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.