About Me

My photo

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


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Serpents' Dance

I can only tell you.

I can't take you there.

Oh, make no mistake... I have no choice but to try.

Have tried, am trying, and no doubt will take up pen and paper, or reach reluctant hands toward the keyboard, breath held, thoughts racing, words tumbling to try again. It is an imprecise and sporadic effort, I know, and I thank you, gentle reader, for your patience and continued interest as I fumble toward Nirvana, or Meaning, or some such doubtful, highbrowed ideal. Too in touch with my own fallible mortality, I cannot trust this stilted structure of words and perspective to do what I want, what I must. I can only pour it out, one pumping crimson beat after another, the hot kiss of the artery against the razor’s cold, thirsty edge, hoping that some common bond, some dream or memory or fantasy half-recalled, a hindbrain echo, will do what I cannot.

What a poor tool language is. Nouns and verbs, gerunds and adjectives can't make you feel the burning of raw flesh and trembling muscles pushed one step beyond their limits, or fill you with the high, clear singing note that becomes your every thought and essence as the rope sways there below your feet and grit turns under your fingers. Cannot excite in you that giddy dancing with destiny, gravity a faithful companion that ever demands your return, pulling you back, back toward terra oh-so-firma, while beyond, the sky seduces, promising anything and everything, just beyond the next crux.

A victim of years of classroom education on the art of writing (inevitably taught by persons who have, in their entire lives, produced nothing more inspiring than pop-quizzes), I can use clever diction and punctuation, run on sentences one breathless stream pulling you inexorably forward or superlatives of color and light igniting a firestorm in your own imagination, recalling images from your own past, remembered or dreamt.

But I cannot make the leaves glow with the energy of life pouring out of them, or fill the wind with the hundred living perfumes of a growing forest.  I cannot close your throat with laughter and the threat of bright tears or fill your eyes with the high, drifting form of an eagle.

I can only tell you how it was, for me.

The party Friday night had gone long and ranged far. There were large weapons, blasts of lead and powder intersecting the arcing flight of clay targets, loud music, dancing, beer, and appetizers of every description. Smoke and mirrors. Body paint. Madness.

There were white tail deer bounding away under the moonlight, and bullfrogs croaking and belling from the tall grass along the ancient, bobbing dock that thrust into the wine-dark lake. Turtles and bass and carp splashed, and our voices drifted over the water as we watched the stars spin by.

Later, more laughter, and something clear that smelled like blackberries and sipped like water and burned like a southern girl's first kiss under an August moon. Doctor Gonzo came to call, and the party gained momentum again. There was bouldering with beer eliminations, penalty dynos and post-brownie campussing. Badly shot motocross victories played in the background, the silent screen accompanied by a jarring dichotomy of metal and chick rock.

There were giggles and staggering in the darkness, boots and sandals, stubborn denim and capilene and cotton kicked and pulled and tossed laughing.

Near daybreak, there was, at last, sleep.  To sleep, perchance to dream.  And is all we see or seem but a dream within a dream?  Given the first warning pangs of soul and gut as consciousness returns, one can only hope.

Either that, or a someone’s pet ferret has died in my mouth, probably from the thunderous concussions pounding through my head.

Oh, my dear sweet lord... I am NOT eighteen anymore. Not even close. Twenty-one was a bright light over a decade and a half fading in the past. I extracted myself carefully, silently, from bed and occupants, oriented through a hook-latched screen door, and stealthed across the campground towards home. Grabbed towel and necessaries, tossed hydration and medication licit and otherwise into my system, and staggered carefully through loose stone down to the ancient bathhouse. The shower creaked on and greeted me with a bitterly cold blast of needle spray, and my yell likely woke the mostly-dead, if not in fact stirring actual corpses into motion. Pipes clanked and steam rose, grudgingly, spiders scuttling to the farthest extremes of their webs as I scrubbed vainly at the aches and pains coming mostly from my skull and savaged gut.

The eyes in the mirror were still red as a werewolf's mugshot, and I fingered stubble that held far more salt than pepper, trembling fingers tracing up my cheekbones to matching silver taking the field from my temples.

Getting kind of old for this shit, bubba.

And then the grin flickered back, unbidden; the upsurge of impish, indomitable, wild Celtic spirit that has lifted me out of so many dark pits, pushed me up against my own limits and beyond my own beliefs, given me the ability to laugh, first and foremost, at myself.

Really, Mister "Path Less Traveled"? What... You got someplace better to be? Something better to do? The silent voice is like a ribbon of razor wire, but even as it slices, I know there is humor there, among the merciless barbs and talons of facts.

Got a timeclock to punch, there, do ya, Ronin?  Is this just too hard for you, bro?  Got a family to raise or a "real" life to be living, maybe some adult, mature Planning for the Golden Years and Putting A Little Something Back For A Rainy Day? You sleepwalked through that role before, remember? You don't work in that world, and that world doesn't work for you. 'Sides… you know that ain't what's really buggin' yer poor little melon...

I closed my eyes, leaned my forehead against the mirror, turning my thoughts to face what I had avoided, the ghost that had haunted me through climbs and work and days and nights over the last week.

Yeah, ya pissed away another friendship, you and yer "ideals" and that damned quick trigger finger about every friend you’ve ever had warned you about. Devil and the deep blue sea, bubba. Rock and a hard place, seems like this is just about where ya came in to start with… trippin over yer pride and goin’ in circles… How far to the next windmill, Don Quixote?

The laugh was one part sadness, one part sarcasm, and one part just plain old hell-bent-for-leather good cheer in the face of the inevitable Truth.

It's a little late for Making Something of Yourself, dude. Guess ya better just do your best to be what you are. Tell it like you see it, walk it like you talk it, swallow your pride and as much crow as it takes to make you messes right and accept when you've stepped in it too deep to ever wipe it all clean again.

The shower room door squealed open, and a paunchy refugee from suburbia waddled in with a towel big enough to drape a Lamborghini and a shaving kit that looked like the entire "Toiletries for Him" section at Nordies. Beads of sweat glittered on his face and in the V of his exposed chest, and his breathing was a bellows, deep beneath years of Haagen-Dazs and Red Lobster.

We stood for an instant, face to face, his tiny porcine features slack in that instant between sight and reaction. There was a flicker of something there... maybe the sheep to wolf recognition signal, I don't know... I don't feel it... then the shutters came down, inside those tiny fearful eyes, and he nodded absently "howdyadoin" all one breathy outrush of spearmint and tobacco as he rolled by.

The voice was there, just at the shoulder of my conscious mind...

You still think YOUR life sucks??

My laughter woke whatever residents of morgue and tomb had remained undisturbed through the earlier shout, and I went off in search of breakfast.

The Cruise Master is a thing of simplicity and functional beauty, an off-white 1978 Dodge camper van restored with patience and determination (as well as a great deal of sweating, swearing and personal insults against the lineage of the former owners), by my pater familias, the Commander. Double beds, galley, micro'fresher (WC and shower), bumpin' tunes, no bells and whistles but lots of functionality. In light of my nomadic lifestyle, and with an eye towards future plans to travel in Colorado, the Tetons, and points west, I had seen it as prudent to invest some of my spring earnings to purchase the same when the 'rents had decided to "trade up".

The full load of gear previously stashed in the cramped confines of the Panzer now dispersed to a myriad of drawers and cupboards; jumper cables and cords and chargers and tools finally out from underfoot, gear and ropes and packs and other valuables racked in their own organized locker, grub and books and toys and all the things a rovin' student of Life and the Path needs to keep him happy.

Or too busy to notice the difference between furiously active and happy.

The day was cool and clear, a few tiny clouds giving lie to the forecast of showers and rain on the western horizon, a gentle southwest breeze stirring the golden heads of tall grasses in passing pasture, swallows and robins and wrens winging through the sweet morning air, Jerry and the Dead lilting out "Dark Star" as I rolled the Cruise Master along the backroads of the Shenandoah Valley on its shakedown run. A steep bolted route awaited my attentions and a first ascent, across the hills and far away, in West-by-god-Virginia (smile when ya say it). Another season had come and gone, and it was time for me to take to the road, again, if only for a little while. I was wrapping up loose ends, saying my farewells and alohas, paying my respects and debts, making time to have all those promised and long-delayed breakfasts and lunches with old friends from school, work, and the crags. Leaving my nemesis undone wasn't in the cards...

The route had bested me for two months, shutting me down again and again in the intense inverted slugfest of the first roof. Legs buried in the eight-inch offwidth, upper body and arms dangling at a downward slant, linking the series of long, brutal throws while transitioning from flesh-shredding leg jams to precise, sequential foot placements seemed beyond me. I had come within one fall of redpointing the route, three times, over the last couple of weeks. Time to get my game face on; take the pain, accept the fall, just do it... or call it too hard and admit to myself that I'm just too damned old, too soft, too weak, too slow.

Memorial Day traffic was light, and I suspected that I had not been I the minority with the previous nights' world tour through systemic abuse. Haze lay thick upon the distant flanks of the Alleghenies as I piloted the yacht-like Cruise Master down through mountain curves and forests. I braked as fallen orange signs and broken pavement intimated the approach of road improvements, halted for the weekend and holiday, leaving graders and trac-hoes and backhoes clustered and abandoned along the road like forlorn, mechanical aliens looking for a cheap room and someplace good to eat.

Franklin was jumping like any other small town on a major road during a national holiday, and I smiled and waved at throngs of strolling old people and giggling kids, sultry sixteen-year-olds and young turks with WWF t-shirts, bar-b-cue and Mountain Dew, Coors and a Mean Gene burger, yard sale heaven and a marching band.

An hour later, Seneca reared its twin summits above the broad green fields of Germany Valley, and I negotiated the busy three-way stop, threading the van through gawking tourons and straining dogs, ponderously turning land yachts that made me look like a tugboat next to an aircraft carrier by comparison, Verve, Prana, Lands End and Teva-clad slackers and rockjocks and river rats wandering from Yokums to the Gendarme to the Front Porch Restaurant, staring across the road to the towering plastic and plywood idol of the climbing wall or swiveling ancient spotting scopes to scan the face of the glowing white fin for climbers for as long as their quarter kept the lens open.

I parked in the farthest lot, letting the engine cool while I arranged slices of honey ham and crisp spinach on grilled pita bread. I unfolded a camp chair in the grass beside the parking lot and sat down to enjoy my sandwich, staring up at the folds and wrinkles Seneca, the crag I had come to think of as "the White Lady". Learning to place gear, to lead and clean, retreat and rappel, among these high, polished fins and corners had taught me so much about safety, climbing, the outdoors, and the eager, often nave kid I was then.

The sandwich was crumbs, and I washed it down with ice-cold spring water from Endless Caverns. Soft, hazy clouds drifted overhead as I turned once more onto the highway, Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" providing the backbeat as I urged the old van up through its gears.

An hour later, I lay, hands and arms crossed beneath my chin, legs straight out behind me on the flat boulder, perched some sixty feet above the floor of the Cirque. Fifty yards away, and dead-on, my latest obsession glowed in the noonday sun.

I counted bolts again. Three out the eight-inch offwidth roof, a rising curve of stone and space and pain that soared out almost ten feet from the base. Four more bolts from above the Business to the lip of the second five-foot overhang, affectionately nicknamed the Kit-Kat Roof for the solidity of its appearance and quality of its cracks. And then three, wide-spaced and crafty in locale, to take you right up the perfect profile of the arete that capped the headwall.
Mosquitoes danced in front of my face, and gnats attacked my ears and nose. I took one Last long look through the monocular and packed it in.

The next day was wrong, mad, strange. Perhaps that was the secret, after all those perfect, clockwork days of predictably failing. I don't know any more than the frogs, singing out there in the new-fallen rain.

Start was late and leisurely, after realizing that my rope was likely still lying right there in the garage where I had carefully packed it into a new bag, the night before the party... Doc Doom showed, late but dependably THERE, Dokken cranking from his stereo as he slid into the drive at high speed, stepping out into the dust, he rolled a smoke, poured a cuppa and cursed traffic, NPS Law officers, unspayed dogs and holiday traffic. He laughed at my lapse of memory and pulled cordage from the trunk of the silver bullet.

Instead of the usual short hike and rappel to save energy and time, we thrashed in through the lower path. I didn't question, didn't doubt, just went with the flow. Like the man that threw himself naked into the rosebush said, it seemed the thing to do at the time.

The Cirque was like the set for some Brazilian epic, green and fecund and humid. Locust and cicadas and birds filled the air with song, backdropped by the trickle of drops to which the waterfall had been reduced and the song of the river a hundred yards below. Millipedes crawled slowly, impossibly up the rock, and a corn snake, no bigger than a bit of gear cord and just eight inches long, slithered and melted over ledges and cracks and holds.

I warmed up on "Rock of Ages", an old favorite that Melissa (the Muse) and I had put up to open the Cirque, nearly eight years ago. Fifteen feet of 5.8 stemming leads to big holds through a slight overhang to a rest ledge, from which you chase a crack and 5.9+ face holds to pumpy mixed finish almost 90 feet off the deck. I was sweating, my heart pounding and my moves all herky-jerky, and although I finally pulled off the more run-out direct start, I flagged and took a hang at the last bolt.

Rapping down, I cleaned the draws and recoiled the rope, carrying my gear to the foot of Brother Love, breathing deeply through my nose to fight off the brief surge of nausea that locked my jaws. What the hell-? I had been careful to steer clear of anyone I thought was infectious, spending most of the last week training, isolated from the myriad coughers, sneezers, wheezers, and carriers currently inhabiting the 'burg. I tried to relax, munching on some peanut butter and honey, drinking plenty of water. I cursed myself with the thought that this was, without a doubt, something left over from my night of excess... then grinned and shrugged. It was, in the end, only a rock climb.

I stretched, visualized, tied in, and bonked. The first run shut me down at the same predictable, impossible spot. Fingerlocks from a squat, clip first bolt, lock biners at hanger and rope end, bump the right out to the jug at lip, undercling left and pivot, match at the lip, swing out, pull up, heel hook left/toe cam right/Leavittate, second bolt, head down, blow it and you’re talus stain.

Deep breaths, pull up/atomic sit-up and throw left to a shitty jug, reset feet and throw right to a hidden horn inside the crack, more dancing, throw long left to another jug, slightly better.

And that was where I stalled. Legs locked into the crack, Our Hero vainly tries the moves three times before calling "Take" and lowering off to pull the rope.

I shrug it off. It's just that kind of day. I pass some time doing trail work with the Doctor, then tie back in, drink a long gulp of water, and go back up, into the fight.

And suddenly, its all right there, and the fire is bright inside, and I'm not weightless but I am STRONG as I pull, dancing out to the edge, pulling through; crimpers setting me up for the high left before the crossover, and the rest is just a flow...

Crank your right hand around into an impossible angle to undercling a calcite-toothed column, hips grinding in the narrow confines of the crack as you strain upwards, only friction and belief holding you against the merciless pull of gravity as you snake a left up, through the crack, to catch the positive lip of a hold on the right, all thought suspended as you turn, looking down to carefully, consciously NOT step on the bolt hanger, toeing a pencil thin edge, right hand sweeping out in a controlled fall to catch a dusty sloper pocket, stalling your descent for just long enough to SINK the left into the pocket, elbow deep, hand curling through spiderwebs and leaves, scrabbling aside nuts and bones, twigs and moss and dirt and pebbles to lock you in as you growl, deep inside.

The carabiner's click is a ringing note, and the rope seems to drift through my fingers, into the gate.

The rest of the climb is almost anticlimax; clean moves, good clip stances, a great day and beautiful moves. But that's the easy way out. Too many stories get lost in clich├ęs down that path. Sitting here, at the keyboard, I smile with the twinging memory of hard moves, the feel of muscle straining against disbelief and gravity, and of dreams becoming reality. The weeks of effort, of doubt and soul-searching, the whole pattern of my life thrown into introspection over the success or failure of this climb, all that recedes now, the serpents' dance come full circle, self-doubt and hesitation drifting away on a wave of present contentment. I know that this season, as all others, will pass, and that the new day will bring challenges and obstacles, doubts and fears. In this moment of clarity, I accept it, without anticipation or dread.

Later, driving through Petersburg with the bright sun shining down through the pouring rain, I fold away the memory of this route and its lessons for another day, and another crux, to share with a friend, to carry on through deep water and heavy weather, to savor during long hours behind the wheel.

And to lay down another strand of the tapestry, here; another shining thread, weaving across the void, trying to tell a tale of the untellable, reaching out for forever.


  1. Another tale from the past- winter of '02 or thereabouts. Please excuse any language that may give offense, but I've never claimed to be a saint, since I have to live here in the real world.


  2. That was a wonderful story, I was on the way out when I saw it was up and started to read. What a great story brother.


While I appreciate and welcome commentary related to my posts, any spammers or trolls will be hunted to the farthest corners of the Internet, where I will get medieval on the offending poster with pliers and a blowtorch.