Bishop, 5/27–5/30

I went all the way to the Eastside, didn’t climb, and didn’t especially regret it.

Between Mammoth and Bishop and heaven and Earth.

I think you can categorize people as motivated either by accomplishment or exploration, mastery or novelty. I’m the latter type, I know. I attribute this either to some higher wisdom—for what are our accomplishments, ultimately, in the grand scheme of the cosmos?—or to a colossal character flaw: that I simply lack the work ethic required to get good at anything. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But also, I once read an article about how new experiences counter the effects of aging. I read it well past its logical conclusion and into a belief that if I can just keep doing and seeing new things I will live forever.

This is stolen from pro photog Andrew Burton‘s Instagram.”Reverse camel toe,” commented someone, immediately. Well, yes, but who’s the asshole?

In any case: climbing held my attention the first time I was learning. But just like my lost love for cyclocross, it seems something happened to my stoke while I was out gimping. And the prospect of repeating kindergarten—weekend after weekend of waiting in line to tremble and sweat up baby trad routes everyone else wants to solo, all the stress of my first campaign for competence with none of the mystery—I can’t get excited about it. 

What can I get excited about? Well …


That’s the Bishop Mule Days parade. Specifically, it’s the National Park Service mule train packing park equity propaganda, a sight that—and granted, I was tired and it was very bright—literally brought tears to my eyes.

After recovering from this apparently poignant display of Americana (…) I followed a boulderer to the Happies, where instead of bouldering I crawled around looking at petroglyphs (see ass-shot, above) and caterpillars (see draft of my new children’s book). In retrospect a good steward would not have touched either one of these things, but there was thunder in the distance and the remnants of a river running below and I got carried away, had to get close.


I camped one night with two friends headed into the Inyo to summit Mt. Sill. While rehearsing my pitch to be included on their next expedition, I discovered I couldn’t even lift their packs to move them out of the rain—never mind carry one to 14,000 feet. Hiking solo the next day, I got so nervous about the occasional snowfields that I took to walking with a rock in one hand to use as an ice axe if I slipped.

So for all I might want my next bit of exploration to be actual mountaineering, I must concede I am a long way from that Freedom of Hills™.

Like cake through the store window.

I ended the trip with quick run down Rock Creek, which is fast and fun but needs an uphill trail to feel like a ride (mountain bike) rather than a ride (Disneyland). Looking for more, I asked an armored-up girl in the parking area about another trail that disappeared behind the cars.

“Oh,” she said, “that doesn’t go anywhere.”

She must have been a mastery person, though, because while it wasn’t much of a ride it was something to see.



Sonora, 4/23–4/24

I’m usually the only one in the car who wants to stop at the Oakdale Rodeo Grounds. But today is different: Alex is game. There’s goat-tying, steer-riding, and an unattended toddler marching industriously back and forth across a mud puddle. We debate expensive shirts that say “RODEO” in a lariat script and ask to pat the vendor’s unimpressed pony. “We used to ride but now we live in the city,” Alex explains, as if it needed explaining. As a kid she’d take her horse to the gas station in town as a lark.

In Sonora I instead buy a cheap necklace with a tiny charm of the state flag’s bear. I wasn’t born here, but I am certainly closer to being Californian than to being the type of Californian who knows how to tie up a goat.

Here we find Alex effortlessly matching everything.

Shiny stuff and legitimate claims are interesting subjects to consider in Gold Country. Its history is in front of my face in literal ways—Sonora, Mi-Wuk Village, Chinese Camp—and yet I’ve never really thought about the names or pictured anyone living here other than grizzled white miners. Now, though, I’m reading Carey McWilliams’ Southern California: An Island on the Land, and getting schooled.

The trouble began, naturally enough, in the mines … . In 1850 a mob of 2,000 American miners descended on the Mexican mining town of Sonora and … proceeded to raze the town. The rioting lasted for nearly a week, with scores of murders and lynchings being reported … .”We can see only indirectly, wrote  [Josiah] Royce, “through the furious and confused reports of the Americans themselves, how much of organized and coarse brutality these Mexicans suffered from the miners’ meetings.”

April 2016
Seen downtown. Advertising, art installation, or a concise history of labor?

In the first 25 pages I also learn that the indigenous population of California pre-Columbus had four times the density of the rest of what would become the country—whereas previously I imagined Indians living mostly in the Great Plains and dying mostly because of East Coast people.

My ignorance is especially egregious because I was assigned this book in college and hardly touched it. Nor was this the first time such a history lesson was lost on me: fourth grade I recall building a model of Mission San Luis Obispo without having the slightest idea of what a mission was—my closest point of reference being Redwall Abbey, where certainly no one (“nobeast”) was ever held against his will, even by weasels.

April 2016-001
Left: 5.8. Right: 15.2.

The road to the Grotto crosses the hills that front the highway and descends unexpectedly into a broad green valley that for its part doesn’t look Californian at all. “Kentucky,” Alex says. She’s in sales and has lived a lot more places than I have. The asphalt runs out amid a smattering of muddy yards and “KEEP OUT” signs, but we determine we’re in the right spot based on the presence (here I initially wrote “pretense”) of a Subaru and a Tesla.

The approach trail winds up from a red dirt road and runs a gauntlet of poison oak, emptying high on a scree slope of volcanic rock. There’s a lake on the horizon and columns of lichen-accented basalt looming overhead like organ pipes; something about the afternoon light makes me expect grazing brontosaurus. There aren’t any of those, but for a relic from the past I instead end up climbing next to some dude I met once on an ancient Internet date. Neither of us says anything, of course.

Getting there.

Both climbing and dating are things I previously believed I could learn to enjoy by diligence and repetition. Having grown bored and skeptical of this I wonder now, why not simply do things that are pleasant from the get-go? To find out, I brunch lavishly on French toast and biscuits on the porch of the Jamestown Hotel and then, instead of climbing, ride my bike. Not far, and real easy—in a place that’s new and warm and blowing up with flowers.

Sun’s out, tongue’s out.

August, etc.

The compulsive weekend recapping has suffered badly in the past few months from my Monday-Friday. Some remedial study:

Desolation Wilderness, 8/1–8/2

This is where I go for perspective.

We encounter three stoked bros hiking with what appears to be a baby Bisson Friche. It’s puttering gamely along with its paws encased in duct tape. “She’s great!” the first guy tells us, beaming. “She’s totally doing it!”

We set up camp on the slabs and make tiramisu from instant custard and a packet of biscuits. We’re licking the chocolate from the pie tins as the sky bleeds sunset onto the surface of the lake. All this for barely five miles’ walk! My guilt is overridden by joy for being back in the mountains, possible on my busted foot only because the rest of the group carried all that food. I could kiss them, I think, I’m so grateful; I could kiss the ground. When no one’s watching I put my lips to the granite.

Taller types at sunset.

Tahoe, 8/228/23

Technically I met Matt and Cora on Craigslist, when they bought my first motorcycle—completely inoperable at the time. We’ve never mountain biked together before, so I have to appreciate that they’re willing to gamble on my word again in revising the trip itinerary from lakeside beers to several hours of climbing, no engine.

IMG_8150 copy
An older friend.

“I promise it ran fine before it was broken,” I said then, of the crippled Ninja. Of the trail now I’m making similarly dubious assertions. “It’s pretty terrible, to be honest. But trust me, it’s going to be great!”

Tuolumne, 8/298/30

This trip is an experiment to see if my foot works well enough to climb outside. It doesn’t, and so instead I walk a long way in order to recall, with the proper respect, that not so long ago I couldn’t manage even that.

Giddy Muir quote here.

When I see Ragged Peak I have to have it, yield to a covetous impulse I might direct to shoes or handbags if I had the budget. The ridgeline is striking but low and I can approach on scree, roll rather than snap if I fall. I’ve also got a clear line of sight and a GPS signal, but feel unreasonably anxious off-trail alone and can’t stop looking over my shoulder. At the top I’m dizzy at the long drop down to the glittering lakes and unnerved by the keen and moan of the wind. I consider and think better of the summit blocks, am dismayed to realize, then, that in fact the when and why and worth of risk is my sole preoccupation—that this calculus is constant whether I climb or not.

Trinity Alps, 9/59/6

Another trick of perspective and the dregs of Trinity “Lake.”

Related: in Weaverville I reject a campground as too meth-y. It’s hit or miss this far north, all Jefferson Free State stickers and 14-day stay limits. I try not to be fussy about it, but the gaunt couple whose black and bottomless eyes catch mine as we circle the dim woods are too much. They’re leaning motionless on the crooked grille or hungry maw of a terrifying old Dodge Charger with its windows blown out. “I can’t,” I announce. I have betrayed an uncool suburban weakness, but we move on.

In a friendlier location later that night, I watch the stars and then the fire. There’s a glass bottle resting on the side of the pit, reflecting two crisp miniatures of the wavering flame. They are mirror images of each other, and as the real light flares and fades they seem like a pair of dancers to back and advance on each other across a darkened stage. I attempt to explain this and am met with a long silence. One of the boys is asleep. “I think I get you now,” says the other, eventually. “You never do drugs because you’re always stoned.”

Yosemite, 11/15-11/16

Belaying with Nabokov 

I was not, to be honest, having quite the weekend I’d wanted. I’m useless in the cold, and the month since Red Rocks was plenty of time for me to forget how to climb. Throw in a bad poison oak hangover and by Sunday afternoon, thoroughly defeated, I was content to sit with a Grigri and six layers on while the more robust specimens grunted their way up Generator Crack.

Generator Crack
From the window … to the wall?

I found myself staring into an inky pool of the Merced just below the belay. Fallen leaves in russet and ochre had come to rest on a flat-topped rock submerged near the bank, and for a while I considered the mechanics of this. I followed pine needles and the high clouds as they drifted across the water. I studied the inverted pinnacles, how the dark-streaked wall emerged from the dim cloak of the trees.

A gust of wind rumpled the surface. Or rather, as it has to my dismay already been written

The auroral breeze wrinkled a large luminous puddle, making of the telephone wires reflected in it illegible lines of black zigzags.

As the image stabilized I noticed a strange speck moving across the pool. Not an insect, not a fish—the water was still again before I realized I was watching the reflection of someone walking a highline on the Rostrum.

There was the jolt of comprehension and then, at once, the vertiginous, rapid flight of the mind’s eye from my vantage point on the riverbank to theirs, a thousand feet up on inches of webbing in the empty air. I saw their bare feet and the long, long drop, heard the wind, felt the sweat bead on my palms and tasted the adrenaline in my mouth. And—

For a moment, we were both in the same warm green bath of the mirror that reflected the top of a poplar with us in the sky.

Later, I stepped out from under the trees to look up the cliff face and watch the walker right-side-up. But the late afternoon sky was too bright for me to see something so small, and so the scene existed only in solution.

Generator Station
Generator Station, liquefied.

This, by the way, is why I write—even though I’ll never be Nabokov: for the things invisible except in reflection, for the perspective of the reverse.

Red Rocks, 10/17-10/20

Other colors, too.

It was late and my cab driver was from Cuba, by way of the OC. He had Ira Glass-es and a lovely Caribbean lilt and he said, over his shoulder at a red,

“Think about your closest friend. The person you know best in the world.” I was gaping at the beam cast from the top of the pyramid at the Luxor, trying to source the glitter swirling in the light.

“Now take that person to Las Vegas,” the cab driver continued. Traffic began to pull away, but he held my gaze. “You will find you don’t know that person as well as you thought.”

With a start I realized all the shining specks were insects.

* * * * *

Of course, there’s more than one way to do this town.

I’m green. Obviously.

I did it … haphazardly. This year, I’ve made a project of accepting that imperfectly arranged travel is preferable to perfectly arranged travel that never actually happens. Winging it worked well enough in Chattanooga and Boulder, but I’ll concede that my first time in Red Rocks might have benefited from some prep.

I finished packing on the way to the airport—on BART, under the gaze of a drooling toddler delighted at the clink of quickdraws and entranced by the arc of my hands as I coiled the rope. That thing was my first mistake: one of several key details I might have gleaned from a few minutes of research is that “winging it” in Red Rocks really requires a 70-meter. More importantly, it requires skill. There are only so many routes easy enough for a baby leader, and they’re  crowded: on one occasion, I arrived at the end of a 90-minute approach into a canyon—chosen specifically for the odds of solitude—to the sight of a 30-person NOLS class convened at the base of the wall.

On the other hand:

Sin city's good side.
Sin city’s good side.

I love the desert. To be here at all is a privilege; to be here and climb—for me, still an experience entirely on the limit-line of fear—to do that against a backdrop of such stark stillness, the emptiest, most indifferent skies and the most serene and tenacious little forms of life … doesn’t, obviously, make it any easier. But it makes it something else.

* * * * *

Concluding props to my trip buddy Elenita, a good sport (and great sport climber) who managed to tolerate three straight days of trad in the jittery, fretful company of a “5.6 leader with 5.12 OCD.” If early mornings, long hikes, mosquito-infested canyons and sketchy, tall-person moves above dubious gear were not what she signed up for, she never once complained. Far from that, she even tried to find me some wild burros. Rock star.

They’re out there somewhere …

Yosemite, 10/11-10/12

Three things I learned this time:

1) When the topo gives totally contradictory  information (“munge-filled,” “cool!”), best to assume the worst of it is true. Also best to have Chris lead. The man is impervious.

2) Trad can actually be a social activity, even for an ornery individual like me. It’s not that I don’t like climbing near other people; it’s that I don’t like climbing near other people … I don’t like?

Manure Pile Buttress takeover. We're even missing two people in this shot! Photo poached from Robert, of course.
Whereas everyone I’m with here is awesome. Photo poached from Robert.

3) Why so far I prefer leading (easy) multi-pitch trad to (easy) single-pitch sport. No surprise, it’s lizard brain again: On a tall route protected with my own sketchy gear, that thing perceives safety at the top of the wall. Even in full freakout, I’m motivated to continue—whereas a trustworthy bolt is a compelling invitation to quit and come down. Absurd. Absurd! But isn’t all of this?

Lover’s Leap, 9/20

Some thoughts on setting yourself up for success: if your biggest concern is route-finding, maybe don’t make your first Lover’s Leap lead the one named “DECEPTION.”

And the simultaneous arrival of thunderheads and apocalyptic curtains of yellow smoke in the middle of pitch two (sorry, pitch three, if you have any idea where you’re going)—that was a nice touch; thanks!

Tuolumne, 9/13-9/14

“Why do you climb when you don’t even like it?” 

Went to Tuolumne again, set off for Guide Cracks on Sunday with every intention of practicing hand-jams until I broke myself of either the fear or the inclination—or, more plausibly, just plain broke.

Instead we got lost. It took a while to figure out we were on the wrong rock, but less to realize that we ought to walk to the top of it. So we did, and it looked like this:

Not the top of Daff Dome.
Top of … well, definitely not Daff Dome.

Gasping for air under the weight of gear I hardly know how to use, I looked around and saw the reasons that I’m trying to learn—which are, oddly, also the reasons that it doesn’t matter whether I ever do. It’s another of the mountains’ tricks of perspective: that the whole world can contract so violently around a single knot or finger or knife-blade edge of rock; and then explode into infinity again on these summits, subsume the memory of the fear in space and light.

Three years ago and three years even less self-conscious about what I put on the Internet, I wrote,

There’s a vertigo in the view, something that pulls me out of and over myself so that the scene spins below me even as I’m looking to the shore. The sensation of smallness is a comfort and embrace; I’m at once enveloped and untethered and it’s peace. Why only out here? Why, elsewhere in life, is insignificance a worthlessness, a wound?

Ignore for a moment the writing and fact that in both cases I’d simply walked where I was going; that’s not the point. I think it’s still the reason. I think it’s still enough.

Tuolumne, 9/5-9/7

This weekend in Tuolumne: Baby’s First Trad Lead. I wasn’t going to try this for a while longer, but when I found myself sitting with idle hands in front of literally the easiest possible single-pitch climb in the park, equipped with a borrowed rack and an all-girl backup chorus of soothing voices … I had clearly run out of excuses.

Not pictured:
Photo by Stacy Bloom. This is the least embarrassing  in a sequence that documents a rapid deterioration in facial expressions from “resolved” to “hyperventilating.”

Anyway, here I owe some big thanks to Nicole,  for spending twelve years with her arms up while I fumbled around with the first piece and for reviewing my placements; verdict: 1) decorative, 2) good, 3) marginal, 4) over-cammed, 5) okay. It’s, uh … just as well I didn’t have to build an anchor.

Other high comedy in Project Be My Own Rope Gun: Freakout-leading easy slab on Sunday I missed the only gear on the route and then, while preoccupied with wondering what 150 feet actually looks like (…), wandered an extra 15 past the anchor. The only reason I even thought to look down for it was that the girl on the route next to me happened to sneeze. Having extricated myself from this situation uninjured, I then ate shit on the walk back to the car after getting a cam stuck in some manzanita.

I have, to put it mildly, a lot to learn. The particular difficulty of this sport, of course, is that while figuratively I may have nowhere to go but up I am literally a lo-o-ong way from the ground.  So I will give it a little more of my best effort …

Zoom for a “Where’s Waldo” of more competent women— inspiration, moral support, and patient belays all weekend.

… and then I’m going to quit and try surfing.

South Lake, 8/23-8/24

Ooooooh, altitude.

Freel Pass, alas, about 9,000 feet above my lowly lowland home.
Hurting at Freel Pass, alas, 9,000 feet above my lowly lowland home.

Deliberately made this ride shorter and e-e-ven slower than the first time I tried it and still barfed halfway up Star Lake Connector. Pretty charming, I know.

Sunday marked a minor milestone in my quest for multisport mediocrity because it was the first time I’ve ever mountain biked and climbed in the same day. Climbed, that is, a total of one 50-foot sport route, basically roadside … but I’ll take it on a technicality.

Also pretty sweet: Corral Trail’s new table-tops (that I almost got brave enough to try for real); miraculous last-minute reservations at Fallen Leaf so we didn’t have to sleep in a ditch; my trip buddy forgetting to bring a book and consequently getting bored enough in camp to swap my tires for me. Bwaha!