A visit to an old friend reignited my passion for climbing.
So last we spoke, I had just landed in Salt Lake City, Utah to spend some time with Dan. Dan was a close friend and rock climbing partner throughout much of my high school experience. I had only seen him once since high school, and that was over a decade ago. We were long overdue for reconnecting, and that’s exactly what we accomplished (among other things) during my stay with him. He is living in a little city house, something similar to what you’d imagine when passing through any quaint downtown area. The area he is in is relatively quiet, so instead of sleeping in Dumbo every evening, I opted to sleep most nights in a hammock in his backyard.
Dan and his wife, Kim, were overly hospitable during my stay. It felt like home. There was no uneasy pressure of deciphering how my presence was wearing on them, which made things much more comfortable. For the first few days, Dan was working during sunlight hours so it would be Kim and I keeping each other company until he returned home. We went on hikes in the canyons nearby on some days, and others were spent lounging around and reading books. Every evening we prepared a splendid meal to share. The first night was steaks, potatoes, and broccoli. Obviously that was mostly my concoction, as they hadn’t really planned anything out, yet we were ready to fill our bellies. Night number two was the highlight for me. Dan used to work at a gourmet pizza joint in Alpharetta called Mellow Mushroom, so his pizza-making skills are top notch. We had one pizza with a jerk-chicken topping, and one with bacon and pepperoni. Both delicious. Day three was jambalaya, made by Kim. It was the perfect level of Louisiana heat; that place where each bite is a carefully thought out decision of if more heat is tolerable. And lastly was fajitas. I can’t say much about the fajitas because they were good, but I think the margins of creation with fajitas are narrow.
Preparing food is serious business.
On Dan’s Friday night, I had the pleasure of meeting his group of friends. Initially, I was informed that we would be going over to someone’s house to sit around a kiddie pool, drink some beer, talk about whatever, and cook some stuff on the grill. All of this with one other couple who were expecting a baby soon. When we got to the friend’s house, I realized the description that was given to me was slightly off when we showed up at the house. There were about twenty people in a backyard rung with string lighting. Six or so were sitting around a couple of metal outdoor tables with chairs. The rest were scattered about the backyard with some sort of beverage in their hand. Thankfully from years prior, I was fully versed in being the only person at a party that knew nobody.
Walking in to a situation like that is best approached as a game of sorts, for it allows me to play instead of worrying about being the one who is sitting by themselves, looking like a bump on a log. That’s not to say I avoid being the bump on the log, but merely that if I am sitting on that log, I’m enjoying that moment as much as the next. It is part of playing the Party Game, and as I sat by myself next to the kiddie pool, I watched the happening of a party taking place and waited patiently for whatever came next. Eventually, people began sitting around me and conversation ensued. The game is all about keeping the other person interested and remembering their name. The name part is the tricky part because after a few drinks, chances of remembering a name that was slung out tends to fade away. I know I lost the game when the person I am talking to says something in the nature of “it was good chatting with you, Derrick,” and I can’t respond with their name included. That night I chatted with nine different people and nailed each one of their names at the end of the night when we said our goodbyes. I”d say I’m playing the game quite well!
On Dan’s weekend, him and I went nearby to some good climbing areas to reacquaint ourselves with the passion that we once shared. It had been fifteen years since him and I climbed together, but the expanse of time between the last time and this one seemed like days. It felt right as rain. We reminisced of the adventures we had taken when younger, the walls we had climbed and the crazy situations we continuously put ourselves through, all of which were essential components of growing into the people we are today. We climbed a bit as well, but we aren’t the skilled climbers of yesterday. We wore the costumes of two middle-aged men desperately reaching for the vigor of life through the net of a mid-life crisis. It was a comical scene to enjoy, and enjoy it we did. Each night we returned home exhausted and ready to do it again once the sun came around to our side of the planet again.
At the end of Dan’s weekend, him and I talked things over and decided I should stay for another week so we could share one more weekend before I moved on. This left me with figuring out entertainment for the next five days, as I had more interest in getting outdoors. The book reading and sitting was taken care of from the days prior to his weekend. I wanted to climb more, so I went back to one of the places we had climbed to sit and watch others climb, hoping for an opportunity to make some new friends.
I was sitting against a cliff about seventy feet high, listening to the nearby stream babble away. There was a group of climbers on either side of me, each about fifty yards away. I was only there for about an hour when one of the groups finished up and started walking back to their vehicles, passing me in the process. The bearded man of the group calls out to me, “hey man! How long have you been growing that beard?”
“About as long as you have been growing yours,” I replied.
I could tell the reply sat well with him as his face brightened. “I like you already! What are you doing up here, just hanging out?”
“Yep, just wasting some time.”
“You looking for a climbing partner?”
“Sure,” I exclaimed. And a friendship was born. As we chatted on the side of the road, I learned that Ben had spent some time living in East Cobb, Georgia. He had also done some time climbing the same wall that Dan and I grew up climbing, making the connection between he and I even stronger. When he left, we had exchanged numbers and planned to do some climbing two days later. Ben and his crew loaded up and took off, and I hopped in my van to drive around and explore some of the other canyons in the area. I had met my climbing needs for the week. On top of the interaction with Ben, I had made a post on a climbing website, asking if there were any people in Salt Lake area interested in partnering up. I got a reply that same morning from a man named Alex, and him and I were set to climb the day in between me meeting Ben and the day Ben and I were going to climb.
As I am driving around, I get a call from Ben. “What are you up to later tonight?”
“Wasting time, man. What’s up?”
“You wanna come over to my tiny house and climb around a bit?”
“Uh, sure!” He had mentioned in our earlier chat that he had a tiny home with climbing holds put up around the inside. I was eager to check his setup out. Tiny homes are an extremely practical option to modern living situations, yet I had never had the pleasure of seeing one that someone was inhabiting. I showed up at his place with an hour or so left before the Sun went down. I was highly impressed with the quality of his tiny home. It was more than enough living space for one or two people to share, given they used the house for practical purposes, and found their leisure elsewhere. The ceilings were high enough that I didn’t need to stoop in order to walk around, unless in the toilet room or shower. In the “living room” there was a couch for us to sit on, so we spent most of our time sitting on the couch and discussing philosophy or sharing stories of the past. We had a great night of learning about someone new and doing a bit of climbing on his indoor make-shift climbing gym. I even had a new place to park Dumbo for sleeping for the night.
The next day after making breakfast, I left Ben’s place and met up with Alex, the climber from the forum post I had made. Alex is a student studying robotics at Cornell University. He takes his summer breaks to travel and climb in order to decompress from the school year just finished. We chatted for a bit, climbed a couple short routes for a warm-up, then sat down to discuss what the big climb for the day would be. We agreed on a multi-pitch 5.7 (Outside Corner, JHCOB wall) on the other side of the canyon. I hadn’t done a multi pitch climb in forever and my climbing skills weren’t superb, but I knew that if I remained focused throughout the climb, I would be fine.
Three pitches down, one to go.
It is an intense experience to be climbing a rock with three hundred feet between me and the ground. Even with all of our safety gear and preparation, the thought of falling still creeps into my mind. The focus of climbing isn’t so much for the physical aspect of using my body, but more of a mental one, trying to keep my mind silent so negative thoughts don’t disrupt my body from doing the thing it knows how to do. It is a challenge that I haven’t found to exist anywhere else in life to that degree. Cycling, running, and other forms of physical exercise demand the same mental focus to an extent, but none of them have Death sitting on my shoulder, constantly whispering nuisances into my ear that must be ignored. If I get tired while doing other activities, I can stop the activity. If I get tired while climbing, I have to convince my self that tired doesn’t exist. It’s a special place to be, that’s for sure.
So obviously I didn’t die. The euphoria that I received when we finished the climb was almost overwhelming. What an accomplishment! Even Alex, who was a much more skilled climber than myself, was soaking up the good vibes when we reached the top. We had jokes the whole way up and an entire bag of laughter to share at the top. Typically, the climbers will rappel back down to the bottom of the climb, but this one wasn’t set up for that, so we had to walk through brush and down the side of the cliff (which wasn’t a cliff on that side) for about thirty minutes. We got the the cars with our energy levels extinguished. We exchanged numbers and a few words before parting ways, him continuing on his journey back to school and me heading back to Dan’s house.
I spent days with Dan and Ben alike, bouncing back between the two until Dan’s next weekend came around. Dan and I didn’t conquer much in terms of climbing on his second weekend, but we still went to the walls and chatted the weekend away. After Dan’s second weekend, I made my plans for departure. I said bye to Dan and Kim, then spent the following two days camping close to Brighton Ski Resort, near Park City, Utah. There is a road that crosses over to Park City called Guardsman’s Pass. When that road passes between two mountain peaks at ten thousand feet, there is a small parking lot and some hiking trails, one to each peak and one to a lake nearby. I pulled into the parking lot, which overlooked most of the Great Salt Lake and valley floor below.
A beautiful view atop Guardsman’s Pass.
As I got out of my van and plopped myself on the asphalt to watch and listen to the open land below me, a man in his forties came over and introduced himself to me. His name was Bryan and he really dug Dumbo. We talked about Dumbo and my adventure for a short while before getting into deeper conversation. I like getting into personal conversation with people, because often times it allows me to do what I do best: listen. Bryan was one of these situations. He had a lot on his mind and in his life, and just wanted to talk about it all. Talking can be therapeutic because it allows the person talking through their problems to do exactly that. Often since I am considered as a sort of stranger to another, they feel more open to discuss the issues that are bothering them for various reasons. Now the typical issue with this scenario is the person who has been willingly tasked to do the listening, chooses instead to offer advice, disrupting the secret monologue that the speaker is having with themselves. I have found asking open-ended questions regarding their given situation to be much more beneficial.
Bryan and I talked for hours, mainly of religion and his struggling marital relationship. As sunset came near, I suggested that we hike the ten minutes to one of the peaks and watch it from atop a mountain, to which he agreed. We met Scottie on top of the mountain peak. Scottie hiked this trail every day after work while drinking a beer, as a means of tapering off from his job of driving cement trucks near Park City. The three of us shared the sunset together as Scottie explained why the colors in the sky were showing the way they were. The sunset was different here; the orange and pink in the beginning was deep and rich, and after the Sun went down, there was a desert mixture of brown, yellow, and a dry, burnt orange. Fading into those colors was a lavender, eventually drowning them out as night took over. We hiked back down the trail in the dark to my van. Once at the van, I flipped the passenger seat around for myself as Scottie and Bryan took seats on the bench in the rear. I turned on the light inside and we took twenty minutes or so to wrap up conversation for the night. Scottie knew of a better spot for parking, so him and I parted ways with Bryan at the top of the pass and I followed Scottie on his motorcycle down to a dirt pullout, about five miles down the road. I thanked him for the sleeping spot and he rode home.
I spent the following day hiking around the pass. That evening, I drove back into Salt Lake City to meet up with Ben again. We had plans to climb the following day, which I had decided was my last day in Salt Lake City before hitting the road again. Climbing was good the following day, but I was exhausted from the past two weeks. I had picked up a stabbing muscle pain in my chest that hurt when I took a deep breath, likely a pulled muscle. With limited breath and tired muscles all around, We did two fifty-foot climbs before calling it a day. I woke up the next morning, had breakfast, thanked Ben for his overwhelming hospitality and enjoyable personality, then went on my way.
I was on my way to Jackson, Wyoming. The Tetons and Yellowstone were my next places of interest, but I took my time getting there. I camped one night on BLM land somewhere halfway between Salt Lake City and Jackson, on a dirt road about a mile off of the main drag. It was a wide open space with tufts of tall field grass, some cactus, and sagebrush. I saw the heavens that night. The light pollution was nonexistent, the moon was a waxing crescent and out of the sky in a matter of hours, and the stars were everywhere. I didn’t see anything when I went to sleep, but I happened to wake up in the middle of the night to take a leak and when I stepped out of the van, I froze in awe. It was the most beautiful night sky I have seen! Stars were coating the sky like a bottle of white-out would spackle a black cat. There was a gigantic canyon of light straight through the center of the sky from one horizon to the other, changing in color from a white-pink to a white-purple, with dark purple in the very center of the crack. Suddenly, sleep wasn’t too much of a pressing issue anymore. I laid down on the dirt and admired the sky until I had my fill, then crawled back into bed for the remainder of the evening. It is so nice to be able to marvel at something such as that with the silence of nature sometimes. That moment when there is no thinking; there is only the experience.
I learned so much from just these few short weeks. The party with Dan’s friends allowed me to take the things I learned from Rod and my experience with him, and further it into something beautifully new. I try to avoid talking about my story when with others. If they ask questions, I will gladly answer them as best as I can. But otherwise, I want to hear the other person’s story. Regardless of what place they are in with their story, the story in itself is something magical that only they are experiencing and creating. Even better, many people bring out the best parts of their stories to share with me, and I thoroughly enjoy watching them light with excitement as they guide me through whatever experience they truly cherish. It is having a conversation with emotions, which can be a lovely thing when the moment is right. Plus, what better way to invigorate someone else with the spice of life than let them know that whatever it is that they are doing is worth listening to? That what they are doing really matters? And beyond that, I don’t want people to live vicariously through me, which is what happens if I center the conversation around what I am doing with my trip. I would much rather use my story as a means of motivation for others to live for themselves and experience an equal magnificence of this life thing. I know what I’m doing won’t have an impact on every person to grab control of their own life and ride a beautiful wave, but hearing so many people tell me how my journey has sparked something inside themselves to move forward with their stories is truly an inspiration. It tells me that there must be something right about whatever it is I’m doing, even though I have no clue what I’m doing.
I have come to have a much more developed appreciate for the generosity of others. When someone believes in what I’m doing, they want to help me continue on the path that I’m walking. Every single person I have encountered so far wants to help in some way, leaving me intoxicated with a lavish velvety feeling of pure love. But they aren’t offering money. They aren’t offering material possessions. They are offering intangible information, fleeting emotions, and invaluable experiences that are worth more than all of the gold on this planet. It feels incredible to be surrounded by people who understand how money is not the currency of life.