My People: A Letter From a Friend
In early December, I received an email from Ron Phifer. Ron is a friend of mine of a certain type: a type many of you will be familiar with. We don’t typically exchange emails, or phone calls – sometimes we go a year or more without seeing one another, or even talking. But when we come across one another in some old haunt–the Valley, the Tuolumne Store, the East Side, the Creek–it’s like we’ve always been there; like we never disappeared.
Ron’s letter hinted at the existence of a sort of tribe: one of which many of us are a part. With his permission, I am reprinting that letter here. May it bring you fond memories of your own extended band of brothers and sisters, your tribe of nomads, your cadre of wanderers, in this holiday season.
Hey buddy, how are you? Where are you? Our paths haven’t crossed in a while now, I was thinking not since the Valley last autumn, but there was the brief spring interlude in Bishop at Chris and Katie’s. Anyway, I came off the social media this summer after a spell of relationship turmoil. I guess I didn’t want any reminder or temptation intriguing me to stab at the tender parts of my fragile psyche. I tell you this because the interweb was how I kept up with the folks I don’t see everyday, and without it telling me what to click on, I seem only to frequent gmail and my bank website when the opportunity for internet presents itself. Thankfully the love-life has stabilized as we reconcile our different approaches to domiciling, but I still remain blissfully ignorant of all separate-virtual-realities. This evening though, I was thinking of you and rediscovered FF while waiting for my phone to charge.
I’m writing you from Nakhon Phanom, on the eastern border of Thailand. Earlier today I crossed the Mekong to the noticeably more affluent Thai side of the river, leaving behind the dreamy karst landscape of Laos where I spent a couple weeks sport climbing. I nearly got heatstroke looking for a menu I could simply point at, hangryness guiding my languid steps. Today I was not feeling culinarily adventurous – I just wanted a cheeseburger. The ubiquitous standard of sustenance eludes me still.Isaan sure ain’t Chiang Mai – I’ve been getting plenty of giggles and stares, I don’t think they see nearly as many farang here, despite their proximity to the border which inevitably attracts travelers doing visa runs. One young Thai woman even came and sat right beside me and took out her phone. I sat there momentarily bewildered by her forward gesture before I realized she was taking a selfie of me blushing next to her sparkling smile full of braces.
At any rate I’ve felt pretty disconnected this whole trip and I wasn’t sure if maybe there is a fundamental difference between sport climbers and soul climbers, or if I’m just failing to connect to the landscape. My happiest days were spent on a motorbike, watching the beauty unfold kilometer by kilometer. Maybe I’m just plain not receptive at this time, my own inner endeavors hogging all my emotional amperage.
I’ve met and climbed with folks from Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, France, England, Italy, Germany, Holland, Canada, Australia, Russia, Spain, and the States and the only person I really connected with was a Swiss woman who’d never climbed until I took her out. Go figure. Of all the people that I share this consuming obsession with, I can only relate to a dentist from Switzerland who hates exercise and heights and promptly started a Vipassana meditation at a mountain temple soon after we met.
The bizarre experience of being in such close proximity to traveling climbers, seemingly relatable people, yet still feeling alone caused me to reach out for what is presently intangible – the disseminated specter of my community. Thankfully in spring it will be manifested once again in so many hugs, high fives and hand jams on familiar routes, but presently the vast dimensions of space and time that must be traversed to arrive there feel infinite. All this heaviness settled on me one evening in Laos. As I sat alone watching the light fade on the many local limestone formations I felt compelled to write about home.
I think my biggest fear right now is change. Lurking in the foggy periphery of my consciousness for so long, it has finally rolled in and settled its nebulous, cryptic and unpleasant inevitabilities directly overhead, obscuring any chance rays of light.
That said, my life for the past ten years has been fulfilling, comfortable, full of love, rewarding, beautiful, bittersweet, joyous, lonely, rife with indecision, full of laughter, frustrating, sad, serene and so much more. The full spectrum of emotions, an amazing and challenging ride that I don’t want to get off of, mixing and meshing together in patterns sometimes predictable and other times not.Seasonal life has given me intimate connections with many landscapes and the people sharing this nomadic lifestyle. Every year new people come and old friends fail to return. This natural turnover is ominous because as time passes and priorities change, the core group will slowly morph and I worry that I won’t want to be a part of it, nor part of the trend to settle down more permanently as we age. Inevitably, the ever-evolving group will one day cease to be recognizable to me, and with its disappearance so will go my identity. Hanging on to the halcyon days in my heart while resisting indomitable and necessary change is a cruel paradox.
All I can think to do is start a climber commune in a place with enough gravity to hold us all together; somewhere we can keep growing without drifting apart. If this sounds cliché and idealistic that’s because it is; but so is the American (pipe)dream. At least the dirtbag dream feels attainable, simple, and sustainable; more harmonious and sublime than striving to blindly consume.
This amazing group of people I’ve been sharing experiences with fills me with a love so deep and desperate I cannot fathom losing it or any of them. So I will, I must, cling to this wild ride as it goes round and round. We climbers, ever chasing the sun. These are my people.
Thank you, Ron Phifer, for sharing your words and images with us! If you know Ron, or maybe if his words just resonated with you, share this with your friends via social media. And of course, if you have stories of your own, don’t hesitate to send them our way! Happy holidays to all.