“Pretty sure I’m floating,” I said into the phone immediately after my friend Matt called to say, “Whatever you do, don’t drive your usual way.
At that moment my car’s engine quit, and it lifted up and started drifting toward a gas station. It was 12:30 a.m. and dumping rain. “What do you mean?” Matt said.
“I mean floating.” Stale yellow sewage water poured into the lower half of my door, pooling up around my feet. It smelled like the grease fryers of Captain D’s.
“Call the cops! “Matt shouted, alarmed.
“What am I going to tell them, I’m floating down the ghetto on 4th somewhere around BP and Waffle House?” I remembered a recent “Cops” episode filmed just one block away here in Chattanooga, with the police busting a shack of cocaine-peddling hood rats.
A car that had tried to pass when I stopped was now spinning in circles in front of me, and I was moving so slowly it felt like I was drifting down a water-park current. The urgency of being stranded in the midnight ghetto was suddenly replaced with a surreal sense of humor.
“Yes! Exactly!” He paused. “Whit. How does this type of thing always happen to you?”
What? I thought with some annoyance. These things don’t always happen to me.
OK, to some degree they do, but always? I tried to steer my floating car toward the gas station, where I saw a patch of dry ground by a pump.
We’d been watching TV at our friend Cletus’ house that night. It had been raining since 5 p.m., but when I started out on the 20-minute drive home, not long after Matt left, the rain was shooting down in 45-degree sheets. I had made it to the stoplight on 4th just off I-24, and last I remember I was rehearsing the crux of my most recent Red River project in my head while waiting for the light to change. But now I was up to my knees in used city water.
It was official. My life seemed to be moving in the wrong direction. I wasn’t writing as much as I wanted, in fact, I wasn’t writing much at all, and I was getting frustrated on my climbing project. I just needed something to go right — to send something. Anything.
It wasn’t the first time an end goal had consumed me. In issue 148, I wrote about my unsent project (I still have yet to revisit its shining face), Sesame Street (V9), in Squamish. I thought I described my obsessive attempts with humor, but I was later cited by the mental-climbing-game-guru Arno Ilgner in an article as a climber taking herself too seriously: “Could she have done the problem if she was less attached to achieving the end goal and more attached to having fun?” At first, I scoffed. Me? No. A little self-disparagement never hurt anyone. But then I thought about the overriding issue. Why did one send, one measly boulder problem at Squamish, to this day nag me?
My car suddenly stopped, cammed between dry ground and a gas pump. Across the street, a small crowd gathered to watch as at least four cars floated haphazardly, like bumper cars, in the intersection. On the corner stood a plaid-suited man with a camera, and a group of people holding brown paper bags, tipping back tallboys and watching the show. I turned the key; miraculously, my car started and I pressed on the gas, to move only a few feet before the car shuddered and shut off again, sending me drifting into the middle of the street. All I wanted was to reach that well-lit gas station, with people and dry ground, on the other side.
A week later I sat underneath my project at the Red, leaned back and pantomimed the crux, trying not to think about my car problems. It was September and the heat and humidity made it feel like I was being suffocated by a moist kitchen towel.
I had been making small gains over the past few visits on this route, but over the weekend I had, unsettlingly, regressed. Throwing myself at the route in the summer was a setup for disappointment, but I told myself I was also setting up for success when the weather got cooler. However I spun my own little reality, the only thing on my mind at the moment was getting that tick on my list.
My first two attempts had gone grossly wrong, and I had one more go in me. It would be our last day at the Red before I returned to Chattanooga and the realities of trying to find and afford another car, unable to return until October. This was my last chance.
I stick-clipped the first bolt and put my shoes on, then flew through the first section and made it to the mini-crux feeling stellar. Holy smokes, I was going to do it! I reached the rest and shook out. I thought about the beta ahead: the precise foot placements, how I would try to grab the knob (the baby’s head) like I was going to basketball dunk it, then nab a tiny left-hand gaston and scamper through some lock-offs, skipping the last draw for the redpoint.
But as I stared at the crux, I heard it: a faint buzzing in a quarter-sized pocket in front of me. A hornet peeked its tiny head out.
“You little shit,” I said.
I tried to keep my composure, but it was swarming in and out of the pocket, obviously irked at my proximity. I tried to relax and focus but felt more urgency now. I chalked up once more, but when I started to move my feet and reach right, my chest pressed against the rock, that little bugger shot out and stung me directly in the boob.
“Ahh! He got me!”
“What?” Matt said.
“My booooooooob,” I cried, the words echoing in the amphitheater as I fell through the air, my hand still cupped and elbow cocked, as if I was carrying a boom box on my shoulder.
Matt lowered me to the ground and I untied, head lowered, mouth puckered up in a scowl. All I could think about was how much that sucked.
We made our way back to Miguel’s Pizza, where I drank cold IPAs and stuffed my face with sausage pizza in a hotheaded attempt to fill the void with something substantial.
I hate to slide into the land of discontentment, but found myself swan-diving in, and I sat there, swollen on pizza, thinking about why.
Forward movement, gains, sends, ticks — whatever you want to call them — sometimes feel like the only acceptable outcome for driven climbers, with failure a negative, soul-sucking demise. But climbing (like life) is often about failing, and while we try to define our climbing, our skill and sometimes ourselves through our successes, what about the mundane efforts that make up the majority of what we do?
It’s sometimes not our successes, but how we deal with our failure that gives meaning, shape and depth to our lives. Yes, I totally failed on this one. No send. Nilch. Nada. But sitting on a bench outside Miguel’s sweating the pizza off, I slowly realized I had to laugh at myself. I hadn’t seen before how strange and comical the whole situation was. I had pressured myself to send quickly, only to get stung in the boob, and my car was still marinating somewhere in Chattanooga. It didn’t always have to be about the send or the goal or getting to the other side. Sometimes I just have to be satisfied with my effort and the process, and let some things go, or at least be patient and let them rest.
As we made our way back toward I-75 and my damaged car in Chattanooga, I thought about drifting down 4th Street, helpless, while on the corner a man filmed me and a woman in the crowd waved a Shop-Vac and offered to suction the water out of my car for $50. But I had done what I could do. I had revved up the engine, given the car a little gas and had pointed it, as best I could, in the general correct direction.
Whitney Boland’s car was totaled, but she finally sent Swingline (5.13d), last October, and is moving in a much better direction.