On March 9, 2012, with my wife Cindy riding shotgun, co-pilot and navigator, I left behind a fantastic job with the Flagstaff Family Food Center in the northern Arizona city of Flagstaff and, with it, all the comforts of indoor living.
We ate a fine dinner from the Food Center, then headed south through Jerome and Prescott as the moon rose, finally joining I-17 to reach Phoenix and make the run for Devils Canyon before sunrise.
This was not our first rodeo.
We left our longtime home in West Virginia on the July 4th holiday weekend of the previous year, camping our way across the west through most of the spring and summer of 2011. After getting married in the tiny Chapel of the Holy Dove outside Flagstaff in August, we had spent the fall and winter months living indoors; moving into an apartment in September and starting two jobs in the same week; as a line cook for San Felipe's and a Bobcat operator for Flagstaff Snow Removal.
After five months in the furious rush of San Felipe's, I had applied for and landed the job of Operations Assistant at the Food Center; picking up donations, directing community service workers and volunteers, assisting the cooks, preparing and doing clean up in the facility before and after preparing meals for up to three hundred and fifty people. With my lovely new bride, I'd weathered some tough times in those six months; crackhead neighbors, black mold, bedbugs, trying to find my way back into a young man's labor market on the verge of my 50th birthday and handling flare-ups of my wife's Multiple Sclerosis.
When serious news came back from the east, we were ready to break away, first heading to Joshua Tree, California for a week of high desert plateau sun and fantastic granite climbing, then camping on the rim of Northern Devil's Canyon, just outside Superior, Arizona, for another week of pulling down some serious desert dacite before being chased south and east by a two-foot snowfall.
We spent the next two days outrunning microbursts and hailstorms while driving 2400 miles back to the east coast, there to deal with too many heartbreaks to list here. We gratefully looked forward to our rendezvous with the annual migration of the Lyndon State College Outdoor Adventure Program, in Smoke Hole Canyon, a lost corner of heaven in West Virginia. Jamie Struck was once again leading a group of enthusiastic students to the hills of the Allegheny to work on trails, climb our stellar stone, puzzle out our cruxes, explore our mountains and take something of God's country back north with them.
The least we could do was meet up with them.
We spent five weeks building trail, taking photographs, climbing, visiting with family and friends, and polishing some of the details of the guidebook I'm writing and trying to publish. We met a new class of Lionhearts, some of Lyndon State's finest young souls, saw our daughter Rebecca graduate from nursing school, and visited with Cindy's family in Ohio after her father's heart surgery.
On May 7th, we bid farewell, once again, to the green valleys and rolling mountains of the east, making the passage from Logan, Ohio to Colorado Springs in just over 72 hours (not bad for a couple of geezers in a thirteen-year-old S10 pickup truck full of gear).
After a bit of rest and recovery at the well-appointed home of our friend and brother, The Tall Man, we headed out to see more of this place called Colorado.
We camped and climbed and gaped our way through our allotted fourteen days in Boulder Canyon, clipped bolts and slung gear and in general loved every minute of Eleven Mile, then hung out on for a week or three, working a handyman job and exploring the nearby hiking and climbing on BLM land surrounding the tiny pro-cannabis industry town of Nederland, Colorado.
We lived at 10,500 feet amid moose and marmots at Brainard Lake Rec Area in the Front Range of the Rockies, jammed the splitters of Turkey Tail in the Platte and pulled on the crumbly granite of Buena Vista, Colorado.
When we arrived at the entrance of the state park outside Gallup, New Mexico just seven minutes after closing time, we found the gates locked and no way to contact the host aside from waiting out the night, sleeping in our truck. Consequently, we finished the drive from Colorado Springs to Superior, Arizona in a single thirteen hour, eight hundred mile push.
We've served as National Forest hosts and volunteers, line cooks and wait staff, restaurant management and janitors, dishwashers and landscapers, vagabonds and dumpster divers. We've dealt with divas and trophy wives, bureaucrats, boy scouts, high rollers and low riders, gangstas, cougars and crackheads. We've eaten out of delicatessans, dumpsters and soup kitchens, enjoyed a midwinter bumper crop of desert produce and citrus from new friends and reveled in the simple luxury of a six-pack of brews or a CiCi's Pizza Buffet.
Most of our meals have been prepared on a single burner propane stove, requiring seventy fuel canisters over the last twelve months. The stove, fuel cannister, steel 1 liter bottle for olive oil, french press, dish detergent, canola cooking spray, spatula, can opener, nesting pots and two bowls fit into cylindrical 4 gallon Igloo water cooler.
Stove tip: an old metal bucket with the bottom rusted out makes a great windscreen for a Coleman single burner. Raise on rocks for added venting or improved windscreening. A rolled up ground pad will work, as well, but you will have to take care not to melt a hole in your sleeping arrangements.
We've brewed at least eighteen pounds of coffee, mixed it with about ten pounds of sugar and chocolate and creamer, brewed six pounds of assorted tea, eaten over twenty pounds of pasta, with ten gallons of sauce, gone through at least three gallons of olive oil, used roughly twenty pounds each of beans and rice, eight pounds of cheese, ten pounds of butter, filled about five hundred tortillas with everything from chili to peanut butter and honey, spread or spooned ten gallons of peanut butter, nearly as much honey and maple syrup, mixed about twelve pounds of pancake and biscuit mix, opened about eighty cans of chicken and tuna, and cooked over six cases of ramen noodles, as well as boiling about ten pounds of oatmeal with four pounds of raisins and three pounds of figs. We learned to use solar energy to make tea, rice, pasta, and ramen noodles, saving on propane.
From that energy, we've pruned, built or repaired hundreds of yards of trail, shot sixty-four hundred plus photos and about nineteen hours of video, hiked over one hundred miles in exploration and climbed two hundred and six routes in four states, reuniting with old climbing partners Rich LeMal and Marty Karabin to create several new lines in the Pancake House of Upper Devils over the Thanksgiving holiday, as well as putting up four new sport lines (one bolted ground up) in five weekends over the 2012-13 Christmas and New Year's holidays, while revisiting and repeating a dozen of my old areas and lines in Northern Devil's Canyon.
|Marty, Rich, and Cindy prepare Thanksgiving Dinner, Upper Devils Canyon, AZ|
We've been through three tents, two from Coleman and one from Ozark Trails, and retired a Mountain Hardwear 2-man for anything except emergencies.
Tip for tents: standing room is nice, but a smaller tent means less wind resistance and fewer broken poles when those gales try to tumble your camp across the plateau no matter how much weight you put in it.
Regular washings using a spray bottle and a wiping cloth will save the zippers from wearing out due to dust build-up, and a $20 tarp will save your $150 dollar rain fly from UV, falling twigs, hail, and ice.
We use an MSR water filter ($89 at Peace Surplus in Flagstaff, 'cuz we LOVE Local Businesses!), which field strips and cleans simply and quickly, and has pumped hundreds of liters of water without problems.
A lot of folks have spoken in envy of their opinion that we are "living the dream."
Perhaps we are... if your dreams include hunger, arctic cold, gale force winds, ice and snow storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, baking heat, insect swarms, humidity, rats and/or mice gnawing the wiring of your vehicle and foodstores, wet feet, weeks between showers while living in the same clothes, or the reality check of dividing the number of packs of ramen noodles by the number of days til payday and coming up with a fraction.
If you being dream of being looked down on and treated as a second-class citizen throughout your day, even in the "outdoor community", and getting constant attention from police and Forest Service Law Enforcement (except, of course, when you need it, like when someone is shooting up your campground in the middle of the night), this is your dream.
If you long to work for the cream of humanity, doing shit jobs for low pay just to make ends meet, worrying on a more or less constant basis about someone breaking into your truck or raiding your camp and leaving your destitute while you are doing this incredibly rewarding work, this is the life for you.
If you feel no sense of despair, realizing the distance between ethics and action, between conviction and commitment, or wondering why all the folks who will spend a weekend pub crawling or soaking up "the Scene" at a "destination crag" even bother with the mealy mouth protestations about "wanting to get out to the new crags", when they obviously have little or no interest in pushing the boundaries or exploring new ground without an entourage, you were born to live like us.
In the end, among many other lessons we've learned on the road, my wife and I have realized that all the people who sound so envious are the same people who never seem to have time to come out for even a day or two to live a little of "The Dream" for themselves. Reality is a potent remedy for delusion, and most folks cherish those delusions far too much to so simply cast them aside in favor of hard decisions and uncomfortable facts.
Maybe it takes some of the same discipline of spirit, the same deviant orientation and stubborn individualism that keeps us out here, despite all the inherent epics and suffering, to consistently seek out and develop new climbs and climbing areas.
Maybe that's why there's never been a crowd at the cutting edge. For all of its hardships, though, this is a life with many rich rewards, treasures beyond price for those who will find the lessons in hardship and adversity, and look for the beauty in even the most desolate of landscapes or desperate of existences.
I have not always been able, but I have tried.
As of yesterday, March 9th, 2013, the POWER (Poor Old White Economic Refugee) Couple has lived on that edge, on the road, out of a truck and a series of tents, tarps, and shelters, in campgrounds and climber ghettos, on BLM, NFS and state trust land, from Joshua Tree, CA to Albemarle County, VA, for exactly one year.
No "roughing it" with a brand-new pickup and sixteen-foot-long RV, no international corporate sponsors, no Access Fund, American Alpine or Sierra Club grants, no donations, no viral Go-Pro video, no Twitter account or fan base, no book signings... just putting up new lines, building and repairing trails, seeing all the places America has forgotten in the rush to the next big thing; keepin' it real, and livin' on love and a prayer.