For NaNoWriMo (unedited)
Chapter 1: That feeling when you jet out of town at the beginning of a very long trip and the wind tangles through your hair and whispers in your ear that you are finally free
I leave undulating burnt orange hills behind me at 80mph, creating a constant but wavering line in my peripheral vision. I haven't seen a car from either direction in 20 minutes. I don't know where I am, in the specific geographical sense. Somewhere in Nevada between gas stations. I've put complete trust for my wellbeing and safety in the GPS application on a small handheld device that my mom pays the bill for - still. I'm 23 and I don't even pay for my cell phone. Blindly, I have followed this GPS application to what appears to be the uninhabitable portion of the SW USA. Sweat drops down either side of my face because I refuse to use the air conditioning. I am a homeless, jobless, partnerless vagrant and AC seems like a luxury that a homeless, jobless, partnerless vagrant is unworthy of.
I'm feeling angry and kind of half-assedly glaring at nothing in particular. I'm upset because I want to be everything, and right now that seems impossible. I want to be all things at once without any sacrifice of quality or depth. I want to be everything and my inability to do so is causing me a great deal of angst. I guess I'm so angry about this because how dare the universe show me its complex infinite self and not allow me to be each part of it? God damn it. God damn the universe. I glare a little harder at nothing in particular.
Today, this very day right here, I have decided that one of the things I am going to be is a rock climber. I've gathered from various magazine articles and Instagram posts that in order to become a rock climber I need to quit my job and move into a car and live in it. So this is what I have done. I'm going to travel the American West in my Honda Element testing the limits of freedom and climbing in all the wild places everyone keeps telling me about.
The midday sun hits me directly in the face and sneaks into the gap between my sunglasses and my forehead. It doesn't really bother me because there is nothing and no one to watch out for. Perhaps during the previous 14 hours of driving, some apocalyptic forces have wiped out the rest of humanity, because I am feeling an undeniable sense of existential and physical aloneness as I traverse the arid lands of Nevada in my vehicle. Not even the muffled country tunes, nor the once-in-a-while generic desert bush, give me hope that I am not suddenly the last poor soul on earth.
Shit - what have I done?
Despite questioning life and it's meaning and etcetera, etcetera, I keep driving and eventually end up on the outskirts of Las Vegas at a gas station that charges entirely too much. I buy gas anyway, because what other option do I have, and glare, this time in the specific direction of the man chewing gum and reading a shitty magazine behind the counter in the gas station's little store of processed foods. I stand outside my car and pretend to stretch while I attempt to call my friend Adam, who I hope is waiting for me with a camp spot in Red Rock Canyon State Park. He doesn't answer, and I wish he had so that I would have an excuse to take a longer break from driving. I've never been so physically tested by an activity that mostly involves sitting and occasionally raising my arm to change radio stations. I'm feeling a little tired, even though it's only 5 pm, so I go into the little store of processed foods and buy a coke. I am addicted to coke, and not even the sexy, businessman kind. I get back in my car and on to the freeway before I chug half the bottle and spend the next ten minutes burping as loudly as I can.
It takes two hours to go 50 miles because The State of Nevada is doing construction on the highway and I am all but royally irritated until I remember that I have paid good tax money to drive on smooth, safe roads and The State of Nevada is fulfilling that promise. Well, in reality, everyone else has paid good tax money - I don't think I made enough last year to pay taxes.
I've never been to Las Vegas and I don't care to visit. Red Rock Canyon State Park is on the outskirts, and since I have approached from Oregon, I get to avoid driving through the City of Sin. It's that time right before the sun sets and I debate whether or not to stop to watch the sky change before going to find my friends, but I decide that risks finding them in darkness which is something I'd rather avoid. I cruise the campground at 4 mph with my head out the window, trying to look friendly. The road winds between a large patch of dirt that contains about 30 spots.
"Adam!" He is sitting at a picnic table behind three cars.
"Maddie, you made it!" He says, getting up from his dinner to walk towards the car. He leans on the passenger side door and sticks his head in the window. "How was your drive?"
"Long, but easy."
"Good, good. Look, we're a little full here. Christina's got a site too, across the road. Would you mind asking her first before we try to fit another car?"
Red Rock Canyon State Park campground is ALWAYS full this time of year because every dirtbag and all their friends want to climb in The State of Nevada before it gets too hot. It seems a lot of other 20-somethings are trying to become Rock Climbers too.
"Sure, yeah. I'll let you know." Adam goes back to dinner and I drive the quarter-mile down the road to where another climber friend is setting up an auxiliary cooking table.
"Hey Christina! How's it going?"
"Madeline - you're here!" She says, and abandons her set up to come chat.
"When did you all get here?" I ask.
"We got here this morning but we went straight to x wall and just got back to camp 30 minutes ago" she says. The people she was with don't look familiar.
"How was the climbing?"
"Oh, amazing. It got a little warm but the rock was so good" she says. This is a phrase climbers like to use, the rock was good. I think it means the rock is solid and doesn't crumble in your hands, but I honestly just avoid saying it because I'm not sure I know what good rock is.
"Any chance you have some extra room?" I ask.
"Dang, we've got three more friends coming around 8:30 tonight, so we're pretty full." Her camp had 2 more people than Adam's did.
"Okay, just figured I'd ask! I'm sure I can stay with Adam."
"Great - well I hope to see you around. We'll let you know if we go cragging!"
I reverse my car all the way back to Adam's camp, because it's more fun that turning around.
"I'm back!" I say out my window. I try to pull my car out of the way, but I end up nose in a ditch. I pretend like it was on purpose and get out of my car.
"Cool-" says Adam, "we may have to rearrange the cars tomorrow morning."
"No problem, I'm happy to do it whenever."
"Want to join us for dinner?" he asks.
Grateful to have arrived at my first destination of this capital-A Adventure, I make quick time in bringing some food over to the group table and getting to know the rest of my campmates. All three of them have brown, dirty hair and various Arcteryx or Patagonia jackets and pants on. They are eating Pad Thai and spraying (climbing term: to talk relentlessly about a recent climb). It doesn't seem as if they have anything else to talk about, which is fine because I need to absorb all the lingo and narratives they tell so I can use them later, in case anyone needs to know that I am a Rock Climber. They seem like caricatures and I wonder for a moment if someone is playing a trick on me.
We talk and eat and play cards until one of us yawns and a wave of tiredness hits us all. Adam agrees to take me climbing the next day. We will leave the site at 7:30, so up at 6:45. I make the bed on the platform in the back of my Honda Element (named Moby because she is a big blue whale). I clean up my kitchen stuff and change my clothes. I have brought along one set of sleeping clothes and intend to keep them nice and clean as to not be sleeping in climbing filth.
I get into my bed and close the back hatch. I open up my moon roof to let some cool desert air into my bedroom. I breath in the air in big gulps until I start to get woozy. I lay down my head, and only then realize that because I've parked in a ditch, my bed is at a -20 degree angle and not the least bit comfortable. But I can't move my car now because everyone else is getting ready to sleep, and it would be embarrassing, so I grab a handful of sweatshirts and try to prop up my pillow.
I can't sleep because of the anticipation of finding out who the fuck I am. And also because I am parked in a ditch.
By 6:30 AM I have slept roughly 2.75 hours. I spent most of the night listening to the mating calls of desert bugs, who apparently really like to get-it-on by the light of the moon. My bed situation was more comfortable than I imagined. My platform is a long sheet of plywood with an iron frame, which a past lover welded for me out of the kindness of his own heart (or because he was trying to get laid). He also welded a hinge onto the clasp on the side of my car that usually holds a seat. This way, I can fold up the platform, including the legs, and push pack the passenger seat so I can drive a friend somewhere. It turns out I will only do this one time during my entire trip, as solitudinarian lifestyle precludes me from ongoing engagements with humans, aside from climbing.
On top of the piece of plywood is one half of a full-sized ikea foam mattress. I cut it with a saw, so one side is very un-straight. I wrapped a full-sized fitted sheet around it and tied it underneath with hair elastics, which hold the sheet in place. On top of that, I have a rust-colored fleece sleeping bag liner, and a 0 degree sleeping bag, which I have pushed to the side because it is nowhere near 0 degrees. I have one pillow, and of course, underneath it, about 3 sweatshirts. I feel this sleeping setup is a luxury given my hope to become a Dirtbag Rock Climber.
Adam and the other brown-haired, Patagonia-clad climbers are all up by 7. Coffee seems to be of prime, urgent importance. One of them heats water while the rest get out filters and mugs and french presses, sitting around the table watching the water slowly heat. I rarely drink coffee because I go nuts when I do. I read somewhere that children who grow up in stressful situations grow additional amygdala synapses, which contribute to a lifetime of increased amygdala activity, particularly related to overwhelming sensory experiences that turn into anxiety. I think my amygdala is HUGE and ACTIVE. Coffee only accentuates this by blocking adenosine receptors in the amygdala. When I drink coffee I fell like there are several people inside me all trying to do different things, and that doesn't work well. If I'm not trying to get shit done, it can be kind of fun. But today is the first day of my capital-A adventure and I wouldn't dare sabotage it with a cup of coffee. I pass on coffee each of the three times it is offered.
Adam and I make the day's plan over mushy oatmeal. I don't even taste it. I'm thinking about the awesome pic I'm going to get of me as a Rock Climber when we top-out* later this afternoon. I rely on Adam to know what the hell we are doing. He is a certified climbing guide and I literally bought my first trad climbing gear one month ago. I ask if we can take my gear so we can get it a little scratched up before I have to meet strangers, other Rock Climbers, who might think I'm a gumby* if my climbing gear it too shiny.
We jump in Adam's car right at 7:30 and drive to the park's entrance. Because it's before 8, there is no one waiting for us in the kiosk, and we drive through unhindered by State Park oversight. We are the second car at Frigid Air Buttress. I take specific pleasure in the word buttress. It feels like a perfect combination of buttocks and empress; I always picture a royal, lady-like, derriere when I hear the word. As we put on our heavy packs and follow a thin path towards the base of the climb, I imagine a 21st century Mt. Rushmore, but instead of presidential profiles, first-ladies' butts are carved into a giant stone face. A buttress of buttresses, if you will. I choose not to share this ingenious idea with Adam because we have to spend the entire day together and I don't want to start with the annoyance meter already nearing 50.
When I finish thinking about butts, I finally look around us. We are surrounded by walls of sandstone. The rock is red, hence the name of the park, but only parts of it. As the two-thousand-foot faces rise in the air, the redness fades. They look like they've been sanded down by the hands of God, and only the most forward, protruding parts reveal the deep brick red of the park's namesake. The flora that surrounds the rocks is so plain and ordinary that against the land, the rocks seem extraterrestrial. By what spirit or power did these magnificent rock beings erupt from the depths of the earth? They are eons more powerful than I am and that is part of the pleasure of climbing them.
"Here we are." Adam drops his bag 10 feet from the base of the climb. I can't even see the top from where we are standing. We start dividing up gear. I will carry a small backpack with snacks, water, and our phones. Adam will lead the entire climb, meaning he will go first and take the brunt of the risk; I will follow on a rope he has secured above me. Someday soon I hope to be the one leading. We are trad climbing, which means we hold ourselves and the rope up with expandable gear we wedge into cracks, called camalots. Adam will carry all the gear, and I will collect it as I follow him. We will climb 7 pitches - essentially 7 rope lengths - stopping at each pitch to rest and swap gear. I also carry another rope on my back, for what will be a long, frustrating decent.
We are ready. I have been climbing for about a year and a half now, but each time still feels surreal. You mean to tell me that these two minuscule humans, using only a bunch of camalots, some rope, and carabiners, are going to move 2000 ft upward to the top of this buttress without falling? How can this be a thing we can do? We both put on our harnesses and I organize the rope to be easy to feed up to Adam.
"I'm all tied in." Adam shows me the knot attached to his harness. We always check each others knots. I slide the rope into my belay device and lock the carabiner that holds it to my harness. It is second nature.
"I got you."
Off he goes. I realize I have never climbed with Adam before, even though we have climbed next to each other and worked together for months. I trust him because, honestly, everyone I know who climbs knows more than I do. This is both an excellent place to be in for someone who wants to learn fast, and also an anti-confidence boost because I am literally the worst climber I know. I feel I am perpetually the worst, but most enthusiastic, at most things I do. I wonder if I secretly like being in the weaker position, or if this is instead a result of my courageous spirit willing to try new things at the first suggestion. I choose to believe the latter.
The first pitch is easy to follow. I stick my hands and feet into cracks and also use some holds on the wall.
"We're doing it!" I say as I come over the ledge of the first pitch, where Adam is waiting. Adam is less enthused than me. This climb is like a gentle stroll for him and a hilly marathon for me. I don't want to make him uncomfortable by thanking him so I just smile. I look down and see our bags, now as little patches of color below. As I do, my sunglasses, which have been tucked into my shirt, fall the hundred and ninety feet to the ground. Goddamn it. I got them for free at my old job. They were worth $200, and now they're down in a bush somewhere, likely in a few pieces. Maybe this is a sign from god/gods/spirits that I should let go of all my worldly possessions? Or it might just be a sign that I am a knucklehead.
"Oops," Adam says as he watches them disappear in a sea of desert shrubs. "Let's get this show on the road".
I hook my belay device to the center of my harness and thread Adam's rope through it. He's off in an instant. I watch him climb methodically and solidly upward. He is tuned in to the rock. I keep a close eye on the rope and how much slack I am giving him, but I can't help but take a peak out toward the expanse of red land behind us. As I watch a few cars roll through the landscape, I imagine the passengers looking up at Adam and I and being amazed that these two small figures are climbing up the vertical plane of this buttress. I imagine the passengers slowing their silver Honda Civic, rolling the window down, and looking up at me, seeing the woman I am, seeing the woman I want to be. She is strong and daring, but assesses risk with rationality. She is curious and ambitious, but never makes another person feel inferior. She is kind but honest. Most importantly, she is a capital C Climber.