I am not a rock climber. My friend Scot has tried, to his credit, to convince me otherwise. Oh sure I’ll go to a local climbing gym and tire myself to exhaustion dragging my under conditioned carcass up a simulated rock wall from time to time. But that is the extent of my abilities as a rock climber. I have known and still know those that can make this sort of behavior look easy and graceful. In fact, Scot is one of them. He and his girlfriend Jess can almost run up a wall and I’m convinced that the only reason they don’t is to keep from making me feel bad (thanks Scot and Jess). So it was a mix of enthusiasm and dread I accepted and invitation from Travis, a friend of mine from Alpine training Services, to come to a climbing festival being held in Joshua Tree National Park on a weekend in May of ’09.
The invitation came down via e-mail in March and it only took me until April to talk myself into going. Don’t get me wrong, I am not afraid of climbing. In fact, I would be considered smarter if I were. I am, however, painfully aware that my complete lack of flexibility and balance are going to cause me to be as frustrated as a no-legged policeman watching a doughnut roll down a hill. But it would be a chance to catch up with some friends and besides – what’s the worse that could happen, right? I was pretty convinced that this would be the weekend that California decided to begin it’s ocean migration towards Hawaii, but barring better judgement I talked to Scot about it. He said he would go and bring Jess so I invited my oldest daughter Samantha (don’t call her that – EVER! It’s simply “Sam” – or else…) and sent word that we would be there.
Time flies when you’re having fun – or when you’re past the age of twenty-five. For me it’s the latter. Before I knew it, the time had come to get my gear in a pile and prepare to get on the road for California. I had never been to this part of California before and I was looking forward to seeing what all of the hype was about. Joshua Tree or “J-Tree” as it is often called, is a mecca for all things rock climbing in the southwest. When you say epic rock clmbing around here, the first thought from those that know are Yosemite, Joshua tree, and idyllwild, often in that order. J-Tree is over 800,000 acres of land where the only thing more plentiful than the climbing routes are the trees for which this place is named. The Joshua Tree was given it’s name by a group of 19th century Mormon settlers crossng the Mojave desert. The unique shape of the tree and its leaves reminded them of a story in The Bible about Joshua and how he would raise his hands toward the sky in prayer. The landscape in J-tree is unique to my experience. When you begin to travel through the park, you will see vast plains of the kind of low scrub you find in the high desert and Joshua trees growing up from it are the tallest plants by far. These plains exist between spired formations of fractured granite jutting from the earth, forming an almost alien landscape. It is a surreal beauty that is very distinct from other deserts you might see. If you were drugged, kidnapped, and suddenly found yourself here (and you had even vague knowledge of what a Joshua tree was), you would know exactly where in the world you were.
And did I mention the climbing routes? There are more than 5,000 named routes in J-Tree. That’s almost enough to keep you busy long enough for more granite to spring from the ground. Our plan was to hit the road after a short day of work. We wanted to get going around 4:00 to try to be at the group campsite by 9:00 after an anticipated 5 hour drive as estimated by Mapquest. Like many things in life, for instance like the childhood plan to be the first person to open a slurpy stand on the moon (could happen), this plan went slightly awry. We didn’t leave until around 6:00 in the evening. traffic was bad, we needed food, blah blah blah… Whatever. the point is 8:00 found us crossing the California state line and heading towards CA 177 north. It was a beautiful night like so many are in the desert. The moon joined us early in the evening and I’m sure we could have turned off the headlights and drove perfectly safely in the bright moonlight. Unfortunately law enforcement frowns on this kind of behavior and is all too happy to quash “driving under the influence of zen” with a healthy dose of what-the-hell-were-you-thinking-you-dumbass?
We arrived at J-Tree around 11:30 that night. It was still warm and we barely needed our headlamps to set up camp. We were all so excited we thought we would have a hard time getting to sleep. We were wrong. First light crept over the horizon just before five in the morning. By six the sun was shining through my tent. I rose and staggered out of the tent to admire the irony that of the three tents we set up the night before (Sam wanted her own space), mine was the only one that was not in the shadow of a large granite wall. I spent a little time reorganizing the messy packing job I had done to get us to where we were going when I watched a newer model gray Xterra roll up with the driver wearing a Cheshire grin.
It was Ted, a man Travis I had instructed in Canyoneering the year before. Ted had come to Arizona to take a trip through Salome Jug with me just a few weeks before. Ted is just over seventy years old and is a role model for how I would like to be when I’m his age – “Like Ted or dead” became the mantra as it turned out. He is a former professor from M.I.T. and still gets out to go backpacking regularly. He decided to try Canyoneering and fell in love with the sport. I was happy to see him. Like so many others, Ted likes to underestimate himself and his abilities. When I watch Ted his actions remind me of when I was just a boy near the beach at a lake not far from home. There were these little birds called Killdeer and they would build their nest in the sand. When you came too close, the mother bird would begin calling loudly and then feign injury or helplessness in order to lure you away and protect her eggs. I was very young and her ploy worked on me famously. If you don’t know him, Ted is like this little bird as he will tell you of is weakness and inability to do what needs to be done. He’ll tell you about his lack of confidence and ability but don’t fall for it – this man will make you look silly. I am wise to his tricks – besides – I don’t need anyone’s help looking silly. I can do that all too well on my own.
Ted has the classic “early to bed, early to rise” philosophy. by the time he found me just after six in the morning, he had already eaten and been on a hike checking out his surroundings. I have no doubt that if Ted had decided to take up football at his age, he would be equally successful in the NFL. Ted is crystal clear with his thoughts and feelings about things but says them in such a way that you don’t get offended. You always know where you stand with Ted. He is a genuine fellow with values of days long past. When I met him the previous fall I liked him immediately.
I wandered down to the next camp and said my hello’s to a groggy group of outdoor enthusiasts and professionals alike that were murmering about forgetting to turn off the moon the night before. References to the thirty days of sun in the Alaskan summer were made as well as a pot of liquid that looked like coffee but would be better suited for removing rust from old parts. The sun was up and soon so were Scot and Jess. Scot was busy making pancakes from a cheese whiz style can and Jess was feeding him Redbull (against medical advice. Scot needs redbull like a shrew needs crystal meth). Sam was lying in her tent calculating EXACTLY how long it would take her to prepare for the day as well as what steps could be omitted to provide just fourty-three more seconds of sleep.
The sun waited for no one and it wasn’t long before we were on the rock face lacing and building top rope anchors, playing with various pieces of protection (terminology used for the hardware climbers use to build anchors such as cams, stoppers, and nuts. Google climbing equipment – you’ll be amazed). The sun was hot and it didn’t take log to hit ninety degrees. Shade offered marginal comfort and lunchtime found us lounging in the shade of a large crevass like a bunch of lizards. The rest of the day found us on the wall climbing and laughing at ourselves and the countless stories told.
This is a hard post to write as the time we had was fantastic and the banter endless. There is no real beginning or end to the events of the day. They just seem to blend together. There was no real destination or conquest, we went up the wall and down again on progressively harder climbs until our muscles were fried and could climb no more. This post I think is written more for me than anyone else. I don’t want to forget the fun we had or any of the fantastic people I met or got to know a little bit better. After a long day of sun, climbing, and nearly endless laughter, we went into town where we had a dinner of mexican food (some of us would pay dearly for this the next day – namely those that were down wind of Darren) and went back to go to bed. Smores were on the itinerary but no one had the motivation. We were up again the next morning and out on the rocks deeper in the park that day climbing, practicing rescue techniques and advanced anchor systems until I said my good-byes to one and all as we loaded up to head back to where we came from. The drive was long and silent as the miles ticked away back to Arizona where the next day would find us resuming our lives where we left them. The drive went quickly for me as I allowed my mind to wander over the events of the weekend and smile all over again at the time we had.
I came to the festival looking to spend time with friends and maybe find a nugget or two of knowledge that can only be learned by being around those that do this kind of thing constantly. You can read in books all about the techniques and gear but the really valuable stuff comes when you’re sitting there watching a master at work and paying attention to the little things he or she does that they take for granted. I stopped Darren in mid sentence when he was explaining how to quickly equalize and anchor – an important piece of information – because he quickly flipped his hand almost unnoticeably and came away with a clove hitch. If you don’t climb or run canyons this means nothing to you but if you do, you can understand the value of tying knots or hitches one handed. He did it one handed and QUICK! I had to learn. I watched Travis as he belayed a climber and spotted for them on their route. It was not what he said, but also what he didn’t say that spoke volumes about what he was doing to balance assisting the climber as well as letting them figure things out for themselves to help them build the necessary confidence for them to take their sport to the next level. It’s these details, these little things that make you better and safer. It’s the funny story about a close call that carries within it the thinly veiled warning that makes you think about things that might not have occurred to you and will help you be a stronger, better climber, canyoneer, or even person.
I went there just to get away and see some friends. I went to take my daughter on her first real outdoor climb. I went to get Scot and Jess around some world class climbers and help them pick up some tricks and techniques to take their game to the next level. I left with knowledge, wisdom, and enough stories to entertain those around me for several weeks to come. I am always aware of how fortunate I am. If I am measured by the quality of those I surround myself with, then I am truly blessed with a reputation that far out classes my reality. From my friends In Michigan where I left to those I have made here and in California, I am lucky indeed.
To those I knew when I got there, Darren, Travis, Sandra, and Ted as well as to those I just met or got to now a bit better like Jonnie, Rob, Lisa, Mike, Brent, Brian, Donmienne, and Jon (I’m sorry Sandra, I never knew the name of the fellow that rode with you). Thanks for a great weekend. I’m sure our paths will cross again one day. The stories will flow like the waterfalls in Maui and the knowledge we’ll share like food at thanksgiving. We’ll speak of those not present and vow to pass on greetings to them when we see them again. If there is a heaven in the great unnkown after life, for me it will be like this but without an end.