At the bottom of every climber’s heart lies a gnarled twist, like a knot on the root of a magnolia tree, where life without climbing ended, and another strange and vertically crazed path began. If you travel back through the arteries of this circuitous roadway, down through the memories of runout slabs, scary descents or momentous sends, you will eventually reach that knotted junction, where it becomes normal to have bulbous lumps on all ten toes, or bowstringed tendons arcing from a bent finger like the back of a striking cobra. And at this junction, there usually lies the definitive moment when the old world of moving horizontally across this planet was forever jolted and turned upright.
I remember when my heart was twisted like the core of a dynamic rope. It was my first trip to the desert—Moab to be exact—and no I was not going for any rock climbing. In fact, the only thing on my mind was warming my freezing, 21-year-old Mississippi bones in a climate warmer than my current, early spring whereabouts of Ouray, Colorado. I was in love with a mountain girl named Cristal, and she and her friend Megan, and me and my lifelong homeboy Justin, were all gonna go see those gorgeous, precarious arches for a weekend.
But Justin had already been bitten by the climbing bug, and was secretly scheming.
“What the hell is that?” I’d asked while he tried to sneakily stuff a Misty Mountain crash pad into the Subaru’s hatchback.
“Uh, dude, you know, while you and the girls go hike
around, I thought I’d do a little bouldering.”
“Ugh. Earth-nerd!” That was the term I’d given to my childhood friend-cum-rock-climber. But really I was just jealous. And now, because of his condescending “while you and the girls go hiking” attitude, I really took issue.
“Well, guess I’ll do a little boulder climbing with you then,” I said as I crammed my over-stuffed Cabela’s duffle on top of his spot pad.
You will eventually reach that knotted junction, where it becomes normal to have bulbous lumps on all ten toes, or bowstringed tendons arcing from a bent finger like the back of a striking cobra.
“It’s just called bouldering, man. And you don’t even have climbing shoes.”
“I’ll wear yours,” I said threateningly, furrowing my brow and leaning in close.
These were days when, young and dumb, the gauntlet could be thrown down for almost any slight and Justin almost took the bait. We met eyes—just like we had as angsty teenagers during late nights in the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta, three sheets to the wind and arguing just for the drunken sake of arguing. He knew we were either going to drop our bags and go fisticuffs, or he was going to take me climbing. There was a moment when it could have gone either way, but finally he relented, “OK, asshole,” and we packed the rest of our stuff into the girls’ Subaru and rolled toward the desert.
I’ll never forget the stark juxtaposition as we eased into Utah off highway 90, leaving what I’d felt was the in-escapable grip of the snowy San Juan Mountains to enter a brown-hued, sun-drenched desert. I felt my southern body thaw and loosen, and a wild energy that only the desert engenders took hold. I urged the girls to pull over at the liquor store as we entered Moab. We needed beer before we set up camp. And despite the fact that I couldn’t even find Budweiser in that weird store, I still emerged triumphant with a case of some 3.2 beer/water and forever set a precedent with the younger Colorado-born girls that camping with boys from Mississippi means drinking. A lot.
We slept that night near the banks of the muddy, languid Colorado river, bedded down in the sage brush and juniper that tangles itself into nests on the river’s north side. Our fire crackled until morning, and we woke up stiff with a chill that seemed to over-match the previous day’s thawing heat.
That first day in the desert was not particularly special for me. Justin, being the ornery, brother-like friend that he was (and still is), decided to quest out on his own, while the girls and I had us a “little hike.”
“I’m just gonna hitchhike up the road to a sick bouldering area called Big Bend,” he jabbed as we ate breakfast.
“Wow, sounds real freakin’ fun, Earth-nerd!” I glanced at the girls to make sure they were laughing with me, not at me.
But Justin didn’t care. His heart had been twisted and forked long before that trip, and he was going climbing, not hiking
The girls and I spent the heat of the day walking through the desert labyrinth of Arches National Park, though we didn’t dare venture down the trail to see the Delicate Arch, for that was reserved for the following day when Justin would be with us.
Arriving back at camp, we found Justin lounging on his thin and shaggy spot pad, his hands and clothes covered in a white powder as if he had been kneading dough in Eddie McStiff’s famous Moab pizza kitchen. He flaunted his fatigue from the “sick bouldering,” wearing it like a burden, even when just talking. I was envious. I sure as hell didn’t feel that “worked,” as he put it, from my hiking. So I built a huge bonfire, drank about eight beers and vehemently raged and caroused until maybe 11:15 p.m., when all campers, no matter how wild, inevitably hit an imaginary, can’t-possibly-continue-on wall in some eerie, universal, camping phenomenon.
The next day dawned like a maul striking a sheet of flat tin. But I rose up with a stubborn disagreement to the fact that I felt like hell, because I was going climbing. I mean, sure we were also going to see the most beautiful horseshoed rock in the entire world (the Delicate Arch), but truthfully, I just wanted to sample that rock scrambling Justin kept raving about.
We downed watery oats and then set off, our minds anxious for the visual stimulation of seeing that post-carded monolith up close.
As we drove into the park, Justin pointed out huge formations of red-orange stone, mentioning that people had climbed them. I rubbernecked for a view of the summits and squirmed in my seat.
I can’t imagine what the other tourists thought as we departed the crowded Delicate Arch parking lot with Justin donning a crash pad instead of a Camelback. But we were going bouldering. Plain and simple. And honestly, I don’t think any of us had any idea that we weren’t even at a bouldering area. So we sauntered up the easy trail, and had ourselves a look at that delicately strung arch and I remember asking Justin if anyone had climbed it and he laughed.
“There’s no bolts and no place to put in trad gear on that thing,” he explained impatiently. Ironically, Dean Potter would free solo that same sandstone arch a year later in plain daylight with cameras rolling, setting off a maelstrom of controversy.
Inexplicably, however, my heart was growing anxious as I turned my back on the arch. I was ready to feel the stone that seemed to surround me on all sides in that desert, but like a boy out hunting with his daddy, I waited patiently for Justin to lead the way.
The girls followed behind for a little ways and then poof
… just like that they were clad in bikinis and sprawled out to tan. Oblivious, I continued following Justin. Clearly, I was already bewitched by climbing. How else can I explain leaving cute girls in bikinis for the allure of boulders?
Soon enough Justin found our chosen “practice boulder.” The smooth face of the rock was split down the middle with a 10-foot, curving crack. I watched as Justin meticulously crammed his feet in little pink shoes while sitting on his folded out pad. He then started up the crack, moving deliberately slow, I noticed.
“Why are you moving so slow?” I asked.
“Sshhh! You don’t talk when people are climbing.” He continued up the crack, his feet pasted on either side, his hands thrust into the fissure. His butt pointed straight into the air due to the extreme slabbyness of the face and I giggled. He was practically crawling!
He got to the top of the “problem,” as he kept referring to it, and then walked off the backside.
The girls followed behind for a little ways and then poof … just like that they were clad in bikinis. Oblivious, I continued following Justin. Clearly, I was already bewitched by climbing.
“You sure you want to give this a try?” he asked, returning to the pad.
“Uh, yeah. Give me the shoes, dude.”
I stuffed my sweaty feet into those tiny pink shoes and then started up. I climbed fast. Hell, I hardly had to use my hands!
“Too fast!” Justin pointed out. “Take it slow. Stay controlled!”
“I can almost stand up,” I exclaimed giddily, excited about how easy this climbing thing actually was. And as I moved through the void of that crack, my heart knotted with kinesthetic glee.
“I just want to keep going!” I said reaching the top.
“Yeah, you’ll probably be a sport climber then,” Justin said with an air of disapproval.
And so we climbed that boulder again and again, and Justin even did a “problem” on the backside where he jumped from a smaller rock onto the boulder and caught two “crimpers” before climbing to the boulder’s lip.
Eventually, we folded up the Misty pad and found the sunbathing girls so we could hit the road and head back to Colorado. As we drove toward the snowcapped San Juans, my heart grew as twisted as those mountain roads, and my thoughts seemed to hover, traveling upward now instead of sticking to the flats as before. And as my daydream switched from one handhold to the next, we careened down highway 90 and passed into Colorado just as Billy Idol’s anthem “Dancing With Myself” thundered through the radio. We chanted the chorus; our heads bobbing while the Colorado landscape unfolded off the side of highway 90.
Well there’s nothing to lose
I’ve got nothing to prove
I’ll be dancing with myself!
We rounded a hairpin corner, the windows down, the music loud and everyone singing along. But as Megan geared down for a slight decent, we noticed a Jeep parked on the shoulder in the distance. Billy Idol continued to thump but we no longer sang aloud as we squinted into the distance at something strange happening beside the vehicle.
“What is that?” A voice drifted back from the front seat.
“Maybe they need help, slow down,” someone yelled, fighting to be heard above the crooning, soft-punk vocals.
We slowed the car as we approached, the object growing larger, slowly morphing into what had to be a person, no two people …
“Oh god!” screamed Cristal from the passenger seat.
“Dancing with myself!” sang Billy.
“Ahhhhh!!!!” cried Megan.
“They’re doing it!” yelled Justin triumphantly.
The heaving object had abruptly come into a startling focus, and there, lying next to the green Jeep, above a beautiful, Colorado mountain vista on the side of highway 90, were two lovers wildly getting it on.
We approached at an embarrassingly slow roll, but the man on top never stopped moving. Bare-assed, he smiled in our direction as he politely covered his lover’s head.
Dancing with myself … I’ll be dancing with myself.
But just as Megan hit the gas to speed past, I noticed it.
“Holy shit! Did you see it, Justin?” I asked.
“Yeah, I saw it, man,” he replied.
And I knew he had indeed. For what we, as new, greenhorn “climbers” had both noticed was that the couple were, in fact, strutting their stuff right on top of a nice, thick, folded out … crash pad.
Maybe there was something to this bouldering thing after all.