Writing about Melissa Wine is always a challenge. Melissa was, like most of us, a riddle wrapped in an enigma surrounded by a mystery. She loved quiet mountains and riversides, heavy metal and loud bars, had a temper like a thunderstorm and a heart as fragile as spun glass. She was my best friend in a time when that meant much more than it does in the Facebook age.
Melissa will forever be the amazing woman with whom I discovered so much of myself, the Shenandoah Valley, country life, and climbing, and with whom I fell deeply in and never quite out of love with, so many years ago. If I often wish things had gone differently, it is not for myself or what-could-have been, but because I wish her life had gone down a different road, to a place of happiness and realization of her amazing potential, surrounded by friends.
|Melissa at the base of Snakeskin Cowboys, Riven Rock Park, Rawley Springs, VA|
|Working into the crux of Potential Energy, Contact Zone, Franklin Gorge|
It was here that George Powell and I completed the first ascent of Anchor's Away, and shortly thereafter Melissa and I put up our first sport route together, Belly of the Whale.
|Melissa on the first ascent of Aloha, Franklin Gorge, Franklin, WV|
|Setting up for another day on the route that just wouldn't go, Franklin Gorge|
We met some amazing climbers from across the nation and learned some hard lessons about impact when the area was included in several publications and traffic increased exponentially overnight. We watched and read as the problems plaguing our secret garden were debated and dissected in the national climbing press and, in some cases, the global climbing community.
The lady crushers ran up the FAs of routes like Hummingbird and Hippo's Head, bouldered in the Rawley Maze, on Second Mountain and Dictum, redpointed classics like Four Sheets to the Wind, Triple S, Rico Suave, and The Entertainer and kept coming back for more.
|Cleaning gear and crushing moves on Four Sheets to the Wind, NRG|
I was working a construction job that had very little to offer the soul, and took the toll of a Titan on the body; pouring and finishing concrete three to five days a week, ten to twelve hours each day of wading shin-deep in material with the consistency of thick oatmeal, kneeling and trowelling for hours around some architect’s insane idea of a retaining wall; running jackhammer and building forms, tying rebar and then turning around to take it all apart again.
The mountains were my only haven of sanity and balance. My small cadre of climbing partners was my family.
|L to R: Troy Johnson, Melissa, Tom Bunk and Owen Gartland, Ninja Walls, Smoke Hole Canyon|
And Melissa was the star by which I steered, the sun that shone on my world, my enthusiastic partner in every hare-brained misadventure and exploration.
|Gunsight to South Peak top-out, Seneca Rocks, WV. Melissa led this as her first gear lead a week later, and went on to put up a dozen trad routes in the next year.|
Time passed, friends moved on or moved away, life changed, and the distance between two friends who fell in love with each other and climbing began to tell.
|Melissa and Caspian, North Peak of Seneca|
When I decided to quit my hellish construction job and spend the fall and winter exploring the West, Melissa told me that she couldn't just walk away from her family and her life in the Valley, and moved out of our cabin in Rawley Springs.
The rest is history; I went west and had many trials, epics and misadventures in Yosemite, Red Rocks, the Sierra, Joshua Tree, Owens River Gorge, and Flagstaff, the beginning of a life that has taken me to 47 of 50 states, putting up 200 routes and dozens of new boulder problems along the way, and finding the woman who has weathered every storm, shared every victory, and stood by me through thick and thin, famine and plenty, sunshine and storm, despite all my rough edges, extreme opinions, and un-PC judgements, the amazing Cindy Bender, who honored me by taking the last name of Gray.
Melissa doesn't climb, now. She manages a Dollar General store in a quiet little town just over the mountain from my home, and occasionally we run into each other in the grocery store or around town. She has weathered the years far better than I have, and thinks back on those days with a wistful nostalgia, those times "when my life was so much more exciting and interesting".
|Soloing up into the Gunsight Notch of Seneca Rocks|
I've been trying to write this for seven or eight months, and it has been a challenge, for all the reasons above and because I lost my Dad in June and things with my family and that of my wife have just taken precedence.
Today I sat down and decided to finish this part, at least, to share with you, gentle reader, a glimpse, a snapshot, and my memories of an incredible woman who shared the journey and was a cornerstone of Smoke Hole climbing.