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.