I was born on a United States Air Force base in Torrejon de Ardos, a small Spanish town just north of Madrid, and raised in Alcala de Cervantes, the firstborn son of an Air Force vet and a former State Department employee. I was swimming in the Mediterranean before I could walk.
I first saw Virginia when I was about five years old. After years on military bases and in off-base housing in Loring, Maine and Chickapee, Massachusetts, my family left military service, and we parked our tiny mobile home in National Coach Trailer Park, just outside the Central Shenandoah Valley city of Harrisonburg.
My life was a series of contrasts; we lived in trailers and trailer parks most of the year, I spent summers on the beaches of North Carolina and New England and running wild in the fields and forests on my maternal grandparents' huge farm, nestled amid the rolling hills just outside the tiny town of Meaderboro, New Hampshire.
Back in the Old Dominion, we frequently spent weekends and holidays at my father's home place in the mountains of the Blue Ridge, just outside Stanley, Virginia, immersed in dogs and cousins and fried food, the smell of cigarette smoke and kerosene lanterns, debates regarding sports as wildly disparate as baseball and professional wrestling, tall tales of racing, fightin’, drinkin’, lovin’ and woe. Despite urban beginnings in a rigidly regimented system, I was a country boy from day one.
I discovered backpacking, caving and camping long before girls and cars and rock and roll, becoming a regular after-school/summer vacation inhabitant of Land-Sea Passages, a tiny outdoor gear shop located in an aging building which had once housed a thriving bordello in the heart of the city.
Those days had long since passed, politicians and corporate giants either importing their mistresses or traveling to the distant lights of DC and Richmond for their more sordid entertainment. The heyday of reigning as the Poultry Capitol of the United States had ended with the Johnson administration, and Harrisonburg had grown into a college town with dreams of university.
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, introducing me to the concept of climbing on top rope, in my clunky military surplus boots, on the featured faces of Chimney Rock, dragging me through the underground wonderlands of neighboring West Virginia’s Pendleton County with its many caves and caverns.
With the money I earned working weekends and school holidays as an electrician’s helper in my father’s contracting business, I purchased a backpack, sleeping bag and boots, the de rigueur wool balaclava and fingerless gloves to go with my new 1” webbing swami and Goldline rope, locking carabiner and figure 8, carbide lamp and miner's helmet. I took a beginner’s 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.
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. I got married and divorced, soaring high and crashing with a spectacular flair.
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.
But the roads we walk shape us, for better or worse.
After being dragged out of the house one evening by a friend, 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. At the time, I was playing lead singer in a heavy metal rock band, and 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 lass, a former cross-country runner who was living on her own in a little apartment on the south end. To pay the bills she worked as a detailer at the Harrisonburg Auto Auction; away from work, she drank like a fish, could swear and belch like a sailor, and loved the outdoors.
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 relocating to the old Blue Ridge Records and 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 motocross prodigy and heir to the Endless Caverns legacy Troy Johnson, Madison County climbers Mike Fisher and partners Pete Almquist and Gregg "Juju" Fangor.
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, bushwhacked to distant choss piles 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.
During the early 90s, your humble author was leading and later bolting his first sport lines in Franklin Gorge, starting with the 5.8s Belly of the Whale and Aloha and the appropriately-named Hard Thing.
Due to a long spate of bad weather and unemployment, as well as a willingness to spend entire days either freezing or baking while dodging loose rock and eating dirt on belay, he found a place on the first ascent teams of routes like George Powell’s delightful Anchors Aweigh and John Burcham’s Rock Your World and Walk the Plank.
In November of 1995, he took a one-way ticket to Sacramento, California and, for the next six months, climbed, hiked, and in every way embodied the old and honorable tradition, dirtbagging; camping in bounds and out in Yosemite and J-Tree, Red Rocks and Hueco (back when it was still wide open to climbers), climbing and bouldering every day that shredded skin and screaming muscle would allow, dumpster diving and sweet-talking day-old produce and bakery goods out of cashiers across the land.
He survived headlamp rappels and blind 5th class down climbs in the Needles of California, topped out and retreated in thunderstorms and hail, torrential rain and sleet, and weathered sub-zero bivvies while homeless in Flagstaff.
So he, that being me, Mike Gray, has paid his dues and put in one helluva lot of time on the ground to back up my opinions.
Although a vocal critic of the Access Fund and the affiliates that thrive and create more access issues than they solve at America's climbing “scenes”, I have in the past worked as a volunteer building stage and scaffold for the Phoenix Climbing Competition in 1997 and ’98, guarding the gear and site while the event staff was gone during construction and donating $100 of my bartender’s tips to the Access Fund on the night of the awards ceremony, as well as, on more than one occasion, making anonymous cash donations at climbing events and for local affiliates in other areas.
In the spring of 1998, while living in Phoenix and working as a stagehand and concert rigger, I went looking for something new, discovered and began development of the trails and routes of Northern Devil’s Canyon in the Dripping Spring Mountains of Arizona.
In the next four years, I pruned a coherent approach out of the profusion of old cattle and game trails, built belay platforms and dodged scorpions and rattlesnakes as I put up new routes on assorted faces around the canyon.
When my early climbing partnership with fellow Rhino rigger Rob Bracey came to an end (an event that was strictly my fault), I often resorted to leading routes with an altered Gri-gri for roped solo or with inexperienced stage hands hastily instructed in the basics riding belay.
I survived, and time passed.
Eventually, I ran into Devil’s Canyon pioneers Rich LeMal and Marty Karabin and began developing routes like Red Raspberry, Slappin’ Stinky and Exit Stage Right.
In 2001 and again in ‘02, striking northeast for a change of scenery and pace, I hooked up with local climbers Tom Reid and Bryan Gartland to do ground-up ascents on the short but exciting lines of North Lake and the boulders and faces of Monument Lake in Colorado.
Climbing outings were wedged in between days spent above 11,000 feet, working as a carpenter with Kingdom Construction, Reid’s custom home building company, and paying for campsite and meals by moonlighting as a maintenance man, bar tender and security guard at Monument Lake cabins and campground.
In October of 2006, once again on the east coast, I moved into the heart of Smoke Hole Canyon and returned to exploring, building trail, and developing new lines in the area.
In January of 2007, while working as a Construction manager for the Almost Heaven habitat for humanity in Franklin, WV, I met my wife-to-be, Cindy Bender, who was working as the volunteer center hostess at the HFH volunteer center in Cherry Grove, over in Germany Valley.
A tall brunette with a razor wit, amazing eyes and a stunning smile, Cindy was eager to hike, explore, and eventually climb with this madman, in any conditions, at any hour of the day or night, where ever I might lead.
It was bigger than the both of us.
In the winter of 2007, burnt out on the frantic socializing and rampant impact of Franklin Gorge, I went wandering and found the abandoned gear and three existing bolted lines on what had for years been posted as private land along Reed’s Creek, West Virginia.
In the next six months, I restarted development and opened a dialogue with the Monongahela National Forest. With the help of the Cheat Potomac Ranger Station and Recreation Director Julie Fosbender, I arranged to have the property boundaries resurveyed and marked to protect landowner privacy as well as to secure and define climbing access.
My wife Cindy, along with friends and fellow route developers Michael Fisher and Ryan Eubank, put in hours of work stabilizing trails and belays.
Through my online rants and posts of responsibility’s inseparable link to freedom and rights, I made contact with Professor Jamie Struck and the Outdoor Adventure class of Lyndon State College in Vermont. They came with willing hands and wide eyes and have made it their mission since 2008 to improve Reed’s Creek, Smoke Hole Canyon, and Franklin Gorge.
In April of 2011, we moved out of our apartment in Petersburg, WV and spent the next two months camped in the national forest and on private land of friends around Smoke Hole Canyon, the forgotten gem of the eastern Panhandle. I worked as an electrician and we made plans, and in July, we set out for the west, on a quest to re-discover America and share some of the scenes of our respective childhoods.
In August, we were married in a little chapel outside Flagstaff, Arizona, where we were living out of a tent in the Tonto National Forest. I worked as a cook, dishwasher, and snow removal crew through the summer and winter of '11.
We returned to Virginia and West Virginia via Greyhound for the holidays, and if ever I find myself riding a Greyhound bus again, I will surely know that I have died and gone on down to hell.
Back in Flagstaff, we fought bedbugs and black mold, crackheads and prejudice, and eventually surrendered when Cindy's health took a turn for the worse, after two years of steady improvement, since she had weaned herself off a dozen narcotics and began treating her Multiple Sclerosis with medical cannabis and an extract of the lion's mane fungus from Fungi Perfecti.
We came back to WV with the spring; couch surfed, camped out, and watched with pride as Cindy's daughter graduated from nursing school. Jamie Struck and the kids from LSC returned, more trail was built, and more fun had by all, before they headed home and we headed west, once again.
From March of 2012 through April of 2013, we lived out of an S10 pickup truck in a series of tents under shelters, pine trees and stars.
We drove the freeways and back roads, hiked and climbed and camped in state parks and National Forests from West Virginia to Colorado, Arizona to Joshua Tree; moving with the seasons, paying for repairs, upkeep, gas and groceries, bolts and bits by working in restaurants and cantinas, dodging moose at 10,000 feet in the Rockies and living with wild horses and city dwellers who were worse than the Sonoran rattlesnakes pruning Palo Verde and occotillo and wandering through the edge of the Superstitions Wilderness as camp hosts and booth staff; exploring an assortment of cities and small towns while re-discovering the less-visited corners of America.
In 2103, we returned to the east coast for the impending birth of our first granddaughter, as well as the marriage of Cindy's son. We found ourselves once again indoors, caring for an infant and the health of our families and loved ones, visiting old friends and crags, making new acquaintances, exploring new corners and putting up new routes.
In January of 2015, we went back on the road, headed for jobs in Colorado, where we became campground hosts and maintenance staff at Springer Gulch, one of the oldest crags in Elevenmile Canyon, on the South Platte. We were soon exploring, repeating classics and putting up new lines on the incredible granite of the Platte. We summited 1100 foot Sleeping Tom, climbed the 500 foot Turret Dome (and bailed in storm), walked most of the canyon and climbed the incredible stairs to the lookout above Spillway Campground.
At the end of the season, we returned to the east coast to winter with family and continue exploring and developing climbs in Pendleton County, West Virginia.
In February of 2016, Cindy suffered a major cerebral aneurysm, requiring surgery that took three hours in March of the same year.
In May, we returned to the west, where Cindy recovered using meditation, natural herbs, and exercise, while I took over as head of maintenance and resumed my duties as Campground Host at Blue Mountain Campground. Cindy covered the front booth and dealt with another season of clueless newbies, cranky old folks, aggro Bundy acolytes, wide-eyed kids and all the flavors of the general public found in between.
Back in Virginia at the end of the season, in mid-October, Cindy's recovery left the highly-educated and very experienced VCU surgical team, well, gobsmacked, for want of a better word; her massive aneurysm was completely healed, the three stents functioning perfectly to direct her carotid's blood flow.
This year, we’re putting the past behind, building trails and community, mentoring a new generation of climbers, planning stewardship events and adopt-a-highway clean-ups, and working to form a new climbing alliance based in and around the canyon.
We're still enjoying the golden years of being grandparents, still finding new things to climb and new trails to hike, still lost in the wonder of this incredible place, as I am still amazed to find a hand in mine as the journey continues.
That's me, these days; that's Mike Gray.