It was a hot and relentless summer in Moab, but Lyzz and I were hanging tough, trying to pry a living out of a tourist economy. I guided, and Lyzz took care of rich people’s kids, “trying to instill some values in the little bastards,” as she put it.
It was hot, brutally hot, and grim. Most of our friends had fled, finding jobs in the cooler, more lucrative climes of Telluride, Aspen or other such foreign parts, but Lyzz and I both stayed.
She wasn’t my girlfriend or anything, though sometimes I wished she were, especially on those afternoons when we’d go swimming at Mill Creek. Lyzz already had a boyfriend: Linus, my old friend, trusted wall partner, fellow seditionist. But that’s not what this story is about.
Finally, in August, the rainy season came in on big gray clouds that stormed across the sky, colliding like battleships on the warpath. The temps dropped to the low 90s and those winds blowing from far, far away made life seem almost bearable. It was time to go climbing.
Another car crowded the lot when we eased into the pullout below the Rez Wall, Indian Creek. I had my heart set on The Slot Machine (5.12-). The idea behind Slot Machine is this: Get in the slot, and go like a machine. I’d dressed accordingly, Carhartts and a long-sleeved shirt. Lyzz was in cut-offs and a tank top.
As we sweated up the washed-out remnants of the trail, picking our way through the cow-burnt scrub and sage, a cry, urgent and heartfelt, broke the quiet of the desert morning. “Kwang-fo! Cham! Kwang-fo!”
Was it Japanese? Chinese? Korean? A tiny figure grappled high up in The Slot, hung motionless for a split second and began to fall, pinballing down a long, long way.
“Huh, what’d’ya suppose that meant?” I asked Lyzz, as we stopped in the trail and enjoyed the show.
She paused, whipped the sweat from her eyes, and smiled. “I think it means, ‘Fuck! Dude! Fuck!’”
I smiled, too. Some things transcend linguistic and cultural barriers alike. They were Koreans, it turned out. With broken English and a game of charades we pieced that together and sent them on their way, limping to their next massacre, Excuse Station, a half-mile down the wall. I racked up beneath The Slot. Thirty minutes and 160 feet later I rapped to the ground, still panting, cleaning the gear as I went.
Lyzz took the rack while I pulled the rope, noticed the fresh smear of blood staining my thick pants, and rethought her own apparel.
“Give me your pants,” she said, stepping out of her harness.
“Your pants, I want them. That shirt, too.”
“Um, Lyzz, I’m not wearing anything else, at all.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” she said. “You weren’t wearing anything at Mill Creek yesterday and it didn’t bother you then.”
Somehow, it didn’t seem the same. “What if the Koreans come back?” I stammered.
“If you’re going to be such a prude, then here, put on my underwear. Christ, Steve, sometimes I gotta wonder.”
I had to wonder, too, as she handed me the purple thong, and I stared at it in my hand: Which would look worse if the Koreans did come back? They did, of course, just as Lyzz rigged the rappel. In dread embarrassment I tried to hide behind a rock, but to no avail. That’s just the way life is.
But that’s not the reason I’m writing this story either. I reach for and recall these events as I would for a crayon: to color in the outlines of our otherwise anonymous lives.
Slowly, inevitably, summer crept towards fall and with it the masses returned, crowding our desert paradise for that short, blissful season. Some faces were a joy to see as old friendships rekindled; most we regarded with mild indifference. As with many human endeavors, old rivalries grew into resentment, blossoming into slander and contempt.
Around one particularly vicious campfire, while a group of disgruntled pseudo-locals was raking an area climber over the coals for a purportedly inflated résumé, Lyzz pondered aloud: “What other recreational activities do you guys have?” “Recreational” was a subtle challenge to the raging egos that surrounded the fire. “I,” she continued, “enjoy needlepoint, crosswords and hard-core bondage.”
Most of the assemblage regarded her irreverence for our noble activity with quiet disdain. I laughed so hard I fell off my log.
Always a bit slow on the uptake, though, I too felt myself drawn into that pathetic game of competitive contempt. Familiarity escalated minor slights into verbal shootouts, and our community suffered along with our souls.
Eventually, the harsh fingers of winter reached into the desert and Lyzz and I found ourselves alone again. We shared many midnight games of Scrabble or Monopoly while the winds rocked our vans and tested our patience.
The last time I saw Lyzz was on the highway. She was going to Salt Lake to see Linus, and I was headed to Denver to interview for a job I didn’t really want. She laid on the horn and stuck out her tongue as she passed. Not to be outdone, I gave her the finger. We both laughed.
Lyzz died two weeks later soloing in Indian Creek. It’s been seven years now, but still, I find I’m crying as I write this.
We’re all going to die. You, me, Lyzz, all of us. And when you stand there before your maker, naked and alone with no place to hide, like me with the Koreans, it’s not going to make one bit of difference what you climbed or what style you climbed it in. The only thing that will matter then is how many people you helped out along the way.
At Lyzz’s funeral I ran into an old friend. Well, not really a friend—we’d been feuding, hadn’t spoken for over a year. We approached cautiously, both knowing it was time to move on, both too stubborn, too stupid to start.
“You know,” he said at last, “you don’t have to like everybody in your tribe, but you do have to love them.” We didn’t say another word. We just held each other and wept on that cold, windswept, bitter day in February.
Life went on, as it tends to do. But for me, that moment and those words remain frozen in time.
Lyzz Byrnes of Moab died February 4, 2001, at age 29.
Steve Seats lives in Wilson, Wyoming. No, he didn’t put on the purple thong. What do you take him for?