She Wanders

She wanders.
Looking for a home.
She follows the rivers
and the trickling streams.
Her feet are bare, her skin sun-kissed.
Her hair flows free, like the rivers she follows.

She sings.
Her voice is a waterfall,
Her voice is the sea and stars.
She sings of the desert and of the trees.
She sings to be free and not to be paid,
her songs are worth more than money can buy.

She dances.
On a pine needle floor.
The wind is her partner,
smoother and gentler than any man.
The forest comes alive as birds gift her a song,
the ferns sway in time with her steps as she twirls.

She smiles.
And she is beautiful.
Her laughter is a babbling brook,
wildflowers delicately scent her skin.
The sun reddens her cheeks and brightens her eyes,
She is a reflection of her surroundings.

She needs.
Nothing more
than what the mountains give her,
they offer her riches worth more than gold.
She’d rather have stars than chandeliers,
No ceiling on earth is better than sky.

She dreams.
Not of a house
or of suburban streets.
But of the sun rising and setting,
telling her when to wake, and when to sleep.
She follows the sun when she is not dreaming.

She learns.
And she has much to learn.
The snowy peaks teach her humility,
while the aspens teach her grace and poise.
The moments of peace and clarity and awe teach her
that a life well lived is better than a life well paid for.

She wanders.
She has found a home
and it is not in a city or town.
It is where the wind blows and where the flowers bloom.
It is where the sun has led her and will lead her still.
She will follow the sun until it leads her no more.

Kauai: An Adventure Worth 1,000 Naked Hippies

“Heyyyy this is dad, with one word of advice. If you explore Kauai, uh, in the forest and all that…. I’m sure you know that uh... they grow a lot of pot there and uh, pot growers carry guns. Soooo beware. And uhhh…that’s all. Ok. Bye.”

When I was listening to my dad’s voicemail on the plane, it seemed pretty funny. I even had Tim listen to it, saying, “only MY dad!” as he chuckled. It didn’t seem so funny now. It was day one of our spontaneous Kauai trip, and we were lost. And I don’t mean on a side street trying to find the Safeway lost. I mean mudding through the jungle at night, stars jolting above our heads as we lurched up the muddy pothole-filled terrain calling itself a road. “I think maybe this isn’t right” I said for the millionth time, Tim’s furrowed brow an unspoken sign that he agreed. No way was this the road to the campsite where I had reserved a spot for the night. We passed what looked like a goat path, the entrance strung with old caution tape that fluttered at us like a snake about to strike. In four-wheel drive, we slid around the corner where an eerie green glow washed over us. It seemed to be emanating from a large metal object with a chain link and barbed wire fence surrounding it. Yeah, time to go. We slowly lurched away down the road, hoping my dad’s gun-toting pot growers weren’t about to come investigate. As the green glow faded and the jungle began to seem very, very dark, we lurched to a stop. In front of us was a fork in the road, and a sign. An actual sign! This was a first sighting for us in Kauai, and we approached it slowly as not to spook it. Luckily for us, neither arrows on the sign actually pointed at a road. In fact, they pointed at everything except a road. We wanted adventure, and this sign was determined to give it to us. Yaaaay. We recognized neither road name (or maybe it was the name of the rock it was pointed at…) and it was past our bedtime. “Screw it, let’s go park at the lot and sleep in the jeep”, Tim trudged back to the car, shaking his head. Back up the road we went, our brains properly rattled by the time we finally hit pavement. We drove to the Koke’e State Park campground, at which we did not have a reservation (or at this point, a care in the world), to find it empty. Surprised but relieved, we pulled up to a spot far from the three other cars, flipped the back seats down, wiggled into our sleeping bags, and were out in seconds. Little did I know, the rough and bumpy road had not only awakened my spirit of adventure. It had awakened something else inside me. Food poisoning. I had had an uneasy feeling that morning at I swallowed the last bite of my ham and swiss breakfast sandwich. The last bite was cold. Which was weird, as the rest of the sandwich was not. The uneasiness had turned to nausea and had stayed with me the rest of the day. Now, an hour into a deep sleep, I woke abruptly. At first I thought my appendix had burst. The pain was unreal, unlike anything I had experienced in my lower abdomen. I didn’t know what was happening or what I needed, but I had the good sense to crawl out of the jeep before it began. The purge. During a brief respite, I crawled to the jeep and shook Tim awake, asking if he had any stomach meds on him. “I don’t have your markers”, he muttered, sleep drenching his voice. I didn’t have the chance to ask what he was on about as I crawled back to my dew-covered grass patch of horrors. An hour or two (or three?) later, relieved and pain-free, I crawled back into my sleeping bag with chilly toes and tired abs and slept like…. well, a baby. For three hours after shitting my brains out.

 

“I said I didn’t have your markers?” It was the next day at nine a.m. and we were sliding down the muddy Awa’awapuhi trail trying not to wipe out on our first full day in Kauai. “Yeah I dunno what you were dreaming about. Anyways I’m feeling a lot better now, thanks”. “Why would I be dreaming about markers?” My eye-rolling was interrupted by a disturbingly loud rustle in the bushes, and I froze. The tension was only somewhat lessened as two large men in camo and bright orange burst through the jungle yipping and guffawing about “gittin’ a hawg”. They nodded to us as we passed by, shotguns slung across their backs. As polite and cheery as these guys were, it wasn’t exactly comforting knowing that a bunch of pig-crazed men were sneaking around the trail, shotguns loaded and safety off. I wished I had worn my bright pink board shorts. And maybe a sign saying “not a wild boar, please don’t shoot”. As we hiked along, I felt something brush my leg, and looked down to see an older black dog looking up at me, panting and pleased. Meanwhile, Tim was receiving friendly licks from a smaller, also black, dog. Apparently the hunter’s dogs had decided that sniffing for wild boars was actually pretty boring, and instead they were going to follow us humans to wherever the heck we were going. One was big and one was small, so being the creative geniuses we are, we called them Big Dog and Little Dog. They wagged their big and little butts right to the end of the trail with us, completely ignoring their sniffing obligations and basically just very excited to be dogs and to be doing dog things. The end of the Awa’awapuhi trail opens up onto a thin ridge with a huge drop on either side. It is breathtakingly beautiful, but it is not for those afraid of heights, and it most definitely is not for dogs. Unfortunately, the dog things that Little Dog and Big Dog insisted on doing included zipping around our legs on this section of the trail, making sure the rocks on the cliff edge were in their proper places, and sniffing things that weren’t there on ground that very nearly wasn’t there. This was very stressful for us humans, as we felt somewhat responsible for these dogs who had followed us here. We also wouldn’t have minded not being jostled and bumped off the cliff edge into the crevasse below ourselves. Plummeting to our death via dog wasn’t exactly on the itinerary. Luckily neither of these things happened, and with much coaxing and empty promises of treats, we were able to guide Big Dog and Little Dog back to their jolly-faced owners waiting at the trailhead.
  

  

The hunters weren’t the only interesting folk we met on the trails. In the nine days we were in Kauai, we hiked twelve gorgeous, unique trails, encountering on each trail some very unique people. We met shirtless men in fedoras who made their girlfriends carry the packs, beer chugging groups who insisted that being drunk made the hike back up easier, petite Asian women who tried to hike in stilettos and white mini skirts, elderly couples who marched past whining teenagers, hippies hiking naked and barefoot waving incense sticks, locals who glared at all the tourists before disappearing ominously into the bushes, dreadlocked nomadic couples who hiked with all their belongings in tattered fanny packs, sorority girls who managed to clear out entire view points by shrieking about a mouse, and many many others. There isn’t a huge amount of exotic wildlife in Kauai, not even any snakes, but the ample people-watching makes up for it. On the less crowded trails however, when it came to the wildlife we found that the best tip we could offer was to carry a stick. This wasn’t a walking stick or a whack-people-on-the-head stick, it was a crab spider stick. There wasn’t a single trail we hiked when this didn’t come in handy. It’s one thing to appreciate and love nature, it’s another thing entirely when nature is a fat crab spider and his web wrapped around your face. There are also giant orbweaver spiders, which luckily tend to build their web off to the side of a trail. Other wildlife we encountered in Kauai included frogs, a rainbow of fish, many gentle sea turtles, small green lizards, inquisitive goats, a rare Hawaiian monk seal, and many, many, many birds.

  

  

By the way, the bird of Kauai is no svelte delicate island bird. It does not trill captivatingly, nor are it’s fallen feathers a prized find. The bird of Kauai is the chicken. Of the twelve trails that we hiked on the island, all of them contained chickens. Mostly roosters. Roosters are majestic in their own way, with greenish-black curling tail feathers and fiery necks that gleamed in the sunlight. But these were no farm roosters. These roosters were feral, and they were territorial. This means that they would not only cock-a-doodle-do in the morning. They would cock-a-doodle-do all the livelong day. They would cock-a-doodle-do until their fiery little throats were hoarse and cracked, and it was clear that whoever thought they sounded anything like “cock-a-doodle-do” was just a hopeless romantic. When you went to the beach, chickens. When you hiked a trail, chickens. When you snuck behind a bush to pee, chickens. And I’m pretty sure that when you climb Mt. Kawaikini, the highest point in Kauai, a chicken will be there to greet you and brag about how it got there first.

    

But chickens, at least, don’t try to rob you. Hawaii is pretty notorious for sketchy locals, and Kauai takes the cake. The cops there actually tell you not to lock your doors so that thieves can rummage through your things without bashing your car windows in. Comforting. On day six of our trip we had the pleasure of experiencing just how sketchy the locals can be. “Lyse shhhhh.” I woke up at one a.m. to Tim gently keeping my head down, finger to his lips. “Whaaaa?” I groggily muttered. “Two SUVs just pulled up with a couple of locals in them. One guy got out and went to talk to the other guys and now they’re just sitting there watching us. We’re leaving.” In Kauai, you can pretty much car camp wherever and no one cares. Usually we found a nice secluded spot on the beach under a tree and just slept in the back of the jeep. We don’t usually encounter other people since we’re not just on the side of the road. Something was off here. “Just keep your head down. I’m gonna crawl up to the driver’s seat and start the car. Lock your door”. I nodded and slowly locked my door, wincing at the audible click. Tim crept up to the drivers seat, the tinted windows of the jeep buying us some time as he quickly twisted the key, threw the jeep into drive, and peeled out towards the road. Once we were on the road, I peeked out the rear window. We rounded a corner, and I saw headlights against the mossy dirt cliff. Suddenly the headlights went dark. But we were still being followed. Tim kept a steady speed so it wouldn’t be obvious that we knew we were being followed and eventually made it to a road lined with houses, cars, and a few people walking around. Tires squealed behind us. They were gone. I fell back onto my inflatable pillow and sighed in relief, thankful for once that Tim is such a light sleeper. “Man we just can’t win tonight can we?” I chuckled nervously. Earlier that evening while searching for a place to camp for the night, we had driven through what what supposed to be a beachside campground. These were all over Kauai and usually were the go-to for quick and easy camping. But this one was different. The first clue probably should have been the ancient, crumbling bridge covered in graffiti that we passed under at the entrance. Immediately to our left after the bridge was a destroyed rusty car and a few hobo tents made out of sheets, palm leaves, and old clothes. Empty liquor bottles littered the ground like sad Christmas ornaments. “Um,” I said. “Hmm”, said Tim. As we drove around the campground, tough looking locals and scowling meth heads with sunken in cheeks glared at us threateningly from disintegrating cars held together with duct tape and bungee cords. We passed a gate splattered with blood stains, creaking on one hinge. Even the roosters here were eyeing us menacingly. “Well”, I said. “Yeah”, said Tim. As we drove back through the campground to the exit, I pulled my towel over my blond hair and kept my head down. While Tim is mostly Portuguese and could pass as at least part Hawaiian, with his dark hair and perpetually tanned skin, I was all too obviously a Howlie, a mainlander. And the locals here don’t exactly embrace us mainlanders. After our midnight escape, we ended up driving back to our favorite spot, a small sandy ledge right on the beach. This spot was always available and nicely secluded. It was framed with trees and had a perfect spot to pee. And better yet, the locals in this area waved and smiled at us as they passed by, even when they noticed my white Howlie glow.

    

After seven days of nonstop hiking, snorkeling, and exploring, we drove north to the Kalalau trail head. After eating a snowcone, exploring some caves, laughing at a rooster enthusiastically eating a coconut, and watching the locals surf, we woke up at six a.m. the next morning to get a head start on the trail. We soon discovered that if you start hiking the Kalalau before the sun is up, there will be frogs. And I don’t mean that every so often you’ll see a cute little froggy on a leaf. These massive frogs plopped themselves in the middle of the trail every five feet, and were not at all skittish. Even after dawn began to replace the shadows with blues and greys, we kept our headlamps on to avoid squishing a frog under our boots. Unlike most animals, these frogs didn’t budge when we came near. When the beams of our headlamps swept over them, they sat there and blinked at us like fat grumpy stubborn uncles. Even when we nudged their froggy butts with our boots, they would simply lean away and look at us disdainfully. Once the sun was up, the frogs disappeared into the jungle. Two miles in, we split from the main trail to make a quick detour to the Hanakapi’ai falls. The trail to the falls was unbelievably luscious, twisting through the Hawaiian jungle as small falls and pools flowed tranquilly beside it. Giant stalks of bamboo shot up in clusters, and sadly, many initials and names were carved into the beautiful delicate wood. I felt a fire in me, and knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut if I came across someone adding to the carvings. I already knew for sure that Tim would speak up. Yesterday as we were walking around the trailhead campground, we checked out some caves that had formed along the cliff face. We thought the caves were pretty cool. What we didn’t think was cool was the twelve or so year old girl vigorously scratching her name in huge letters on the cave wall while her parents looked on and chuckled. They weren’t as amused when Tim strode up to them and, in a deep, throaty Tennessee accent said “HEY”. The sound reverberated off the cave walls and disappeared into the darkness. The parents whipped their heads around with huge eyes, opening and closing their mouths like a pair of goldfish. The little girl glanced at us snootily. “Don’t carve your name on the walls! That’s disrespectful!” Tim boomed, and the little girl froze. As we turned to explore deeper into the cave we heard a scratching sound cut off by “stop it, it’s not allowed! Shh!”. While I was glad that the parents received the message, I was annoyed that they seemed to have missed the point. I mean, technically yeah, no one is about to come down here and arrest you for carving your name into a cave wall. But it’s not about being allowed. It’s about having a simple respect for nature. As the saying goes, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. It was disheartening to see this kind of behavior continued on the bamboo on such a beautiful trail. And not just by naïve youngsters. “A.J.K.” felt the need to commemorate his senior trip, while Mike and Kimi wanted their engagement to be set in…well, bamboo. Why must we insist on leaving our mark on everything? The bamboo carvings were a bit of a downer, but our spirits were restored at the sight of the waterfall. Silky rivulets of water cascaded three hundred feet into an icy pool, mossy cliff faces soaring up to create a protective bowl. It was stunning. We scampered down to the base of the falls gleefully. “Tim”, I announced, “I’m going in!” The sun wasn’t quite up yet and it was the middle of January, and that mountain water was cold. Since we were alone, I stripped to my shorts and did my best to run in quickly, but the cold didn’t exactly inspire quick movements. I desperately swam to the waterfall, astounded by how the icy water took my breath away. I reached a hand out to the cascading water like a relay racer, and quickly turned and swam back, gasping. Shivering and half naked, I pranced out of the water in delight. “I LIIIIIIVE!” I yelled, lifting my arms. Tim, watching me bemusedly, rolled his eyes and grinned. As we resumed hiking, I began to regret leaving my shorts on. They were the kind with built-in underwear, and I was wearing nothing beneath them. This rather displeased my butt, and I soon realized that I had developed diaper rash. Later I would become all too aware that not only did this make hiking uncomfortable, it also made snorkeling in the salty ocean exquisitely painful.

    

    

About two years ago, Tim and I backpacked the Lost Coast trail in California. During our first day of hiking, we met Dennis. Dennis was a skinny man in his late thirties, all wiry muscle and a mess of light brown hair. He looked a bit like a broom. Our hiking pace was similar, and we ended up hiking together for over half the trail. He was a scrawny dude, but he had the endurance of a wolf. That guy could hike. Tim and I are both competitive, and we weren’t about to let this beanpole of a guy hike farther than us. After hiking fifteen miles in five hours, he finally stopped and began to set up camp. Relieved and exhausted, but trying not to show it, we sat down heavily on the sand. We watched in disbelief as Dennis began unloading a ridiculous assortment of things from his massive pack, including a giant bear locker full of every ingredient and tool necessary for immaculate fish tacos, which we eyeballed jealously between spoonfuls of Mountain House. The next morning we woke at six a.m. and checked for his tent, but he was already gone. We predicted that we would meet a Dennis every time we backpacked, and on day one of the Kalalau trail, we met our Dennis. This Dennis was huge and Russian, with a thick accent and a small black samurai bun. We couldn’t pronounce his Russian name, so we called him Russian Dennis, or R.D. for short. He had only a day pack and a small video camera, which he was using to take photos. “Oh, scuze me,” he said in a deep Russian voice, “would you please take picture for me? I give you camera, you stand zere”. As he hiked behind us, he told us about how he was trying to make it a day hike to the end and back. “I wake up at eight o’clock, I start hike. Hopefully I see beach at noon”. He explained that the batteries in his flashlight had died, and he needed to get back before dark. Unlike our first Dennis, R.D. seemed very underprepared. He was constantly stopping to take photos, then running up the trail to ask us what time it was. He seemed to be under the impression that we were guides of some sort due to our hiking pace, and was constantly asking us what and where things were. “What do you call zis place?”, he asked, as we passed a few impressive mossy rock arches. Tim glanced at me. “I dunno man, they’re cool though huh?” “Yes but what do you call them?” “Uh, I dunno dude.” His gung-ho spirit made up for his constant questions however, and he raced up and down the trail between viewpoints like a puppy chasing its first squirrel. At noon, we were still about two miles from the beach. “Maybe next corner we see beach”, he said hopefully. A few corners later, when we did not see beach, his shoulders slumped. “Sorry man,” Tim said. R.D. looked at us with a glint in his Russian eyes and said “iz ok. I come back Monday, maybe Tuesday. Start trail at six. Maybe seven”. Tim smiled, “I like your spirit dude”. R.D. smiled and started walking back down the trail. “Good luck!” he shouted in his thick Russian accent as he disappeared around the bend. We smiled and waved. Tim turned to me, brow furrowed. In a thick Russian accent he said, “in Soviet Russia, if you do not do trail, you do again. Monday, maybe Tuesday”. We started hiking again as I adopted a Russian accent as well, “and if you do trail but you can do faster, you do again. Until you are best”. “And if you cannot be best, you kill who is best, then you are best.” I laughed, and we were Russian for the rest of the trail. We had also been German, redneck, and Batman to people we had passed (“hello!” “I’M BATMAN” “um.”). But we had no idea that this array of characters was nothing compared to the cornucopia of eccentrics we were about to encounter.

  

  

  

  

After hiking fifteen miles in six hours, gaining and losing thousands of feet in elevation, battling the edges of cliffs and diaper rash, we arrived at the most spectacular dead end I've ever seen. A majestic jumble of foliage-covered spires soared out of the jungle, mist and sunlight caressing the highest summits like whipped cream on a dramatic ice cream sundae. With this as our backdrop, we scurried through the forest to the beach. Along the way we noticed the camps of squatters living there without permits, taking up most of the designated camp sites. We crossed a shimmering river just before the beach, and a huge man with a belly to rival any champion sumo wrestler sat on a rock in a pair of tattered shorts. He was accompanied by a nervous looking dark-haired girl, eyes dripping with old cakey mascara fixed on us wearily. It was an odd sight, and an uncomfortable one once Tim informed me that he had “looked at you like you were a taco”.

  

  

The beach was gorgeous, but not entirely pristine. Giant plastic lawn chairs, brightly colored tarps, air mattresses, and trash assaulted us from the tree line. Naked hippies got high in drum circles. We had hoped to camp on the beach, but were forced back into the trees by the debris and the hungry stare of a dreadlocked man with giant pupils. The forest was no better. A naked woman meandered about dreamily, shaking an egg shaker as Enya blared over a boom box. Empty cans in torn grocery bags, old battered shoes, and lifeless beach toys littered the ground like fallen leaves. Clotheslines were strung between trees, and tents were extended by old beach towels and mangy sheets. Annoyed and tired, we hiked back a ways and pitched our tent tucked away on a ledge away from it all and within sight of the spectacular view we had worked so hard for. As we were setting up our tent, a gaunt middle aged man walked up to us. He wore ripped up Peter Pan-looking pants, a flowery shirt with leaves stuffed into the pocket, and an odd but jaunty straw hat. "Ello!" he chirped in a strong French accent. "Would you please not camp 'ere?" As Tim and I exchanged incredulous glances, he went on to say that it was "not beautiful" that we were camped there in "such a pristine picturesque place". As Tim nodded at him with a clenched jaw, French Peter Pan revealed his true concern: that the Rangers would pass by in their helicopters and see us camped there, and would come down to check permits, which of course none of the squatters had. Once he left, Tim and I discussed for a full second whether or not we would move (“So are we gonna move?” “Hell no!”) and I slept restlessly. I was afraid the French guy would get some of his hippie friends together, and since there were at least thirty of them, even my Tennessee redneck boyfriend wouldn't have a chance. I was also pissed. The nerve of that guy to come down here and tell us that our tiny tent "wasn't beautiful" when the beach and forest looked like that.... as if we were the bad guys. We even had a permit! And we weren't hurting anything, we were camped on dirt. We had even packed out some of their trash. Besides, all the designated camping was taken up by people living there. It was strange, the next morning, to want to leave. We were in a beautiful place, one of the most beautiful I had ever seen, and yet, could not fully enjoy it. As we began hiking, we concocted an explanation as to what exactly was going on in that mystical dead end. We decided that the sumo man we had seen on the river was actually the Buddha, or at least his hippy tribe thought so. They worshipped him as a god, sending out convoys to hike the trails naked and trade the weed from their secret mountain garden for food for his great demanding belly. French Peter Pan was the gatekeeper, there to politely insist that any visitors to their Utopia camp out of view of the dreaded enemy rangers, who circled like sharks, waiting to strike. Egg-shaker girl was their shaman, wandering the camp to ward off the evil spirits. She had shaken her egg annoyingly hard at us wicked clothed ones.

  

  

But, as Tim put it, “a thousand naked hippies couldn’t take away from the beauty of this place”. And I full-heartedly agree. Usually I’m a pretty restless person. I hate sitting still, and I can’t be in one place for too long. But after French Peter Pan left, the sun began to set. Oranges and pinks washed over the sky like a careless watercolor, and the green-covered ridgelines glowed with an unearthly light. The conical spires kissed the clouds and their shadows deepened, giving the mountain range a depth that made you feel small in a peaceful way. The colors pulsed, intensely rich over the deep black and white of the stones that peppered the ledge we were camped on. As the sun slipped away, the pinks and oranges were replaced with purples and lilacs in a kaleidoscope exchange. Perched on a rock with my knees pulled up to my chest, sitting completely still for the longest time in a while, I stared. It was hard not to. It was ridiculously beautiful. And it was easy to feel that, in that moment, nothing in the world was better than sitting there, on that rock. Just staring. Just fully having this moment, absorbing it and drinking it in like a fine wine. Worth a thousand naked hippies indeed.

This trip was not planned. Well, it was planned, but only two days in advance. We saw an opportunity to have an experience, and we took it. People worry so much about having a certain experience in a certain way on a certain day at a certain time. But sometimes, the best adventures, the best experiences, are not the ones you search for. They’re the ones that find you. And adventure certainly found us in Kauai. While our brushes with threatening locals, unreasonable hippies, and the occasional aggressive rooster may have seemed negative at the time, these were important experiences. They were kind of like baking soda. While I would never eat baking soda by itself, it is an essential ingredient in a batch of delectable chocolate chip cookies. And Kauai, with its lush rainforests, astonishing ridges and peaks, and supreme white-gold and turquoise beaches, was one fantastically delicious and memorable cookie.

Van Life: Colorado

The latest Tim and I have stayed up recently was while watching America’s Got Talent videos until midnight with an eccentric 70 year-old billionaire. We met Alan at the climbing gym in Grand Junction, CO. Earlier that day Tim had gone mountain biking while I drew on a picnic table. When he got back, I asked how his ride was while barely looking up from my drawing. “Ah….it was….ok…” he wheezed out. Shit, I thought to myself, he’s hurt AGAIN. “Ok,” I sighed, closing my sketchbook. “What’s the damage?”. He gasped out something about a rock and a sharp turn while pointing out numerous nasty scrapes, topping it off by pulling his shorts down slightly to show me a mottled and swollen bruise where his handlebar had attempted to impale him on his way down. It sent an odd and excruciating pain down his leg, and we assumed he had stabbed a bundle of nerves or something. So clearly the best option was to then go to the climbing gym, mainly so that I could attempt to train for the butt-whooping that was climbing in Rifle Mountain Park. As Tim limped around the gym, an older, hunched man with bright white hair and mischievous eyes clapped him on the shoulder. “Son, are you ok?” Alan asked, blue eyes sparkling above a constant half smile. As I walked up Alan turned to me and playfully said, “you know, if this one is broken, I’m available as a replacement”. “Oh yeah, that’ll work perfectly, I was just about to take him out back and shoot him”, I said evenly. Alan hesitated, crooked grin frozen and neatly trimmed eyebrows slightly raised. I cracked a smile and he chuckled and slapped Tim on the back. As Tim coughed, Alan shuffled towards the stairs while yelling back at us, “c’mon you two, let’s go get some dinner!” Tim and I glanced at each other and shrugged. We had made a friend.

 

“See this box of bullets? Here, look. From the 1800’s. Guess how much. $28,000. That’s how much this box was”. “Uh”, I said. “Wow”, Tim said. Waco, Alan’s thirteen year old black lab, wagged her stub of a tail. Rows upon rows of guns lined the walls. Rifles dated back to the 1700’s brought to mind cowboys and Indians, while silver-filigreed pistols whispered of Spanish conquistadors. Alan liked guns. And he owned most of them. “This is my gun room”, he stated proudly. Waco licked his hand and wagged her stub.
Alan was a collector. But unlike most billionaires, he didn’t collect luxury cars or island bungalows. He had plenty of knick knacks, such as Mayan antiques worth a cool million, embroidered saddles previously owned by big-name outlaws, boxes of ancient arrowheads from the oldest Indian tribe ever recorded, and even a perfectly intact Megalodon tooth the size of my fist. But even these weren’t Alan’s true passion. His true passion was people, and his collection was quite impressive. While living in Grand Junction, Alan had fostered, helped out, and given meals to hundreds of lost kids and wandering dirtbags like ourselves. He had countless stories about all the people he had met over the years, and it seemed that everyone in town had a story about Alan. He was also a big part of the climbing community, even though he had just started climbing two weeks before we arrived. A kid that he had been fostering was a climber and convinced Alan to come to the gym with him. So Alan, being Alan, bought all the necessary gear and was projecting 5.9 a week later at age 70, keeping at it even after the kid had moved to Moab. He knew climbers like Ben Rueck and Mayan Smith-Gobat, and recently climbed outside for his first time with athlete Sarah Watson. When we drove to his house after dinner, we expected a hot shower and a wave goodbye. But Alan had no such plans. He had only recently acquired his new friends, and he wasn’t about to let us go that easily. “Tomorrow night we’ll have elk stew, remind me to take the steaks out of the freezer tomorrow morning”, he said as we walked through the door. Tim and I glanced at each other, our eyes saying hey, what the hell! Free food! Alan soon discovered that Tim had an appreciation for opera and was a talented singer. Soon we were watching youtube after youtube of child prodigies and unlikely tenors. “This guy’s from Texas.”, he said of one drawling teen. “I’m from Texas”. He turned to me, “you know, they say everything’s bigger in Texas”. I laughed, “yup, but their rulers are the smallest in the world!” “Ha! Ah’ understand.” Alan chuckled and turned back to his videos. “Ah’ understand” was Alan’s catch phrase, much like Tim’s southern “y’know it” or my Californian “yeah yeah yeah”. Not only was Alan from Texas, but he was also raised Jewish, like me. He showed me the mezuzah on his door frame and we commiserated over Jewish mothers. Finally, around 12:30am, we convinced him to let us go to sleep. “It’s amazing, the people you meet on the road”, I said to Tim as we lay in the van that night, sleepy from a rare hot shower. It rained gently that night, and the pitter-patter of the heavy drops on the roof of the van quickly lulled us to sleep.

  

“Ow.” I blinked as a raindrop hit me square in the eye and peered at the approaching clouds. They didn’t look too dark, and might even drift away from us. I couldn’t tell. “Alyse, you are on belay!” Tim yelled from the top of pitch one. We had decided to climb in Unaweep canyon and do an easy route called Questions and Answers to test out Tim’s finger. It had been a hot, sweaty approach, but now a gentle, chilly breeze rolled around the cliff, and every so often a raindrop would spatter on our jackets. “I think it’ll be fine”, Tim said as we swapped gear so that I could lead the second pitch. “The clouds don’t look too bad and I think they’re actually moving away”. “If you say so”, I shrugged as I traversed into the surprisingly small cracks that led to a roof. “Hmm…10d?” I muttered, stemming on nothing with only a tight tips lock to hold me as I fumbled around with a small nut. I glanced up. Fingers and tips until I get to the hands roof. “Oki doki then”. I reached the roof more relieved than I felt was necessary on a 5.10d, and shoved my hand into the crack in the roof, anticipating a perfect jam. “Wha-…oh come on! Who’s hands? Who’s?” I sighed and resigned myself to the tight .75 crack, knowing that I wouldn’t get a rest until I pulled around the roof. I traversed under the roof, being generous with my gear since a bolted anchor was supposedly just after the roof. Or was it? “Hey Tim!”, I yelled down. “There’s supposed to be an anchor here, right?” I glanced around again, thinking that my eyes had somehow skipped over the bots. “Uh, yeah I think so!” Tim replied. “You think so”, I muttered, still scanning for bolts. “What?” Tim yelled. I sighed. He seemed to only have good hearing when I didn’t want him to. Apparently this is a common problem with boyfriends. “Nothing!” I yelled back. “I’m gonna keep going a bit, there’s nothing here!” “Ok!”. Sparse cams clinking, I began climbing towards the right-facing corner where I was sure must be an anchor. Halfway up the slick .5 crack with only aiding nuts and left on my belt, I was sure I was wrong. I glanced down. I had been forced to ration my gear, and my last piece was about fifteen feet below my feet. “Shit.” I muttered. “What?” Tim yelled. Suddenly, the ears of a bat. I ignored him for the moment and peered up about ten feet to where it looked like I might get a piece or two in. That would have to do as an anchor. I yelled down to Tim that I was going to place a piece, then down climb to grab my last piece so that I could at least have a cam for the anchor. He yelled back an unsure ok, sensing that I wasn’t telling him something. He was right. I wiggled a small wire into a sandy slot, worriedly pulling on it before slowly starting back down. Suddenly, splat! A fat raindrop slammed into my helmet, startling me. As more drops began to fall, I gritted my teeth and continued down the steadily slickening corner. As I came within reach of the cam, my right foot squealed off the wall violently. I gasped and clenched my left hand, which thankfully had a decent enough jam. I was still for a moment, afraid to blink or breathe. If I fell and the nut popped, it would be bad. Really, really bad. Finally I slowly eased my right hand towards the cam and slid it out of the crack as if I was holding a sleeping kitten that, if woken, turned into a fire-breathing dragon. I clipped it on my belt and sighed with relief, then began working my way back up the dampening granite. I didn’t dare to breathe until I was back at my lone nut. I built my anchor with the cam and three nuts, making sure every piece was perfect and everything was equalized exactly. “That’ll have to do”, I muttered. “Tim! You are on belay!” I yelled. Silence. Of course. I rolled my eyes and tried again. “Tim, you are on-“ “Climbing!” he yelled. I sighed, “climb on!”. As he began climbing, the drops got fatter. Wait no, there were just more of them. A LOT more. In a few seconds it was pouring, and Tim looked up at me pitifully like a drowned pup as he slip-n-slid his way up the pitch. The one plus side to my anchor was that I happened to have built it just out of the rain’s reach below a small roof. So although I was very much exposed and didn’t have complete faith in my anchor, at least I was dry. “Well, that was exciting,” Tim said as he pulled up next to me. He glanced at my anchor. “Very exciting”, he revised. “You told me there was a bolted anchor”, I began. “Yeah”, he shrugged, “I guess there wasn’t”. I looked at him wide-eyed, fumbling with a retort. “Well…..shit!” I huffed. This is why I don’t win many of our arguments. “Yeah”, he said nonchalantly as he racked up for the third pitch. Luckily the rain had stopped by this point, and we opted to bust through the third and last pitch rather than wait for the rock to dry out. We topped out to warm sunshine, steaming slightly as we walked towards to slot canyon-esque rappel. It had been a good and unexpectedly adventurous day, and we were anxious to get back to Alan’s homemade elk stew and chocolate cake.

As much as I wanted Tim to come with me to Rifle for the Rock and Ice photo camp, it made sense for him to stay with Allen while I was gone. With his broken finger he couldn’t climb much, and he didn’t like the climbing in Rifle anyway. I wouldn’t be able to hang out with him much anyway, and it was cold up there. “And Alan said he’d take me fishing!” Tim squealed gleefully. He hadn’t gotten much fly fishing in lately, and Alan had a friend who was a fishing guide and would take them out for free. “Ok, I mean yeah, makes sense”, I shrugged as I lay eagle-spread on our small van bed. Yeah, I could be ok with this. Tim packed up everything he anticipated needing, like climbing gear, his mountain bike, and fishing gear, before waving me off. I drove towards Rifle feeling nervous. I felt like I wasn’t in the greatest climbing shape, and I had been feeling a little sick after my bout with food poisoning the night before. Well, not exactly food-poisoning. Mistakenly thinking that we would be eating awful camp food at the photo camp, Alan took Tim and I out to a Chinese buffet the night before. I had never been to a buffet, Chinese or otherwise, and I wasn’t entirely sure how it all worked. “It’s $45 a plate here, so you’d better eat your money’s worth!” Alan explained as I held plate number one and scanned the food in awe. As I stared at the rows of steaming food, Alan winked at Tim behind my back. “Yep, gotta eat at least five or six full plates or you’re considered rude!” I gulped. Five or six plates?! On my fourth plate, I wondered if it was possible for a stomach to actually burst. On my fifth plate I got my answer: no, the food simply comes back up. That night I lay on the carpet and moaned between sips of ginger ale. “At least I ate my $45 worth!” I gasped to Tim. Tim furrowed his brow, confused. “Wha- oh,” Tim started laughing as he realized that I had been tricked. “Hahaha! It’s only $11 a plate!” he said gleefully. “You believed him! Hahahaha! You thought… hahaha!” I stared at Tim wide eyed, not sure if I should feel mad or stupid. I settled on both. I moaned again, and Tim laughed harder. I never wanted to set eyes on a Chinese buffet ever again. I shook my head and chuckled to myself as the van struggled towards Rifle. Well, at least now I had an excuse if I couldn’t climb very hard. Even if it made me sound like an idiot. Oh well. I sighed and flipped my blinker on to merge onto the freeway, making my way to Rifle for three very interesting and nauseous days.

Van Life: Yosemite

“Hey Cathper, do you like fish thticks?”

I jolted out of my hiking reverie to the sound of an inquisitive fourth-grader with a lisp. A kids day camp bustled past as we descended Yosemite’s famous Mist Trail. Tim had broken his finger mountain biking about a week into our trip, so we opted to hike today instead of climb. It was a good choice, as Tim’s finger had swollen to the size of a large cherry by midday. So we woke up early, inhaled the icy air, and started up the Mist Trail. This is one of Yosemite’s most popular hikes, and for good reason. Large stone steps lazily wound up towards the pounding falls, the greenery and multitude of rainbows suggesting that if unicorns were real, they would live here. The icy mist quickly drenched us, providing both the trail’s namesake and the first shower we’ve had in a while. Tromping towards the raging falls, we passed a fit guy about our age hiking the other way. “Hey, how’s the hiking?” he asked cheerily. Before we could respond, he tripped violently, barely caught himself, and immediately launched into a run as if that had been his intention the whole time. We stared after him for a while then laughed. “Oh no, I didn’t trip, just needed a boost”, Tim mocked. I grinned, “I bet if he had fallen he would’ve just started doing push-ups”. We had started up the trail around 8am and hadn’t encountered a ton of people. The hike down was a different story. A cornucopia of sweaty families, muscle-tanked bros, camera-happy foreign tourists, and shrieking teenagers soon filled the narrow stone walkway, causing Tim and I to resort to a mad scrambling power-team dash to get down. Glide around the potbellied man, high-step over the screaming toddler, matrix-dodge the flailing tourist yelling in Vietnamese, two hops this time, sliiide to the right. Criss cross! We hopped back into the van around 1pm and exchanged our soaking wet clothes for dry ones, contemplating what to do next.

    “Uh oh….that doesn’t look good”.
The EMTs grunted as they heaved the man on the stretcher down the loose trail, muscles straining. We stood out of the way and watched them go, necks stretching with morbid curiosity. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to test Tim’s finger with some easy climbing after hiking the Mist Trail. As the sound of feet stomping in unison petered off, we continued up the trail to Sunnyside Bench with a bit less enthusiasm as before. “Hey what happened?” I looked up to find Tim talking to the group of people the injured guy had been climbing with. Although shaken, they were able to tell us that he had been climbing a route above his pay grade and was not placing gear well. He also wasn’t wearing a helmet. His foot had slipped, a few pieces had popped, and he had flipped upside down. His belayer had given him a hard catch so he didn’t deck, but did smack his head pretty good against the rock. “And that’s why you wear a helmet”, they concluded. We nodded in agreement, feeling a lot less sorry for the guy now. We had decided to take it easy due to Tim’s finger and, with about two hours of light left in the day, hopped on a fun looking 5.9 after warming up. As we were gearing up, an older, dirtbag bomber daddy looking-guy and a younger, Alex Honnold’s little brother-looking guy plopped their packs at the base of the route and started gearing up as well. Tim and I glanced at each other. “Hey do you guys mind if we go first?” Tim asked. “We’ll be fast”. Honnold’s little brother looked up at us and grinned, “yeah sure man, no problem”. Relieved, Tim snatched the sharp end and hustled up the route like that one kid in gym class who everyone hates for actually trying. I hadn’t realized that there were two pitches to this route, and was a little confused when Tim began pulling up the rope. Eh, he’s probably gonna rap or something, I thought to myself. He knows what he’s doing. Turns out he did, in fact, know exactly what he was doing. I, on the other hand, didn’t have the slightest clue what I was doing. “Uh….are you tied in?” My stomach dropped a little as my ears burned red with the realization that I was supposed to be following. “Uh….shit. No. Sorry. I didn’t realize it was two pitches. Shit. Sorry.” I glanced at bomber daddy and Honnold’s little bro. “Um, we don’t usually do this”. I mumbled, meaning that we don’t usually mess up like this. But Honnold’s brother took it to mean that we don’t usually do multi pitches. Or maybe even that we don’t usually climb. Either way, he smiled gently at me and said, “oh it’s ok. Just take your time and be safe. Let me know if you have any questions”. I opened my mouth to correct him, ears burning crimson now, and immediately closed it. Oh well. He meant well, and there wasn’t really a way I could convince him that I was actually an experienced climber without sounding like a douche. Or worse, a noob. Oh god, he thought I was a noob! Ears and pride almost literally on fire now, I scampered up the route quickly, hoping to maybe regain some dignity by showing them that I knew what jamming was. I needn’t have worried. Honnold bro and bomber daddy were still only halfway up the first pitch when we rapped from the second. As Tim was waiting for me to rap, he chatted with Honnold bro, who’s name turned out to be Julian. Bomber daddy was actually Steve, and also actually a bomber daddy. They turned out to be super nice laid back guys and, upon learning that we had been driving out of the park every night to camp, offered us a spot in their North Pine campsite. A few hours later we all sat around a crackling campfire, swapping stories and spray. Turns out Steve was pushing seventy years old and had first been to Yosemite in 1957. He even still had the ticket stub from entering the park all those years ago. “Hey Steve, when did you get your first pair of climbing shoes?” Tim asked. “Hmmm”, Steve pondered, “when did calculators come out?”. Tim, Julian and I laughed at this as Steve stared at us, astonished and confused. It had been a genuine question. Tim and I soon learned that Steve was the epitome of “a character”. Whenever we would talk about living off the grid or on the move, he would shriek, “the dentistry!” and go off about getting dental care while houseless. His wild, scraggly grey hair and weathered stubbly face lit by firelight, he somewhat paid attention to the conversation while adding in an occasional random quip such as “the best way to sleep in a snow cave is to not sleep in a snow cave”, or “man, that’s exactly why you shouldn’t vote for Trump” (“wait, why shoudn’t I vote for Trump?” “dude, you need a reason?!” “well, no, but…. never mind”). Julian tended to be more on the quiet side, one of those secret nerdy geniuses turned wannabe dirtbag. He had just left his job doing some nerdy genius thing, and was trying to enjoy funemployment. He nodded and smiled as Steve ranted about some random thing or another, and it was clear that he had the patience of a goose whose egg is actually just a rock. Finally at 11:30, long past our bed time, we said good night. “Alright, we’re gonna go home now”, Tim grinned, and we crawled into the van. I don’t think he’ll ever get tired of that joke.

“Wet?! What the shit?!”
It was the next day, and I was leading the Serenity crack on Arch rock, cowardly wishing for a bolt. I had gotten about two pieces of gear in after the first thirty feet of pin-scarred route, and neither of them instilled any confidence. And now the rock was wet. “Yeah, mountain project mentioned that it might be wet! I didn’t want to tell you because you might not want to lead it then!” Tim yelled up at me from his sunny, comfy belay. Meanwhile, my aching toes quivered ever harder as I absorbed this new information. “YOUUUU! GAH!” I shrieked. What I had meant to say was, how could you not tell me, I actually understand but still, what the hell man? I tried again, “YOU! ASS! Huuuuu!”. Really eloquent. About three-fourths of the way up the route, I finally got a decent piece in, a number one cam right in my only hand jam. “Goddammit”, I muttered, and launched into a desperate layback to the chains, not bothering to place any more gear. “Just go, just go, just go” I egged myself on as the chains inched closer. Hand shaking, I waved my hand around the chains like a shitty wizard. I couldn’t seem to clip in. I chased the draw around with my hand like a dumb goldfish not realizing that he’s in a bowl. “Come ON! You little…. ggGRRR!”. Finally my trembling hands found the gate of the biner and shoved the rope through. “TAKE!” I yelled, exhausted and suddenly extremely thirsty. “Tim! Bring water!” I probably should’ve told him to also bring his big-boy diapers, because a Yosemite 5.10 is not an everywhere-else 5.10.

    Another 5.10 that we were proud to onsight was a route called Gripper. While walking up to this almost entirely off width route, we encountered a sign about peregrine falcon closures. The sign said that only certain routes were closed and that other routes were open, such as Gripper. Having had no previous experience with falcons or their nesting habits, we assumed that we could still climb Gripper. As Tim started up the third pitch of the route, I heard a blood-curdling “SCREEE!”, and knew that we had been wrong. Currently the highest measured speed of a diving peregrine falcon is 242 mph. These birds are raptors and have hooked beaks and extremely sharp talons, which they use to snatch prey mid-dive. My first thought when I saw one barreling towards me was that they are extremely beautiful birds. My second thought was that that extremely beautiful bird wasn’t slowing down in the slightest. “SCREEEEE!” the falcon shrieked. “AHHHHH!” I shrieked back. I ducked down just in time to feel harp talons scraping my helmet. And that, also, is why you wear a helmet. “What the…. oh fuuuuu!” the falcon swooped again, wingtip grazing my cheek. “Shit! AHHHH!” I screamed as the falcon tucked its gorgeous wings in again and shot towards me like a fighter jet. “SCREEEEE!” “FUUU&#K!”. Why are humans always so much less majestic than seemingly all other species? I certainly felt pretty damn un-majestic as I flailed around and grunted at the falcon. The falcon eyeballed me as it carved through the sky beautifully, gearing up for another dive bomb. It did not find me intimidating. “TIMMM!” I screamed upwards. “HURRY UPPPP!” I couldn’t see Tim at this point, but I was hoping he was close to the chains. I was very ready to get the hell out of there. So was Mr. Falcon. “SCREEEE!” suddenly, a spiraling football launched towards me from the other side of the wall. No, not a football. Another falcon! “NOOOOOO STOP!” I ducked down again, my only protection the bright pink plastic of my helmet. “GO AWAY I’M SORRY!” I shrieked, as I was simultaneously dive-bombed by two angry falcon parents working in tandem. “SCREEEE!” “SCREEEE!” “NOOOO PLEASE!” “SCREEEEEEE!” “FUUUU&#K!” I dip, dodged, ducked and dove just like the movie Dodgeball taught me, but the falcons were relentless. Finally, Tim shouted that we was off-belay and began pulling up rope as I shrieked and flung my arms around like Frankenstein at a party, trying to convince the falcons to leave me alone. All this got me was a questioning head cock as falcon number one tucked its wings in for another dive. As talons scraped my helmet once again, I felt a tug and a distant yell. “Alyse, you are ON BELAY!” Tim shouted. “Oh thank god!” I told the falcons, who seemed to agree. I began edging off the belay ledge into the traverse at the start of the pitch. “SCREEEE!” I glanced behind me, side-shuffling furiously now. “I’M LEAVING! I’M LEAVING!” I screamed at the falcons. Luckily for me, these were english-speaking Peregrine falcons, and understood immediately and backed off after offering me a spot at their dinner table that night. I wish. The falcons continued their tirade as I groped for holds while ducking razor sharp talons. Finally, as I transitioned into the crack and began racing upwards, the falcons dove further and further away. Finally they stopped altogether, and I breathed a sigh of relief.


We all make mistakes. We are all humans, and humans screw up. We shouldn’t have climbed in that area at all. And while I wish the sign had said “area closed” instead of just a few routes, I have no one to blame but myself. Falcons and other nesting birds are a big part of the climbing environment, and I should’ve educated myself on these animals just like I would rattlesnakes and bears. It is just as important to learn about species that YOU could negatively affect as it is to learn about species that could negatively affect YOU. Peregrine falcons are extremely territorial and will typically return to a nesting site year after year. They mate for life, and the two parents are very protective of their young. Even if you are a few hundred yards away, they will work together to eliminate the threat: you. It is important to realize that we are entering THEIR territory, not the other way around. If you see a sign saying anything about any kind of nesting closures, just avoid that area entirely. This was a lesson that I learned the hard way, but am very glad to have learned it. The important thing in these kinds of situations is to swallow your pride and admit that you were wrong, learn from your mistake, and spread the word to others so they don’t do the same.

The next morning we woke up bright and early, rubbed sleep out of our eyes, racked up, and began walking towards the east buttress of middle cathedral. The route we were aiming for was popular, and our goal was to be the first team on the wall. To our dismay, not one but two teams were at the base of the route when we jingled up the trail, racked up and ready to go. We watched with growing disappointment as a lady in a brand-new harness, new shoes, and a sparkling new helmet tried to remember how to tie in. “Now remember”, a voice coached her from above, “just follow the rope until you get to me. And grab the cams as you go like I showed you”. “Grab the what?” the lady asked. Tim and I looked at each other, exasperated. As we sullenly trudged down the trail, I couldn’t help but think that it was probably for the best. Tim’s finger was grotesquely swollen and crooked, and needed time to properly heal. We would be back for Yosemite and the currently closed Tuolumne, when the weather was warmer and the crowds were thinner. In the meantime, we packed up the van and headed to Grass Valley for some delicious home-cooked meals from my Aunt Vicki and some mechanical help from my Uncle Rich before heading up to Lake Tahoe to continue our California tour.

 

Three Steps to Getting Over Your Fear of Falling

Step One: Letting Go

It’s not normal. You’re high off the ground, high enough that if something goes wrong, it’s going to be bad. Yet you edge past the bolt until your last trembling toe leaves it behind. You’re pumped, forearms screaming for a rest. But still you push on. The crimp is sharp and feels like a cheese grater. Meanwhile, your fingers feel like weak cheddar. Suddenly the foot smear you knew you shouldn’t have trusted betrays you. Your heart drops, and you’re aloft in space. You race towards the wall that so recently thrust you away. Then you do something silly. You feel angry. Well, mostly you feel scared, but that’s not the silly part. The silly part is the anger. Because it’s not normal. Putting your body and mind through all of that and then getting angry that alarm bells are going off is not normal. Falling is scary. Of course it is! And the fear you feel is a perfectly normal human response. Only when you accept that it is okay to be scared can you truly begin to let go of your fear.

Unless you’re a mental masochist, you probably don’t enjoy beating yourself up. It’s probably not on a “to do” list in any self-help book. So if you’re trying to help yourself mentally, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Beating yourself up about something is a negative experience. If you’re beating yourself up about being scared to fall, you’re creating a negative experience. You’re creating an atmosphere of frustration, anger, and self-doubt. Do you really want to climb in that kind of headspace? Didn’t think so. That’s not going to make you enjoy climbing. Or falling. So just let that anger go. It’s okay to fall, and it’s okay to be scared. Beating yourself up about it is not going to make anything better.

Only take a fall if you feel like you are in the correct headspace to do so. Some days will feel better than others. Some days you will be in a positive headspace, when your mind is at ease and you feel happy and safe. Practice taking falls on those days. Your positive headspace will create a positive experience. However, some days you will be in a negative headspace, when you will feel angry, irritable, and unsteady. It happens to everyone. It’s probably better to say “take” on these days. And that’s completely okay. If you start to feel angry with yourself for taking just take a deep breath and say “I am not in the right headspace today. It’s okay, it happens to everyone.” As you have more and more positive headspace days taking falls, falling will start to become a positive experience.

Step Two: Trust

The wrong belayer can throw a positive headspace completely out the window. I will never forget one day at my local crag when I saw a guy from my gym belaying a very new lead climber on an easy route. She was at the fourth bolt and trembling violently. Obviously terrified, she clung to the jug she was holding like it was the Titanic’s last lifeboat. She was crying. The guy from the gym was casually sitting on the ground leaning against a tree, belaying with a beer in hand. For how little effort he seemed to want to put into anything else, he was sure putting plenty of effort into being a jerk. “Oh come on, it’s only 5.8”, “quit being a baby and take the whip”, “god you’re being pathetic”. He seemed more than a little surprised when his beer can was plucked from his hand and he was yanked violently upward. Luckily he was too shocked to retaliate as I thrust the brake end of the rope into his hand and yelled at him to shut his mouth. I smiled at the girl and spoke gently to her, eventually coaxing her to down climb to her last bolt, take, and be lowered. After making sure she was okay and not completely traumatized, I had a nice long chat with her belayer. After his ego had calmed down, he eventually realized that his methods were maybe not the best when it came to helping new climbers. Meanwhile, the girl was eternally grateful for my intervention, and we ended up becoming great friends. The moral of the story is, don’t climb with someone like that guy. Choose your belayer wisely. I have been climbing for fifteen years, and I only have about five people I trust to belay me. These are all people who give me their full attention while they are belaying me, give me a nice soft catch and are aware of ledges and other dangers, and, most importantly, are very encouraging and never make me feel bad about not wanting to fall. This kind of belayer makes all the difference in the world. If your belayer is awesome but doesn’t know what a soft catch is, learn together. The right catch can completely change your mind about falling. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to be direct. If you feel that your belayer isn’t paying attention, yell “watch me!”. When you get down, calmly discuss with your belayer that you felt they were not paying attention, and why it bothered you. This goes for your belayer doing anything that you don’t like. Your life is in their hands, and you’re allowed to have some say about it. If your belayer has a bad attitude about you voicing your concerns, it’s time to find a new belayer. Part of being in the right headspace means being able to fully trust your belayer.

While we’re on the subject of trust, let’s talk about gear. A good belayer is also one who will check your knot every single time you climb. I work at a climbing gym, and last December on New Years we had an accident. The gym was pretty much empty, only a few people including two regulars who were very experienced climbers. The climber wanted to pre-clip, and tied just an overhand knot in his belay loop to bring the rope up with him a few feet so he could clip in and down climb. He pre-clipped, climbed back down and began talking and joking around his his belayer. He got distracted. Neither he nor his belayer checked his knot, which he has forgotten to re-tie into the safe figure eight. He climbed to the top of the wall just fine, and leaned back. His overhand knot came undone, and he fell forty feet. I was at the front desk when I heard the scream. He broke his spine in two places, fractured both feet, broke his pelvis, and dislocated his thumb. All of this could have been avoided had he and his belayer done a safety check. Some people might laugh or make you feel stupid for wanting to do a safety check. Tell them this story. If they still won’t do it, find a new climbing partner. Doing a safety check also helps your mental game while climbing. It’s a reminder right before you climb that you are safe. The last thing you need before taking a fall is to question whether your knot is good, or if your belayer’s grigri is loaded properly. This might sound silly, but another thing I like to do before I get on the wall is look at my gear. I look at my harness, my rope, my draws, my cams, everything. I look at them all and remind myself of the engineering and technology that went into them. They work. Gear failure is highly uncommon, most accidents are caused by user error. Before you get on the wall, remind yourself of this. Trust your gear, trust your belayer, and trust yourself.

Step 3: Focus

This step takes a bit of practice. Stop thinking about falling. When you’re on the wall and you’re cruxing, there’s a good chance you’re calculating the chance of falling in you head and imagining the fall. Quit it. One way to do this is to focus entirely on your movements and nothing else. If you do this, there will be no room in your mind for thoughts of a fall. This is a good step to practice in a gym. Go to the gym with a belayer you trust, and get on routes you know you will fall on. If you feel comfortable with it, tell your belayer that you are not allowed to take. If you’re going to force yourself to fall it’s best to do it in the gym, where you’re in a safe environment and most likely in a positive headspace. While you’re on the route, practice focusing only on your movement when you feel secure. As you move into a crux where you feel less secure, do your best to maintain that focus. This way when you fall, it’ll be over before you were even aware of falling. I call this getting in the zone. Everyone’s zone is different. Some involve music, silence, cheering…. mine happens to involve talking to myself and sticking my tongue out, which most photographers aren’t too happy about. Find your zone, and do your best to stay in it. As I said before, this takes practice. Focus on the climb, not on the fall. Your fear of falling won’t go away overnight, but if you keep at these steps hopefully it will go away in time. Don’t get discouraged, climbing is worth the effort. Remember, the fear of falling is nothing compared to the fear of never leaving the ground.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Picking Up Climber Chicks in the Gym

There she is, that hottie in the sports bra lacing up her muiras. Oh yeahhhhh. You totally wanna check out her figure….eight, don’t you? Well, there’s a method to this madness you young stud. First off, assume she knows absolutely nothing about climbing. Yes, she does want beta on that boulder problem. And she definitely wants you to campus it. This gives her the opportunity to lavish her eyes upon your glorious biceps….side note, your shirt is off here. As always. Duh. Don’t worry, the cold will make you look more defined. Goosebumps are SO in right now. And while we’re on the subject, some artfully torn jeans and a beanie are a staple of your casual look. Now that you’re looking mighty suave, it’s time to woo that damsel in distress. She just got that problem that you were kindly giving her beta on, and you need to go give her a high five! By the way, the secret to a great high five IS making eye-contact….no, not those eyes. Lower. There ya go! Now that you’ve given her that ego boost, it’s time to……wait, that was her warm-up? No worries! This provides the perfect opportunity to comment on how she’s “really in shape” and give her a once-over. By this point, it’s clear that she wants to climb with you, so follow her to her next boulder problem.

Ok, so her next boulder problem is a harder grade than you expected. But I mean, if she can do it then you can do it easily, right? I mean, she is a girl. First you need to establish your manliness. Let her know how easy this boulder problem is going to be for you. Say something about how you needed another warm-up anyway or something like that. Also, it’s very important to explain why this problem is going to be easy for you. This is an excuse to talk about how much you bench and how many push-ups you can do. She’ll be so impressed that you sending her project will just be icing on the cake. Alright, so after some of your helpful coaching, she’s ready to give it a go. Go ahead and give her a generous spot, and if your hands graze that booty, well, you’re just being safe! And she did wear yoga pants, so I mean, she obviously wants you to check out her butt. She could’ve worn sweats. Although, girls butts look good in sweats too. That girl over there is wearing sweats. Mmmm. Brooooo. Hey, focus! Oh phew, she made it to the top. Wait, she made it to the top? Hey, the only thing she should be flashing is you!

So now you have two options. You can not try the problem because, you know, that tendon you sprained lifting like a boss is hurting (wink wink). Or, you can try the problem and show her how easy it is. You’re gonna go for it? Of course you are bro! But first, do some flexing disguised as stretching. Take a quick glance at those biceps to make sure they look fierce. Don’t worry, she won’t notice. And they do look fierce! Ok show time! Annnnd go! …..ok well, getting to the third hold isn’t too bad! I mean, that problem is totally not your style, plus that hold definitely spun and you needed chalk and that tendon you sprained is acting up…yeah, play off that, she looks like she feels sorry for you….oh wait, she’s watching that tool over there on that V9. Psh, what a tool. But wait! This is your chance to show how laid-back you are. Watch him with her and act unimpressed that he’s on a V9. Psh, no, you don’t care about him. He’s no competition. Psh. Look, he fell. Shrug casually and offer him some advice on what he could’ve done. You know, if he was a real man. Psh.

Now it’s time to bring out the big guns. No, not your biceps, the figurative guns. Act like you’re super bored and casually ask her if she wants to get on ropes. She said yes? She wants the D. Also, this is now officially a date. Obviously. Heh, that makes it a double D. Heh….double D….anyway. Oh shit, she busted out a lead rope and is tying in. And you’ve never lead-climbed or lead-belayed before. Bro, it’s totally chill. You can wing it. Ask her to put the belay thingy on the rope while you bust over to the water fountain. Super important to stay hydrated. Now you look knowledgable and efficient. Cool, so now all you have to do is clip the belay thingy to that one loop and you’re in business! Not so fast bro, check her knot. This is totally not for safety (you’re not a loser), it’s an excuse to get cozy. Her knot is close to her body so, like, you have to get close to her body! See what I did there? Freaking genius bro. Make sure you give her knot a few tugs forward so she gets the idea in her head of your intentions for later. Yeahhh. And now she’s checking out your….oh wait, she’s just looking at your belay device. She says it’s clipped on wrong? Whatever bro, you can totally smooth talk your way out of this. Just tell her that that’s how the pros do it. Name drop that one guy….Hoonold! Yeah, say he does it! Now she’s saying it’s pronounced Honnold and he solos? Push, whatever that means. It’s probably not important. Oo, tell her if she sends this route she won’t be “solo” tonight! Yeah, that’s perfect! Now she’s telling you to give her slack…awww, it’s ok girl, not everyone knows it’s pronounced Hoonold. She’s tugging on her rope and looking at you meaningfully? This must be like that one dance move with the fishing pole! Aw yeah bro, let her reel you in! Shimmy on over and….wait, she’s untying? Does she want to go somewhere private? Ask. She doesn’t feel comfortable with you belaying her? Ha! Ok bro, this is a classic scenario. See, the thing is, you’re way out of her league. Make sure you shout that at her as she walks away. Yeah, way to get the last word! You stud, you! You sure showed her! Whatever bro. She’s clearly too dumb and blind to see what a catch you are. Her loss! Where’d that girl in the sweats go?

No Joke: Recovery Complete

I have sent a few routes in my 18 years of climbing. I have conquered climbing plateaus and ascended to new grades. I have projected and despaired and overcome. But I have never felt what I did after sending No Joke, my first 5.13b. The day I saw No Joke, I saw a route way out of my league. I couldn’t do the first move, and laughed as I grabbed my draws and hung them on something easier. Still, the route compelled me. There was smooth flow, amazing movement, and small holds. Right up my alley. But it was a 13b, and at that time my proudest send was only 12c. I shrugged and tried to ignore the siren call of the route, but wistfully wished that I could actually give it a burn. That same evening, I hiked to the top of the crag and fell to the bottom, breaking my spine in two places, shattering my pelvis, snapping my tailbone, collapsing a lung, smashing a kidney and fracturing an ankle. The doctors weren’t sure I would ever walk again and I was wheelchair-bound for 5 months. I pushed myself every day in physical therapy and spent my free time trying to wiggle my toes. I was determined to climb again. I had a route to send.

Less than two years later, I was working the cruxes on No Joke. I was infatuated with the route, and saw sending it as a sign of fully overcoming my injury. My progress in climbing was like a very inconsistent ladder. In the beginning the rungs were very close together as I went from taking an hour to get up a 5.6 in the gym to leading 5.12s clean outside. I ran up the rungs, progressing quickly. Now the rungs were far and few between as I struggled on No Joke for months on end. I figured out my beta, waited for winter to thaw, and forgot my beta in the spring. It was a frustrating dance, a love-hate tango. Once the warm weather came in and No Joke was climbable again, I became obsessed. I dreamt of sending almost every night and drew beta maps in my notebook during class. Every bit of free time I had I was in my classroom of rock, perfecting footwork and linking moves. The crux migrated up the wall as I fell higher and higher up the route. Finally, the crux was the last hard move on the route. The move involves cranking down on a 1/3 pad mono to a decent three-finger pocket then throwing, fully extended, to a jug. After you stick the jug, it’s over. I fell throwing to the jug three times. I was frustrated, discouraged, and just plain stressed out. It was starting to get cold again, and I was not about to wait for the weather again. So I changed up my mental game. I didn’t think about sending. I thought about the moves as I did them, not in desperation hoping I would stick, but in full appreciation of the movement itself. I danced, letting loose and just having fun while keeping my movements precise. When I got to the mono, I didn’t hope frantically that I would stick the pocket. I assumed I would stick the pocket and instead thought about the delicate footwork necessary for sticking the jug. I thought of it as nothing, and it became nothing. I was a little pumped but nothing drastic. I was breathing hard, but steadily. My feet were exact. I stuck the jug. Barely. It’s a full extension for me and I was hanging on by my fingertips. I stayed calm, kept breathing, and pulled through the rest to the top.

As I pulled through the last twenty feet to the top, things started to fall away. I grabbed a good pinch, and the pain of physical therapy seemed trite. My feet found a huge ledge, and the terror I felt while falling seemed far, far away. Curling my fingers around the third jug from the top, the sleepless nights spent relearning to walk seemed like a drop in the ocean. Clipping the chains, I felt weightless. Refreshed. New. I was reborn.

“Ah yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or you can learn from it.” - Rafiki, The Lion King

The Recovery: Risen From the Wheelchair

I don’t remember much from my time in the hospital. I was in and out of consciousness, either all too aware or not at all. I remember the pain though. And the helplessness. It didn’t really hit me until late into the first night in the ICU. Technically, it was morning. It was two am, and I had to pee. They had taken everything else, cut away and discarded so that my broken body could be more closely examined. My favorite sports bra, my Old Navy sale leggings, my blue tank top. Even my socks, all lying bloodied and tattered in the trash. Underneath my hideously ugly hospital gown, I wore only my underwear. They had allowed me to keep them on, as if I was an infant clinging to a lacy Victoria’s Secret teddy bear. I hadn’t cried yet. Not when I fell, not while I was being carried out, not on the gurney rattling through the halls. Now, all was quiet. I rose out of a warm mist of morphine; comforted by the soft and sleepy glow from the hallway and the quiet patter of footsteps. But I wasn’t comfortable. I had to pee. I knew that simply getting up and walking to the bathroom was out of the question. And I couldn’t even get my own underwear off. Stubbornly, I tried to hold it. No use. I had to pee. Now. Reluctantly I pushed the red button on my bed that would call a nurse. Not ten seconds later I heard the soft patter of feet, a door creaking open, and the swoosh of my curtain being pushed aside. To my dismay and embarrassment, the nurse was male. He smiled gently at me and asked what I needed. “Um, I gotta, um. I have to pee”, I stuttered out. Both his eyebrows flew up as I explained to him that I had refused a catheter, wanting to save the little shred of independence I had left. “I see…. well, I’ll see what I can find.” He came back a few minutes later carrying what looked like a walker mixed with a punch bowl. The contraption, what I would later call my “pee-seat”, was actually just a bed pan with legs. I thanked the nurse as he stepped outside the curtain to preserve some of my dignity. He shouldn’t have bothered. First I couldn’t get my underwear off. In a desperate last stand for independence, I insisted that I cut them off myself. As I dropped the bit of fabric into the offered trash can, I felt naked in more than one way. The last of my independence and dignity was gone in a shred of pink lace. I was exposed. And the underwear was the least of my obstacles. I tried to roll to my side, tried holding my legs to move them manually. Nothing. Finally, exhausted and desperate, I muttered shyly that I needed help. With the same gentle smile, the nurse began to scoop me up. The smile fluttered as I cried out in pain. He called for back up. Two more male nurses came rounding the corner as I flopped around with just my ugly hospital gown for privacy. At this point, I thought for sure I was going to pee the bed. Luckily they sensed the urgency, and hoisted me over the bed pan in a net of arms. I was in a horrific amount of pain, but didn’t really care. All I wanted was to pee. I tried to relax and waited for the sweet release of my bladder. Nothing. The nurses turned their heads away as I closed my eyes and imagined waterfalls and leaky faucets. Nothing. My muscles were so shocked from my fall and were so tight around my shattered pelvis that I could do nothing to relax them. I couldn’t pee. Up until now, I hadn’t cried. Not when I realized my legs weren’t working, not having to move for x-rays, not while laying on the gurney waiting for morphine. But now, I couldn’t pee. I just wanted to do one thing, a simple enough thing, and I couldn’t do it. The dam broke, but it was the wrong dam. I cried now. I sobbed in the arms of the male nurses, hovering over the plastic bed pan and shivering in my god-awful hospital gown at two in the morning in the ICU. Though I wouldn’t have thought so at the time, step one of my recovery was completed that morning. It wasn’t quite the release I was wanting, but it was a release I needed. I needed to cry. I needed to start grieving.

 

The rest is mostly a blur.

Because I was over eighteen, no one had notified my parents yet. It was day two in the ICU at about ten am when I decided that it was time to call my mom. I was drugged out of my mind, and in a fog of morphine thought that the first thing she needed to know was that I wasn’t in pain. So when she answered the phone the first thing I said was “ma! I’m on alotta morphine!”, which is when my energy gave out and I thrust the phone into the doctor’s expectant hands. I slipped back into unconsciousness thinking that I had handled that perfectly, when in fact my mom was now having a panic attack.

It could be night, or it could be day. There is no way for me to tell.

My aunt Vicki arrived a few days after my mom did, along with two of her friends who happened to live in Flagstaff. She and her friends babysat me as my mom ran around campus getting the proper forms filled out and returning textbooks. My aunt’s friends were very nice, from what I can remember, and were named Sherrie and Karen. To my drugged out self, they looked exactly alike. They slipped in and out of the room like soft shiny dolls, bringing me chocolates I couldn’t eat and telling me stories I couldn’t focus on. I called them both Sherkaren.

Snatching at butterflies that aren’t there while my mom quizzes the doctors on the effects of percocet.

My mom can no longer eat double-stuffed oreos. While I was in the hospital, I seemed to be constantly surrounded by an army of food trays. I couldn’t eat any of it. I threw up everything I tried to digest, and there was an air bubble formed by the impact of my fall that made swallowing very painful. I don’t really remember the details of it, I just remember throwing up. A lot. So I was very excited when my mom brought a pack of double-stuffed oreos to my room and I was able to eat one. I waited for the nausea, but it didn’t come. I was ravenous. It had been about four days since I had actually digested anything, and I inhaled the oreos. I ate an entire sleeve before I felt it. The nausea. I groped for my barf bucket and threw my face into it just in time. Pure double-stuffed oreo. It looked like a double oreo milkshake, and smelled like one too. My mom threw away the rest of the oreos, never to buy them again.

All I wanted was a shower. No matter how much pain. I tried to use the handicap shower chair, but I didn’t do it right. The bathroom flooded, and I cried.

One afternoon I was more alert than usual. And once again, I had to pee. This time I was determined to pee one hundred percent under my own command. My pee seat was only a few inches away! I could do this! I was feeling confident and independent; I was on my way to recovery! Onward! I sat up and immediately threw up, then passed out.

The bruise was huge. Where I hit. It scared me.

The pain was there always. I was on morphine, percocet, and oxycodone and still the pain was there. Comfort was an impossible luxury, and most of my time awake was spent adjusting pillows and rolls of blanket. As much pain as I was in, I savored those rare moments of alertness. Just to be there with the world. Even with the pain.

It stung when I cried because of the cuts encircling my right eye. I joked to everyone that I was going to have an awesome Mike Tyson scar. But it stung when I cried.

I hate jello. I absolutely hate it. Nothing edible should jiggle like that. One morning I woke up and seemed to be surrounded by cups of the stuff. There were only about two cups on the food trays, but I was delusional. To me there were thousands. Small shiny pillars in a rainbow of colors, quivering threateningly at me. They commanded the room, seemed to consume it. I was trapped. When the nurse ran in to answer my call button, I was passed out. A small mound of jello lay shuddering in a heap on the floor, the plastic container rolling gently towards the bedside lamp.

My moon boots were meant to increase my circulation so that I wouldn’t get a blood clot. They came with a medical name and a medical explanation. I pretended I was an astronaut.

Blood thinner shots are just awful. I needed them so that my blood wouldn’t clot from my fall, but I still hated them. I had them twice a day, and they had to be administered in my abdomen, right below my belly button. And they hurt. I would squeeze my mom’s hand and look at her so I wouldn’t have to look at the needle. But then she would look at the needle and have this expression of pure horror, so looking at her didn’t really help. The shots left a huge dark tender bruise behind and made me feel like throwing up. Which I did, every time.

My mom is a warrior. When I called her from the hospital that second day, she immediately made a flight to Flagstaff. She likes to joke that that phone call was the worst and best phone call of her life. My mom was a school administrator at the time, and apparently the phone call had gotten her out of a miserable meeting with a parent. She has taught special education for twenty-five years now. You have to be a certain kind of person for this job. You have to be patient and understanding, but also assertive and straightforward. This is my mom. These qualities came in handy during my hospital stay, and during the rest of my recovery at home. She was the one who handled all my physical therapy appointments, got everything out of the doctors there was to be got, and marched all through campus doing everything necessary for a smooth withdrawal process. But a smooth withdrawal process is still a process. There were papers to be signed, faxes to be faxed, documents to be collected, and offices to be waited outside of. And everyone has a breaking point. My mom was in the campus Starbucks getting a much-needed coffee when the friendly barista looked up at her and chirped, “hello! How are you doing today?”. Such a simple question, but one that carries so much weight. And my mom had reached her breaking point. Students in line craned their necks at the woman up front crying into her espresso. This happened outside the student bookstore, getting lost in the Union, and in the waiting area of the transcript office. Though she probably didn’t think so at the time, this was a good step in her own recovery. She needed to cry. She needed to start grieving.

It was snowing in Flagstaff when I was finally discharged from the hospital. The soft flakes made everything more difficult, but I was glad for the snow. It was beautiful. It was like the mountains were saying goodbye.

 

You would think that going through the airport in a wheelchair would be easier. It’s not. They make you walk through the scanner. Walk. People are awfully impatient at the airport, especially in the security line. They grumble about having to move for a wheelchair, they grumble about me getting to go to the front of the short line, they grumble about having to wait as a TSA agent drags me through the scanner as I wince in pain. Grumble grumble grumble. The takeoff and landing were the worst parts of the flight. I’m just glad I didn’t throw up. My moms new husband, Rafe, picked us up at the airport along with Ava, our mini aussie shepherd. My mom and Rafe had gotten married only a few months earlier, and I felt guilty for intruding on their newlywed life. But Rafe was more than caring, and had built ramps all throughout the house so that I could wheel around in my chair more easily. He had even decorated and painted my new room to look exactly like my old one in the town I grew up in. He and my mom put their best efforts into making me feel at home in a strange city. But I didn’t know anyone in San Jose, and couldn’t exactly go anywhere on my own. I felt alone, and I felt like a burden.

I was bored. I was still on percocet, oxycodone, and Ibuprofen 800, so I was pretty spacy. Luckily, my physical therapy exercises required little brainpower. So that’s what I did. I wasn’t supposed to be doing pt exercises outside of the pt office, but I really just had nothing else to do. And I so badly wanted to climb again. Hell, I just wanted to walk again. I just wanted to be able to stand up and reach something on a shelf. Like my favorite tea. And a mug. Basically, I just wanted to make a damn cup of tea under my own power. It’s good to have goals.

At night, I dreamt of falling. I woke in a frenzied panic almost every night, sweating and breathing heavily. I became an insomniac, for fear of my dreams. I slept in small increments during the day, or not at all. I used my extra nighttime hours to continue with my pt exercises, to read, and to draw. My love for art blossomed during this time, and I often stayed up late into the night to finish a piece. I would wake up with my heads on sheets of paper instead of cotton, markers and pens sprawled over the bedspread. My art took my mind off of falling, and I slept a little more peacefully after a night of drawing.

One morning I woke up with a sore throat. I didn’t think much of it as I drank a cup of warm honeyed milk, assuming that would do the trick. It didn’t. As I wheeled around that day, I didn’t do many pt exercises. My throat was killing me. Eventually my tonsils had swollen so much that I was having trouble breathing, and I called my mom. I ended up having an emergency tonsillectomy that night. Once again I woke up in the hospital, cheeks bulging and in a fog of pain and drugs. I was so sick of this. Lucky for me, I already had a wheelchair to leave the hospital in. When we got home, I felt sick. Anesthesia does that to me. I’ve always felt nauseous after a surgery, but this time it was different. Something wasn’t right. I wheeled over to the toilet just in time to throw up. By seven that night, I had thrown up twenty-six more times. It got to the point where I couldn’t even drink water without throwing up, and I was throwing up the lining of my stomach. I grew incredibly weak and couldn’t even lift my head. All the throwing up had made my body dangerously dehydrated. Once again, it was back to the hospital. I don’t remember the ride over, but I do remember sitting slumped in my wheelchair in the ER watching the Little Mermaid on their TV. So much water. I was so thirsty. I sat there in my chair and glared at Ariel. She didn’t know how good she had it. Finally I was brought into a room where I was assessed and given four bags of IV fluids to rehydrate my body. I was also given anti-nausea pills and a sticker of a frog giving me the thumbs up. I think they thought I was twelve or something; I had lost a decent bit of weight since my accident. Or maybe they thought that because I was in a wheelchair I was mentally disabled as well.

 

It was interesting to me how differently I was treated in my wheelchair. It was pretty black and white. People either were way over the top with sympathy and helping me (I can blow my own nose, thanks though), or they completely ignored me and almost seemed to go out of their way to act like I didn’t exist. Two contrasting examples that come to mind both happened at the mall. The mall in San Jose is massive, has a ton of stores and, best of all, tile floors that I could roll around on easily. Many days after my mom got off work we would drive the five minutes to the mall so that I could get out of the house and be around people. One day we were grabbing some food from the food court and I was wheeling around searching for an open table while my mom ordered. To my delight, I found an actual handicap table with no chairs specifically for wheelchairs. An older man had pulled up a chair to it and was eating a burger. “Excuse me”, I said, about to ask him if he would mind sharing the table. It was a large table, easily seating six, and my mom and I were happy to share in the crowded food court. The man looked up at me and jumped sideways about three feet. “Oh!” he gasped, “I’m so so sorry! I’ll move! I’m so sorry!” “Hey it’s fine, you can sit-” I started, but he was not having it. “No no no! I’m so sorry! So sorry!”. I thought the guy was going to start crying at any second. Amid my protests that he was welcome to join and didn’t have to move, he ended up buying our food, getting us napkins, and offering to actually play caretaker while I ate- holding a napkin under my chin, holding my bowl of thai noodles up to my face. It got pretty annoying. He eventually left after apologizing a couple hundred more times. I knew his heart was in the right place, and that he was only trying to be kind. But it didn’t feel like kindness. It felt humiliating. He hadn’t bothered to ask why I was in a wheelchair, and just assumed I was born wrong or had a disease. He also talked to me like I was an infant, and I’m sure he thought I was mentally incapacitated as well. He made me feel weak. I already knew I was helpless, I didn’t need it to be on such vivid display. I was a person, not some pathetic shriveled animal.

The second incident actually happened just outside the mall. It was a busy Friday, and the parking lots were packed. Even the handicap spots we relied on were full, some with unmarked cars with no handicap placard. Finally, we drove around to the bank that was in the same lot as the mall. The bank and the mall share the same lot, and it’s difficult to tell who’s spaces were whose. To be safe, we parked in the spot closest to the mall and furthest from the bank, even though all of the bank’s spots were empty. Now was the fun part. Getting out of the car, wrestling out and setting up my wheelchair and pillows, and actually sitting in the chair was a whole process in itself. In the middle of this process, as my mom was wrangling with the wheelchair and I was slowly using my hands to move my legs to the side, a hulking man in a bright yellow traffic vest marched up to us. “You here for the bank?” he barked at us. “Oh, no, we’re going to the mall. All the handicap spots were full” my mom explained, smiling up at him, wheelchair in hand. “Can’t park here” the man said gruffly. “Oh but…. there’s no other parking and no one is parked here, we just thought-” “Well, you thought wrong. Can’t park here.” My mom looked around at the huge empty lot around her and sighed exasperatedly. It wasn’t easily getting out and setting up the wheelchair on her own, and now she had to put it all back. Meanwhile I was gingerly moving my legs by hand, inch by inch, back into the car. “Look lady, you’ve gotta move. Now”. I peered up at the man, loathing him for speaking to my mom like that. “We’re going”. My mom tried to sound nonchalant, but her voice cracked and a single tear slipped off the tip of her nose. “Hey how about helping my mom with my wheelchair?” I asked, infuriated. “I’m on the clock. Not my job.” As he turned on his heel and stomped off, I thought grimly about how lucky he was that I wasn’t exactly at my full physical peak. “Man, if I could move better I woulda clocked him one right in the-“ I stopped as I noticed my mom leaning against the car, face in her hands. She sighed one long shuddering sigh, ran her fingers through her hair, and went back to loading up my chair with red-rimmed eyes.

It wasn’t always bad. Eventually I got sick of people staring but not asking what happened, and I made a sign for my chair that said “don’t fall off cliffs”. The sign actually helped a lot, and more people started coming up to me and asking what the story was, or saying “haha yeah, whaddya do that for?”. Another thing that got me plenty of stares was my back brace, which looked like a giant plastic corset. So I printed out a photo of Scar from my favorite Disney movie, The Lion King, and typed one of Scar’s lines from the movie underneath the photo: “Forgive me for not leaping for joy, bad back you know”. I figured that if I showed people that I didn’t take things too seriously, they wouldn’t feel the need to walk on eggshells around me. And it worked. I got a little bored with telling my story over and over, but it was much better than being stared at all the time. People opened doors for me, got things off high shelves when they saw me reaching, and let me go to the front of lines. I savored these moments, knowing another bank parking attendant could be right around the corner. People are generally kind, and when you’re in a wheelchair you don’t get to be picky about what sort of kindness you receive. The man from the handicap table was sincerely just trying to be nice and sensitive, and I’m grateful for his efforts. I learned to swallow any damaged pride or offense I took, knowing that people’s hearts were in the right place. I figured that if I smiled and said thank you, they were more likely to continue trying to do kind things. And the world could always use a little more kindness.

 

Fast forward four months. I’m sitting in my chair in my room facing the window and staring at my toes. The house is empty. I grip the black arm rests of my wheelchair. My fingernails dig into the shiny cushy plastic, then relax. My right hand slides down the side of my chair and brushes the small brake lever. Decisively, I thrust the brake down and slap my right hand back onto the armrest. In the words of Rafiki telling Simba to take back his kingdom, “it is time!”. At first it is only my arms doing the work. I push myself up as though I am about to do a dip. This is my pride rock. Legs trembling, I slowly transfer my weight onto my feet. Thunder booms. As I slowly straighten my knees, the rain begins. It starts as a light shower, then billows into a crescendo of fattened droplets as I throw my right hand out and clutch the windowsill. Lionesses roar their approval as my left hand joins my right. My knees straighten, and I look up. The rivulets of drops flowing down the glass are like the heaving stripes of a zebra, exhausted and triumphant. I straighten my spine to the yips of the banished hyena. The rain pounds like an African mother drum. My hands slowly slide off the window sill. The shadow of the rain is like warpaint on them. My palms leave first, and lightening strikes. Small fires appear as my fingers slide away to the stomping of elephants and the screams of baboons. I lift my neck and everything fades. The sky clears. I am standing. The savannah is greening and growing. This is my kingdom.

 

Fast forward two months. The curb is my enemy. I glare at it. Everything seemed to come pretty quickly after I stood for the first time. My legs couldn’t seem to be convinced to move on their own, so I used crutches to swing my legs forward one at a time to remind them of how the whole “walking” thing worked. Stand, swing, swing, stand. This was how I got around the house for the first month after I stood. It wasn’t exactly efficient, but I was just glad to not be sitting down. One day I leaned forward on my crutches, intent on not swinging my leg forward. This time my leg would move without the use of momentum. My muscles protested, and my pelvis ached, but my foot slowly shuffled forward. Grinning like an idiot, I slowly shuffled my way into the kitchen. I reached up into a cabinet and gently brought out a box of Numi jasmine green tea, my favorite. Careful not to lose my balance, I put on some water, plopped a tea bag into my favorite spiderman mug along with a spoonful of sugar, and made some tea. It was the best cup of tea I’ve ever had. I stall as I think about that cup of tea. The curb isn’t going anywhere. I won’t be getting much climbing done if I can’t step down and back up again. I sigh and squint up at the glaring sun. I shuffle to the edge of the curb, and slowly bend my left knee. My right leg shoots out, and goes over the edge. Too hard and too fast, it meets the asphalt of the street. Pain lancing up my leg and into my pelvis, where it shoots around like a bouncy ball thrown into a dead-end cave. I wince, and tears come to my eyes. I wait for the pain to fade until only a dull ache remains. My left foot comes down much easier. I shuffle around to face the curb. Now back up. It might as well be Everest. I groan, indulging for a second in self-pity. If I squint, I can see a plate of cookies on the kitchen counter through the window. I want a cookie. If I can’t get up this curb, I’m as good as stranded. With no cookie. I slide my right foot forward until it’s touching the curb, then drag my toe up the curb until it crests the edge. I rock my right foot down until it’s flat on the sidewalk. Now the hard part. I shuffle my left foot until my toe is touching the curb. In a burst of pain, I arch my left foot until I am on my toe. I rock back and forth gently and a bead of sweat rolls down my spine. When I have built some momentum, I push off of my left toe and drag it up the curb. My right hip flares in protest, but both feet are now on the sidewalk. The whole process had taken about ten minutes. I am now in pain and exhausted, but triumphant. I eat not one cookie, but three.

 

Fast forward one month. I am at the top of a forty-foot synthetic climbing wall, and I am terrified. And I feel like an idiot. After mastering the curb, I had convinced my mom to take me to Planet Granite, the local climbing gym. After swaddling up my pelvis and adjusting my soft back brace, I excitedly selected my first post-accident climb. It didn’t even have a rating, just the label “5.fun” with a quirky doodle of a caterpillar underneath. The holds were giant, and climbing it was like climbing a ladder with extra rungs. It took me over an hour to get to the top. And now, I didn’t want to come back down. It wasn’t stubbornness, it wasn’t the pain of the harness. It was fear.  Pure, freshly mined fear. The last time I let go, the last time I trusted, I fell. If betrayal by rock, why not betrayal by rope? Or harness? Or structural integrity of gym? I may have been ready to try to climb again, but I was not ready to trust again. I was realizing this too late. My face was ghost-white as I finally pried my fingers from the plastic holds and sank back into my harness. My mom lowered me slowly, sensing my panic. I trembled as I touched down, and there were tears in my eyes, but I was pleased. I had done it. I had trusted. And it had taken over an hour, but I had gone up. I had gone up, trusted, and come back down. Of all the things I knew I needed to overcome in order to climb again, it wasn’t the physical obstacles that worried me. I knew that I could push myself physically as much as I needed. But getting over that fear would truly be a test. I was relieved to have passed that test. I felt cleansed and renewed, almost reborn. This was truly the start of something. The floodgates were officially open.

 

The Fall

Prologue:  On a crisp fall evening my friend Dillon and I packed up our climbing gear and drove 10 minutes to the closest climbing area, the Pit. When we arrived, it was too dark to climb, so after hiking the half mile in we left our gear under an overhang and hiked along the cliffs wearing our headlamps. We took a trail to the top of the cliffs and walked along the edge, far enough back to be safe. As we neared the area directly above where we had left our gear, I walked onto a rock wedged into the ground. I stood looking at the view, and as I turned to Dillon to exclaim that I had found the big dipper, the rock dislodged, and my words were lost.

As I was falling in darkness with the stars swirling sickeningly over my head, I did not have any big thoughts. I did not think, “I am going to die” or, “now my atoms return to the cosmos” I thought, “I am falling. I am still falling”. As I started to wonder what my injuries would consist of, I hit. I have hit before, falling off a fence or out of a tree. This was different. This was not a ‘bonk, ow!”, this was a WHAM. I hit that rock harder than a boxer hits his opponent in the championship round. Time slowed. I felt my hip swell and stiffen; I felt my innards fly up as my bones smashed down. I tasted dirt-flecked blood and noted a narrowly avoided cactus. As time resumed its normal speed, I realized that I was sliding off the ledge that had prevented my probable death. It was if I would never be still and would always be falling, trapped on vertical ground. I scrambled, swimming in an avalanche of dirt and rocks. Finally, my desperate searching hands found a small resiliant shrub. I was still, the dirt warm beneath me. Time stopped. Shock slowly took hold and, after an eerily silent fall, I screamed, the sound of my terror echoing through the Pit. The half-second of silence afterward horrified me, and I screamed again. After what seemed like decades but was only milliseconds, I heard an answering cry; “Alyse! Don’t move, I’m coming!” Dillon shouted as he climbed down the cliff face to where I lay precariously close to the edge. I waited like a cat ready to pounce, afraid to breathe or even blink. As I pictured falling off the ledge in a landslide caused by the relentless tremors of my shocked body, a strong hand clamped down on my arm, pulling me to the relative safety of the firm ground near the cliff face.

When you have just fallen off a cliff and you are in excruciating pain unable to move, you are struggling to breathe,and you are on a ledge on the middle of a cliff face with one other person in the dark, you do not feel sorry for yourself. You do not sit and cry, or hold your boo-boo and say, “ow look what happened!” It is strictly business. Your instincts kick in, your senses heighten, and your life in that moment is simply a matter of survival. In my own world of pain, I was aware of everything. I felt the dirt stuck to the roof of my mouth and the copper taste of the blood dripping steadily from my nose. My right hip was as bulging and stiff as the rock it had hit, and my groin muscles protested every move. I noticed that my left shoe had fallen off, and the dirt felt unbearably soft through the thin cotton of my sock. I felt myself fading, and would have passed out if Dillon hadn’t grabbed my shoulders, looked me dead in the eye, and told me that I needed to stay awake. I heard the catch in his voice and knew it was fear and felt a moment of guilt for putting it there. His wide unblinking eyes followed as I struggled up and out of the dark abyss of pain and shock. After a few seconds that felt like hours, I broke through the surface and took a gasping breathe of cold, crisp air. “You need to stay awake. Keep talking to me. Are you awake?” Dillon’s voice was businesslike and questioning, like it was a matter of propriety, but his eyes were frantic and wide, like he had just witnessed a horror beyond belief. As we looked at each other, the pure fact of what had just happened fled, and we shared a single thought: we have to get out of here.

We knew we were above a climb we had done previously, and, sure enough, the anchors to that climb were about twelve feet to our right. And our climbing gear was 40 feet directly below us. At the time, I didn’t think about the risk of Dillon down-climbing a 5.9 in the dark with no protection whatsoever, it was just something that had to be done. And he didn’t hesitate to get going. After making sure I was in a comfortable position and one in which I wouldn’t fall out of, he traversed to the anchors and started down, the beam of his headlamp swinging over the rock face. As he climbed down and retrieved the gear, he yelled up at me constantly, asking if I was awake and ok. I yelled back yes’s and I’m fine’s, almost annoyed with him for his interruptions of my perilous trance-like state. I lay on the soft dirt, glaring at a rock as if I could will it into being something more useful. I watched, fascinated, as my blood spattered bright red on sandy grey stone. A single thought raced through my mind like a broken record: this wasn’t supposed to happen. I heard a twig snap and jolted out of my reverie to see Dillon inching forward, a harness on and a rope through the anchors behind him. The clinking of carabiners brought me back to the present, and to what we still had to do. Sitting on the rock, Dillon eased me into my harness, moving my legs as carefully and tenderly as possible, lifting me up like a sack of rice to finally get it all the way on and tightened. I took one look at what I had to traverse across to get to the anchors and balked. “I can’t do it. I can’t walk across that”, I whispered shakily as fear and hopelessness started to creep up on me. Looking at me in a way that said I really had no choice, Dillon said, “no, you can do it, I'll carry you. We have to get down”. I nodded, resigning myself to the impending pain. Carrying me like a groom carries a bride into a honeymoon suite, he edged his way across the small rocky ledge to the anchors as I pleaded with him to be careful and not to fall. I was petrified that he would trip or that another rock would dislodge, and we would plummet down the rest of the way into the void just inches to our left. When we finally got to the anchors, I realized that I preferred traversing the ledge to being lowered down into the darkness. I pictured my swollen right hip and ankle banging against the rock as I spun, dangling from the rope. It took a few deep breaths and some coaxing from Dillon, but finally I was able to letoff the ledge and let myself go limp against the rock. Dillon lowered me inch by inch, still checking in every minute to see how I was doing. I focused on the task at hand, using my arms to push myself away from the wall so I wouldn’t bump anything. Every time I looked down to see how much further I had to go, past the grotesque sight of my swollen, disfigured hip, it seemed as if I was no closer to the ground then before. So I was unprepared when I finally touched down, sinking slowly into a fetal position, wishing I could just go home and make a pot of tea. I yelled up that I was at the bottom and untied so Dillon could rappel down. I tried making myself comfortable on the rock, but the pain made comfort an impossible luxury. A second later, I saw Dillon’s feet dangling above my head and let out a bleat like a dying sheep so he would see me and not drop down on me. As soon as his feet hit the ground, it was back to business.

Complaining and whining gets you absolutely nowhere. I was doing my best to ignore my pain and assist Dillon in any way I could, but I couldn’t help letting out an occasional whimper. After hiding our gear in a bush, Dillon picked me up again and carefully started down the rocks to get to the actual trail. In order to get up this, you had to half climb, so getting down was a bumpy, terrifying ride. I was amazed that Dillon didn’t lose his balance or his grip on me. He was like a machine, and right now this was what he was programmed to do. Once we were down, I thought the hard part was over, and all we had to do was hike. I was wrong. Dillon’s adrenaline rush had come and gone, and it was getting colder. The trail ahead was dark and foreboding, and I remembered in dismay the unforgiving uphill rocky terrain. Panic threatened to overcome my composure. My eyes darted over my surroundings, my breathing came out as gasps, and my tremors worsened. “We…we’re not going to make it!” I stuttered. Once again, Dillon grabbed my shoulders and looked me dead in the eye. “No. We can do this. I’ll carry you, we’ll rest every now and then; we will get out. You’re going to be ok, I promise”. Determination drenched his words, so much that I started to believe him. We were going to make it out.

At first Dillon carried me as he had before, stopping to rest only every 100 feet or so. As I spaced out in his arms, I pictured me trying to do what he was doing; the thought of trying to even lift him was comic. I quickly banished that thought. I did not want to think of what it would’ve been like if our roles were reversed. Everything was in patterns. Tree, rock, tree, rock, bump around, rest, bump around, rest, despair, confidence, despair, confidence, grit teeth in silence, whimper, grit teeth in silence…. the patterns were occasionally broken by a stumble or an attempt to rig our harnesses together using carabiners and a sling to make it easier for Dillon to carry me. Eventually we figured out that the easiest method consisted of Dillon carrying me over his shoulder sack ‘o’ potatoes style. It was uncomfortable, but I focused on my breathing and the hypnotic swinging of the sling on Dillon’s harness, nicely complimenting the “swish, swish” sound his pants made as he walked. In this way, Dillon was able to walk further with fewer rests, while I clung to him like a baby monkey or a strange, whimpering growth of some sort. When I occasionally looked around, I saw nothing to get excited about. It was the same trees, the same rocks, nothing that looked familiar or told me we were close. So when I saw the switchback that marked three-fourths of the way, relief flooded into me like a hot bath after a day on the arctic tundra. I hate switchbacks when I'm mountain biking, but at that moment that sharp turn was the love of my life. “The switchback! We’re going to make it! Hey Dillon, it’s the switchback!” I exclaimed uselessly. Dillon didn’t answer, just nodded and pushed on. I settled down against his straining back, filled with a new optimism. Now all I had to do was hang on.

Although my tremors were still violently wracking through me, and the pain was a constant reminder that I couldn’t just go back to my dorm and fall asleep, I was filled with hope. Now I scanned the trail, finding familiar areas that brought us, step by step, to the end of the trail. The trees thinned, the ground leveled out. We were at the flat, easy stretch of trail leading to the parking lot, and I was almost passed out from relief, Dillon from exhaustion. I began to yearn for the reclined, low-riding seat of Dillon’s car. As we neared the end of the trail, Dillon lay me down on the ground so that he could run and get the car and I wouldn’t be jostled and jarred more than necessary. He told me to keep my head up so that the beam of my headlamp would tell him about any change in my position. I nodded dumbly; amazed that he could think of things like that after everything we had just gone through. He ran off, and once again I watched my blood drip onto the dirt and pine needles, like an enthusiastic moviegoer returning to the theatre for a second showing. I stared intently at the grass as if the long stalks were prying neighbors. I felt invaded and on the spot. The slender blades bent toward me, whispering secrets in the wind. They were talking about me; I knew it. I stared down the longest blade, the king of blades. If I moved, they would see me. If I looked away, they had me. I crouched and stared. I couldn’t breathe. The warm, welcome rumble of a car engine shattered my delirium. I turned gratefully and Dillon helped me into the car, laying me on my side as I reveled in the man-made features of this safe and sure transportation device. My pain was beyond measure, my tremors seemed bone shattering, and it was still a 15-minute drive to the hospital. But I was safe. And as Dillon slowly peeled out of the lot, we left all the terror of the night in the gravel and dust behind us.

When we arrived at the hospital, Dillon yelled for a stretcher. They wheeled me in, asking me for information as I gripped the side of the stretcher and held on to Dillon’s hand for dear life. After receiving ten doses of morphine and being put on oxygen, my tremors finally ceased. My pain lessened, and I was as coherent as a two year old. X-rays and CT scans were taken, all a blur of white sheets and metal instruments to me. The results came later, informing me that I had a shattered pelvis, a snapped tailbone, a fractured ankle, broken ribs, two fractured vertebrae, a partially collapsed lung, a smashed kidney, a sprained neck and multiple bruises and lacerations. I was lucky. I spent three days in intensive care and over two weeks in the hospital, only taken off oxygen only three days before I was discharged. I ended up having to withdraw from my first semester of college, which I had only completed two weeks of before my fall. When the doctor told me I would likely never walk again, I burst into tears. I had been at the peak of my climbing and had competed nationally for the past eight years. Now I couldn’t even wiggle my toes. I had to go home to recover, and when I got home I set a goal for myself. Six months. Those six months were absolute hell. I had nightmares every night about falling and turned into an insomniac, for fear of my dreams. I was in pain constantly and hated how dopey the painkillers made me. I pushed myself every day in and out of physical therapy, using all my free time to just try to wiggle one toe. Those six months were a waking nightmare, but I did it. At five months and a week, I stood. Three weeks later I was dragging myself around on crutches. I practiced walking around just outside my house, looking very much like a confused elderly person. It took me five minutes just to step off the curb. The following week, I went to my local climbing gym and did the easiest climb there. It didn’t even have a grade, just the label “5.fun”. It took me over an hour. I had never been more proud of myself in my life.

This September, on the 19th, will be exactly 6 years since my fall. You can come find me at the local climbing gym or even at the Pit, climbing harder than before, getting stronger everyday, and occasionally kneading a rib back into place. People ask me all the time why on earth I still climb. I tell them because I need to. It’s what I do. Climbing has pushed me away from the wheelchair and towards adventure, and I don't plan on pushing back any time soon.

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