About Me

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


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

One door closes, another opens...

I first came to Smoke Hole Canyon in the spring of 1994, about 14 years into what is now 30 years of climbing, hiking, backpacking, and exploring the amazing world around us. 

I had grown up on military bases and in off-base housing, the son of an Air Force vet and a former State Department employee.  After years in Maine and Massachusetts, we finally settled in National Coach Trailer Park, just outside Harrisonburg, Virginia when I was about 5 yrs old.  Despite the fact that we lived in trailers and trailer parks most of the year, I spent summers on my maternal grandparents' huge farm in Hew Hampshire, and we frequently spent weekend days and holiday visits at my Father's home place in the mountains of the Blue Ridge, just outside Stanley, Virginia.  Despite my very urban beginnings, I was a country boy from day one.

As years went by, I discovered backpacking and camping.  I discovered and became a regular after-school/summer vacation inhabitant of Land-Sea Passages, a tiny shop upstairs on Water Street in Harrisonburg, over what is now Laughing Dog, which then moved downstairs to street level and lost its shared scuba diving and skateboard supply identity to become a full-on climbing, caving, and backpacking supply shop.  Long before this change, however, they were providing me with sleeping bag and boots, thermal gear and webbing and rope, carbide and miner's helmet.  I took a beginners class in basic rappel skills, saw my first climbing magazine, and became an instant addict to the vertical circus when I was too young to drive. 

At this same point in time, I met a sarcastic local skate punk, climber and caver named Kris Kline.   Although several years apart in age, something in our very different souls clicked, and Kris took me under his wing, showing me the ropes of climbing on toprope, in my clunky military surplus boots, on the featured faces of Chimney Rock, dragging me through the underground wonderlands of Pendelton county's many caves and caverns.  Sinnett, Nutt, Trout, Cowpasture... these were my playgrounds, as well as Chimney Rock and Little Stoney Man. 

In an age when many of my peers were minor offenders and even parents before leaving high school, I took the path less traveled... and I've never looked back.

Years passed, Kris headed off to college, I entered junior high and life brought an entire new set of challenges and revelations.  I was too smart for my age and not smart enough to hide it from the older and meaner kids in my neighborhood and schools.  I discovered religion, then faith, then fanaticism, the latter more as a victim than an adherent.  I was a problem child, one of those kids who gets notes on his report cards with comments like "Michael is so bright... if only he would apply himself just a bit more." 

I moved through schools; Montevideo, People's Christian Academy, and, eventually, Harrisonburg High.  It was at HHS that I met my future wife; a smiling, sensual elf of a lass named Deena Carper, with huge eyes and a wide wicked smile and a common aching to be accepted for who we were, instead of who we were expected to become.

We fell deeply in love, and made the typical youngsters' mistake of getting married right out of high school.  We moved to Waynesboro and took jobs that did little for our souls or selves, still managing to escape to the mountains to hike and camp and take pictures, picnicking and exploring, making love under the spreading oaks of the Blue Ridge, dreaming away the winter evenings while the Grateful Dead played in the background and snow fell on the streets of the city.  We partied too much, fought more often, talked less and less and began to drift apart, filling the widening gap with alcohol and drugs, questionable friends and more questionable choices.

One day I came home to find her packing, completely clueless as to the catastrophe that had rolled into my life while I was obliviously working toward a future that would never come.  A week later, seeking comfort from a mutual friend, I found her suitcase sitting tucked in a corner of his bedroom, her clothes scattered on the floor and a bed that spoke volumes of the clues I had missed.

The years after this were cold and hard.  I accelerated to light speed, maintaining a blurred perspective on life that cleared just enough to attend my sister's wedding to my best friend and to make the occasional drive to the mountains. Climbing gear and backpacking equipment gathered dust in my closet, and dreams gathered dust in the corners of my soul.  There were women; loud party animals and succubi, wounded waifs and victims of my own darkness, temptresses half my age and half again.   There were nights and days without sleep or food, and memories I would give anything to forget.

But the roads we walk shape us, for better or worse.  In that crucible of pain and darkness, the disparate elements of Michael Gray were annealed into something stronger, with a growing vision of the world I wanted to make for myself.

Then one night, drowning in despair, I walked into a smoky bar and met the eyes of a willowy blonde across the room, like a scene straight out of the worst Harlequin romance.  I was the lead singer of a heavy metal rock band at the time, spending every other Thursday night as a stand-up comic at Open Mike Night at Joker's Bar and Grille just north of downtown in the 'burg, working days as a concrete finisher and industrial carpenter for the slave masters at Nielsen Construction.

Melissa was a local girl, a former cross-country runner who had recently dumped her high school sweetheart and was now living on her own in a little apartment that turned out to be within sight of the place I was living on south Avenue.  She worked at the Harrisonburg Auto Auction, drank like a fish, could swear and belch like a sailor, and loved the outdoors.  We made our way back to my place when the bar closed, where a long night of brews, tubes, laughter and conversation turned into the dawn of Easter Sunday and our first kisses.  Two days later she was laughing on the back of my Kawasaki GPz 750, and waking up in my rumpled bed.

In her company, I returned to rock climbing, and began steadily working my way through the basics; bouldering, top roping and learning to place trad gear at little crags like Chimney Rock in Broadway and Hidden Rocks in Hone Quarry, hiking and camping in rain, sun, and snow along the Skyline Drive, the WV border, and into the Alleghenies.

By now, Land-Sea Passages was no more, having become Wilderness Voyagers and relocated to the old Blue Ridge Mountain Books building on Mason Street. The business was now owned by Bix and Terry Houff and staffed by a hardcore crew of climbers and outdoor enthusiasts.  John Burcham, Tracy Ramm,  and Todd Shenk guided and shaped many of the young tigers who walked through their doors, and I will never be able to adequately express my appreciation for their wisdom and patience with an often loud, brash, and opinionated military brat that wandered in one day and has eventually grown into your humble author.

It was Tracy who first told us about Franklin, WV, pointing us toward the exploding sub discipline known as sport climbing, wherein bolts are placed on otherwise unprotectable faces instead of inserting gear into natural features like cracks and pockets.  This practice, once controversial to the point of making its advocates pariah among the climbing community, had taken fire in Europe and spread to America, pushing the grades of difficulty upward in a parabolic curve.  Instead of spending decades learning to climb harder, climbers were mastering the sport up to the cutting edge in a matter of years; developing new lines and discovering new crags like a late-20th century gold rush.  The wave was building, the storm rising, and we were caught in the eye, riding the crest.

At Franklin I met, climbed with and was mentored by some of the most influential climbers of the day; Eddie Begoon, Paul Sullivan, Mike Artz and wife Avery, George Powell, Howard and Amy Clarke, Dan Croats, Dan Miller, Tony Barnes, Darryl Hensley, and Angie McGinnis.   Tracy Ramm, Todd Shenk and John Burcham were there, as well; setting new standards, equipping new lines, and encouraging, always encouraging us to push harder, reach further, and believe.  We graduated to Seneca, following in the footsteps of generations of hard climbers, exploring the world of the semi-alpine and the multi-pitch climb, learning to conquer fear of heights and fear of failure in the rush of adrenaline and accomplishment of looking 900 feet down into the valley below.

Melissa and I became part of a small group of young climbers, the Five Deadly Ninjas, whose numbers and composition changed constantly in the following months; college students Eric McCulley and Rachel Levinson, local climbing and dirtbike prodigy and heir to the Endless Caverns legacy Troy Johnson, Madison County climbers Mike Fisher and partners Pete Almquist and Gregg "Juju".  This nucleus explored the boulders and walls of Gum Run, the Rawley Aretes, Second Mountain and Dictum Ridge, Hidden Rocks and the numerous bouldering hotspots of Hone Quarry.  We put up new sport routes in Franklin and Germany Valley, bushwacked to distant chosspiles throughout the Blue Ridge, bivvied together through rain and snow and heat and biting flies in New River Gorge, partied together when back in the "real" world, endlessly debated all the mistakes our parents' generation made and which ours would someday repeat.  We fell in, fell out, and, step by step, moved a bit further down the Path.

Then one day, between runs on a steep line at Franklin, Darryl grinned his mischievous grin, exhaled a lungful of fragrant smoke and said "You guys should come help us with some new lines down in Smoke Hole."

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