Springtime in Joe's
In the morning the sun lights up my tent a neutral, diffuse gold. I slide into child’s pose, still fully dressed and in my sleeping bag, and breathe warm, funky air— smoke and sweat and sleep all meshed together. My glasses, ice cold and fresh from the mesh side pocket of the tent, fog against the heat of my face. For a moment, I stare through cloudy lenses at the sun breaking through the clouded sky. And then I flip my shoes upside down, bang them against a rock, and slide them on— awake. Time to get the day.
My fingers go hard and numb as I cook breakfast; one among us is a vegetarian but she lets us cook her eggs in bacon grease, and I drink coffee and read Ed Abbey’s Down the River as my friends slide out of their tents, bleary-eyed and sweet with sleep. Soon we’re all drinking coffee, and hovering around the heat of the stove, and I’m joking that in the spirit of Ed we should probably all crack a beer.
Four of us and the dog sandwich ourselves in a Subaru Outback, a stack of crash pads obliterating rear window visibility. The sun is up but Joe’s Valley is still draped in deep, cold shadow. On the way to the crag we pass fishermen unloading from shiny F150s, and climbers emerging from the tailgates of beat-to-shit Tacomas. By one dusty Sprinter van, two women in jewel-colored puffy jackets patched with duct tape squat around a backpacking stove. They cheers us with tin mugs as we drive past.
At our first boulder the sky breaks blue, and I slide my foot into a shoe and place my hands on the cold sandstone. I’ve climbed for six months at the gym, I’ve built calluses on plastic and plywood, but this is different— real rock has a precision sharpness not unlike gripping a dull knife, every second on the hold cutting deeper through the coarse skin I’ve built on plastic, right down to the tender meat of my fingers. Halfway through the day my skin is trashed, micro-tears across the surface, fingertips raw and red. I soap my hands with beeswax salve and tape up and keep climbing— when I’m on the rock, really focused, I don’t notice my hands anymore.
I keep my eyes up on the reaching fringe of pinion juniper, listen to friends coaxing me up and onward, listen until I can’t anymore and all I hear is silence, air coursing into and out of my chest, eyes up, muscles strong, every move a surprise— I can do that? My body can do that? I breathe into that moment of clarity. That moment when I am thinking about nothing else.
I feel wildly lucky to have found climbing, something I love with so much room to grow. At the gym, a friend compliments a tall, lanky, effortless stranger, who lead climbs routes that look impossible to me with a liquid focus, every move smooth and effortless as she courses up the wall. She smiles, laughs, “I ought to be good, I’ve been doing this for 20 years.” It’s a comfort.
Because this is the thing— it’s not about getting to the crag an hour before everyone else, not about spending every weekend, not about climbing until your hands bleed (or at least, not just about that.) If you’re not a climbing prodigy— if, for example, you are me— climbing is something you sink into slowly, thick like mud and just as soothing. It is something you start today and you work away at for years, improvements incremental but easy to measure, one move further up a hard problem, the impossible slowly fading into the feasible, the conceivable, and finally— blissfully— the sent.
Every climb, I push my limits. I fall a little higher off the ground, each move a little clearer. And in flashes, I’m struck dumb by this feeling of possibility and risk. I am new, and I am learning, and I feel blissed out and blessed to be here— on this rock, leg shaking, fingers cramping, stomach full of coconut water and trail mix, eyes locked on the clear blue desert sky, friends at my back forgotten for now. Just my breath and the cold rock and that feeling of piercing clarity— before, this was impossible. Now I’m here.