fresh air, flowers, color, hope. I pause, get up and go on my way.
When I left for México in December, Coronavirus wasn’t a thing.
I took a news break for awhile and went about my day only vaguely aware of what was brewing in China. A few weeks ago, a curious increase in conversation and posts about COVID-19 started to populate my Facebook feed.
So the news sucked me back in. Whoa, what a wild time we’re living in.
While China was on lock-down, freely moving travelers (for business, commerce, personal, and otherwise) precipitated a long tentacular spreading of the virus around the world.
Ever since the numbers have risen across the state, the region, the country, and the globe.
Before moving to Guanajuato, a university city where I’m currently based, I researched whether students were returning there from China. In early February, 18 students came home from study abroad, though none of them had been in the city of Wuhan. Zero cases ended up positive, so I went from Querétaro to GTO a few weeks later.
In the meantime, countries the world over enacted various forms of preventative, and catch up, measures. According to Wikipedia, “245,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in over 170 countries and territories, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths and 87,000 recoveries.”
As the number of confirmed has jumped upwards, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), México’s populist leftwing President, has been gallivanting around the country to fundraise, raise spirits, and kiss babies.
Alan Miranda, who was making his first visit to Vive Latino and especially wanted to see The Warning, said he felt many people are overreacting to the potential danger of contagion at large gatherings.
“Because I consider it is more a collective hysteria than any other thing. In Mexico we have a culture of a little bit more of hygiene that helps us to limit this kind of transmissions,” he said.
From what I’ve seen, and people I’ve spoken with, their attitude has been comparably casual. Until this past week anyways.
The streets have been unusually quiet. At first I thought it was the crowd dispersal post-Rally Mexico (an international rally car race through the streets and mountains around the city, and which assuredly increased the odds of transmission). Yet, a few days on and it’s the quietist I’ve seen the place since arriving.
Speaking with a barista at a cafe yesterday, I asked about the downturn. She told me there were fears, people were staying home, and the shops downtown might close up as early as next week.
Event cancellations have been on the rise of late. The Guadalajara Internatioal Film Festival, originally planned for March 20-27, was halted, school vacations were moved up and extended, and some businesses are taking their own precautions by closing or letting employees work from home.
Hell, Uber has been more proactive than the government. They suspended 242 user and driver accounts who had contact with an identified carrier of the virus. Back in EARLY FEBRUARY! This was before there were any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, showing the forward thinking possible.
Still, no real official word on what to do from the President. So far, States have been the ones to take the mantle for delivering a response.
Luckily, México is known to have a strong healthcare system compared to most of Latin America. They have some of the best medical schools in the region, well-trained epidemiologists, and a basic public healthcare system for all. The population is also quite young, with just 7% over the age 65 (compared to almost 16% in the U.S.).
Ruy López Ridaura, director of the National Center for Disease Prevention and Control Programs, said Tuesday that 0.2% of Mexico’s population, or more than 250,000 people, could catch COVID-19 if there is a widespread outbreak.
Most will have only mild symptoms but more than 24,500 people would likely require hospitalization and just over 10,500 could need intensive care, he said.
Further, most of the hospitals are in urban centers, while much of population is widely dispersed, poorer, and far from the resources they’ll need. States like Oaxaca, Tabasco, Chiapas, and Guerrero may be at a higher risk than others.
You might ask, why the chilled out attitude from the government?
One theory is it’s the economy, stupid. Mexico is heavily reliant on tourism dollars, and they are already facing flat growth. Last time they shut the economy down for a virus, the 2009 swine flu, the economic pizza pie contracted by 5%.
Mamma mia, that’s a lot of dough!
I can see this on the day-to-day. Last week, I noticed the cost of my morning coffee has been going down steadily. When I first arrived, the Peso was converting at around 18 to the dollar. Today, it’s about 24. Good for me, bad for the economy.
Seems like the writing is on the walls. And with the closing of borders, I most likely need to leave now or stay for 2+ months. Yet I’m still uncertain.
Stay here and wait it out? At this point, I’m probably more likely to encounter the virus by traveling, and I have a nice little one bedroom apartment perfect for self-isolating. I’m not a major health risk to be a drain on the system, but…
Head home? In a worst case scenario–a shit hits the fan situation–the U.S. is probably the safer bet.
Outside the window, overlooking the pool, cherry blossoms are flowering pink bouquets, bright against the grey, and tulips rise up with slouched shoulders and frumpy bed head. Water percolates, circling back to collect in clouds, weighted vest air compressing, then streams its way into puddles. In the early morning it’s cold enough to chill the tip of my nose. Spring.
Last year I missed this.
I had fast forwarded to summer by flying through to acclimatize on another continent. In a matter of hours I advanced the months, April became June, like the the flippant spin of a radio dial. From where I’ve lived, only in New England does spring get it’s fair share of the calendar’s quarter system.
Last summer there were no lobster rolls. No fish flaked wet sand between my toes. No end-of-the-earth-piering off into the depths of the Atlantic. No heavy-packed days in the Whites. No barbecues (my god!).
Instead I traipsed about another eastern boarder, cross stitching old lines of Latin and Cyrillic, Capitalism and Communism, place and no place.
Actually, it has been like this the past four years (where does the time go?): Mountain View (2015), Accra (2016), New Paltz (2017), Budapest, Plovdiv, Lviv (2018). I, a roving settlement, a stick in one hand, a canvas sack with my belongings cantilevered at the protruding end. Leather straps on my feet.
If I had died before last year I may have been discontented. Pardon the macabre. My point is that I had wanted to travel since uni—I’ve since tasted the fruit and can put sense and color to a wanderlust palette, the wine glass has been tipped back.
That tipping and sipping could have continued while overlooking a wine-dark sea. After all, I should be writing this in Albania.
I was supposed to fly out last week: to Dublin, Budapest, Tirana. Flight 2233 ended up with an extra seat. Maybe it made the journey more comfortable for some other lone passenger.
Those feelings have two-stepped and shadow boxed together, seesawed and smelted, fusing at odd angles throughout the travels. A short time in new places make good on that urge to keep going, nothing and no one securing you somewhere. Until its not, and until that melts away too.
For the most part I was rootless, and felt increasingly so as the trip continued. No roost, much roaming. That’s what I went for, though.
Alas the tether was wearing, the leather thong frayed to thin bits. It snuck up on me, didn’t notice until I had been walking several miles on without a shoe. The gravel had been running roughshod underfoot, blisters and stubbed toes alighted the mind to pay attention, eventually, then abruptly.
The last few months were a bit of a trudge, then I came back for my brother’s wedding. It was supposed to be a temporary stay.
In a recent conversation, a young, spirited woman offered, “I think we travel to figure out which places are meaningful to us.” She’s settled into her own nest for awhile, to regain and rebuild a sense of place.
Something changed for me too. Something about wanting to feel connected, about shared memories; a return to old grounds and the chance to look at the land with new perspective. While the lure of the ponderosa pine or mediterranean limestone shrills from time to time, it doesn’t feel right to go back, or elsewhere, right now. In my neck of the woods there’s no Poseidon to piss off or siren’s lullabying; Destiny can be my own.
There are wood nymphs and granite gargoyles, though, schist golems and sonorous stream temptresses, wily foxes and three sisters. We’ll have our fun.
In the end, I had to step back from all the experiences of the past year to see the bigger picture, then step in close to examine the sand grain mosaic for what it is: A lot of little pieces, a collection of days.
For now the grand adventure follows a storyline closer to home, one day at a time.
A piece of me was left in Europe. It was one last thread to a year spent abroad, and to a relationship that no longer existed. I was set to fly out in a few weeks to retrieve it.
Then my flight to Dublin got cancelled.
In Grizzly Years, Doug Peacock opens the book in the wilds of Wyoming, in winter, when the grizzly bears get slow like molasses, a thick lethargy that sludges through their blood, and makes them want to bed down until spring.
He was there, out of season, not as a griz tracker, but as a troubled man needing to perform a last rites. A bear, one he’d gotten to know, was shot by a sheepherder, illegally. He now had the skull, cleaned by the tainted hands—poorly—strings of connective tissue hanging loose from the bone. Together, they sat by an open flame.
His daughter had said he should return the skull to her home, to bury a life prematurely annulled.
In the morning he would do so.
The day was three seasons in one. Cold rain gave way to damp gray then afternoon sun with a high in the 70s. These spring intervals are fickle just like the traction on the rock as they went from saturated to chalked up.
It’s this uncertainty of footing, of having to trust in the nature of things, of yourself and of the connection to something slippery, that puts you on alert.
I was supposed to be in Albania by now. But I willed the flight grounded.
The email came through, “We’re sorry to inform you…” I was sorry too, but I needed more time. I was awash in doubts: Should I go back? Do I really want this? Do I have to see her?
We were bouldering outside, it felt good to have my hands on sharp granite. I thought about staying and I thought of nothing at all. I thought about what climbing had meant in our relationship, and how that would be something we would carry forward in our woven narrative. I thought about wanting my gear back.
He took the skull and brought it to rest outside the den where the mother’s cub was settling in, left to its own devices from here on out.
The trouble with a change in plans is the need to communicate them with another party. We’d been trying to minimize talking, or at least I had, and I now needed to coordinate a new set of arrival dates, meeting times, exchanges.
The back and forth was hard for both of us. She lobbed a salvo,
“If you don’t really want to meet up, I could ship it wherever you need.”
I hadn’t thought of that, locked in as I was on a plan already set in motion; A march on a path that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be on any longer. The bigger trip was a tour through the Balkans, more climbing, more rootlessness. I had convinced myself I wanted to go and stopping in Budapest was the easiest course.
This new option was a cold shower for all of it.
The skull was placed in a willow that sat at the opening of the cub’s hideaway, to watch over it through their deep sleep. Peacock draped a small bear paw of silver and turquoise atop the skull. He spoke, “your fur against the cold, bear…”
The chrysalis was woven complete: Paper wrapping, padding placed, shipping labels printed and pro forma invoices filled out and slapped on. It shipped out Tuesday at noon, and with it our last tether severed.
Three days and two continents later the mail arrived on the front porch at 4:29pm.
“…When my skull lies with yours will you sing for me? The long sleep heals…
The package in hand marked the tying of our loose ends. The spool was finished.
What’s left is a tapestry, beautiful in its own way, perhaps misshapen, but uniquely ours. It was left unfinished and finished all the same. It’s better that way.
We’ll store it away and admire it for what we created together, a parcel of the past.
I didn’t realize how much baggage you could pack into a carry-on.
Three pairs of shoes, four pairs of pants, some shorts, enough underwear and shirts for a week. And all that shit about past breakups, of the romantic and business kind. Heavy. I’m glad they didn’t make me weigh it.
That tote, a Patagonia duffel in Skipper Blue. I had brought it while living in Mountain View three years ago, the last time I had been in Silicon Valley. It was an REI clearance find. A good deal.
Packing for this trip I hadn’t noticed the connection, it was just the best bag for the job. Just like the original intent, seven days of business in Reno. It all fit together nicely.
My clothes were scattered on the bed, it was an odd mix of attire and emotions. The feeling wouldn’t change once I arrived.
Flying in to San Francisco, we swooped in low above the green hills of Muir Woods headed south. Ahead lay a graph paper peninsula coordinated by buildings and strips of green painted slapdash through like abstract art with a minimalist flair.
The running commentary in my head was, “all those god damn houses.” I thought back to the excitement I felt the first time I arrived in SF years ago. My stomach tightened.
A few weeks back, in Boston, I got carried away by the idea of a business trip. It was the season that teases after all: Frigid temps that withdraw into snippets of Spring, before the rearguard battles back with the next cold front. Sunny California seemed like a reasonable excuse to escape the maligned battery.
But I didn’t have to come to CA. I suggested it to the company.
Why go? What was I hoping for?
I think, at some level, I was keen on making a return, to see what it would be like years later and without a connection to the area. To experience things as removed from a past life.
What I didn’t expect was all the emotion that was still wrapped up in the place. I thought about stopping by the old apartment. Imagined what it might be like.
There I am.
The smell of shade.
It’s musty with a breezy fragrance of flowers and pollen that streams in from the screen door. Dry leaves scatter about the patio behind a flimsy fence that offers little resistance to prying eyes.
I see the place empty, ready to be moved in. The opportunity for new memories, perhaps of just starting out: A family, a job. I’d tread through the living room, to the corner where we’d once set up a makeshift shipping station. Maybe peer into the kitchen and sniff the outline of Soylent shakes that sustained us for too many meals.
I’d tiptoe down the hallway. I can’t remember if the floorboards creaked, but going lightly seems important. The first room on the right was alien to me. There was a rug and a closet with board games that we never played.
The bathroom at the end of the hall was tight with a tiny window that looked out onto the trash bins for the compound. Decay and other funny smells would seep in while you showered. All for the low-low price of $3,300 a month. Perched on the shelf were bottles of microbes that allegedly ate the compounds that cause stench on the body. My roommate didn’t use soap to wash, he conscripted miniature beings to do the job for him.
The second bedroom was shared. It’s where I slept on the floor, on a mattress. It sat in the corner, and when I’d lay against the wall, reading perhaps, my feet would point to the floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the closet doors. I came to resent the reflection forced upon me each morning. Steve Jobs’ words, “Is this what I want to be doing today?” would cross the mind with increasing frequency.
Some days, when no one else was home, I would lie in bed staring at the ceiling fan lights, the blades circled like a drunk crow tied to a leash, round and round. I found that if I stared long enough at the argon-infused bulb the colors would melt out in thick strands of amoeba squiggles, rotating and twisting. The goal was to keep staring to see how far the mirage could go and to find that line where I was just on the edge of falling into some unknown. There was real fear of losing my grip.
Something beyond told me it was wise to avoid the depths.
In this imaginary vision, I’d lie there again to see if I could reproduce the effect. Maybe go over the edge, if I had the time.
The hope in this exercise?
Perhaps to exorcise ghosts, of her lying in the bed crying, disappointed in my not renting a car, of my selfishness. She’d have to lug bags to see her friend at Stanford. I was supposed to drive. We’d break up a few weeks later.
Perhaps I’d cry in that room in that spot, to feel the pain of let down.
I won’t make it to Mountain View.
But I’m just a few miles away on the other side of Palo Alto. It feels the same, a proxy but with better vibes.
The weather is cooler than when I arrived years ago, the cherry blossoms are in bloom. So much of what I tried to slice out of my life creeps back in.
I walk around to soak in ambiance, and listen to Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight, the album with The Modern Leper, The Twist, and Poke. I try to disentangle my own braided memories: A breakup, a dissolution of a dream, the splitting of a company.
The other day I sat staring at the comforter on my bed, crossing my eyes so the beaded leaves blended together. They mixed into a stereoscopic image of porous bone like you’d see under a microscope. There was depth to the chambers, I almost reached out to feel the calcified crust.
I thought to myself, “What would it be like if I could just let this all float away?” I sat with the idea and let myself smile.
The sailor’s knot began to come undone, and I think I’ll be able to leave here with a little less baggage.
He’s an immigrant and has to leave the country in a month. His two years are up but his daughter will stay. A home divided.
For years he scrapped to come to America from the place where Europe and Asia meet–or separate, depending on your perspective. He felt it might provide a better opportunity for his kin. He’s still not sure.
His wife had studied in the U.S., even earned a green card at one point, and then relinquished it years ago. Circumstances. Something about not being able to afford to come back for the legal work. They tried to make it this time around, but the two years wasn’t enough.
I met a guy. He climbs for his daughter, and to grapple with the upcoming calculus: The subtraction of 3-1.
Haruki Murakami was asked about why he runs, because as a prolific writer he also has an avidity for marathons. Both are grueling endurance activities, it makes sense. Anywho, over the past few decades, on average, he has runs 6-miles-a-day-6-days-a-week. He turned his response into a book, but that’s not important.
This is: He says he runs to create a void. He runs to not think.
I can relate. These days, climbing is the only activity that cores out quietude in a muddled mental world. Running used to. Hiking has, on occasion. But climbing is the only tranquil place for me.
So what goes on when I climb? Nothing much beyond what’s in front of me. It is silence, deeply satisfying and desperately needed sometimes.
If life is like a narrative, sadness is a theme in mine.
Perhaps I’m prone to be low, to live with a mild depression. I don’t find it difficult to get out of bed or question my existence, but often my experience is tinged with the dour. The sadness is like a cat in a city alley, always sneaking around in the background.
I’m sure this is part of the human condition. I know from talking with people and seeing it in others. But so consistently? I’m not certain.
Climbing happens to bring joy, but at minimum it creates a space for the heart to catch its breath for a bit. Like the cool down after Murakami’s latest 6 miler.
The guy at the gym is quite a skilled climber. It’s like art, he dances.
We recognize beauty, probably evolved an eye for it. Its hard to explain but you know it when you see it—a symmetrical face, a flower backed by gilded rays—what I’m trying to say is, his climbing is beautiful. Fluid movements flow into each other like a waterfall in reverse. Struggle is non-existent, his toes float by without a sound. It’s like he bends space so that every motion lands exactly where it needs to be on a wall that comes to him. No wasted breath. No extra effort. The flight of a bird.
I call him The Dancer.
Another climber and I were talking about him, The Dancer. “I asked him, how long have you been here today?,” he tells me.
The Dancer replied, “4-5 hours.”
“Whoa, man, how many days a week do you climb?,” the man followed up.
“4-5 days,” The Dancer said.
The guy’s eyes are bright, and he speaks to me as if we’re sharing a secret, “Well I guess we know why he’s so good!” He’s practically winking at me.
I’m not sure the guy thought to ask, “Why do you climb so much?” Maybe he knows and didn’t know that I know, so we talked about facts and not whys.
I had spoken to The Dancer before and I did ask why. I learned of his need to create a void. But I touched on a sharp edge that left tender fingers.
“I need to go climb now, I’m starting to think about my daughter,” he said. His eyes were dim, glassy, with salted water damming at the edges.
“I’m sorry, man,” was all I could muster.
It’s not about avoiding the pain in your life, per se, to seek these spaces of solace. But I can understand the need to go there to give your damned mind and heart a break.
The Dancer seems very much in touch with the realities of his situation. And he knows he uses climbing to grapple with the pain.
After carrying around that weight all day, to be able to unshackle at the gym must feel like an Atlassian weight off the back. I imagine that’s why it looks like he floats right along.
Some days are dark and heavy, others we buoy like a butterfly.
Whether we move through the world in flight or on all fours, we do so with what we have, where we are, and with our own ways of coping.
For what it’s worth, I hope we are all so lucky to find a place of peace, if just for a few hours.
“I was really excited to meet up with you because I knew you’d be gone in two weeks.”
Maybe I should have read the writing on the wall.
It’s that modern romance, man, the kind that starts with a match. We got to talking during a dreary February in Budapest, a city known for arresting architecture, stag dos, and Eastern Europe’s most blatant political swindler. I’d come to the city with dreams of writing and soaking in thermal baths, the idea stemming from a Wes Anderson flick that actually had nothing to do with Budapest itself. I’d only end up doing one of those things.
She caught my eye, and my swipe, because she was into climbing and had a rad photo of her scaling a steep sun-baked rock face with a siren’s call of sparkling emerald water in the background. That day, the sun shone brightly in the pixelated universe, you could feel the heat emanating from the screen.
We messaged back and forth and she’d speak to deeper topics, respond with thought and care. Intriguing. I’m no good at flirting, but we did a little of that too. We planned to meet at a bouldering gym for our first date.
The match moved towards the striker.
We met at UjjeroBoulder Terem, which loosely translates to “Finger Force,” on the south side of Buda, near the Petőfi Bridge.
She was taller than I expected, and late, which would be something I’d get used to during our relationship of ups and downs and angst over delayed periods.
She came striding into the cave-like entrance in a grey petticoat that she tied around her waist with the built-in belt, mid-calf black leather riding boots, and a blood red scarf wrapped around her neck.
I stood up to greet her.
The climbing goes and we spoke all the while like lost souls do: About life, dreams, poetry, the call of the mountains.
It all sounded wondrous, impressive, inspiring. I’d never met a woman who had climbed so extensively and she talked about these things cooly, like they were nothing special. She was smooth and smart and funny. I thought I’d hit the jackpot, and that the date was only going so-so.
It was my first time back to climbing in nearly 8 months, and she was much stronger and more technically sound. We ended with her traversing the entirety of the gym and my forearms too pumped and fingers too weak to do much but watch. I tried to act cool and not focus too intently on the leggings she wore. I decided to start climbing again that evening.
On the walk to the tram we were in the middle of a conversation about personal values and what it means to live well. We were about to part ways, or so I thought, when she asked if I wanted to get drinks.
I had tempered my expectations about the evening, figured she was only mildly interested and that maybe we’d have a second date. I guess I wasn’t so good at reading the route that night.
“This is an interesting conversation, so I’d like to continue it,” she said.
She’d end up making the first move after two fröccs, a Hungarian wine spritzer. She shuffled around the table to sit next to me and gave me a look that invited me to kiss her. So I did.
The match struck.
We fell for each other and decided to give it a go.
But not before some discussion. In a moment of blunt honesty before I left for Boston, she’d tell me, “I was really excited to meet up with you because I knew you’d be gone in two weeks.” She wasn’t of the mind to date, she said, but I had thrown a wrench in her plans.
We were together for the better part of the year. She’d teach me to lead and we parlayed that into my first and second ever climbing trips.
And yet imprinting is hard to shake, her comment would run through our months of quasi-commitment. I learned to expect the unexpected on the terrain ahead, that trust in your belayer is as important as the trust you have in yourself, that a partnership needs a common goal to succeed.
My guess is you can read the writing on the wall at this point.
The funny thing is, the gym no longer exists. They shut the doors and moved on to a new venture with the hope they could make it work out better.
Spaces come and go, but they hold memories, that’s what gives them significance: She’d learned to climb there and I’d gotten back into the sport because of it. Our lives danced about because of climbing, and it started at that gym.
Eventually the lights turned off and we’d never be able to go back to that place again.
You’d think there would be big epiphanies after 31 years of existence. But that’s not the case. At least for me anyway.
On one hand growing older feels like a discerning scribe capturing acute particulars of a scene. They are bringing the details into ever increasing sharpness. On the other hand it’s like taking a step back from a picture you’ve been staring intently at, only to realize the painting is much larger in scope and complexity than you realized from your first, narrow vantage point. And you appreciate that the things you look at change in composition depending on just how close you are to it.
Thus the boundary between 30 and 31 came to pass, and nothing perceptible really happened. I was flooded with a sense of sadness upon waking, got caught up in comparisons to a vague sense of where I thought I ought to be, rollicked in joy at all the years I (hopefully) have in front of me, and grappled with day-to-day existence type shit, like where to go for lunch and “I should really respond to that email.”
In the end, I got to climb and play with a dog so it was a good day (as are all days where I get to climb and play with dogs).
As part and parcel of aging, I like to reflect on the past year. Rather than share lessons learned (which tend to be overly generalized in order to be relatable), here is a list of 31 things I’m grateful for (which make me feel good to think about, and might add some brightness to your day too):
Supportive and loving family. Those that put up with your shit when you are younger, who encourage you as you grow, which are are there for you through good and bad… No idea where I’d be without them
Healthy body that let’s me move in the world on my own volition, that let’s me express myself through motion
The open, random, dance of the world; That you never really know where a day may lead
Good coffee and a good book
Moments of silence and stillness. Of feeling light, like you might float away; When weight becomes discarded and you are left simply buoyant, unburdened
The sense of no separation that arises in rare moments, typically in nature; An electric expansiveness you don’t know whether it will ever stop, is beyond your conception of space, and which is unimportant in the moment, because. Everything.
Lounging (and otherwise) in bed until the afternoon with someone you love. No cares but to be close, as close as you can
Running light and free through forests, fields, city streets, across hills, along trails, in puddles, up stairs, weaving between crowds
A big meal after a long run (usually pizza)
Wandering, openly, absentmindedly in nature. And, walking around cities without a direction other than to follow the initial twitch of interest toward a certain place
The way you feel engaged and tuned in to each movement on a rock face
Poetry and art that shakes you
Laughing so hard it hurts
That once-in-a-while orange that is otherworldly sweet. Fresh apples off the tree, sliced. Ripe peaches that unleash torrents of nectar down your chin and hand when you bite into it. Frozen grapes that crunch and cool. Blueberries off the bush in the mountains. Has citrus ever been so tangy?
For ocean spray spritzing away and the sound of rolling waves, especially over a pebble beach; A vacuuming crash then rainstick needles falling and spreading, all the small bits, rolling along, rocking back and forth, click click click, silence and air drawn in. Repeat
For sun rises over water or mountain, and sunsets from a hill
Watching dumb movies with friends and genuinely enjoying it
Of learning self-love and compassion. I’m pretty alright after all
Oh hands in dirt and watching plants grow. That smell of richly alive soil, fuming with a sense of time immemorial, which also happens to smell like minerals, decaying leaves, and belonging
For animals, so many animals: Puppies (they are all puppies), kitties (same story), sheep, chickens, goofy ducks, cows, etc.
The smell of fresh snow in a pine forest. The sound of it crunching underfoot. Similarly, the shuffling, swishing, crackling of leaves as you walk about in Autumn
The smell of a light rain on a warm summer day, all metallic and crisp
That look you get when you know she loves you
Laying in piles of powder and watching the whirling flakes dance across your vision. The feeling of snow sprinkles melting on your face. For that matter, drifting away in open fields on a pillow of grass and letting the sky fill up your visual field
The way Ollie still tinkles himself when he’s excited. The way Brin still runs away
Giving a small gift, or thoughtful compliment, or cracking a joke just to see her smile
Pocket-sized notebooks and a pen with ink that flows just right
The shedding that comes with a good laugh and a good cry
Getting up extra early for no damn reason, having the city to yourself and watching it wake up
People, books, and music that seem to come into your life just when you need them
That first step into a new land after a long, long ride
The sun beat down on the orange-hued sandstone, the faces of our party burned red and their shoulders glowed. I was surprised by the heat at Smith Rock in May. The sweltering sun couldn’t diminish how much fun I was having. That experience, that exposure, would influence my life in unexpected ways years later.
What is it about climbing that is so powerfully transformative?
For me, climbing was about being outdoors and the freedom of movement. I loved it at first pitch. That’s not the case for everyone.
For Stormy Saint-Val, climbing has been about catharsis and rejuvenation. It’s been about feeling comfortable in her own skin and learning to appreciate what you can accomplish today, while maintaining dreams of progress for the future.
She fell in love with climbing eventually, you could say.
“Do black people climb?”
It’s emotionally taxing to be a stranger in a strange land. When Stormy started climbing she only ever met two other black people at the gym, and one of the guys worked there.
Naturally, one might wonder, “do black people climb?”
“I’m black, I know I climb,” She laughed over the phone. “Is there a like a group or a Meetup? Some[place] where I didn’t feel marginalized?”
She wanted to know the answer, so she googled it. Naturally.
That’s how she found Color the Crag. CtC is a climbing festival in Alabama with a mission to help build community among historically marginalized peoples in the outdoor space.
She found her answer but she needed to figure out how to make her way down there, and how to pay for it all.
“I was so excited [to find it], but then I thought, I can’t afford this,” Stormy noted, dismayed.
Climbing isn’t cheap
The irony of course is that climbing can be free if you just walk into the woods and find a large rock to scale.
But it’s rarely that simple, especially as a beginner in a sport that requires a slew of technique and safety equipment. For perspective, climbing has become somewhat of a hoity-toity trending activity where a day pass at a swanky gym in NYC costs close to 50 bucks. Want to buy your own gear? An intro trad set, biners, a rope, shoes, and harness can easily put you back $500+. If you’re a working adult, sure, maybe that’s nothing for you, but for a college student or a guy working at a self-financed startup, money can be hard to scrape up.
For years I was living a white color paycheck-to-paycheck existence, meeting investors whose car cost more than I would make in the next 36 months. (Yea, I’ve made some questionable career choices, but that’s a topic for another day).
In Stormy’s case, five months at her local climbing gym would put her back nearly $800. As a student on a barista salary that’s taxing.
She resorted to clandestine tactics like pretending to be her friend and using her membership card. (She doesn’t recommend that). Eventually the gym worked out a special deal for her as a local ambassador.
“I found the grant three days before it was due. ‘Oh my god, is it worth it?,'” she asked herself. “‘Is this worth my time? How late am I going to stay up to write this application [tonight]? What are my intentions and goals [with this]?’”
She went back and forth contemplating the fear and disappointment of not receiving the grant, “And then [I thought], what if I do get it? It’s so much greater. And it was. I didn’t want to miss out on the potential opportunity.”
The everyperson adventure grant
The LYD grant is designed to help “the majority of climbers to pursue their goals, whatever those goals are,” according to Howard Sebold, the Metro NY Section Chair and head of the LYD Northeast selection committee.
This is specifically not for the professional climber. After all, they already get free gear, sponsorship dollars, and most grant money anyways.
Howard relays his own story, “I remember when I was first getting into climbing, and reading the mags—you read all this stuff these guys are doing that are rad, badass kind of things, and you’re like, ‘yea, I’m probably never gonna do that.’ Then occasionally you come across a story about [someone] going to Wind Rivers [or the like], and you’re like ‘whoa, that’s totally accessible to me, that’s something I could do.’ And that got me personally excited.”
That’s why the AAC decided to start the grant, “[the thing is] most of the membership is the everyday climber, the weekend warrior, guys [and women] like me— work five days a week, got a family, don’t climb as hard as I used to. I bring my kids out to the crag, just have fun.”
In the end, it’s about helping people go out and accomplish their own mountain dreams, “it really gives back to our members to help them get outside and climb, to pursue their personal goal.” Whatever they may be.
For the love of climbing
Life is often punctuated and defined by key inflection points, with a lot of smaller connecting-the-dots in between.
According to Stormy, Color the Crag has been a life changer: “Months later, thinking about all the experience and friendship that I gained from the festival, it completely changed my life.”
She goes on to say, “I’ve been able to eradicate this false narrative that black people don’t climb. There were 500 people there! These are a bunch of people that are also climbing that don’t look like what the magazines are showing, and what narratives you have grown up with.”
“It’s been a fuel,” she accentuates.
She still stays in touch with friends she made at CtC and has found a deeper appreciation for the sport as she’s progressed from VB to V2: “That’s what Color the Crag taught me: ‘be proud of your achievements and honor them for what they are.'”
Overall, the sport has “been a big tool in helping me build my awareness and my confidence in myself. It’s more than physical. And the problem solving aspect of it, too, is so fun. [I’ve been able to] apply problem solving to my own life [outside of climbing].” She’s come a long way from sneaking in to the gym and feeling intimidated by the VBs. She’s hoping to get over her fear of the harness and start sport climbing this year.
On my end, from that initial day at Smith Rock to leading my first 5.11a this past year, learning to climb has been a process of pushing through the fear and going after what I truly want to pursue. That is, in the face of the self-doubt, financial concerns, or whatever other objection I make up for myself.
This year, I’ve got a lot of normal, everyman-achievable goals: Climb 5.11 consistently. Do a multi-pitch trad route. Summit a 5,000m peak.
In the past I may have chalked these ideas up as unattainable, or at least highly unlikely. Probably wouldn’t even have tried. I’ve learned to let go of pre-conceived notions and to let myself dream, even if just a little.
We all have our reasons for climbing, and for some, our love of the sport is really about finding love for ourselves. Sometimes a little help along the way–a friend, a community, a dream–can make all the difference.
Want to apply for the Live Your Dream grant?
Howard shares some advice on what they look for:
1) Well-researched climbing objective. Be specific of the why, what, and how. For example, some people have detailed spreadsheets outlining their training plan and gear list.
2) Be clear with how this goal will help you personally progress as a climber. 3) Think about what it is like to review hundreds of applications. How will your application stand out? For one, tell a good story. (Everyone has a story to tell).