It is 2:00 in the afternoon on a warm spring day in the desert. "There's a naked disco party tonight," Holly says.
Normally, "naked" and "party" are intriguing, but in the climbing world the chances are slim for catching a decent ratio of sexes.
I've chosen the climbing life for the winter, a season that in J-Tree at times can feel like summer. Living the dream, camping next to a brown government sign that reads 14-day camping limit. (I'm not past that limit, no sir. Perhaps some are.)
"Write and climb," is my answer for the usual, "So, what do you do?" Of course I also wash dishes at Crossroads, the main social hub, the dusty little cafe and pub in the heart of town, to stay fed. A solitary existence with plenty of time to read and think. Storms with brutal wind challenge my decision to live this way, but the moments with friends in the sun on the perfect salt-and-pepper granite make it worthwhile.
The climbers who come and go are interesting enough, but those who stay, who try to find ways to keep themselves entertained, are the best. Picture people who climb in superhero outfits and "surf" atop Winnebagos being driven through camp by their unsuspecting owners. These winter rock warriors are the best campfire storytellers, and after two months you've probably already heard a Shoney story about the local heroes, narrated with eyes wide, hands and feet in the climbing position: "And then Too Strong Dave--"
Some of these folks live in the town of Joshua Tree, while others brave the harshness of this barren desert by camping. Though I've shared a campfire with a couple of them and seen others run through camp midday dressed in costumes, most of the long-staying freaks are a mystery to me. I've seen their headquarters, an incognito campsite where music, substances and partying seem to be of equal importance to rock climbing.
My friend Holly is not going to the disco party, just passing the word as she returns to civilization, while I stay to face whatever weather comes next. Luckily it is clear and calm; stars appear. The frequent winds of recent days make the stillness sacred.
Eventually I enter my tent, enter the routine, intending to get a good night's sleep for strong training tomorrow. Then I hear the loud, obnoxious voices, "Disco party tonight"
They grow louder, then softer, circling camp.
And then a female voice: "I'm going to take my shirt off."
A male voice: "Don't do it, you'll just attract more dudes."
An hour later I look out of my tent as the rhythmic grooves of disco and funk float through the dusky air. Headlamps and unidentified glowing objects flash from atop the Blob, a hundred-foot granite dome. Sleep is out of the question. I grab a beer from my cooler and stagger amid the bushes and boulders, drawn toward the lights.
The party isn't exactly easy to get to. Soon I find two others tromping around in the bushes and boulders, one with the brightest headlamp on the market. With one sentence, "You trying to get up there, too?" we become a team.
The heathens above us notice our lights but aren't giving any help as to how to reach them. "Go up The Surrealistic Pillar," they taunt from above, suggesting we free-solo a difficult 5.10.
Our international team of three -- a guy from Switzerland, a guy from Sacramento and myself -- is looking for a more moderate route. We locate an easy crack on the back side, one that swallows your hand with each jam.
"Did I tell you I've never climbed a rock before?" our Sacramento friend says in fear.
We try giving a lesson but don't want to encourage a newbie in much risk-taking. A fall here would send him and his backpack full of beer tumbling a hundred feet into boulders and cacti. He retreats and we lose the beer but not the new friend.
We reach the top, our bare feet adjusting to the rough granite. The stars are a backdrop and my soon-to-be friends are all naked, save for a hemp necklace here or some flip flops there. A small stereo plays '70s disco.
"Welcome to the party," man, a six-foot tall naked dreadlocked man says. I have seen him around, climbing and camping.
I glance at the 10 naked people. No surprise, only two women, one a dreadlocked free spirit they call the Mayor. This girl has been kicked out of the park over and over again but slips back in. She has a mythical status and I imagine her to have mystical powers that ensure she stays here safely. The Mayor is twirling a rope with some magical balls that change from yellow to green to red to blue in an instant. With a sweet look of innocence only a nude girl in California could give, she offers them to me to try.
Now I am amid the obnoxiousness, the openness, the idea to embrace the night, surely pissing off the climbers whose tents and fires look like specks in the low, far background. Then someone asserts, "Let's do the Chasm."
What the hell is the Chasm? I am clearly the only one thinking this, as the rest of the crew dances some more, puts on their clothes and downclimbs off the Blob in different directions.
I get dressed and a walkoff leads right to a fire in camp. Most people have dropped their clothes again. The camp belongs to two tough-looking biker dudes, one who says he is recovering from a wreck. One of my new friends is now wearing a bunny outfit; another has a curly blond wig on. Soon the Mayor busts out two torches. The torches shed a new light, as a crazier, wilder glow illuminates in the freaks' eyes. Beats from a congo drum -- thump, thump -- indicate the party still has a pulse.
The next thing I know, I'm the only clothed person running through camp. People are screaming, announcing the trip to the Chasm, trying to round up others to be a part of it.
Loring, one of the tribesmen, who always has a mystical look in his eyes, questions why I have clothes on. This event needs to be recorded, I claim, thinking that if a ranger shows up I'll be happy to have something on.
"Well, if there's one thing we learned from Hunter S. Thompson it was to participate," he answers, and adds with a direct look into my eyes, "Gonzo! "
Naked again, I am entering a chimney, burrowing into a granite cliff, away from the moonlight into pure darkness. "The chasm of doo-o-om," someone yells, words echoing into the cave.
Move-by-move beta is shared through the chimney; climbers tunneling, squeezing, and downclimbing. We pass half an hour with no headlamps, only the shared word from above in the long tunnel up and then down through the granite rock. Where are we going?
Then we emerge at a ledge, exposed and interwoven in a granite world, one where the stars are comforting, a gang of tattooed naked climbers. Smoke pours from mouths, cold air blows through on our skin. We look out onto the endless granite and Joshua trees, each its own shape, with every limb going its own direction, barely visible by the moonlight.
Downclimbing the chasm is horrible, the scraping skin, the claustrophobic thoughts in the dark world. My mood lightens for a second when someone says, "Watch your package here."
But just when I've had enough, there's an opening: the sand, the boulders, the cacti, the horizontal world.
We run again to camp on the road; no cars, only the pat of bare feet on pavement, and inhalations and exhalations. The Bunny leads, fire torches behind him; dreads fly through the air in this grand finale to our ceremony of togetherness. The land is ours.
We arrive in camp. The freaks, through inspiration or obligation, have invited me into their group. I look up to the Blob, granite clearly lit up by the moon. Camp is silent now. Stories from an old friend about the climbing and culture of Joshua Tree brought me here. Now I am part of it.
My tent, weathered badly by the wind, poles sticking through the nylon, begs me to enter in it, to another dream.
Luke Mehall just published his first book,
Climbing Out of Bed, and is currently on his first tour through the American west. More information can be found by visiting his blog at www.lukemehall.blogspot.com. Mehall is also the publisher of
The Climbing Zine, a grassroots zine and website (www.climbingzine.com).