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Traveling, living, loving, exploring and trying to make some semblance of sense out of this crazy world.  


Monday, December 20, 2010

Wintertrek: Chasing ghosts

Cycles: the Wheel, Turning

Cycles... it all goes in cycles, now...

Patterns emerge, and I've gotten better at reading them; following the breaks and the fissures up the smooth, overhanging immensity of the climb. A peek down, over the edge of my meager reality-of-the-moment, shows the Route, falling away behind me, full of cruxes passed and sections aided with only sheer gut instinct... and Grace.
Ahead, there is only potential, leading up, up to the perfect mirror of the sky.

Evening sun seems to fill the horizon, but in the rare and precious moments of true awareness I can sometimes smile from the warmth of wisdom and perspective... this is only the beginning of a long, glorious sunset. There are still plenty of moves ahead, and I am not yet too tired.

I began the adventure in these foothills, in the forests of the Shenandoah Valley and the rocky slopes of West Virginia’s Germany Valley. Two score years ago, I was a laughing schoolboy, running barefoot down a country road, dreaming of summers on the beaches of Maine, lost in the farm fields of New Hampshire, wandering the backroads and forests near my home in Virginia. It was there I learned to touch the sky for the first time, and there the magic brought me again and again as the years rolled by with the inevitable lessons, wounds, sorrows and scars that are adult life. Partners and loves, jobs and headlines, weddings and funerals, babies and elections, all passed in a flowing kaleidoscope of images and emotions… and the Wheel rolled on, turning, bringing me back, again, to find my center, to find my roots.

In Rome, so they say, do as the Romans. And in that glass and steel meat grind that is Phoenix, I found my own Rome- I did... lord, how I did everything as the natives did. I rocked and rolled with the best and brightest, the darkest and most demented for the better part of six long, strange, aging, wondrous, hazy years. I found so much incredible rock, and wasted so many days. It was a trade-off. I was finding that having everything I thought I wanted actually meant giving up all the things that meant anything to me. Darker causes took me deeper into shadows and my returns to the sunlight of the Valley were precious memories fading in a toxic haze of noise and smoke.

Then memory and the holidays, the echo of a harmonica and a promise to a friend brought me home, swimming free for a moment from the wreckage of life and career. I had made and destroyed good friendships there, in my past and in my travels and the fault was entirely my own. Out of control, out of options, out of time and faith and completely deaf to that sweet, silent song of Grace, it had all fallen apart. And now, two thousand miles of lonely skies later, I was Home.

Home from too many years on the road, spending too many hours awake and too much time in motion; home, to another canyon, lush with the greens and blues and browns I remembered from my earliest childhood. Home, to the blue mountains where I had first found and then lost my great love.

On the lip of the abyss, walking whistling into the Void, I took a side road and suddenly all the passion of that first love reached out and said "This is once in a lifetime. This is something that might actually mean something, something people will remember for far longer and with one hell of a lot more respect than how wasted you got with them or how long you partied with U2...."

Not all those years were lost. Out of them grew a place called the Zoner’s Pub, and from that momentary spark on my part grew a small community of kindred souls, a strange group of nutcases, scattered across the globe, who had somehow, inconceivably become my friends, sharing triumphs and pet peeves, innuendo and speculation, barbs (and Barbs) and toasts, Happy Birthdays and holidays and all the other rituals of a family, this one cybernetic. We feuded and spat, slandered and gossiped and lied, judged wines and Scotch, beers and sex and car rental agencies. We argued and pondered about every topic under the sun, whether relatd in any possible way to climbing or the outside world or not.

We shattered the comfortable distances and lent flesh to the fantasy by meeting in the “real world” and still we remained friends.

Even when my life fell apart, even when my madness threatened to overwhelm friendship and common courtesy, even after months of silence, this strange band of electronic gypsies have continued to share my journey and my dreams, adding their own hopes and fears to the colors of my days. They kept me writing, and resignedly reaching out for this common bond, no matter how stiff my fingers on the keyboard, no matter how faint the glimmer of common light.

But elsewhere in the land of Electronica, the times have changed.

Something strange is afoot with mankind, the seed again stretching for a strange new sun, reaching out with limb and leaf to a new sky, under an electronic rain. I once reveled in my adoption to this new dynasty, conceited enough to think that I could play the games and ride the surf of the internet and not fail to the same old predictable mistakes and quarrels, flaming emotions and bitter feuds all from a mistaken word or failure of perspective.

My journals slowly trickled to a halt and died as they were replaced with the instant reward of electronic media; forums, Instant Messaging, chat rooms, newsgroups, MySpace, blogging, Facebook… the stream of information into and out of my head has grown into an endless roar. Too much time spent in comfort, trivializing the precious time we spend talking to our families, sharing the journey. An electronic bulletin board, no matter how convenient or responsive, cannot and will never replace actual human interaction.

And it is a poor substitute for chalk floating on the wind as you crank through the final moves on some long, clean line, or claw and spit grit and leaf mould from your mouth, finishing some filthy first ascent on some lost little backcountry line no one may ever find again.

And so I come to this-

To cut the chord.

An end to the music… the tiny aside that is my presence amid the whirl and glitter of the moment to moment narcissism of the Internet.

The Canyon is out there, waiting. Beyond the sunset, there is always another canyon, another journey, another mystery somewhere, waiting. Beyond the horizon waits an entire nation, covered in curious and amazing sights, wonderful lessons, incredible opportunities for adventure and growth.


I am at once too bold and too passionate, too bombastic and too sudden in my moods and judgments for the instant translation from fingertip to spoken word. I cannot lose sight of my own humanity and failings, but neither can I ignore the many and varied rationales we as individuals and societies use to excuse any and every behavior under the sun by varying degrees and with often double standards based either on gender, race, or income. I cannot suffer fools gladly, and I cannot escape the deep seated conviction that I am little more than that Fool, stumbling along mountainous terrain towards some distant perception of enlightenment, a shining star above- that may well be no more than yet another fool, stumbling through the night, equally lost despite the lantern he carries through the darkness.

Once, I stepped away from all this voracious grasping for identity based on possession, on religious creed and political bent. I pulled my glazed eyes from the shouting prophets of the wide screen to the silent lessons of the forests and shadowed rivers, to a time when we all belonged, each and every child, to the race of Mankind.

I cannot see my way clear to find again that shining thread, to follow again the faint trail of that Path Less Traveled, while immersed in this culture of the moment.

And to follow deep thoughts with mundane selfishness, this loving lass who has come to share my life, the one and only Ms. Cindy, this woman who was born in a slum, raised in a South American paradise by missionary parents, who has been waitress and nurse, firefighter and rescue worker, Tupperware saleslady and free-lance caterer extraordinaire- this wondrous woman has never been to California.

And I want that for her. More than I want to be “Friends” on Facebook, or to have the world read my blog (but please do buy the book when it comes out- the royalties will help ever so much, thanks), or have a million Twits follow my each and every fingertip exhalation, I want that.

I want to see her dancing in the Pacific, want to drive along the coast and show her the beautiful rock formations off the headlands of Oregon and Washington, want to watch the sunset in her eyes from the bay in San Francisco.

I think, after two kids and 27 years of a fairly unhappy marriage, after back surgeries and MS, a stroke and arthritis, degenerative disc disease and carrying around enough titanium and stainless steel in her body to repair the front end of most domestic cars, she deserves that much, at least.

Hell, she deserves that much just for putting up with me…

It was easy once… I took my destiny in my own two hands and launched out into the Void, Zen base-jumping if you will. I also threw away almost four years of love and shared adventure, but you can’t swim back up the River, and I’ve learned to live with the mistakes I make- in part by making so many that it has become a practiced habit. I lost a good friend and partner to pride and arrogance and simple lack of human compassion. The price I paid was the lessons I had to learn alone. It is, unfortunately, a mistake I am doomed to repeat, no matter how hard I try, or perhaps because of how hard I try.

I am blessed with a kindred spirit in Cindy. She completes all my failures, ignores my inconsistencies and moods and loves me for the madman that I am, straining from the fragments and rubble of a broken past of “questionable actions“ toward a future reclaiming our innate curiosity and sense of adventure in a place that judges us all in exactly the same terms. All are judged and found wanting, and none are truly judged by anyone save themselves. Cindy has done enough impossible things in her life to truly believe that, taken one step at a time nothing is truly impossible. It’s hard to argue with someone whose continued health and existence bear out that philosophy.

The fact that I am now 47 instead of the late-20s to early 30s hardman I was when I started this game weighs heavily upon me, especially now, sitting here with a double serving of Cindy‘s fudge inside me. More than the pounds, the miles and the choices are the prices we pay, later, after a long day of moderate to hard climbs when the ache sets in at wrist and elbow., along the hamstring and through the hip socket. Those last few clips or pitches get a bit quavery and the calls of “Take!” come just a little bit quicker. I hike a little slower, and jump on fewer leads, carry lighter packs and forget more gear more often. I cannot sleep on open ground with only a thin pad and worn-out sleeping bag a I did when I first traveled West. And I will not spend days on end hungering for more than a pack of ramen noodles and a spoonful of peanut butter.

I am no longer young enough or naïve enough to find romance in the cliché of dirt bagging… but I do still respect the call of the quest for meaning beyond convention.

I can discern the difference between seeking “relocation therapy” and the human soul’s blood-deep need to answer that silent call of daily discovery, or wanderlust and wonder, canyons beneath your feet and the first faint starlight of evening over a leaping fire, with new friends, of a tomorrow filled with potential and yesterdays filled with dreams come true. There is nothing like the wonder on your lover’s face as they first see Yosemite, or the blazing towers of the Canyon lands, the precious, silent moments spent, fingertips touching from the tight cocoons of your bags as the sun rises over the Sierra or the Rockies, flooding across the desert or striking into sharp relief some distant frozen peak.

Someone once asked me what it was that I found, when I went Out There. I answered without hesitation.

It's not what I find when I go Out there... it's what is inside of me that rejoins all of Out There, when I go, and brings a piece of it back with me, every time, when I must return to the land that I am only visiting. The land where I can no longer spend my time and energy immersed in sharing every single moment of the commonplace, as vital as every bit of it is to the lives of every person involved. I wound with too much fervor and honesty, and am wounded by too much apathy and attention, seeking acceptance and startled to rejection by differing opinions and positions. My own contradictions are too twisted a path for my own footsteps, much less to expect another to follow. There is a difference in my head, whether that means it is broken or simply differently twisted I do not know. There is an aching inside me that can only find its answer at the end of a road I have not yet found.

When the search for meaning according to your previous paradigm leads to dead ends, when the rules of society and modern thinking fail you, when there is no manner of “gainful” employment available because you are either too intelligent, overqualified or just not “right for the position“, when there is time and space upon this land for a soul to simply stretch out, toward the future, hand-in-hand with another soul, then it is time to stop playing the game, the age old game, where winners win again and again and losers simply lose, lay down, and die.

Time to lay down the dice, instead; fold the cards, pay the piper, and leave ‘em all dancing.


The Wheel turns, children are born and grow into the people we once were. We grow too soon old and too late wise, someone once said. I only wish I could have proven the exception to that rule, but I can make no such claim. I wish my tale could be one of heroic endurance and epic accomplishments, of great faith and great valor.

Of even rational consistency.

It is none of those things.

I am no hero.

I am, in the end, just another southern boy who left the comfort of his green valley and small circle of friends to go out into the flow of the River, who made friends and mistakes, lost a family and many of his illusions and no small part of his pride and from those losses and lessons found something that turned out to be himself.

For better or for worse.

Not a hero, not a villain, not a superstar or a legend.

Just a man, trying his best to be the best he can.

It all goes in cycles.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010



We laid the old soldier to rest with sunshine and passing storms, with tears and laughter, handshakes and hugs and tales of years gone all too swiftly by. We scattered among the folding chairs, trying to fill the airy modern architecture of the place with our own private hopes of a comforter, and the promise of something beyond this clay. As the appointed hour approached, the slightly awkward brass group joined the keyboardist in Presbyterian melody, and the latecomers filled the remaining seats along the middle and inner flanks; the pallbearers, and the many members of the family. The priest, preacher, whatever they call them in that particular denomination, appeared at the rear of this final surge, and with his guidance, we sat, then rose and prayed and sat yet again, prayed and sang.

Somewhere, in the back of my head, working its way around the lump in my throat and the wet blur in my eyes, John’s ancient twangy rasp speculated that this was a helluva lotta fuss to go through just to lay one old leatherneck to rest. Lotta standing and sittin’, if nothing else. A smile broke through my tears, as the sun came brightly in at the stained glass windows, streaming across the draping flag.

John was a good friend to my father for well over a decade, sharing a love of flying and a military past served during some of America’s less triumphant post WWII efforts: Korea and Viet Nam, respectively. In John, my father, a man who rarely opened himself with people, found someone to look up to, to share with; someone who understood the pain of memories you cannot forget, and inner demons that can never find flesh in words.

John was never bitter, never truly angry at anything that didn’t involve the loss of human life. Having survived some of the worst fighting of the Korean War, he seemed to have found a place in himself to accept the changes that came after service. In his loving wife and family, and his continuing striving for personal perfection in his love of mechanics, he found a strange Zen peace some study years and travel thousands of miles to achieve. Although I was nowhere near as close to him as my father, I respected John on a level too deep to explain. Any man who denies loving another man is a fool, for some men stride so large and hold so high the Ideal that one cannot help but to love them, as a brother loves his brother, as a Father loves his Son.

I waited until the police escort and the procession had mostly cleared the lot, and sent a single salute after the clay that had once housed the wise, laughing, wisecracking essence of humanity that was John Scott.

The road home was a back road, almost bereft of traffic at the early hour of the morning, and the meadow curves and forest hills of the drive became a slowly unscrolling inner film of lost faces and hushed rooms full of soft music, dying flowers, and muffled teardrops, the background of jazz guitar giving way to brief moods of philosophizing and a few bursts of sudden tear-streaked laughter, unexpected as a sneeze and just as inevitable, as some long-forgotten moment of hilarity leaped directly beyond Reason to Reaction.

We mourn not for the dead but for ourselves, not for the end of life so much as for the passing of what we have known as fact, taken for granted. People who make an impression and last beyond the first contact become a landmark, a fixed point in our realities. Letting go of them, and of the surety of their existence in our worlds, is so hard. No faith or philosophy can completely fill the void when memory’s ship sets sail for some archipelago that, it is only too late recalled, is long lost beneath the waves of the Time’s eternal sea. John and my father had seen and said goodbye to many fallen comrades, and in their friendship I would like to believe that both found something unique, something strengthening and anchoring, in a world so busy rushing headlong into its next “conflict” that it has all but forgotten those who answered the call and served a Dream… even as that dream was dying a slow death at the hands of politicians and pundits.

The wisdom of the moment, of course, must always sink, slowly but surely, into the onrushing river of the day; surfacing again and again in conversation or related thoughts, but soon only a background theme in the symphony of existence; bills, family, work, the idiot antics of politicians, preachers and idealists here and abroad, births and weddings, rising prices in the supermarket and falling numbers in the stock market; the eternal battle to be a “responsible adult”- and the endless debate of just what that outmoded term really means.

But later that evening, with laundry done and the lawn mowed, a thousand errands run, some cold facts faced and some hard decisions made, I sat on the front porch, the sweat of a frosty Dog in my hand, and watched fireflies rise from the grass, as a jet cut silent contrails across the fading platinum of sunset, flying into Night. Twenty five thousand feet below it, the fireflies rose in wavering arcs from the grass and trees.

Rise, and glow, dancing for an eternal second in the dark, surrounded by kindred flames, then fading from sight, gone but not lost, unseen, but not forgotten.

Monday, December 13, 2010


It is a small pile of stone, no more than three feet high. Mounted above is a carved steel frame of oak leaves set around a simple plaque, covered with the delicate tracery of engraving, in which lives laid down for the most abstract of ideals- peace, freedom, and Liberty- are honored, and all too soon forgotten.

We are near the sea. I can smell it, hear the distant "crump" of the waves, the high keening of the gulls and the piping notes of killdeer counterpoint to the drone of locusts in the marshgrass. Driving this way, this morning, my Father and I are on our way to Chesapeake Bay, wandering the back roads, avoiding the holiday traffic, breathing in a memory of America as it was, long ago.

A long, long time ago
I can still remember
how that music
made me

And I knew if I had my chance
that I could make those
people dance
maybe they'd be
for a while

Nothing in particular had brought us to this stop, save the need to stretch legs folded long hours in the truck, conversation run through all present possibles, and the open sky and horizon calling. I spied the plaque as we rolled to a halt; darkened by age, scoured by the sand and salt winds, scarred by abuse at the hands of fools whose hearts would not know honor or valor should either wander so far afield as to visit them.

My father served, at the beginning of that strange and terrible time known euphamistically as the "Southeast Asian Conflict".   Viet Nam claimed many, far too many, of the men he trained and served with. Many of the ground troops from the southeastern mountains were placed almost directly on the firing line, vital to warfare in the dense mountain jungles. Many that came home again had already died, inside, long before they bid those green, temple-filled hills good-bye, and far too many more carried the seeds of their demise home again to fade beneath the skies of their own land.

I watched as my father traced the words with his eyes, reading aloud in a low voice the name of the Air Group commemorated there, and their dead. He sighed, and I had never in my entire life witnessed so much sadness in one human being.

Then he snapped erect, thirty-five years out of the uniform, and his salute was crisp, his head high, his face distant and proud.

"This one is for you, guys."

And in that instant, I loved my father more than any man alive.

Thank you to all the veterans, living and dead, of our military forces. Your call may be ineffable to many, but its history, and honor, remain. Our freedoms, and the beauty we too often take for granted, have been constructed and preserved on your blood and sacrifice, your undying valor and belief in the Dream.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Relationships- or, Looking for That Spatial Someone

(Editor's Note:  This article was penned during a long period of bachelorhood in 2004.  As many of my friends know, the situation in my own life has since changed considerably.  But I think the questions and concepts of the article still apply to modern life and dating.  Replies, critiques and debate welcome.  Cheers!)

The shade under the trees is deep and green, the beer achingly cold after twelve hours of hellish dust and noise and heat. It cuts through the yellow dirt and the stench of deisel, filling the back of my throat with cool relief as I look out over the site and settle back in the Cruise master's rear booth seat.

Across the tiny, slanting table sprawls Stan, a tiny, slanting man burned and seamed by years skinning Cats and riding heavy equipment in the sun and wind, the snow and freezing rains that are an operator's lot in this part of the south. A cigarette burns in his gnarled fingers as he raises his own beer in the other hand and finishes half of it at a gulp.

"Hell, Stan... one evening you oughta just crash here when I head out to the hotel."
Stan might be the next owner of the mighty white Cruiser, and it occurred to me that this would let him avoid the commute, drink another beer or four with me after a hard day's work, and allow him to check out his potential new purchase, all in the same throw of the proverbial stone.

He looks first surprised and then horrified, all while slightly bemused. One hand clutches the sweating beer just a bit tighter, and his voice rises slightly as he answers.
"Oh... oh, no way, man..." Stan shakes his head, glances up at me over the rims of his glasses. "Nah, man... the old lady would swear I was out with someone else."

I sit and try to absorb this, but the thought is completely beyond me. Echoes of it come from the ghosts of friends and climbing partners down through the years. Someone who loves you would begrudge you a night spent drinking beer and kicking back with friends, would mistrust you even if you had witnesses who would swear you were doing absolutely nothing out of the way? "What in the Name have you done to this woman to make her think like that, and what in the world did you do with your friends when she met you?" He looks amused and says, "That's why you're still single."

Now THAT one hits home.

And so, an exploration, a fumbling of thoughts that actually holds relevance, I swear, towards a climbing end, in the end, or long before, if I shut up and get busy typing.
I have found endless company along this, for the most part, empty road through Wonderland, loved and been loved with a passion that rocked the stars and raised the bar perhaps higher than most mortals aspire to soar.

That's not just a lot of melodrama... I'm a lot like Calvin's analysis of Hobbs- "Tigers have two speeds- off, and turbo." I live large, I love large... seems logical to me. It also seems far more than most lasses can bear, and far more than most lads are capable of. Perhaps romance and adventure, and the beautiful union of the two are all succumbing to the dumbing down of the planet, we see in most of the rest of daily life.

I admit it, I'm a hopeful romantic, somehow surviving beneath this cynical armor. Despite long absence of true affection, I still continue on, seeing most of the lost horizon and the wonders along its length in the company of my own thoughts, and honestly pretty happy that way.

Save for two notable exceptions, none of the wonderful, intelligent, inspiring, amazing, desirable creatures who have crossed my Path and shared my- er- belays has ever quite gotten the hang of me, I think. People like life to be pleasant, which it is not, mostly, and to be simple, which it daily refuses to be in any conceivable way.

I have rarely had the sense to keep my big mouth shut when asked my opinions. The exceptions to my long run of disaffected goodbyes got it, all right... one got over it and turned away on the threshhold of a dream, and the other had a mountain to climb.
So, lost one to life and one to the high places. The first, though still inexplicable, is common enough- people change and grow, and often brave new facades collapse in the face of an inescapable change; throwing caution to the winds, kissing your hateful job and all the same old places you grew up in good-bye and stuffing your life in a backpack to live on the road and explore yourself and the country and each other and just climb for six months. that is a major leap of faith, and anything short of perfect Zen will fall screaming into the Void, or run pell-mell from its brink.

The second- The One That Got Away- well, as I said, she had to go climb a mountain, Now THIS is definitely something I can understand. That's always been a place of closure for me as well; of solace and, if nothing else, escape from questions. I said it once before- "If there are no answers in the desert, there are no questions, either."
Alone, gripped and cranking high on a big boulder somewhere, or stepping out onto tenuous solo aid moves, or, I imagine, standing on the shoulder of some massif with spindrift hissing around your knees and shoulders and the wind screaming in your ears, there is a peculiar satisfaction with simply being there, in the moment, functioning and moving upwards, and onwards, towards the dream.

Of course, then you gotta go spew about it to someone. This is why pubs were invented... not all sports enthusiasts had friends. Of course, most climbers and mountaineers only call people "friend" if they need a drink, a partner, or if they owe them money- really the same thing, if you think about it. People need people.. even socially maladjusted misanthropes like myself.

God help you all, its most of the reason I come along here and yammer at you from time to time. Could I find a soul so patient as to endure the other 75% of my life- working out of town, possibly being out of touch for long stretches, relaxing with almost nuclear intensity and then piling gear into a vehicle and filling all remaining space with supplies on Friday afternoon to drive hours into the nearest concentration of public land and/or climbing, there to remain until the last possible second Sunday, when we will drive back already making plans for the next strike, donating part of each and every paycheck to maintaining and expanding The Rack, settling for cheaper cars because the other $2000.00 buys a lot of beer and climbing- could I find a climbing/hiking/outdoors goddess willing to endure that for the substantial rewards said endurance brings, I would likely and have before fallen silent, at least briefly.

With an ear there to hear my farfetched meanderings and introspections at the moment of inception, much drivel be lost to the world. I could continue on my tiny climbing way; burning and cranking and aging silently into the humus without so much noise and fuss. The World and the Internet would be a much more PC place, and you could all go over About.rockcliming or rock.rek and read really interesting and meaningful things.

Alas for you all, so far, as I said, many strikes and two outs.

I have tried my hand at self pity... I am extraordinarily good at it, and it is disgusting in hindsight, which follows by about two seconds if you are honest and two years if you are only mortal. Having wallowed in the Lough of Despond, I decided, after drinking and smoking and snorting my way up to a short-winded, heart-pounding two hundred and thirty pounds, that self pity felt worse than loneliness and that the view from the heights was better. I gave up smoking cigarettes, kicked out most of the inhaled demons, gave up my love affair with bourbon, and got healthy, heading back out on the rock to sweat out the poisons and drive out the demons. I reasoned that, if nothing else, it kept open the option to jump.

So I travel on, alone and yet never alone. Because I honestly do not think about it too much, I do not so much choose this mode of travel as tacitly accept it. Seeing what's beyond the next pass is more important than seeing what's beyond the next pass, get it?

Oh, before anyone asks... No, I am NOT gay. Lord... if there is a more enthusiastic heterosexual on the planet, please let me meet her. PLEASE, Lord. Besides, I'm pretty sure that if potential homosexuals ever smelled a climber who's been bivvied in the same capilene for three days of portaledge burritos and climbing in the sun on scary aid in between, they would never, ever think of going that way.

So I sit in bars and envy lucky couples. I admire beautiful women in libraries and restaurants, and enjoy the presence of young, healthy female bodies at the crag and gym, occasionally on the other end of my rope, usually with someone else's wedding band on their hand. Oddly enough, it rarely during or after these moments that I am more aware of being single. It is after long, long periods of solitude, often followed by intense activity, when I suddenly become aware of myself after a period of almost "not-being."

Man that was a steep hike yesterday. Sure would be nice to be watching this alpine sunrise with someone snuggled up in another bag here beside me… maybe over on that left side wind’s been giving me a helluva chill over there all night.

Man… what a killer line! That was an awesome approach fourth class my ass! Boysure wish there was someone here to share this with maybe she’d have some cheap gear we could bail on.

Alright, alright, so maybe I'm being just the tiniest bit facetious. But it is a paradox. Because I am a single male, I have had the time and luxury to travel and explore and pretty much throw myself headlong into the uncertain arms of adventure for most of what has passed for my adult life. Because I have had time to do this, I have experienced a life unlike very many people I know. If things had been different, that might not be so, and I know damned good and well that I wouldn't want to give up any of this.

Because I once succumbed to an unsuccessful attempt to propagate the species, sacrificing all else to kneel before the god of procreation, I sometimes suspect that I have been somehow marked with the sign of Caine. I do not know how much of this is inner perspective and how much is outer manifestation of that stance. I have lost much of my innocence, but oddly gained in faith and hope. I know that I do not know. I understand so much about humans, and still completely fail to comprehend, except in the broadest of general terms, how the same state of mind on my part, with no more outward manifestation than expression, makes some people very nervous-

“What is wrong, man? No reallyyou can tell me. Okay, okay suit yourself!” 
-makes some people very comfortable-

“Hey, bro you want some of this? Its from home but its purty good….”

-and produces diametrically opposed reactions from the fairer sex.

I also know that, if I did not have the time alone in the wilderness to think about all this and more, most of it would not occur to me, except as one of those maddeningly brilliant flashes that come an instant before you fall asleep and absolutely refuse to return the next dayor ever, for that matter. Then I'd go mad in my little cubicle and my wife and 3.2 kids would never see me anyways, except on weekend visits.

Damned if you do, damned if you didn’t.

Does it matter? I don’t know? This is a Chautauqua, of sorts, and there is no promise of an answer at the rambling rainbows end. For those of you more in search of my usual brand of action-packed stream-of-consciousness narrative, please bear with me and perhaps learn a bit more about the heart that drives the moving hand (or at least the mental dysfunction that makes it twitch that way).

Or skip over to one of those Ronin-type tales of high adventure, and forget all this rambling crap. I wont blame you. I don’t know if I’d read all of this either, if I was in the mood for some hot-and-heavy climbing and outdoors action.

Its a gamble, just like life, and just like leading. A risk for an intangible goal, just like sitting down on this side of the keyboard and pouring my thoughts and hearts blood out over the net for complete strangers and beloved friends to absorb, take from what they will, and say whatever they like about it. This thing may come down with a helluva bang, not a graceful arc, and there might not be any pot of gold waiting at the end. I promise only honesty, as much of it as I can dredge forth from a rationalizing human mind.

And, honestly, I have no answers...


All I can say is that NOT focusing on the lack and enjoying as much as I can the process of filling the spaces, while still trying to be open to the potential of every moment ot bring happiness or revelation, these things have kept me on the move, meeting inspirational folks, learning invaluable lessons, and seeing amazing things for a very long time now.

I don’t know that most of it was running away, but I would be a fool to deny that some of it wasn’t. I don’t think I was running away from much more than me, and a world in which there seemed very little to do that meant anything of happiness for me. I grew up military, and most military marriages are a series of long absences followed by brief intense reunions. We did not live like other people, and I knew it. Nothing was as it was supposed to be, and even a child could feel it.

Relationships seemed the same. As I understood it from physics, the term relationship referred to the statement defining the position of objects in time and space with regard to each other. I think that does a pretty good job of describing human interaction. It is when we become amateur astrophysicists, and try to anticipate or forward project the relationship of those objects that I think we seriously screw the entire process right off its axis. You can never jump the right way to meet a body in motion YOU are a body in motion. If the forces that attract you are strong enough, your orbits continue to coincide. If not, parting is natural and unavoidable. Adjusting a perfect parabola is only guaranteeing a destabilization of flight.

Shut up, sit back, and enjoy, in other words- after years of introspective breast beating in the bush and perched on the faces of a thousand nameless cliffs, that nugget alone is what Ive learned about almost every state of being in life. Its life, its just a ride, and you will be let off as soon as it is over no guarantee on just how long or soon that will be. Sometimes someone sits in the car with you, and sometimes they sit real close. What does she want? I dont know try some popcorn. Seems to me that the only time I wind up alone on the ride is when Im trying to hard to find a partner or about to learn something that intimate company would cause me to miss seeing.

So I keep waiting for the Little Red-Haired Girl to look my way, or for Rapunzel to let down her hair. And, as any thinking man would, sooner or later I gotta wonder what’s life like from the other side of the pick-up line?

What would my hypothetical mate want?

As all men want a lady in the hall and a whore in the bedroom (according to Oprah and Doctor Phil), I suppose that all lasses (with- just like males- the exception of those fallen prey to deviants of the species early on in life) want an adventuresome hero with a touch of bad boy who parties and rocks all night long, lasts in the sack until just before dawn, and with the morning light and cocks crow (no pun intended) somehow magically transforms into Joe Responsibility and heads off to his impressive and high-paying job (gets the hell out of your space).
I also know that some folks (a majority across the nation and planet, a few of them right here among you, tender readers, and thus among my dearest friends) have solved this problem by refusing to limit themselves to a solitary partner, instead picking and choosing from the traits they like among agreeable (or unknowing) members of the opposite sex.

Somehow, society and the advent of a wide range of nasty diseases has convinced us that the latter is a less desirable way of finding happiness than the former. If you intend to involve your significant other in your outdoor adventures, the process becomes even more roulette-like.

I’ve tried my hand at it, and decided that it just wasnt my style- somehow I felt like I should have had Blondie playing Call Me whenever I headed out on a date, a tune as inescapable as Gilligans Island once thought of (I bet youre thinking of it right now try and stop). The result was a mindset that was distracted and slightly ludicrous, which is hard on a dinner date, and DEADLY on a climbing date. I had the debate re: "multiple partners" with a good friend about it, a discussion that ended with him feeling he had carried his point quite nicely.

An hour later, his date for the evening dropped him about 25 feet in the climbing gym (yes, even with a Gri-gri), for "shouting at her".

Darwin says I won the discussion.

I have friends who are entirely comfortable and successful at this kind of interaction and do so routinely. What can I say? Having taken a long hard look at my feelings and reactions in the years (yes, YEARS) since that long ago discussion, all I can say to this day is that if it works for you, God Bless you enjoy. Guess Im just insecure or unimaginative I need a lot more continuity than that between the Great Beyond and Back Here in Reality.

I have plenty of examples from which to choose; climbing friends who have made sacrifices and concessions to meet and be with someone, and others who have changed almost completely into non-climbers as they have entered the family phase of their lives. The latter is sheer pragmatism. For all but a tiny elite few of the population of the entire planet, climbing and adventure are counterproductive to the earning of an income or stability of home life. For those who have reproduced, I feel nothing but respect and the occasional twinge of guilty or pity. For those who manage to combine a life of climbing and travel and adventure with a steady income and raising a family, I can only say you approach deity or are in very close contact with yours.

But, to address the former situation, I have climbing friends who are in relationships that range from fantastic to unsatisfying to downright demented, as well. The One that got Away has somehow found an amazing man who can argue, climb, love, and endure her without giving her good reason to kill him, or vice versa (not sure I'd have been quick enough... likely wound up standing somewhere in Patagonia with an ice tool buried in my head.)

Such balance is admirable, and as rare as a fine brandy. Far more climbers are like one of my best friends, for years far too seldom seen, who once was one of the best example of the extreme opposite of the Dream Team. I watched this poor lad come to a weekend like a dying man to water; watched him revive, and watched his tremendous heart open to the incredible sights and sounds and experiences of the natural world, absorbing the energy of good friends having fun only to watch the shadow fall as the weekend ended and he approached his return to Purgatory.

I've been there, and I understand the clouded knot of emotion and rationalization that can keep you tied to a hellish no-win situation, when every moment in the forest tells you that you are wasting your life. Compassion and nobility are commendable, but given in unmeasured doses, they can and will drain you and kill you. Is it worth it, just for someone to wake up to?

Absolutely, positively no freaking way. Not ever. Not for Cleopatra or a the Queen of Sheba.

As I said, his case is an extreme, but whenever I smell a faint whiff of self-pity, it is one of the scenarios that makes me think that being alone is not necessarily loneliness.
The final case, I know more people, good people, who have lived together for years, who started out in the adventure madly, passionately, bedbreaking and wall-knockingly in love and lust, breaking all the rules, daring anything for and with each other. I have seen them, or met them after they have become sad people, angry people, distant and confused people. Almost always, it is because they are people who have tried, one or the other or both, to gently but firmly (and failingly) Change, either their partner or themselves, into less of an independent creature.

As long as I live, I will never understand the human propensity for trying to turn a wolf into a lapdog. I suppose until I find someone who feels the same way and can put up with my fits of madness, my unrealistic idealism and romanticism and oddly paradoxical cynicism, I can keep my opinions between myself and, occasionally, you, my constant readers.

And so, before I truly beat this dead beast into dog food, I will drag the curtain down; dredge a point from this sea of soliloquy. After searching and solitude, debate and divination, I can come to only one answer, if answer it is.

The road has been long, and stretches on to an unknown horizon. What was loneliness has become, with years and miles, a time of indwelling centeredness and introspection. Having at least once drunk so deeply from the wine of Heaven, I can live an finally die with the satisfaction of knowing that the cup did not pass me by entirely.

In my long, silent passage through the cities of the night, bound again for that nameless horizon of unknowns that calls and wounds, cradles and renews me, I have known love that crossed the globe, love that shook the stars, love that could almost light the dark spaces within me. Between wonders and innuendo, amid catastrophes and dancing lessons from God, I will again know its touch, if God or Gaea is willing and the spirit moves me.

In the flying, endlessly fleeting moments between, the memory of laughter, of silent waters and falling stars, of hard times shared and victories celebrated, and the reflections faces loved and lost or left behind- no matter what the price or distance, it all still moves a beating heart to believe in tomorrow, and maybe.

Michael Gray
Goochland, Virginia
May 11, 2004

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Pavane- A Requiem for Shady

 3/7/2001 11:54 pm

I stuffed the jacket and duffel into the hatch, and secured the rear of the Dakota pickup.  My body felt off-balance, reflexes slowed or too quick, my center still somewhere 30,000 feet above the earth between Arizona and Virginia, my mind wandering across a handful of years, my feet crunching snow in the clear 20 degree air as I climbed into the truck‘s warm interior.

I smiled as the first strains of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" album danced through the speakers, the slowly-building opening of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" setting the mood perfectly as I headed West on Route 33, towards the blue mountains of the Alleghenies.  The harmonica in my pocket was cool, through the thin capilene, and shadows raced across the hood of the truck as I gained the foothills, notes swelling to carry me through the trees and along the winding river road, while memories of a departed friend and times together danced across my mind.

"Remember when you were young?
You shone like the sun.
Shine on, you crazy diamond.
Now there's a look in your eyes
Like black holes in the sky.
Shine on, you crazy diamond."

Barry "Shady" Wade was a Southern boy born and bred, a biker and a rocker and a bud of truest blue who had climbed Seneca Rocks on ancient Goldline, in the years of the Viet Nam conflict.  Those years had long gone before we met in the trenches; he a rod-buster and laborer and I a steel walker and concrete finisher, doin' what it takes to get through the storms and bitter cold of the miserable winter of '93 with body and mind intact.  A small but powerful fireplug of a man, Shady nicknamed me "Tiny" for my advantage in size, and  through the tests of danger and tedium we became fast friends, as men in combat, prison and other hard places often will.

As winter slowly made way for spring and summer, we spent evenings drinking and shooting pool, turning wrenches and rolling smokes.  It was here that I came to understand Shady’s great love and encyclopedic knowledge of old Delta Blues players and their work. Drunk and slightly stoned, with his shock of red hair flying free, dressed in worn bib overalls and shitkickers, he would stagger around the clubhouse of The Scavengers, a small motorcycle club comprised mostly of Nam-era vets to which he belonged as sergeant-at-arms. In one hand a Miller Genuine draft, a smoldering roach, or a pool cue, in the other a harmonica; wailing with Pinetop Perkins, and Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Thelonius Monk, Buddy Guy and Big Mamma.

He shared a child's love of all the wild places, most of which he had only ridden through on his ailing scooter, or hiked in during the Army's preparation of his mind and body for the horrors of "police action" in Southeast Asia.  Shady delighted in my tales of the vertical world, and always swore that, "someday, Mah-cul, you'n'me's gonna have us a real big time, out thar on them rocks! Give me a chance to break out some o' thishere Army trainin'!" His eyes, mild and blue behind incredibly thick lenses, would shine with excitement, and he would look away towards the distant mountains and laugh. "Yessir, one day real soon."

Sometimes, even all these long years later, I can still see him like that.

Well, time... yessir, now, time, it is a funny thing, and it rolls away like an endless River that knows no return, carrying good intentions and bad to the distant sea of Regret, opportunity fled forever from our fingertips.

The job ended, and despite the bonds of brotherhood, we simply lived too far apart, in more ways than one, for the link to last.  I lost my lady love, lost my way and moved away to the Southwest to find a new dream and regain my Vision.  Shady stayed in Fishersville, where he started making his money in slightly less licit ways than simple construction, still carrying his harmonica every day, still playing a snatch or two of them good old Delta Blues whenever things looked dark or he was just trying to stir up a laugh. We called across the country, and even sent a postcard or two, but things just seem to get in the way of well-meant resolutions- kids and school, court hearings and contract deadlines, airline schedules and concert rigs and the thousand details of a life on the move. The River just kept on rolling, far and away, down to the Sea.

I hadn't even thought of Shady in a couple years, beyond momentary determinations to call him that faded with the drinks of the evening.

Then I heard the harmonica.

Part II
The strumming guitar of "Wish You Were Here" backdropped David Gilmore's plaintive, untrained voice as I crested Shenandoah Mountain, snow gleaming along the river in the distant valley below as I thought back to the harmonica.

I had been sitting quietly at home, going over expense reports, and plans for the next two months on the road. I tossed my trusty hardhat, covered with stickers and graffiti from a dozen years and a score of major projects, into the toolbox with my rigging gear. Folded in it was a felt liner, lumpier than it should be, a momentary distraction at best.

From somewhere in the distance, I heard a harmonica, faintly playing a snatch of ragtime that danced on the late afternoon air of October.  I reached for another page of hardcopy and paused.

Harmonica- ?

I rose fom my chair, crossed the carpeted floor to pull back the drapes and survey the street outside my Scottsdale apartment.  A few birds flew at the motion of the curtain, but aside from them, the cul-de-sac was empty.   I frowned, puzzled, as, unbidden, one thought linked to another and I thought of Shady. 

(Somber notes of the Pavane slide through the interior of the truck as I drop down the curving mountain road, winding along through forests of oak and elm, hickory and blazing maple still clinging to a few crimson leaves. A deer stamps and freezes at the verge as I flash by, smiling as I drift back again to memory.)

After a bit of digging, I found the number, on a tattered business card engraved with the Club's name and colors, Shady's bookkeeper block print still legible on the faded surface.

The woman that answered was older, but I knew her voice.

"Howdy, Mrs. Wade, This is Mike Gray, worked with Shady building the Medical Center, back in ninety-four… used to come over and eat with y’all at lunch.  Is Shady there?" 

There was a long silence. Finally, with a slight trembling, she asked "Who is this?"

I repeated my name.

"Michael," she said, "you haven't been home in a few years, have you?"

Something coiled coldly in the pit of my stomach, a door opening on some truth I had known in my heart, but had refused to face.  Suddenly short of breathe, I answered that, aside from brief visits, that I had not in fact been home in almost three years.

Ma Wade's voice was awkward with the burden of emotion, and she was almost formal as she went on.

"Michael, Barry- Shady, I guess y'all called him... Do you know… no, I s’pose you didn’t, an’ that’s why…”  She trailed away for a minute, and I heard a sob of breath, indrawn.

“My boy is gone, son… he died on this very day-” a creak as she twisted in her chair, anfd a muffled exclamation- “exactly five minutes before this, last year.”  I could tell she was crying, now, but she struggled on. “A year to the day, Michael, and not an hour before the Lord took him, he was holding an old photo of the two of you, laughing as best he could with his lungs full of pneumonia and wondering where you were and how you were doin‘."

I looked into the tool chest, where the hardhat lay, with the soft liner folded inside. Something poked gleaming from one corner. A memory tugged at me as I answered, giving my condolences in a kind of quiet shock, promising to visit on my next trip through the area, then hung up the phone, fumbling with numb fingers. I reached down, and slid the harmonica from the old helmet liner.

Barry Wade, the Shady Man, gone.  Somehow, despite knowing the life we both led, he was someone I had been convinced just wouldn‘t die.  He was just that kind of guy; ugly as sin, tough as nails, irreverent as hell and somehow just a bit larger than life.  The last time we had spent together was four years before, an afternoon and evening spent drinking and playing music. Billiard balls gleamed under the green-shaded lamp above the table in another of our endless games of nine ball as Shady pulled his oldest harmonica from the front of his bibs.

"Mah-cul, I wan' you t' have this mouthharp. Sumpin' t' remember yer ol' bro Shady, out there in the big wide world." He fixed me in his mild gaze, and pointed one work-gnarled finger, tattoos bulging on his bicep. "Reckon as our roads are partin', and that ain't a bad thing, just kinda aggravatin', as Life will be. Shady Man done had a big ol’ bag o’ dreams. And he’s lived a many of ‘em and pissed away more than a few more.  Shit, I ain’t got no regrets, much… what the hell is regret gonna do for an ol’ piece o’ scooter trash like me anyhow?“ 

He paused, dug out his can of Skoal and dipped a mighty pinch to stuff into his lip.  Chewing for a moment, he leaned aside and spat, then grinned at me, before resuming a serious face.

“Now, if'n anything should happen that we don't git to them hills, well, you take that old harp someplace pretty, and you blow a few notes for old Shady, and then you toss 'er as far as you can heave. Least that ways, some part of this ol’ boy will be out there in them hills, and you’ll be free to git on down your own road.“ 

He held up one hand as I opened my mouth in protest, paused to take a deep swig of his beer, belched, and continued. 

“I know, I know, you prob’ly gonna tell me sumpin’ bout a keepsake or some other shit… but I’ve buried more’n a few brothers and I c’n tell ya, mem’ries are the only keepsakes ya need.”  A shake of his wooly heady.  “Ain't no good holdin' on to the past…“ 

His grin flickered again, impish. 

“Besides, you can‘t play for shit anyways."

Then he laughed, tapped his beer against mine and hugged me hard, like a brother will.  Blew a fistful of notes to relieve the somber tone the day had taken and proceeded to run the table on me, again.

Part III- Pavane

Franklin was a-glitter with Christmas and bustling with last-minute shoppers as I made my way through town, towards the high blue folds of North Fork Mountain, now lit in the last glow of evening. In my pocket, Shady's harmonica was cool, an angular link to memory.

I thought of all the plans, the drunken imaginings, hell-yeah shindigs, and quiet afternoons following brutal days on the site, when we had simply looked off across the distance to the silent promise of the Blue Ridge, and beyond. Thought of hardships and danger faced every day with determination, sarcasm, laughter and gallows humor; of heartbreaks and triumphs shared and celebrated, as we lost girls and jobs, hide and motivation, only to begin again every Monday morning in the cold hours before dawn.

Upper Tract passed in a blur of aging houses and residents, the tiny store parking lot crowded with huge trucks, tractors and coverall-clad hunters.  A mile further on,  I turned left, the angular iron bridge throwing long shadows across the frozen cornfields as Wonderland opened before me.

The entrance walls rose on either side of the car, ice floating on the slow currents of the South Branch of the Potomac and I drove the last eight miles into the canyon's heart in silent thought, a lump tight in my throat as I recalled Ma Wade‘s face, crumpled and tear-streaked, her soft, arthritis-gnarled hand holding mine the day before as she had cried, silently, the meal of brown beans and cornbread forgotten on the table as the sorrow she had held in for a year spilled out in the dusty afternoon sunlight slanting through her kitchen windows.  After an hour of laughter and tears, she heaved a deep sigh, wiped her face on her apron, then stood and hugged my neck good-bye and kept me a moment more as she prayed for God to watch over her son‘s last returning friend.

Parking, I sat listening to the cooling engine tick down, then drew a deep breath and pushed myself into motion.  Digging into the duffel in the back seat, I pulled on gators and gloves, settled the knit cap snugly against the cold, and headed upstream, away from the road. Water moved in silent darkness beneath the snow, and ice on the smooth stones left every crossing treacherous.  Deer watched from the ridges above, dusted in white, their breath pluming in the air as they chewed winter’s meager forage.

Finally, two hundred yards away from the car and two hundred feet above the River, I stopped.

This was the place I had always meant to bring my brother, the place he had never seen. A natural amphitheater formed by a widening of the streambed, the water falling twenty feet above, then flowing past the odd chair-shaped boulder and over a broad landing to cascade gently down six-inch steps, past soaring walls and columns of stone, draped vines and huge old trees lending the place the air of a throne room of the gods. Sunset light splashed the walls, streaming through the gap above the falls like a bridge across forever.

I pulled the harp from my pocket, and slapped it against my palm as Shady had a thousand times, morning noon and night, years before. A handful of hesitant, unfocused notes, and I drew a deep breath, swinging into a stuttering, off-key version of "Amazing Grace", wishing for his gift, for any musical talent, wishing there were drums, and a bagpipe, harpers and a golden chorus. Tears blurred the world as I listened to the echoes die, but a laugh swelled my chest, and I let it go, let it all go as I held the harmonica high to catch the last glow of evening, as a twilight came down and owls hooted softly in the shadows of the forest.

Then, end-over-end, it flew, into the gathering dusk, a shining comet, its last notes played out, the wishes of its owner finally and forever complete.

As I made my way, back down towards the road, I felt a shadow and turned. 

For just an instant, I saw the wide grin, the wild red hair, and blue eyes smiled at me over wire frames again, as that mild voice echoed, for the last time.

"Ain't no use holdin' on to the past."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Fallin' From Grace

Fallin' From Grace- a climbing life snapshot by Mike Gray

January, 2002, somewhere in West Virginia…

Another year, another climb.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It is cold in the Southeast, this frosty Sunday morning. The previous week’s hint of far-off spring has given way to the solid reassertion of winter’s grip; an onrushing wall of northern air that rolled down over the Ohio River, Cumberland Gap, and eventually the Shenandoah Valley, sending temps into free fall, spilling snow showers over the Allegheny Highlands and ending my dreams of a suntan in January.

The mercury outside my ice-sheathed RV window reads a blurry 22 degrees F. The grass sparkles with a billion frost diamonds as I step out the back door of the Cruiser, a 16-foot long Dodge Cruise Master RV, with galley, bath, shower, and bunk room for three in a pinch.  Current number of residents stands at one.  I sip at the dark roasted taste of my coffee, savoring the birth of the day, enjoying the feel of the cold air against my face.

Inside, the rebuilt Hilti chassis leans against the battery charger, near the stuffed, scuffed and ever-ready BD Attack pack, bulging with quickdraws, a handful of cams, some snacks, first aid kit, and an extra layer of clothing, including windproof balaclava and gloves.

Wreckage of the morning's breakfast burrito and accompanying dishes is quickly divided between sink and trashcan, and I monitor NPR as the chores eat away the minutes until departure.

The Doctor is inbound.

Right on cue, the silver bullet slides into the driveway.  Mike Fisher aka Doc Goodwack, Doctor Doom, The Total Package, sits slumped behind the wheel of his Taurus, grinning through a wave of Dokken as the trunk pops open and he steps out into the cold, coffee in one hand, home-rolled cig in the other. Dressed in layers of  Gore-tex, capilene and pile, Mike still looks pretty much exactly the way he did when I first met him, several hundred crazy climbs, a half dozen insane winter bivvies, an uncountable assortment of night bouldering and climbing expeditions and an unknowable number of  recon hikes ago.  Most men would be withered and bent, reduced to gibbering madness and hammered into shapeless masses of arthritic, frostbitten, chigger-gnawed agony by now, either from the misadventures or my company alone.

Not Mike. Creatures of the opposite sex have been known to approach spontaneous combustion  when the good Doctor enters a room, all easygoing manner, soft warm voice, olive skin, wide white smile, dark eyes, and barely salted black hair. I have achieved perfect stealth invisibility, just by walking into a room of predominantly females several seconds behind Fisher.  It was as close to non-existence as I have come.

Unlike Mike, yours truly both shows and feels the effects and impacts of the previous decade and the right knee twinges in reminder of its traumatic destruction and reconstruction in a bicycle mishap six years past, as I step down out of the RV with shoulder slung pack and drill. Some mornings, it's hard to believe it's only been forty years since my birth day. Some mornings it's hard to believe it's been more than eighteen. And some mornings, like this morning, I'm caught between the exuberance of my teen years and the aches of my decades.

We push out of Harrisonburg on a wave of music, small talk, and expectancy, cross the first range into Brandywine, whitetail deer and squirrels in motion around us in the National Forest. There is snow blowing over the Highlands, and we both glower at the shroud that stretches out long streamers to the north, near our destination. No turning back now... we are On A Mission. There is a predictable response, any time we have shocked or offended or required far more than baseline intelligence out of the climbing community and/or the world at large, usually by climbing some insane bit of stone or putting ourselves directly in the path of weather that would have turned back Lord Jim-

"Holy shit.... it's the Punishers!"

Down through Judy Gap and the sandstone towers where Howard Clarke and I once pitted muscle and thickheaded determination against gravity and tiny holds, logging more air miles than a Stealth bomber pilot… sweet Jesu, was that really as many years ago as it seems, now?

Past Nelson Gap, once greenbrier and the awe-inspiring sweep of unknown potential on high, distant fins, now a commercial mess, being run with best intentions by a Maryland lawyer.

Winding along the river, past the amazing snapshot back in time that is farm country in the South.  Silos and old red barns, some simple and sagging, some grand and multi-dormered, with hayloft lifts and ramps, ancient stone foundations, chimneys, and tilted gravestones peeking through the swaying broom straw, blanketed horses munching a mouthful of hay, cows standing huddled together in the middle of a muddy field. 

Past Yokum´s and Harper's and Seneca Rocks, La Belle Grand Dame of WV trad climbing, her fins and corners rimed with a dusting of snow, the shadows of ledges and clinging cedars and pines black against the stark white of the faces.  Along 28/55, with a dependably breath-taking view of Champe Rocks as we slow for the curve.

More miles roll by in conversation and music, and in no time we are there.  Down the old side road between Cabins and Petersburg, snaking through S-curves and navigating over miles of rough pavement and potholes, through groves of oak and locust, branches stripped of leaves and snapped in the recent ice storms.

Out into the cold, ropes, gear, laughter and memory mingling with our smoking breaths in the frigid air. Quick march over the hill, down through the descending forest to the edge of the Abyss, where the Cirque suddenly comes into view below.

Ice hangs in curtains, falls in crystalline cascades, depends from rotting stone in a single column eight inches thick and sixty feet tall, transforming simple stones and twigs into glass mushrooms and sculptures of ethereal glass.

Fifty yards apart, Mike and I set rap lines and descend into this tiny sanctuary, together and yet lost in our own thoughts as if the other were a thousand miles away. As he frees half-ton blocks from their precarious balance in the middle of a new line, I set the last bolt on my latest nightmare of mixed trad and sport climbing and we meet at the base, huddling in the weak winter sunshine that fills the Hanta Cave for a smoke and a laugh. We brew tea and hunker next to a small, smoking fire for warmth and motivation.

The stone is cold, brutally cold and I try not to think about that as I tie in and run through the verbal double-check.

Good knot, good buckle.

Belay on?

On Belay.


I try to hide in strategy, but the cold seeps into joints too many times abused over the decades, stealing first sensation, then strength, then willpower. I hang at the third bolt, curled fetus-like over my silently-screaming hands, looking up at the sun, shining on the rim so very far above. Mike only nods in sympathy as I ask ten more seconds and try wriggling the pain out of fingers that feel like they have been smashed with a hammer. Arthritis twinges in the first three knuckles, reminder of too many bar room brawls in my tempestuous youth, too many years earning a living as a construction machine, and too many mid-winter cracks in the years before and since.

Deep breath, calm blue ocean. Nothing to it but to do it.

Crimpers lead off to the highstep, a rock-on that almost leaps to an undercling clipping stance. Swap hands, inhale and push the air out hard through the nose, left hand seeking the knifeblade edge above, right foot high, right hand in a dimple pocket. Shift balance, feeling fading as I step up and stab for the two-finger pocket, racing friction to slap for the open ledge above, reset the feet and just do it, finding the surface of the next hold rimed with frost, too spent and far above the last bolt to stop or even care, now, just GO!!!

Big holds, and my face sticks to the rock for a second at the no-hands rest, breath frosting the fossils in front of my panting mouth as I try to pull it back together and rise above the pain. Knives of wind slice through my hi-tech armor and chills warn me that the trade-off for strength is cold muscles and loss of the flame. No can do.

Up now, the stone more highly featured but the luxury of bolts now at an end as I trust an insecure jam and lean out on the protection of my second-smallest cam, reaching up over the three-foot roof to find the splitter crack above, fingers hooked around the chiseled edge, foot set high on a sloping prow that promises nothing of security as I lieback through the overhang, twisting bleeding, frozen digits into a fingerlock that will surely tear them right off my throbbing hand, if my foot should fail.

It stays, and I move up into a deep dihedral corner, stemming and scumming with my right shoulder, breath whistling in my throat as I find the next-to-last placement.

Settle down, now.... one more roof, one more crux, and you're home free, Ronin. Maybe next time you can get it without that hang... sooooo close now, the bitmap in my head filled with nuance and detail, the gyroscope preprogrammed for the next run.

First, though, I gotta get off this thing in one piece.

Zen.  No mind, just the stone, the wind, the pain of living, drag of the rope at my waist, the smell of moss and rotting wood from deep in the crack, the roar of the river far below, as I reach over the lip of the roof, fingers too numb to find the sweet spot in the mid-face jug, balance wobbling like a drunken beaver on a frozen pond as I step up and around the corner and slap the top.

Another year, another climb.

The more things change,
the more they stay the same
Everyone’s a saint
until you look the other way
The more things change,
the more they stay the same
All we need’s a miracle
to take us all away from the pain.