No Third Time Charm

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.

Prague. May 2018.



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.

Pirin Mountains, Bulgaria. June 2018.


Comfortable. Alone.

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.

High Tatras, Poland. September 2018.



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.



Photos by the author.

The Baggage We Carry

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.

Photo by Bambi Corro on Unsplash.

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.

Photo by the author.


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.




Feature photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

Enter the Void

I met a guy. He climbs for his daughter. 

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.




Photo source: UKC

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.




Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

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. 




Feature photo by Dorothy Lin on Unsplash

We Seek Suffering (Suffering is Optional)

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” ― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

The floorboards creaked and bowed under my weight. I stopped to move the turned over paint bucket–masquerading as exercise equipment–to the side, and hopefully to more stable slats. The soft thud of foot-up-and-foot-down became muted. I resumed stepping. 

Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. For 45 minutes.

This exercise is known as step-ups, and the beauty lies in the self-explanatory name à la description à la simplicity of action. The purpose is to prepare your body for uphill walking with a weighted pack (i.e., if you don’t have easy access to a mountain or you like the convenience of working out at home).

It’s a mindless task really. For the first 15 minutes or so it’s palatable. Then it becomes brutally boring. It’s nothing like walking or hiking or running in the woods. There’s no beauty to fall into, no change of scenery or rock or roots to keep our attention focused. It’s just you and a step. It’s self-contained, repetitive, and grating on the will.

In this Facebook group I’m a part of, some of the mountaineers will do step-ups for two, three hours. They say they go a little mad.

Why? For what end?

Because they’re a little off the rocker? Probably. (I hope to join them in that madhouse someday soon, though.)

But there’s more. 

This is about what the act represents: Literal steps towards mountain dreams. Because you can’t always be in the mountains, but you can train for when you do get there. Because you need to.

It’s about pain re-framed. It’s about defining your suffering, not letting it define you.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

― Haruki Murakami quoting a runner from a International Herald Tribune article, in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Suffering is our relationship to pain. It’s meaning making. We can choose to relate to the pain with purpose, even find enjoyment in it, or let it become misery.

For example, I choose to stay in shape because I know in the long-run it will be better for me. I certainly enjoy running, lifting, and climbing but not always. Some days you don’t want to be active–no way, hell no–but that long-term vision gets me out there more often than not because I’m pretty sure my future self is going to thank me. And lo and behold, usually after I get going I fall in rhythm and enjoy the activity. 

Let’s clarify a bit further about the companions of pain and suffering.

Pain is the physical and mental stabbings, the body breaking down, the mental fatigue. It is an inevitable part of life, especially if you’re into long distance running (as Murakami is) or have any sort of human relationship ever.

(For example, I’ve had a few parents now tell me a similar narrative, “Your children are your greatest love and joy, and they are guaranteed to break your heart.” You don’t get one (love) without the other (heartbreak)).

Suffering on the other hand is the story we tell ourselves about the pain. This narrative very quickly usurps the discomfort and frames the entirety of the experience. 

Photo by asoggetti on Unsplash

Pain Is Temporary, Suffering Can Last a Lifetime. 

Therein lies the crux of it: How we relate to suffering matters more than the pain itself because it becomes the experience.

Nothing Lost, Nothing Gained. Or Rather, Never Really Lived.

We like to think that one of our primary drives is to reduce pain. But what do you make of all the people that actively go seek it out? 

Ultra-runners, mountaineers, triathletes… These are long and grueling activities that no one describes as “fun” during the event itself. Only afterwards, upon reflection, does satisfaction permeate. Their pain is reframed into an appreciation of a project completed after a whole lot of work, and it brings a smile to one’s face.

These athletes often talking about feeling most alive during their events.

Why is that? In part, pain evolved to bring you to your senses, to make you acutely aware of what’s going on inside and around you. Pain helps you to live in the present.

What does this say about our values hierarchy as a species? 

For one, maybe we care more about accomplishment and personal growth than mitigating pain.

Think of it this way, the only time you don’t experience pain is when you’re dead. Maybe if you’re not experiencing pain you’re not really living.

Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash

Be Mindful of What You Spend Your Energy On

In this day and age, we say we want an easy life, but the irony is that we don’t really give a shit about something that comes without effort. What we spend our time on inevitably has meaning for us, and the harder we work, the more it matters.

Psychology backs this up, the Sunk Cost Fallacy suggests you are more willing to commit to something you’ve already invested in. The more energy you dedicate to something, the more devoted you feel towards it.

Perhaps in some small way that’s why people choose to spend so much time in their job. Because it’s the easy, most obvious thing to commit yourself to (wrongly or rightly).

The questions you might want to ask yourself: Are you clear with what you are trying to achieve at the end of this hard work? Is this something worth experiencing pain for? How are you framing your relationship to the pain?

One Small Step at at Time 

“Man, the bravest of animals and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche 

The room heats up and there’s a heaviness to the saturated air. The weathered light from the hanging bulb casts long shadows about the room. Sweat pools on my back where the backpack sits. In a short while I take a quick break to crack open a window. 

In the cool breeze I think of the pain and boredom, then of the majesty of mountains, and go back to take the next step. 



Photo source: Mountain Life

31 for 31: The Grateful List

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):

  1. 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
  2. Healthy body that let’s me move in the world on my own volition, that let’s me express myself through motion
  3. The open, random, dance of the world; That you never really know where a day may lead
  4. Good coffee and a good book
  5. Moments of silence and stillness. Of feeling light, like you might float away; When weight becomes discarded and you are left simply buoyant, unburdened
  6. 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.
  7. Lounging (and otherwise) in bed until the afternoon with someone you love. No cares but to be close, as close as you can
  8. Running light and free through forests, fields, city streets, across hills, along trails, in puddles, up stairs, weaving between crowds
  9. A big meal after a long run (usually pizza)
  10. 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
  11. The way you feel engaged and tuned in to each movement on a rock face
  12. Poetry and art that shakes you
  13. Laughing so hard it hurts
  14. 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?
  15. 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
  16. For sun rises over water or mountain, and sunsets from a hill
  17. Watching dumb movies with friends and genuinely enjoying it
  18. Of learning self-love and compassion. I’m pretty alright after all
  19. 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
  20. For animals, so many animals: Puppies (they are all puppies), kitties (same story), sheep, chickens, goofy ducks, cows, etc.
  21. 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 
  22. The smell of a light rain on a warm summer day, all metallic and crisp
  23. That look you get when you know she loves you
  24. 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
  25. The way Ollie still tinkles himself when he’s excited. The way Brin still runs away
  26. Giving a small gift, or thoughtful compliment, or cracking a joke just to see her smile
  27. Pocket-sized notebooks and a pen with ink that flows just right
  28. The shedding that comes with a good laugh and a good cry
  29. Getting up extra early for no damn reason, having the city to yourself and watching it wake up
  30. People, books, and music that seem to come into your life just when you need them
  31. That first step into a new land after a long, long ride

The Sound of Waking up Before Your Alarm Clock

I awoke at 5:56, been beating the clock for weeks. Why?

One. It’s probably because the bed is uncomfortable, a couch conversion that dips in the middle and barely fits my anything but tall frame. I go to sleep laying lengthwise and wake up diagonally, splayed.

Two. Maybe it’s the light flickering on from across the street, the automatic front entrance luminescence–that alien spaceship open-hatch beaming out into the night. 

Three. It’s a bad dream. Eventually, I’ll lay my head back on the damp salty pillow. 

I’m envious of the people who can remember theirs. The good ones. They talk of outlandish tales and I sit gripped pondering the Jungian symbolism.

I do my dreaming in the day. They consist of places to see, mountains to climb, of the woman I’d like to do it all with. 

I try not to wake up early from these. Sometimes life beeps and bleeps and reality catches up with you.




Next week is February 14th. 

That’s seven days.

You know how many girlfriends I’ve had, to bring chocolate and flowers to on this day of sugar hearts and Hershey kisses? 

Zero. 

Cupid’s slacking. 

Or maybe slow. Though, I met my last two girlfriends in the week between Valentine’s Day and my birthday. Will this year make it three in a row?

Periods also come in threes. Ellipses twinkling the continuation of, a break in the story so… to be continued, Beau.




“Do you like spending time alone?,” she asked.

“I do. I have a lot of practice with it.” I said.

I’ve spent 9.5 of my 12 adult years single. But who’s counting.

In two weeks I’ll be 31.

I’ve got an average of 48 years left to live.

Numbers. 

Numbers, numbers, numbers. 

I wonder if maybe I look hard enough I can find a pattern in them all. There is one common denominator. 




Math used to be fun.

Then life made it into a practical matter of quarterly reviews, your income statement, and if you really can afford that vacation you’ve always wanted to take.

I had to learn to like math again. To understand it means you can play the odds.

I figure life is a lottery, except we don’t really know the rules, and the house didn’t stack the game in their favor. Well they did, sorta.

Anyway, you take your chances in a 79 year average lifespan–look for the opportunities with upside, minimize your exposure, bet big on the things you believe in–and bask in the favor of Fortune once or twice.

In the end, math tells you things like we all approach zero over time. History is a fine complementary subject, if you’re curious.

An any rate, while you’re marked 1 and not 0, the key is to keep playing the game. Or something like that.




Illustration by Pete Lloyd


I don’t know much. But I’m good at parroting other people’s words.

A wise man once said that the life you live is a combination of the here and now and a fantasy for how you thought it all would be. 

Analyze any of your disappointments and you’ll see it’s the discrepancy between what you’d hoped for and what is.

A scientist enumerated that love comes in all forms, and that’s the beauty and difficulty of it.

A drunk said you should find what you love and let it kill you.

A preacher said to do great things. And if you can’t do that to do little things in a great way.

A climber said the real problem is that you think you have all this time. When you don’t.

A psychologist said that the health of our world is dependent on the integrity of the individual.

Well hoot, Japhy, what’s it all mean?

Maybe it’s that your life matters and you get too few spins of the roulette wheel. Maybe it’s that you should roll that damn ball for as long as ya can. Because you want to play, and not be a spectator, aye?




“Beep-beep!”

That your alarm clock going off?



Feature photo source: A Reciprocating Saw

The Day I Learned My Cousin Is a Professional Climber

I learned a few things that day.

Like how someone can hum with crystal glass vibrancy–the kind you can hear and feel.

Or how a gleam in their eye is gonna stick to you like burdock burrs after a hike in the woods. There’s no escaping it.

That’s how it was, talking with him about climbing. 

Beer at the Gardiner Liquid Mercantile. Photo source: Gardiner Liquid Mercantile


Perhaps my memory is faulty. If it is, I blame the craft beer.

We’d already drank two glasses each and they caused his cheeks to flush and my speech to slur slightly. It was summer in the Hudson Valley and the days were simple and long. Perspiration dribbled down our foreheads and the glass flutes.

We were sitting outside the Gardiner Liquid Mercantile talking about growing up and family. He was raised in Long Island and had longed to get away from the cramped quarters of that thin slice of land. 

He went to school at SUNY New Paltz and fell hard for climbing and mountain biking and his girlfriend. I can’t remember if he chose the school based off proximity to the Shawangunks. My memory is a bit hazy, like I said.

So the story goes, he climbed throughout college learning the trade of trad on the cliffs outside of town. Now he was the manager at the local climbing gym. “The Danager,” as the high school staff called him. 

This is where I sunk my teeth into climbing for the first time. That I do remember.

I hadn’t lived in a climber’s town before and wouldn’t have come through New Paltz if it wasn’t for the farm.

But there I was and I needed an outlet from the manual labor. The idea of climbing had been like a splinter in my brain, lodged in there from somewhere unrecognized long ago. I had wanted to try it yet never did. I started going to the gym, hence I met Dan.

As the season progressed, I fell into a rhythm and started climbing 3-4x per week. Mostly in the gym, go figure. It was like falling in love and the excitement of climbing got me through some damn drawn out days of hoeing and weeding.

I learned that the area had a long history: From Fritz Wiessner and Hans Krauss establishing lines in the 1930s and ’40s to a Nobel Prize winner coming up from Manhattan to set routes on the weekends (i.e., Shockley’s Ceiling, for William Shockley, a complicated character known equally for his racist ideas as his contribution to the semiconductor) to Lynn Hill’s first ascent of Vandals, which ushered in a wave of 5.13 climbs on the East Coast. 

More recently, Andy Salo, the almost Gunks lifer and local superhero had just completed the first ascent of Bro-Zone, a 5.14b extension, and the hardest route in the area.

On the other hand, it’s a quiet hippy-dip college town with plenty else going on. If you didn’t look for it, you could easily miss that this was a place pro climbers move to for their craft.

Dan asked why I was here in New Paltz.

I told him I had wanted to try farming for years, that I used to be in startups but wanted to pursue things that felt more right for me going forward. 

We clinked glasses to celebrate doing what moves you. As he raised his hand, I could see into his glass where his finger should have been.

Inside the bar of the Gardiner Liquid Mercantile. Photo source: Gardiner Liquid Mercantile


He asked if I knew anyone in the area. 

I said not really, that my cousin lived here, but we weren’t that close.

“He’s sort a of semi-pro climber, actually,” I added.

“Who is your cousin?,” he asked.

“Andy Salo.”

Your cousin is AaaannDDDDYYY SAAAAlllOOOOO?!?!” He practically fell out of his chair.

“I mean, he’s sponsored by like La Sportiva. He’s not semi, dude, he’s pro. He’s like a local legend.” 

His eyes were teacup saucer wide. His voice rose a few octaves and he emphasized the “d”, “y”, and the “a”,“o”. Bingo was his name-o.

I knew Andy had been sponsored but never really paid attention to the brands. The whole idea of him living out of a truck for years, traveling around and climbing, seemed alien. It didn’t fit into my world view when I was younger. I guess I kinda ignored it, chalked it up to frivolous vagabonding. Still, there was an element of intrigue that I couldn’t shake.

Was he the source of the sliver?

To be honest, I wasn’t close with Andy and wouldn’t see him my whole time in New Paltz. 

Well there was one instance when I’m pretty sure he walked past the cafe I was sitting in. But you get the point.

He had always struck me as aloof, a “my way or the highway” kinda guy. He certainly marched to the beat of his own drum, and I often felt I wasn’t welcome to join his parade when our families got together for the holidays or that one summer vacation in Colorado.

Maybe it was because I was young and we didn’t share a lot in common back in the day. Maybe it was because he was a “step-“cousin; we didn’t grow up together and haven’t had the chance to get to know each other much. 

My impression softened when I learned about his feats, from someone else

Andy and I spoke at my sister’s wedding–his cousin–in September. It was probably the longest chat we’ve had to date.

I learned that Andy is a pretty humble guy, and that his motivations are driven as much by climbing as the history of a place. (He studied geology in college because, “it seemed the least terrible” thing to major in, which is his way of saying he likes history. That’s my take anyway). 

We talked about the pursuit of what interests you (and the sometimes friction against societal pressure). We like to think we are all going after what we want, but in practice that’s not true. Andy certainly has beat that drum a bit harder than most.

Like the quartz conglomerate cliffs of the Shawangunk Ridge, there’s more layers to my cousin than I could see at first glance.

Before we parted, he invited me to go climbing with him.

After we finished our beers, Dan packed up and headed out.

I stayed to enjoy the last rays and ponder: What was my judgement of Andy really about? 

Often, the things that trouble us about another is a reflection of our own desires or behavior.

Certainly, I’ve felt a tension towards devoting myself to one thing. That singular focus appealed to me. Was I jealous of him for actually doing it? Was I projecting my own “my way or the highway” nature unfairly onto Andy? Maybe.

The last seven years had been spent in startups and at one point I thought that would be my shtick. Yet, here I was working on a farm gaining a pointedly new perspective. 

I wondered about unfair judgements I have cast on other people.

Sunset over the Gunks. Photo by the author


All that summer I had been grappling with what to do (for a career, in life, etc.). 

By the end of the season there was just one clear-ambiguous thought: I wanted to keep gaining a broader perspective of the world. 

In rare moments when I let myself dream–without all that bullshit of what’s practical or not– what I really wanted to do was to travel through Europe for the next year. 

I wanted to climb more. I wanted to learn mountaineering. I wanted to write.

A round of cheers brought me to. Their clanging glasses clamored about in my ear.

I got up and walked back to the farm in the setting sun, a burdock burr was stuck to my pant leg.


Header Image: Andy Salo sending Bro-Zone, the hardest route in the Gunks. Photo source: Whitney Boland