I had my first full-time job. I was newly married and had a 5-month-old son. I was 24. My life had seemed to be on track well enough. I had just finished my last year of college and my last season of playing football. I thought I'd be like most of the athletes at my school retire from competitive sports, retire from physical activity. Hey, I'd spent most of my life training and pushing my body beyond its limits what's wrong with sitting back and letting the good old days become the glory days, spend my weekends in front of the TV? Maybe bust out some old videotapes of me blowing by everyone on my way to the end zone. Grab a daily sixer, throw on the elastic waist, and expand.
But once the hook of climbing set, I immediately regretted every ball I threw, every shot I scored, and every double I hit. What a waste of time! I could have been spending my youth learning how to lead routes and to boulder, developing sick tensile strength.
I blamed my father for all those hours at the batting cage, those father/son church softball games, and the countless hours playing horse in our driveway. How could he do that to me? I could be climbing 5.14 by now! Or something.
How about my college years? I could have been road tripping to all those destinations, saving up my pennies to dirtbag it in Bishop or Hueco. Going everywhere, spending months hanging from those heinous slopers in Font. Oh, how much more cultural climbers are than linemen!
It all started when a co-worker, Gerry, took me to a climbing gym, swarming with screaming birthday-party brats doing somersaults and cartwheels over big foam pads. Gerry took me to the bouldering cave, where I saw ridiculous clowns falling three feet to their backs. I laughed at them. I actually thought, at first, that they wanted me to laugh. I asked Gerry, You do this for fun?
After some time my eyes drifted up beyond the cave to an older man wearing green sweat pants leading his rope from clip to clip. I asked Gerry about that type of climbing. He took advantage of the opportunity and roped me up immediately. He tied my figure 8, which felt oddly intrusive, but as soon as my feet left the floor, terror and delight washed over me.
I bought a membership the next day.
Months later: It was a hot and humid night and the AC was broken. I was reading John Long's book How to Rock Climb, but couldn't focus on the words because of all those pictures and places that were so foreign to me, so out of the way, so wild. We lived on Long Island, New York, an area of the country as flat as any Midwestern cornfield, surrounded by ocean.
My wife was reading her Glamour and the baby was sleeping or swinging in his swing. I sat there and envisioned a possible (if exaggerated) self future: 20 years down the road, too fat for real movement, puttering around an empty house, sitting in that new La-Z-Boy that just replaced the old one.
So I went ahead and said it, Hun, we need to get out of here.
Her eyes met mine for a second, but just as fast they went back to her page.
When I said it a second time using an expletive for emphasis she graciously dropped the mag and listened.
Where to? she said.
I listed several choices.
You need a job.
Well, yes, of course we need to survive. We can work that out, right?
You need a job with benefits.
Of course, benefits and money. We have a child. I get it.
We should visit first.
No time, we need to move now, get up and go.
I quit my job two months later, in May. We rented a U-Haul and made our plans. One week before we were to be out of our apartment, the job I thought I had wasn't there, as if a position can suddenly blow up.
We still had to take off my old boss had hired someone else. But first we needed to say goodbye to my parents. I remember the day, cloudy as always, and sticky like waking up with barbecue sauce thinly coated on your skin.
I have logical parents. People who raised three children to make well-thought-out decisions like go to college, get a decent job, support your family, and understand that no one makes homemade ravioli like your mother.
My father asked if he could speak to me alone, on the porch. I shuddered and followed him.
He asked, What are you doing?
I told him I was moving across the country. The decision was made.
His eyes penetrated the deepest part of my soul. You are a husband and a father. You need to provide for your family.
Did he believe I hadn't thought about what was best for my wife and child? Didn't he know how scared I was? This could be the biggest mistake of my life! We could go completely broke and come crawling back, asking to stay in their house.
Can you tell me how you are going to make this work in Utah?
I remember shaking in trepidation truthfully, I had no idea how. This was totally stupid. Why would I risk so much just to climb up real rocks? Family is much more important than a pastime only a small percentage care about. My father was completely right.
After that conversation I went for a lonely walk and saw the next few months of my life: traveling out west, finding no jobs, losing all our money, loading up another U-Haul and trekking back to my parents with our heads hung low, my child screaming, my wife losing all respect for her husband. The final scene was me hanging up my Muiras for life.
I came back dejected and my wife was waiting for me. I was convinced we would fail and told her so. She sat me down on the steps of my parents' house and told me we might fail but we had to try. She reminded me that we were both in this together and she wanted this adventure just as much as I did. She told me to toughen up and that we needed to follow our hearts. Life is fleeting and if we never take risks in this life then who will we be? It could have been a speech given by a great football coach before the big game and it sent me back to our original mission.
The next morning we three were off to a place we had only seen on a postcard. Salt Lake City. The only things that we, from that far away, knew about the state were its high concentration of quality rock and its dominant religious presence. We figured that rock so close to a city meant jobs and a reasonably priced apartment. The first night we arrived we were silent before a mountain range that rose from the bowels of a city, endless, and I remember not believing it was real. How could mountains be this accessible?
We found a humble apartment, and for the next two weeks I called and appeared for interviews from positions with salaries and benefits to simple retail jobs. Nothing happened and we made tentative plans to move back East. Money was getting strangled out of our savings account security deposit, first month's rent, last month's rent, gas, food. Then came the call: I had a job, with salary and benefits, and could begin immediately. Again I couldn't quite believe it. We were going to be all right.
So, what does this all mean?
You've heard people say, Climbing changed my life. For me it is the truth.
If it wasn't for climbing I'd be spending my time this very day, not writing about climbing or thinking about when I can climb next (I might sneak out on my lunch break in five minutes), but eating a lot of good bagels and obsessing about that possible promotion. Sitting most evenings in a big chair in front of the television with a beer in the cup holder. Asking myself, why do the Mets always blow it in the fall? And when are the Buffalo Bills moving to Canada? If I never was introduced to Gerry and climbing at that gym, then well, I'd be doing all of the above, daily, hourly.
Ever since that day, climbing has been an integral part of my life. I spend some mornings before work not hitting the snooze but taking my crash pad and running through a bouldering circuit. I get out on my lunch break from time to time when the conditions are just right and give a few goes on my project. In the summer when the afternoons are too hot I wake up early and climb routes, with a choice of three different rock types. I prefer granite.
It's been five years, and my wife and I are proud of our risk taking. It's a great memory and one we bring up often.
However, I recently took out an old picture of me when I played quarterback for my high school team. I was on one knee on the sideline waiting for our defense to stop the other team so I could get out there and show everyone what I could do. I was filthy and had a cut under my right eye. It wasn't much of a picture but it was enough for me to go outside and throw a few Wiffle balls to my now 5-year-old son, who, by the way, can sock em pretty good.
I may have changed my whole future, but no one can rid himself of the past, either.
J.P. Vallieres lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and three sons. He has passed on to his boys the great sport of climbing and a hopeless passion for the Buffalo Bills.