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


Friday, October 10, 2014

Hard Bark 2014

This is how it is.

I'm known to the climbing community as a curmudgeon; a grouchy bastard who seems to have little or nothing good to say about anything.  I’m tired and sore from about fifty-plus years of fairly adventuresome and demanding life, thirty-something of which have been spent becoming the the best carpenter and craftsman I could, working my way up from jackhammer-lugging grunt and rake operator to a foreman, eventually a superintendent, and working as a concert and theatrical rigger.  

During roughly the same period, I was doing everything I could to become the most versatile, well-rounded, impact-conscious, proactive rock climber I could possibly be. I learned orienteering and survival skills, was certified as an EMT and qualified as Field Team Member for Search and Rescue.

I came up during the ecological awakening of the late 60s and early 70s, and even without the massive sea-change of those times, environmentalism meant much more to a kid whose grandparents lived right out there, in the country, instead of in some suburban landscaper's dream.

You see, my people are the people who called the Skyline Drive their back yard before the country called it a destination. We're the people working those little stands in New England where our family farms used to be, before taxation without representation and tourists who couldn't give a damn about more than their itinerary plowed that legacy into the ground under the newest rest area strip mall in the name of progressive thinking.

We've been cleaning up behind the latest popular movement for about as long as you folks have been hiring other people to do that, building the roads you drive in on, establishing all those quaint communities whose fossilized remains you love to hike through without ever really seeing the sad descendants of the original settlers going about the lives your endless appetites have left behind.

All that aside, the forests are my first love, since long before puberty took hold of my endocrine system or Miss Cindy walked into my life like a sunlit thunderbolt.  I love the mountains and I revere the gifts we have been given, I believe, by a benevolent if sometimes inexplicable universe. It is and always has been my duty and my devotion to give back to the places that have cradled my broken soul.

So, for most of the past three decades, no matter how broke or exhausted or beat-up I was from days and sometimes weeks of brutal labor and long hours, I spent my free time looking for, finding, developing and (hopefully) sending new lines interspersed with sessions of repairing trail and picking up trash.

I’m further from the beginning of my climbing career than the end. 

And I am determined to make an impact on the future, beyond the lines I will leave behind and the trails I have built.  

My climbing partner, Doctor Goodwack, would say that I'm wasting my time. He might be right. He'd say that you're all worthless and weak, and that the ones of you that aren't are either too comfortable, too old and beat down, or too young and stupid to waste time or rope on.

He's got a lot of hard bark on him.  Hell, truth is, since I wrote this little piece the first time, I’ve grown an awful lot of hard bark myself; not from any one great wound, but from a thousand cuts of daily indifference, apathy and oblivion, spread out over the years.  

Some days, I doubt climbing, and certainly the mountains and forests, the wild places in which the finest climbs live, will survive in any recognizable form. 

But I still hope that we’re wrong. 

I'm betting on it, in fact, that's why I'm sitting here typing on a laptop, tossing out messages in a bottle to a generation that mostly doesn’t know or give a damn who I might be, instead of sipping coffee or cold brews or heading off on another adventure with the lovely brunette who calls me her husband.

Because I want you to know that I feel you out there; sitting on a bus, or a train, or in some airport lobby or library, at your desk or table or in your car, where ever, picking idly at your skinned knees or gobied hands while you read this, feeling the aches, or the Hunger, when there are no wounds, no aches.

So many of you have reached out through emails and phone calls, online messages and at the crags, over the years.  The response on Kickstarter was amazing and inspiring, a reminder of an energy I thought was lost.

Unimaginable as it may seem, I was one of you once, before all these miles and memories, these scars, all these years... all this hard bark.

I know you, because I was you.

I know that, even with this tide of pushing for high numbers and press attention, trying to milk bucks or swag or just a moment in the sun out of this fickle, pointless, incredible obsession, there are dreamers out there, dreamers who dream not with their eyes shut, in their beds, but with them open, in the deep woods, on the big stone, or some tiny, unknown little chunk of rock lost deep in the forest. I think about you, sometimes, while I’m hanging there on hooks, gingerly pulling up the drill while flakes fall away, or working through some demanding sequence between clips, or laying hundreds of feet of trail for hours, piling stone and moving dirt, cutting and placing logs, marking the way.

And as hard as it may be to believe this, as much as I chew on you and rage at you and smash at the feet of your sacred cows, I actually believe in you, from all these many years down the road beyond my own folly, when the convenience of sheer numbers makes it easy to forget being young and proud, headstrong and reckless, hungry and open. 

Even with all the blah, blah, blah that makes up most of the magazines, ezines and forum space these days, I can feel you there, just the other side of the page, dreaming of long, clean lines, of hard, steep moves, or of just clipping that next bolt, someday.

You hear the green song while everyone else is racing down the trail, hell-bent for leather to be first. You know the peace of being last on the trail, and the serenity of that first moment, alone at a new belay, with a new climb behind you still ringing in your soul; a rope's length above your partner and the world and light-years from all the crap that clogs the gears and weighs you down.

And you're doing incredible things. 

You climb sooner, faster, stronger, and better than we ever did, and you genuinely seem to be trying to rediscover (or at least reinvent) community and true love for each other. You're pushing into the big hills and the hard numbers routinely, and that's one of the things that stir me to the keyboard. For all my hard bark, and despite the likelihood that few of you will give enough of a shit about what an old climber thinks about anything to give this a second‘s glance.

So enough preamble, I guess we're gonna dance or fight, one of the two, so we might as well get it on.

You're fallin' down on the job. You crank hard and you dress really cool but you're sloppy and careless and self-centered to a fault even in this narcissistic sport.

(And no, this is not that "When I was your age we walked ten miles to school through burning hail, uphill both ways, and when we got home they beat us and killed us," crap... this is me, talking to you. Thanks for your time... I won't keep you much longer, I swear...)

Facts is facts, and the fact is that we did (and still do) put up the new routes, keep what few animals we ever had about in close check, and manage to not only build but routinely maintain the trail system at several crags, for years. Decades, even...

All while holding down jobs requiring at least forty hours per week (in those days I averaged sixty-plus) and commuting at least an hour each way (in my case two and a half), and tending to all the sundry crap that life will try to tack on you in the years between your age and mine.

You buy crap guidebooks. Too many members of the climbing press have been printing minimal information and sending the masses hither and yon for years now, creating impact and land issues and cutting and pasting the same mealy-mouthed obligatory crap from rip-off to rip-off. Leave no trace... unless it's on a crag located on delicate access land that no one bothers to mention. Respect the earth, but not the climbers whose work they are stealing to make money we never see a dime of. 

Ask the people at the crag who put up the lines. If they can't tell you, find someone who can.

Any guidebook that doesn't list first ascentionists is crap.  Period.

You want a mini-guide, call it that... but don't leave out the history of the routes and crag to avoid admitting that you stole the info instead of meeting the people and finding out their stories.

It's your history... and you're letting it slip away. People like me (and even a few nice ones, as well) are out there putting up lines, building trails, carving out crags you'll never hear about. Because they've seen what happens.

At Franklin. At Hidden Rocks. At Muir Valley and Joe’s Boulders, Oak Creek Overlook, Paradise Forks, Jack's, the Supes.

The word goes out and people come, regardless of how many cars are there when they arrive, because they just gotta be on the scene. Gear left on projects gets stolen, and projects get worked with the red tags still dangling.

And those who came for something that they cannot name pack their gear and move on to the next lost corner, in search of something that exists in moments of fear and wonder, a song that speaks in silence and the sound of the river, a calligraphy of shadows and stone.

We're mostly working class citizens who spend hundreds of hours and thousands of hard-earned bucks (yes, thousands... priced a new rack, rope, battery drill, aid gear, and health insurance policy lately?) over the course of decades.

We put time and love, sweat and blood into the routes that climbing shop hard persons routinely talk crap on, downgrade, and misname. Which is like having one of your relatives repeatedly call you by the wrong name at a family picnic... after a while, that crap kinda gets on your nerves.

That is why I'm here, trying to keep a little of the beta stream unpolluted and complete, and potentially wasting an hour I’ll never get back to make a fool of myself, given my long and checkered past of internet feuds and hostilities, shouting at an invisible audience scattered miles and years away from me in time and space.

So what?  

I’ve wasted more time on lines that didn’t go and partners that didn’t show.  

For what it's worth;

Get involved. Ask questions. Introduce yourself to climbers you don't know... who knows, you might meet someone who put up the routes that you love. Climb with new people. Go to Park Service meetings and Access Fund Rendezvous, and do more while you are there than get autographs and beta to the latest super-secret, cutting edge destination.  Find out what they are fighting, where, how they are organizing, what is a real issue and what works in resolving those issues. They are your crags, and your responsibility.

Dig into the stories you aren’t hearing or reading about.  If your dollars support the big organizations, your voice needs to one of those to direct its course.  We've left you a legacy... the same one the generation just before left to us. We haven’t done the best by you, by any means, and out government has done less for all of us, to an even greater degree. 

Of course, the last generation didn't collect a tax from every dime you earn, but your dear Uncle Sam does, without fail.  Now is your time to prove yourselves worthy, to claim your birthright.  Ask hard questions, and accept no easy answers from the people and agencies that run your public lands, the people who lease away your old growth forests and whose quest for insuring gigantic corporate profits have trumped their mission to preserve our unique ecology and irreplaceable history, as well as their responsibility to local communities and their economies.  

There are good rangers and workers in the system, few and far between as they are. Find the good souls out there in that incredible juggernaut of a system and do what you can to sidestep the bureaucracy and incompetence to make things happen. 

Before you get together over latte’s and congratulate each other for saving an acre of grid-bolted sport climbing or gruesomely overhanging boulders back here in the east, remember that there are still battles to fight. Crags to save, destruction to halt.

Multinational corporations in the Dripping Springs Mountains of Arizona have unblinkingly confirmed their plans for the eventual, inevitable destruction of Apache Leap, the bouldering heaven of Oak Flats and sport mecca of Queen Creek, the incredible spires and walls of Devil’s Canyon, and the long-term vitality and economy of nearby towns. Tonto National Forest is fighting this with all the effort a broke whore expends to fight off a drunken college boy with ready cash.

This land has been privately owned under the protections of the original Mining Act, while across the United States far less historically-significant landmarks have been taken from families to create public lands. Isn’t it time for the government to reclaim it from foreign corporations with no goal of preservation in one of the most ecologically sensitive areas in America?

The destruction predicted is based on mining practices that would be illegal for an American corporation operating on American soil.  They are quite simply the most destructive way possible to mine the region.  The proposed land swap and freeway development (meaning even further ecological mayhem and denied access), both intended to mask the extent of the destruction, are supported by several state and Congressional representatives, all invoking the sacred cows of jobs and economic development (aka more taxes to play with during their careers.)

This is huge, folks.  Don’t just post this on Facebook or send a check.  Contact Congress, kick-start the Access Fund, scream at the Sierra Club and the American Alpine Club, then get out, picket, chain yourself to some equipment or a gate, get arrested, whatever it takes to drawn the public’s attention and get involved in the fight. 

They are our crags and our lands. Our heritage and legacy.

Our responsibility. 

It starts with the little things.

There is a relatively small but enormously popular crag on private land at the edge of Franklin, West Virginia that is sliding away into eroded oblivion as I sit here typing; a place where Access Fund members have been bringing their dogs and friends and climbing for over 20 years.  

But it wasn't Access Fund members who organized or paid for the first Franklin Trail Daze, it was a non-member, something that has been true for all but one of the trail work events we held there from 2007 through 2010.

It wasn't the Access Fund's Regional Coordinator who reached out from the distant city of Seneca Rocks to contact those landowners, but a working carpenter who climbed there on the weekends and shopped at Kemper's Grocery, the tiny store at the end of the road leading to the crag.

Because it doesn't take a title, or the ability to climb 5.12; it takes the willingness to ask and listen, to see beyond your prejudices and the online resume.

In an age when climbers have no problem driving into Mexico or the ends of the earth and interacting with the locals, this small family business offered cold beer, snacks, and a window into the local community, and a contact point with the landowners.

Climbers who had been to Thailand and braved the highway banditos of the Sonoran desert, their eco-vehicles proudly displaying "Shop Local, Think Sam's Club", stayed away in droves. 

"That place looked sketchy." I was told.

I've been to Mexico, the bad side of Juarez and some places that made that look like suburbia, and I can tell you that Kemper's didn't hold a candle to what real "sketchy" looks like.

In fact, I never remember seeing very many other local climbers in the store at all, although it was always clean and the people were always friendly. Bob was a mechanical genius at repair, and Shirley kept some of the nicest plants to be found outside of a professional greenhouse.

But even locals had come under the spell of convenience and "organic farming", loading up at "farmers' markets" dominated by commercial greenhouses, shopping for bulk discounts at package stores, staying in campgrounds run by out-of-state concessionaires and in general exploiting every resource of the location without the need to spend a dime at local businesses.

Those businesses watched with a sort of detached calm as the city folks poured by, never spending a penny more than they had to in order to use the restrooms or get in out of the rain; demanding, condescending, self-centered, entitled, unconcerned and unaware of the people they walked right over in their quest for fun.

They did their best to help and please people who came uninvited to walk across their lands, who laughed at them and ridiculed the only life the people of the mountains were allowed, when wealth flowed away, always away from the mountain state.

Kemper's is gone now, just another place that has finally been ignored to death by the masses of climbers who have no clue that these are the people who actually owned a portion of the land on which they were trespassing.

Land trades hands, property lines are redrawn and the advocates and community have no clue.

There's a lot of talk about why the Access Fund members and administrators, the much-ballyhooed Jeep Discount Sales and Conservation Team and all those headline-happy affiliates can't do trail work on private land, despite having no problem climbing there or sending other people to do so by the carload.

But there is no whisper of an explanation why those heavily-funded paragons of impact control can't work on the trails that cross public lands.

After all, despite being home to any number of AMGA certified professionals who profess LNT principles and espouse green living lifestyles, it isn't the members of the Access Fund that maintain trails right over the hill in Seneca Rocks.

And it hasn't been the Access Fund out here, on the ground, replacing anchors and rebuilding the trails at Franklin, Reed's, and throughout Smoke Hole for the last twenty years.

Maybe they just don't know how to start.

Let me help you, fellas... I've done this sort of thing before.

(After all, it wasn't until after I started writing about traveling the United States doing trail work that you created your Conservation Teams, was it?)

It's simple;

If you move two stones on the trail and pick up two pieces of trash every time you go climbing, and if all your friends do too, you'll be amazed at what you can do in just a month. 

Don't just seek to empower climbers, but widen your focus; support and reach out to the people in the communities surrounding the climbing areas, as well.  Aren't they as worthy of your compassion and support as any war or drought or storm refugee in another land?

Work to make the climbing community a part of the larger community in which we travel and play while others live and work. Make sure the leaders of your advocacy groups lead by example; finding, contacting, and then respecting the rights and wishes of landowners, informing their membership of issues and decisions, ALL of the issues and decisions.

If the Coordinators don't coordinate and the Presidents don't make decisions, get rid of them and find someone who will.

If you can't find anyone, try taking it on yourself. 

And then they really will be "your" crags, because you're not just visiting, anymore... you're making all of it a part of you, and becoming part of it all.

It's not brain surgery or astrophysics.  I mean, even Mike Gray can figure it out.

Okay.... 'nuff said.  I want to thank you for your time, and your love of the sport I also love so very much. 

Be strong, stand proud, question everything, try everything, give lots of hugs, take lots of pictures, keep a journal, pull hard and don't be afraid to fall, in life or on the stone. 

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