Living the Dream
This small house is cooking. A fire burns in the woodstove, a clock ticks away the seconds of the evening. I am a guest here, a momentary couchsurfer. Part of me feels strange in my own shoes. ‘Who does this?’, I wonder. I’m 31 years old. Seriously. But it’s been a good weekend. The Adirondacks are incredible. True adventure climbing on impeccable rock. Crowdless, quiet, humble, and pure. Everything feels good. After so many years, I am comfortable standing far above small gear, looking around lichenspeckled corners for hands and feet. My mind – quiet. My breath – steady. My focus – lazer-precise. I don’t send, and I don’t care. The grades have faded into a realm of abstract irrelevancy. This is the path I have chosen, and I am happy.
I wouldn’t say climbing saved me. I was 16 years old, and although Incubus and skateboarding were my life at the time, I don’t feel like I really needed saving. But in retrospect, I can recall how things changed for me when my friend, Collin Tharp, brought me to my first climbing gym. I looked around at the blue foam floor, steel I-beams sticking out like spider webs above drab gray walls, littered with a smattering of peeling tape strips and plastic holds of many shapes and colors. I rented my shoes and followed Collin over to the bouldering area. “Don’t we need harnesses?” I asked. I had never heard of bouldering before, never heard of gym climbing, had no idea what to expect. And I was unimpressed.
That lasted approximately five minutes. I don’t remember what V-grade I climbed, what moves I did, or what time of year it was when I fell for climbing. What I remember is trying to do something one way, falling, trying a different way, falling again, trying again, so on and so forth. Always falling, but never feeling like failing. Climbing was a puzzle, and I was figuring it out one piece at a time. I remember playing add-ons with friends, late night bowls of pho, trying to pry open car doors with my wrists because my fingers were that raw – my forearms so worked that my hands curled up like a claw.
It’s been 15 years now, and I’m still at it. At some time next year, at age 32, I will have spent exactly one half of my life obsessed. Then the scales will tip in favor of climbing, and the non-climbing years will shrink in proportion. Decades from now, BC (before climbing) will be a hard part of my life to recall.
When I was a child, I would secretly hope for snow without actually allowing myself to believe it would happen. I didn’t want to risk the disappointment. If one could go back in time and tell my 16 year old self the places I’ve been, the climbs I’ve done, the people I’ve loved, the jobs I’ve worked, and the dreams I’ve dreamed, he would respond much the same: hoping but not daring to believe.
My love of climbing has taken me from short bouldering walls in dusty gyms to untouched summits in Patagonia. I once looked upon the Diamond in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park with skepticism, mysticism, and knee-knocking fear. This summer, I climbed 7 or more new routes of roughly the same size – three of them solo. My life is a dream beyond what I could have – what I would have – imagined.
Coming into Thanksgiving, I find that there is much to be grateful for (beyond the obvious: loved ones, good health, more opportunities than most of the rest of the world). I’m interning at a major climbing magazine, interviewing for a job with a major climbing company, continually climbing and clawing my way uphill in a challenging industry. It takes confidence, courage, commitment. Without climbing I would never want to be here. But because of climbing, I am able to make it here. Slowly, but surely, I chip away day after day, year after year, at the lofty goal of balancing work, passion, love, climbing, writing – all the things that define me. And it’s just like climbing. Exactly like climbing in every way that counts. You try hard, you fall, you try hard, you fall. You learn. Pick up new beta. Try hard, and send. Then you try something harder, and fall again. Repeat. Climbing has taught me to work hard, to stick with it, and to continue when motivation wanes and my goals seem impossible. Just stick with it. Steady mind, steady hand.
I collapse onto the couch. Chris Van Leuven grabs a lighter and pops open a couple of beers- hands one to me. The cold bottle feels like gold in my tired hands. My body drinks in the warmth of the room, the sanctity of glowing places in the darkening light of autumn’s end. “So what’s your goal with climbing,” he asks. I put the bottle to my lips – think it through a little as I sate my thirst. Puppies roll around on the floor. I smile a little, and start talking.
Somewhere along the line, climbing became something more than numbers and letters, facts and figures, a list of sends and yet to sends. I’ve got this line I’ve been feeding people for a while now. I’ve got it just about memorized. “You know,” I tell a curious friend, pausing theatrically before I deliver my shtick “climbing doesn’t actually do anything for anyone. It’s a selfish pursuit, it’s first world shit, it’s privileged, etc. But I need climbing. Maybe it’s an addiction – maybe if I got counseling and went through rehab I could quit. But in the end, it helps me cope. It helps me feel at peace, comfortable, happy. It helps me to be a better person. And in the end, that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about being a better climber – it’s about being a better person. So I guess that’s my goal with climbing. I just want to be the best me I can be.”
It’s kind of canned, cheesy. A good editor would call it cliche, nix it, and go on with his or her life. But tonight, when Chris asked that question and I spoke these words, I had one of these out of body moments like you get sometimes when you’re finally sending the crux of some route you’ve worked over and over and over. The body is just doing what it’s doing, and you sort of sit back and smile a little as you watch it perform, as you watch it act spontaneously and truly and hit each target like an arrow shot from a zen archer’s bow. Tonight, as I said these words, and watched myself say them, I smiled a little knowing that they were true.
And that makes me proud. Not because I’m right or wrong. Not because I’ve got it all figured out. But because I’ve chosen a path, I’ve worked hard at it, and I’ve stuck to my guns. I feel like I could go and introduce myself to my 16 year old self, and he’d be pretty psyched. He’d call me out pretty hard on eating meat, not meditating, taking up too many vices. But by and large, I think he’d look forward to the life I’ve lived. And that’s a great feeling. I didn’t always think that would be the case.
It’s 10:15 PM on a Sunday. My hands are sweating, the clock is ticking, the fire is blazing, Chris and Holly are sleeping. I’m still up, still at it, still so obsessed with climbing and writing that I’m just taptaptapping away at the keyboard – happy as a clam. I’m a visitor here – a temporary couchsurfer, an unpaid intern, a resident climbing bum. My legs are tired, my cheeks are glowing, my forearms ache, my hands won’t quit sweating, and I’m wide awake. Sometimes I feel like I don’t need to sleep – like I don’t want to. Why should I? I’m living the dream. And when I say that, now, I know that it’s true.