Monday, December 28, 2009

The Lost Generation

The walls were closing in on me. After work, I stood in the meadow. El Capitan and Middle Cathedral moved ten feet closer each day. I barely rock climbed any more, spending the majority of my time sanding and painting a house in Yosemite West. I went to the job site late and made up for it by leaving early. The pressure of working a menial job and being too tired to climb tore at me. I needed to escape to find something new. I had contracted ditch fever.

Aaron checking out the climbs at the Red

A native Kentuckian, Aaron wanted to leave Yosemite to visit family and meet up with Hayden, a fresh out of high-school sport wanker and his upcoming partner for a trip to Patagonia. The Red River Gorge, home of the State’s largest concentration of quality sport climbing, sat a mere half hour from Aaron’s home. When he mentioned splitting gas at the job site, I immediately tossed two liters of high octane energy drinks and a batch of homemade brownies into my station wagon. We escaped the vortex of the ditch and the staleness of staying too long in Yosemite, pounding out the 2500 mile drive to Kentucky in a 48 hour continuous push.

Aaron, Matt, and Hayden to break a tree at the Left Flank

Though I’d been in Yosemite for a few months, I arrived at the Red not having climbed for a few weeks. I wasn’t out of shape; I consider round is a shape. I started climbing Monday, checking out every crag, trying as many routes as I could. I was psyched. By the following Monday, I could barely make it up the warm-ups. I was worked. Apparently, seven days of climbing makes one weak. At the top of Tuna Town (12d), one of the uniform jug hauls that the Red is famous for, all the climbing hit me. I got jazz hands and Elvis legs. I pulled up the rope, trying to clip the anchors. My hands slowly opened as I shook like an autumn leaf. I whipped. The ground rushed towards my face. This was insane. The biggest impression I’d leave on the earth would be a two foot crater where I decked. Why couldn’t I find a nice safe desk to sit behind? After seventy feet of screaming, the rope slowed. Hayden launched to the third bolt, and I came level with him.

Local cowboy Cory Herr on Flower Power at the Madness Cave

Hayden climbed with slightly more success. On the left side of the Mother Lode, at the GMC wall, 8 Ball (5.12d) follows an obvious corner system, arching rightwards as it nears the anchor. The fumes off a blunt of “Kentucky Dro” drifted across the Madness Cave as Hayden finished his bowline, and shot up, trying to onsight the technical route. He used his ninja footwork up into the corner and then to the base of its arch. A line of chalked holds followed the arch out right. Instead, Hayden headed straight up a desperate path of unchalked crimps in no man’s land. The vision quest began. He wandered about the face with his elbows pointing skyward and his body shaking. He fought to the anchors and managed to pull it off, despite climbing completely off route.

“I could see how most people get suckered out by those big chalked holds to the right. The crimp sequence above sure was heinous.” For the most part, the climbing at the Red is straight forward. Crimp left hand, crimp right hand, pull up. But even the best get lost. They go on these vision quests, the rights of passage where they struggle, get lost, and realize a bit of who they are.

On the drive back to camp from the Mother Lode, the fall sunset turned the clouds a thousand shades of orange. Hayden choked up. That night, he bought the after adventure beverages from the beer trailer on the county line. Maybe he found a bit of himself because that night he got lost in beer.

Hayden on Take That Katie Brown 13b

After climbing for a few days, Hayden, Aaron and I rested at Aaron’s cousin’s apartment in Richmond. The Slade Weekly ran an article about the local community law enforcement. The chief of police wanted his officers to command more respect so “Officers who grew a mustache received a 66% increase in pay.” The town’s class was made more evident when we ate breakfast at a greasy diner, the Waffle house. The snaggle- toothed waitress said “Ok, sugar” when I ordered pancakes. She said “Uh-huh darling” when I ordered orange juice. I wanted to order bacon but I was afraid she’d call me her boyfriend. While I wanted to get lucky in Kentucky, the idea of trapping myself in a place where most genetic characteristics go to die, scared me. Plus she could have eaten corn on the cob through a chain link fence. Before we left, I stopped to reconsider. Maybe she was the girl for me. After all, she had something the three of us didn’t- a job.

Me climbing some 12a at the Left Flank

Business Weekly discussed the current high rate of unemployment coining the term the “Lost Generation”- the young and unemployed, who have been disproportionately affected by the economic down turn represent an enormous demographic. Unable to even grab the first rung of the corporate ladder and faced with a depressed income due to being stuck in a career below their educated abilities, this group of high-school drop outs and college graduates are lost in America. Some of them, like me, found their way to the Red River Gorge, and more accurately, the camping behind Miguel’s Pizza Shop. They wander about causing trouble, roaming listlessly, and contributing to society only through their basic consumption.

Late night fireworks on the road by Twinkie

A 30 rack of Miller Lite in camouflage cans sat next to a gravity bong at the camp site. A high school student in Richmond kept us in heavy supply of ounces of brown stems and seeds that were bricked together and called “Kentucky Dro”. Our basic consumption, the cheap beer and brick weed usually kept our insanity at bay, but more often it ignited Aaron. After a blunt and a six pack, he’d shout, “I do what I marijuana!” He shot bottle rockets and M-80s at anything that moved then started enormous wax fires causing mushroom cloud explosions that lit up the field around the camp fires. Aaron let loose; he had escaped a long summer of humping haulbags, sanding and painting houses, and stacking wood. He scrounged his dollars and bought his ticket to Patagonia, trading his manual labor for a career in big wall climbing.

Aaron's wax bombs

After more pyrotechnics for Aaron, more huge whips for me, and more desperate onsights for Hayden, we spent another night in Richmond. At midnight, Hayden rustled on an air mattress when the door suddenly opened.
“This is my house and I need to use the phone.” A tweaked out woman barged in screaming, “I won’t kill you.” Hayden evaluated the woman from his sleeping bag on the living room floor.
“Uhh…,”Hayden said. He attempted to listen to her rapid fire gibberish and provide some advice but she only stared and babbled on.
In a moment of complete maturity; Aaron offered the woman some direction. He propped up on one elbow and yelled from the couch, “You’re lost. Now, get the fuck out of here. “
The tweaker pivoted on her heel and bolted from the house, slamming the door behind her.
Hayden pounded up the stairs, running into the guest room, and waking me. “Dude, did you hear that? She was tweaking and randomly came into the house. Weird.” Hayden watched her run across the back yard towards another Kentucky townhouse. “Dood, on a scale of 0 to 1; I think she was a 1.”

Hayden on Table of Colors 13b at the Left Flank

The Kentucky weather soured when we got back to the Red. Hayden and Aaron left for Colorado to train for their upcoming Patagonia trip and prepare for their Gasherbaum 5 adventures. I drove west to the next crag. The radio played a song about a cowboy casanova who broke hearts all across the Midwest. I tuned it all out, watching the odometer click off two thousand miles. The endless flats of Oklahoma forced me to reflect, something the whirlwind of Kentucky hadn’t let me do.

Hayden and I fighting at the Overtow wall

Climbing offers an easy escape, a justifiable excuse to ditch out on sanding and painting, an opportunity to forget about the despondent economy, and the possibility of a life behind a desk or worse, a mop. It’s easier to climb than to grow up. But was I just treading water rock climbing? Was there any sense in it all or was my life just a series of scrambled adventures: tweakers busting into the house, huge whippers, pyrotechnics, and the search for a “1”. I stopped the seriousness of my thought. What would Hayden and Aaron do? They’d say “fuck it”, turn the radio dial, and search for gangster rap in middle America.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Plastic Prince

Snow blew in through the window of my red station wagon. Inside was a nuclear meltdown: sweat soaked my cotton shirt, and my palms wet the steering wheel. I drove 13 hours before deciding that Boulder was in the wrong direction. I had planned to devote myself to three months of writing and climbing, to buckle down and make my dreams of being a real writer and rock climber a reality. I was also headed to a future with no money, no place to live, and an intense feeling that I had been living this lifestyle for too long.

On the side of the road, I called my twin brother and told him I was returning to his couch in California. I needed to kill the bohemian inside of me. For eight years I had lived the dream, traveling and climbing. But after nearly a decade of hopping between crags, living in a tent, and scraping by on peanut- butter-and-jelly sandwiches, I wanted to be more than a dirtbag. I wanted some security, a steady income, a sense of home, and some companionship. I wanted to be a regular member of society.

Moving to Berkeley, back to California, meant that while I searched for a career I would have to stay in the city and away from the walls. Adjusting from the dirtbag lifestyle to a normal one involved trading real rock for the unknown of plastic. Still, I approached the climbing gym with confidence. I was a seasoned veteran with ascents of El Cap in a day, onsight free solos of 5.11, sends of scary trad climbs and pumpy sport routes. How hard could gym climbing really be?

John Schmid nudged me toward the front desk of a Bay Area climbing gym. Apparently, my longtime climbing partner knew how to smuggle me past the entrance fees, a hurdle that had always kept me out of the gym. John waved his membership card, mumbled something about a guest pass, and then loudly announced my name: “He's kind of a big deal." And they let me in for free. This was going even better than I thought.

At the lead cave, I groped the plastic on a tower and stared down at the rainbow of tape dotting the footholds. I grabbed an orange hold with black tape and white spots then realized that I needed to crimp the black hold with the white tape and orange spots.

Searching the kaleidoscope of holds, my forearms bulged and I froze. In a last-ditch effort, I threw for a jug above my head. I hit it, stuck it, but then the wall spit me off. The hold spun. It kept circling as I slumped onto the rope. I had tried hard on Midnight Lightning but had never managed to spin anything on it. I lowered to the ground, dejected.

John said cheerfully, "Why don't we boulder? Maybe then you can become a real gym rat."

John was a Jedi knight. A former dirtbag climber, he had transitioned to the city well, and now had a successful nursing career, a beautiful girlfriend and an unbelievable ability to crush indoors. He was my role model—a real rock climber and a plastic prince. I followed his lead to the bouldering cave, and launched upward. A tiny series of polished holds had spit me off nine times before I finished it.

"Yes!" I screamed. I hung from the top with intense satisfaction. This almost compared to an ascent of Astroman. I was well on my way to being a badass gym climber. I smugly dropped to the ground, and searched the start holds for the grade. "Vfun," it read. My jaw dropped. This boulder problem was easier than V0? My ego plummeted, and I crumpled into a ball. A desk jockey saw me huddled below the problem, and walked over. "Yeah, dude, like half the tape fell off. Didn't you hear the beta from the Thursday Night Bouldering session?"

Lying on the ground, groaning and letting my pumped forearms recover, I noticed the circus around me. Little kids jumped around, couples fought over topropes, and a dating scene flourished. A dude sauntered toward a group of women, struck a pose, then pedaled his feet up the wall. Outside, the gym climbers had brought tales to the crags of the slinky yoga goddesses and other beauties who tore across the lead caves. They insisted that gyms were total meat markets.

"Haven't you read the articles in the magazines? That's exactly what it is like," they said, punching me in the arm.

Looking around, I noticed that, unlike at the Northwest Face of Half Dome, the Moonlight Buttress, and the offwidths of Indian Creek, there were girls at the bases of most of these routes. Maybe the plastic princes had a point.

I wondered if I could ever make it in the city. I was overwhelmed with the difficulty of the gym climbing, and by its busy culture.

John tried to reassure me. "Maybe you aren't the best gym climber. At least it's a place to meet girls."

I started thinking about who to approach. Surely the women would like me. I am, overall, a decent guy. I just needed to be genuine. Then I remembered the plastic princes, how they strut around with bare-chested bravado. At the crags they had boasted, assuring me that their tactics worked. Maybe that was how you got the girls? I puffed my chest, and sashayed forward.

"Are you running toward me or away from me?" I asked a girl on the treadmill.

Mascara smudged with sweat below her eyes as she hit a button on the dashboard and increased the speed of the treadmill.

"Well," she responded, "Now I am running away from you." So much for the cheesy pick-up lines. The plastic princes had been only partially right. The gym, I decided, was one-quarter meat market and three-quarters butcher shop.

This was too hard. The spinning holds, my damaged ego, the girls, the gym rats ... The reality of climbing at an artificial wall was overwhelming. This was the hardest crag I had ever been to. Why bother with any of this? There was no way I could attach myself to the city lifestyle if I could not even deal with the climbing.

I left Berkeley and headed for Bishop. Three hours into the seven-hour trip, I ran into a snowstorm, and headed back to a gas station to buy some chains. At the store, I stared at the price—$60. Instead, I bought a pack of M&Ms, sat in my car, and tried to decide what to do with my life. I ate a green M&M and thought I should go. I could keep climbing, ignore the loneliness and lack of fulfillment. I could be a man on the rock and let my passion for climbing be enough. I ate a red M&M and thought about stopping. I should become responsible, find a job, start a career, and commit to being something more.

Then I ate a handful of yellow M&Ms and made one clear decision. I needed to end my indecisiveness. The marginal existence of a dirtbag was romantic bullshit and completely overrated. Experience taught me that much. The city was something different. It would give me a chance to climb, work, and provide my life with some balance. I smacked the steering wheel and gave up on the frivolous lifestyle of a dirtbag climber. I headed back to Berkeley to try again. I drove three hours and then made the 15-minute walk to the gym. I really wanted to send the pink route anyway.

Published in Rock & Ice