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 …

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!

Yosemite, 4/19-4/20

The shuttles are running and the falls are flowing. It’s open season.

The campground has the feel of some manic jamboree. In the glow and smoke and trees I am quickly lost amidst coffin-sized iceboxes and palatial tents done up in Christmas lights and other states’ flags. The grimy bathroom reverberates with dueling blow-dryers; I yield the sink with my mouth still full of toothpaste, cowed by the unnerving reflection of teenage girls queuing up behind me to apply their mascara. It’s 10:45 at night. Where the hell are they going?

In the daytime the valley smells like barbecue smoke and there’s a baseball game underway at the base of El Cap. I watch a seven-foot-tall Nordic behemoth film his friend’s fast-food order at the register with an SLR. All this—Disneyland!—in the literal, creeping shadow of the most fantastic big walls on the planet. It’s bizarre.

There is a tiny, tiny speck in front of the wall that is, by the way, a YOSAR helicopter.
The white speck on the wall is not a dead pixel but a YOSAR helicopter. I’d like to produce a remake of Baywatch starring these guys. Who’s in?

What the crowds mean for me generally—no use pretending otherwise—is claustrophobic, misanthropic fury. This is aggravated rather than tempered by the acute awareness that in the next tent over is likely a world-class free-soloist with serious abs and a name like Nadia or Alessia, rolling her eyes and wishing I too would GTFO of her park. Who am I, anyway? Another wannabe in the wrong size puffy, flipping through the guidebook looking for, like, I don’t know, a 5.6 that I could maybe top-rope?

In the end, she’ll have to share with me just as I’ll have to share with tourists who don’t queue  or recycle. If I wanted it to myself I could pay for it myself—except it’s 750,000 acres and not on the market so, no, actually, I can’t. In which case, what does it take to protect the backcountry, to convince the public to foot the bill for the 90 percent of that acreage that 90 percent will never see? It takes a (Curry) Village.

After Six, party of three.
After Six, party of three.

On the last two pitches the wind picks up to the point that it’s pulling the bag off my back. I can hardly hear myself speak, never mind our rope gun. This is why I brought radios, but as the static coalesces into speech it becomes apparent that we’re on the same channel as a gang of grade-schoolers playing in the valley below.

Mathew, you have 15 feet of rope—
Alia, I’m safe, you can—
Belay is—
Belay is—
More like, POK-E-MOR-ON
Alia, can you hear me?
I’m exasperated. I’m stressed. I’m cranky. I’m 400 feet in the air. I want all these people to control their children. I want all these people to go away. But I’m laughing, I’m yelling, I’m climbing. I’m 400 feet in the air. I want every kid loose in the woods somewhere. I want them to love this place, too.

Bishop, etc., and why

“What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?”

“It’s clean.”

Owen's River Gorge
Owen’s River Gorge

On the wall I got very, very scared. That I had no legitimate claim to the fear—on top-rope, on a 10a!—meant the proximity to total, tearful panic came paired with the sensation of my ego grinding my cowardice into my face. Robert breezed by me on the adjacent route, fresh off knee surgery and, to my eyes, completely serene. “Having fun?” he asked. “I’m miserable,” I said.

I meant it then and have not forgotten it since, and yet all l I want now is to go again. I don’t know why I continue to marvel at this, the compulsion to torture myself in frivolous, stuff-white-people-like ways—but I still do and I still look for some reason I like better than my own neuroses. I am quite sure now it’s nothing to do with the sport itself. But maybe these places act on you. Perhaps there is some fact of the land that climbing puts you near and lets you touch.

These are after all landscapes generous with room for the imagination. Here is space and here is time, physically real in rock rent over a billion years—or something—and also absent in the canyon’s constant afternoon, in the sense that every long shadow might hide cowboys or dinosaurs, or better, or worse.

(Can’t do panoramas, can stand on a rock and turn around.)

The next day I wandered past the cool kids at the Buttermilks to where the road ran out in the the soft foothills of a peak I didn’t know. As I knelt to peer at a pale cactus I felt, then heard a muted sort of thunder on the ground. A hundred deer came down the ridge like water. As if I ever really had the slightest doubt.