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.