Milton had overgrowth knots, the greasy kind, matting his beard to his wooly secondhand pullover, which sagged without shape over his sulking frame. As he sat in the passenger seat beside me, looking a bit like Schulz’s Pig-Pen, I almost admired it. His was a special form of dereliction. Speckled as much by bourbon as by the morning-after coffee stains, Milton’s drool spatter ticked a trail from the apparent hole in his mouth to the cause of all his woes—his bleeding heart. Something was broken in there. You could see it, especially if you had the same condition. Under his ocean eyes and that unkempt face, pain swirled. Where exactly the facial hair ended and his unlaundered threads began was anyone’s guess and, by all appearances, without clear fixture. Much like the overcast haze of winter in the desert, Milton lived in a gray space. By the wrinkles on his face and the guilt on his shoulders, it looked like a lifetime. By his count, acute onset had been about thirty days.
“I’ve been out for over a month now,” he blurted without any sense of accomplishment. Not knowing if he was referring to his time in the wilderness or time out of the joint, I simply nodded.
Tony Tete Harbor and the Star Heaters of Nigeria sang to us from the CD player, with their brass and ageless loneliness, underneath the beginnings of Milton’s confessional. Sputtering in four old cylinders, we shared cabin space in my pickup truck out past the Quail Springs pullout and down toward the Joshua Tree National Park entrance.
By Lucas Roman, from the new Zine: Volume 20, now available
Banner photo of Callum Coldwell-Storry by Neil Chelton
“I don’t know,” he started faintly. “It all happened so fast. And I miss her, a lot.”
I turned the speakers down out of consideration but still had no idea what he was referring to.
“I mean, I thought she was older, you know? She told me she was older. And, shit.” He finished in deflation. “Guess I just had to get out of town for things to cool off a bit.”
Now, I’d met Milton only a few days prior, well, two weeks actually. But, you know, time wraps in the desert like telomeres. Only thing I really knew about him, at that point, was that the town he got out of for his cooldown was three states away. So, consider how hot the flame. Point is, Milton was still a stranger to most of us. Hell, he wasn’t even a climber. He’d hitched into the Hidden Valley Campground a few weeks ago, grabbing a whole campsite to himself, and had made it a habit to spend each afternoon walking the desert, watching climbers break down in the face of runouts.
Out there, under twilight, light beams and the long view can conjure dream scenes in any man’s mind. But I knew, firsthand, that out on the line—nose to monzo-crystals—Joshua Tree gave less of dreams as it gave of despair. Some of the loneliest moments of the human experience lay out on those faces—fashioned between two sets of rusted buttonhead bolts on Leeper hangers and the ungodly expanse of space between them. Out there, spirits broke. But every now and then, they were also born. That’s where Milton wanted to be most: born. Strange as his condition was, that kind of real estate—his single campsite—in the middle of November was highly coveted for kids of the rock tribe. I guess that’s how we got entwined in the first place.
Breaking the silence, Milton changed subject and tone completely. “You know what,” he said suddenly, “I think you climbers really get something about life.”
“Oh yeah?” I baited. “What’s that?”
“You guys feel pain,” he said.
A firm declaration, I thought, and not far from the truth either. Putting it in neutral as we passed the entrance gate—a trick I used to milk a free ride for the next three miles, all the way to the Valero station at Park Boulevard—I thought about the ghost of girlfriends past. She had been right there, in Milton’s seat, riding passenger, that time one year prior. I thought about that plea for marriage, the life she had lined up for us, all the rosy bits that make up rom coms and lives of fulfillment. Somehow, that version, whatever it stood for, was pure dishonesty, and I knew it. We drove all the way from my place to Burbank in the rain, just after Christmas, the last time she rode in Milton’s seat. I dropped her off and never looked back. Broken hearted, I told her not to wait. Said something about needing to find myself and not knowing why but just knowing all the same.
Milton interrupted my train of thought.
“Well, you either like it, or you’re running from it somewhere else by spending all your time up on those dangerous faces, or you just know it’s the secret to something. But you guys make it a habit. I dig that.”
It was the first time he’d shown a side of himself that wasn’t glazed over in the kind of stare you give the bottom of a pint glass before noon. A departure from his usual apathy and uncanny quietude, no doubt. I still didn’t know exactly where he was in life, what circumstance he was coming in from, which was probably a reflection of my own aimlessness. But I knew he liked climbers, and for whatever reason, apart from that sulk of his, there was comfort about him. We parked the car at the phone booth, at the first intersection of town, north side of Highway 62 and Park Boulevard, beside the tiny version of a town library and next door to Mel Benson’s decrepit, old real estate building.
“You don’t mind hanging out for a bit?” he asked.
Avoiding eye contact, I nodded in a no-problemo face, allowing him to make all the calls he needed. Calls that, for their private nature, could’ve been to the sheriff, his priest, or that poor girl, whoever she was. Milton stepped out, toying with the quarters in his pocket as he picked up the phone and looked over his shoulder, guarded, and then dialed one of the aforementioned by muscle memory. I rolled up the window to give him his space. Letting a long exhale sputter as I leaned back against the headrest, I was suddenly reminded of the hangover that got me there.
Truth is, I needed that drive out of the park as much as Milton did. I couldn’t climb if I wanted to, and mostly, I didn’t want to. Not in that state. Neither could Callum, Neil, Eoin, or the rest of the International Crag Party.
The International Crag Party? Well, it was a self-titled band, after all. Sparked to life by the biggest campfire this side of the Continental Divide, three weeks prior on election night out at site #2 of the Bridger Jack campground, the Crag Party was founded above the slants of mere Democrat or Republican. This was no political revolution. When Jerusalem was under the hand of Caesar, did God send an emissary? Pass a new tax law? Or show the meek that the kingdom was already at hand? They killed him for suggesting that the task of the Messiah was spiritual deliverance, rather than political, but that deliverance was exactly the ethos we burned for. Whatever the cost.
The Crag Party was created to hold us accountable to something bigger. A name and a cause, to be employed and invoked solely for the next act of heroism, which as it turned out, looked a lot like hedonism.
Still, it was an election year and a historic one at that. Just the right time for a gang of kids to rally around a big idea like change or, even more audaciously, hope itself. Coming from all parts of the globe, by hook and crook, an unlikely hand of cards played out over three weeks in the Five Tribe’s Ancient Land, where, under the charade of great ideologies and even greater chemical influence, we came together climbing varnished walls and looking for God, as we understood her. The Brazilians, the Irish, the Brits, a few Spaniards, a half Palestinian, and a pocho Mexicano with a proclivity for Afrobeat and the aptly named soul outfits of the seventies. It was love at first sight, and we all fell hard.
The Crag Party was going to be a revolution. An epiphany, a strike point, a promise: the revolution would be all that those failed relationships were not. I was not, after all, the only one let down by something in the land of wayward hearts. It was in all of us—damaged by women, by men, by lovers and love lost, by institutions, by force of hard knocks, and by the weavings of our own karma. Not just First World shit either. There was darkness, in every form, surrounding all of us. There was pain for real things, and we all had real reasons, just like Milton did.
But the Crag Party emphasized its noun more than its adjective, which led, to nobody’s surprise, to something of a wasteland. Revolution, it turns out, is to ruination near allied. If we’re honest, for many in that campground, it all started in September, and now, three months on, some patterns had emerged. Some promises had not been fulfilled, and vice won out on more days than not. It started out unnoticeably enough. Liquor receipts, which just happened to be longer than our tick lists, served as page markers in the guidebook. Crash pads were slept on more than they were crashed on. Hard to tell where the enlightened parts of the lifestyle fell slave to the libidinous.
Often, just when you were sure that you’d crossed that line—when you awoke in the middle of the night and stumbled, still drunk, out of your tent to shake out a piss, for what had become a consecutive number of nights you could no longer count just then—the Spirit would pull you back. Always at the precipice, when hope dwindled and you swore the play was written all wrong, it came. Just as you stared at your own puddle of urine on the ground, momentarily pooling on the desert sand, lit by moonlight and the earliest embers of dawn, and you thought you were completely lost in life, the coyotes would triangulate, beginning with a single chilling, lonesome howl. One pure falsetto, precisely through your heart, which quickly harmonized in full octaves and traversed the Milky Way with the same 2.2-second reverberation split as they hallow in the Concertgebouw. The entire wolf pack, in full stereo, pitch perfect echoes bouncing off canyon walls. Just, like, so. The goddamn heavens come manifest. Right then, with full symphony and more stars than cells in your biome, you understood the face of God in that exact, moonlit dawn-colored urine sample you had just mistaken for the low point of your life. How could you ever think to betray the events that got you precisely where you were?
As mentioned, and just like Milton, it was a gray space.
As we got back to camp an hour later, sun poured into the Hidden Valley and fell over slumbered faces. Except for Dan and Jo. They, the eldest and least reckless among us, were already splayed with breakfast and guidebooks in hand. Happy, healthy, rested, they’d somehow unlocked the mystery to it all, but then again, they also had more practice. Dan and Jo were on the tail end of a sixteen-month road trip, the likes of all latitudes and times zones. With a humble beginning at home in the Lake District of England, they’d managed to hit every continental land mass and decent coastal outcrop in their extended honeymoon, save for the Antarctic. Dan and Jo still glowed after all those miles, especially in contrast to the rest of us.
Neil, the perpetual itinerant, who I’d later make a habit of visiting at whichever place he called home, woke up first, wincing at a new day to which he gave little welcome. Callum, Neil’s platonic better half, came next, scratching out the cobwebs from his shaggy mane. Callum would later take that mane of his on a successful bid up the Salathe, all free, a handful of years down the path, but you would not have guessed it right then. Scratching his balls and scowling at daylight did not, at that point, seem foretelling to such great heights.
With Damien, Eoin, and Mary—the Irish—Borja and his partner Ivan—the Spaniards—also coming to, camp rose with all the might of unleavened bread. There was also our friend Kyle, from Tahoe, and of course, Milton.
The hangover was collectively understood as just a price of admission, like a cloud in a weather pattern, something expected, something simply there, passing through on our way to the light. Most of all—the hangover was not to be judged. But it did not help us.
“Well.” Neil looked at the unwashed bits of last night’s dinner stuck on the sauté pan. “Can’t be bothered rinsing that right now.”
With his marbled Lancashire accent, he chuckled, grabbing an egg from the icebox. Spark and butane alighted, and Neil stared at the crusted bits now blackening on the warming pan and shrugged. “This’ll do.”
Neil cracked open that egg, not realizing he’d made the first spark of life for the rest of us. When the rally was needed, when the lads could barely sit upright in the chairs girding their ass cheeks, one simple act—in this case, one simple egg, fried in the morning light of a desert sky—was all our poor gang could accomplish. But it was also all we needed.
Callum sat up excitedly. “Ah, mate, a fried egg on toast with some beans then, is it? Count. Me. In.” Callum had this way of always separating words into individual sentences, with this ascending scale of inflection. He’d climb a route, then declare, “That. Was. Class.” Or he’d spot a girl and deliver his trademark: “Mate. Fit. Bird.”
Classic. English. Minimalism.
Neil’s single egg motivated us on virtue of what it symbolized, which was everything. Not giving a shit. Living raw. Embracing the ugly. As long as it all happened outside. One egg turned to two, which turned to more. From that simple act, we came to life. From it came movement; from it came sun salutations and cigarettes, surf on the slackline, the toss of a Frisbee across camp, and of course, tunes coming out of Billy’s beloved speakers.
Billy was the old garnet Dodge Econoline, the bivy of choice before Sprinter vans made the stage, that Callum and Neil had purchased a few clicks outside of SFO International, upon first arrival to the States three months prior. Billy had everything going for her: character, size, musty velvet pilot seats, and more than anything, a small but priceless orb of familiar, homey charm. You were safe in Billy, and she always played songs to fit the mood. Callum, Neil, and I would end up taking her down to Monterrey not long after, though we did not know it then. We’d run her hard down south, get overwhelmed by women and tequila and even end up being abducted by a cadre of corrupt police at gunpoint, just before New Year’s, but how could we have known what lay ahead? Right then, what we knew was that in short order, we’d all come back to life. Our ephemeral window, the small block of daylight free of self-destructive impulse in which we could carry out our rock dance, had arrived.
As usual, we’d all separate into smaller groups, which on that day was comprised of Eoin, Callum, Neil, and me. We set the bar low by scrambling around the campground and running laps on the easy slabs, resolved mostly to taking in the sun, which even at high noon, gave less warmth than it did light. Walking from the Hensel Arête and Slabmaster toward the Intersection Boulder, we lost the hangover just as the levity arrived; Callum and Neil began riffing on a banter over some women, “fit birds” as they called them, that they had been chasing down in Los Angeles. A lightness of subject matter both needed and also quickly reframed.
Right when Callum was extolling the swoon effect of an English accent on stateside women, Eoin chimed in with his Irish realism, “You best be careful with those birds, as you call them, Callum. They’ll sink your heart. And from what I’ve heard, you’ve already drowned it on occasion. We all have. Why do you think we’re out here?”
A wise commentary, but the truth in Eoin’s sentiment would not keep us nor our lonesome hearts away. A few weeks later, at a gathering up in the Hollywood Hills, overlooking the DTLA skyline, Callum, Neil, and I ate our hearts out at a Christmas-sweater party filled with a slew of posh, up-and-coming actor folk. We drank like it was religion, deejayed music, and chased something we wanted more than women: belonging. Callum found his girl, after all, and Neil and I got blind drunk, until the last thing I remembered was losing the heart I wore on my sleeve all over again, to a girl named Hope, as we tipsy flirted together on the outside deck overlooking the downtown skyline. With a name like that, I had no chance.
Eoin was right. We’d all drowned in those waters already. But Hope, well, that’s what we were all looking for out there anyway.
By 3:00 p.m., we’d managed a decent volume. Our standards were always to run laps on problems rather than one offs, but we never kept a tally of our totals. Mostly, we just climbed until our skin came off. Together, we ran the circuit from the campgrounds all the way to the Manx Boulders, spent a chunk of time on the infamous Pigpen, and even roped up for some moderates, a la Overnight Sensations and Pinched Rib. It was also customary to make a few runs on Stem Gem—at that time only V2—which we did. By the time we found ourselves atop the north cul-de-sac of the campground, climbing a lowball named Double Orifice, we’d been restored.
Wrapping up the last lap, Eoin sunk a giant knee bar just before the crux. Leaning back with all hands off the wall, held up only by his knee jam, which compressed like a car jack from foot to femur, Eoin glowed carefree. He found the sweet spot, not just on the route but also in life. If only for a moment, that childlike joy swept over him, as it did on occasion to each of us. A fleeting pass at perfection where it didn’t matter what he was running from, what he did or didn’t have figured out, or what came next. Lightning in a bottle, a photon straight through him. For some reason, I’ve always remembered the face he made in that boulder.
Just a few yards downstream, at our campsite, a local guide we’d befriended named Dave was trading war stories with a handsome bloke next to him. Group consensus was that we’d had our fill on the rocks, and in a flash, we were back at camp, handshaking the new guy, a local named Christian. Easily mistaken as another privileged white fella rebelling without a cause, on virtue of his gringo dreadlocks, Christian was most profound simply by the shine in his eyes. Wherever it came from, the gold shooting from his irises kind of took your breath away. He had a richness about him, too, like he’d seen God more than once. Hard to know for sure.
“Guess that’ll be an end to that.” Neil smirked, dropping his gear on the floor and opening a chilled Tecate.
Neil offered me a can, which I refused on a mitochondrial level. I’d never been a dedicated runner, but for as long as I could remember, I had a knack for getting on the path at sunset. Something of an internal clock, the impulse had always been automatic, sprung like an alarm from a deep inside space, to which I credit my heritage. Both Mom’s and Pop’s roots drive into the soil in the high plains of Zacatecas and the mountains of Chihuahua, not far from the famed land of the Rarámuri. I’m nothing like those legends, in composition or ability, but somewhere in there, no doubt, are genetic relationships. All I knew was that on autopilot, I’d always had a drive to run west at the golden hour. Didn’t seem like anything special—beauty does that to people.
But looking back, it’s also clear that when it came to chemical influence, to the rapture of suds and the hard stuff, I also had little choice in the matter. That drive seemed to always be there also, born perhaps from generations of hard toil and poverty. The tension of it lay in an equal capacity to run it all headfirst toward the bitter end as I had to run it all toward the beautiful.
I put the trail shoes on and ran hard for the next hour, pointing my toes west toward the sunbeams, radiant in violet and pinkly splendor, guided by what I thought was my instinct for the sacred. I see now that I was just as evenly running away from that Tecate, and the endless spree behind it, as I was toward the Holy People that the Diné describe in cloud bands and starbursts of sunlight. Both sides of the beam, exactly as they were meant to be.
Five miles later, at my midpoint, Christian flew by in his old white beater Jeep Cherokee, early ’90s model, flush with a litany of dust plumes and racing stripes. Seemed he was on his way back to town for something of import. By dusk, proper, I’d found my way back to camp, reveling in a quiet humility for just a moment, in ponderance of the many splendored colors I’d ran with in that twilight sky. Neil, content with still just his first beer of the night, offered again. No defense to that one.
Tranquil under the time lapse, we sat, watching colors change in slow motion until night arrived, turning the purple horizon and alpenglow of the boulders beside us into mere silhouettes, as baguettes bronzing under the luminist tingle of rustic firelight.
As Neil and I sat on the slackline, balancing conversation and the buzz of our Tecates, an old friend from the rock gym, Mike Brady, unexpectedly arrived. Drawn in from a neighboring site by the smell of grilled meats and the prospect of a good party, Mike walked in with his iconic grizzle and a stogie-sized fifty-fifty tobacco-marijuana spliff, which burned in an orange glow as the leaves and stems came alight by his inspiration. Mike’s inspiration was not limited to his respiratory function alone, however. He’d always been alight in many of the same ways as the rest of us, which is to say that his shine was always defined by the darkness that surrounded it.
“This, I can’t believe,” he began as he hugged me with the might of a Greco-Roman maneuver.
“You have no idea how good it is to see a familiar face right now,” he continued. “How the hell are you?”
“Truly. As well as I can be,” I gloated in self-promotion.
“It’s been forever,” Mike hyperbolized. “Last I heard you were starting to go deep on the road trips.”
Looking over at Neil, to provide an introduction, I smiled. “Well, you meet guys like this, and it just makes sense to keep doing it.”
Mike and I caught up quickly, trading stories that embellished fact for the sake of quality. We talked about the road, about the freedom of it, about all that open space, and the fact that Mike hadn’t seen it or lived with it deeply for far too long. We didn’t talk much about the loneliness or regret that crept into the tent when you got quiet. We skipped over the line of questioning that stares back at you from the mirror, on the rare occasion you end up in a public bathroom, when you gauge whether you’ve had more showers or lost more notches in your belt over the last month. No, we spoke only of what we remembered best. We spoke about the spectrum of light, of color that no book nor word nor story can tell. We spoke about love as a feeling of lactic acid in your arms and skin cracking in every corner of your face. That’s what Mike had been missing most.
Interrupted in our epiphany, a rage of screeching tires jack-knifed around the corner under a plume of dust. Christian, and his now beige Jeep Cherokee were back, though obviously not in the same state. Christian stammered out of the car in a wobbly foot dance, laughing off the emotion that clearly had him in tears already.
“That fucker slept with her,” he started, bottle in hand, while Dave walked him to a seat by the fire. Tears returning, he continued, “I was good to her, Dave. How could she?”
Dave stayed close, with a focus both on consoling his friend but also getting the bottle of Jack Daniel’s out of his clench. When Dave grabbed it, at last, it was not without notice, but Christian did not fight it either.
“Take it, Dave,” he said, nearly falling from his chair. “I already dusted the better part of the other bottle between the park entrance and Intersection Rock.”
Our collective moment of relief concerning Christian’s quest for acute alcohol poisoning was comically short lived. Exactly as Dave took that fifth of Jack out of one hand, Christian pulled out a tall boy IPA from the pocket of his down jacket with the other. Pssssstt. Slurp. Burp. You could not fault him.
Christian’s longtime girlfriend, and longer-known best friend, had been found between the sheets in infidelity when he drove home that afternoon. A striking blow. An earthquake of the soul. Surely one that a group of wayward misfits and already-fractured hearts had not the tools to mend. Comisery and some form of distraction were all we could muster. Circled by firelight, we did our best to keep Christian on a beer-and-sausage diet, away from the hard stuff, while spinning yarn, retelling tales of our own adventures gone awry.
An hour later, we all listened as Callum and Neil recounted their ascent of Half Dome’s Regular Northwest Face—a coming-of-age moment that hung on the balance of a suspect piton.
“So, that’s when I start hearing it, right?” Callum stood at the center of attention. “This manky, rusted pin I was on just starts creaking on me. And Neil’s just laughing at me, of course, in classic Neil fashion. I’m out of my wits like a pisser, but then I look over at the Spanish bastards, you know, the ones I spoke about, who we met at the base. The guys who told us we couldn’t climb it. That we weren’t fit for it. Now I’m thinking, fuck it, man, I’ll show these pricks.”
No surprise, as the rest of us were held in suspense, Borja and Ivan—the Spaniards—turned toward each other with all the fury of the Rojigualda, triggered to defend the reputation of their absent countrymen.
“¿Que carajo acaba de decir ese capullo?” Ivan tilted, enraged. (What the fuck did that asshole just say?)
Borja, equally incensed, sat up to the edge of his chair. “Estan hablando de nosotros, ¿eh?” (He’s talking shit on Spaniards, yeah?)
Callum, clueless to the tension, continued, “So there I am, top stepping this pin, I can feel the fucker flexing from the crack, but I can also see this small placement above. And as I’m reaching, full extension—”
Callum, with his arms raised high above him to demonstrate the move, was immediately interrupted. Behind him in the darkness near the outcrop of big rock formations on the other side of the campground, a single headlamp switched on under a large vertical wall. Dave, up until then serving as Christian’s default caretaker, looked suddenly aware as he searched the campfire, finding only one face missing.
“Fuck me,” Dave exclaimed. “That’s Christian!”
“Puta madre…” Borja deflated, releasing the clench on his empty bottle, which he’d been ready to use over Callum’s forehead. “Ay, joder!” (Oh, fuck!)
“God dammit,” someone shouted, “he’s on a fifth of Jack and handful of tallboys.”
Whatever Christian was on, he was most certainly on the wall at that point. And what could we do? Christian had already made his decision: a ropeless passage.
A drunken man speaks a sober truth, they say. Could it be so on the rock as well? Would he make it? We watched on pins and needles as Christian entered the razor’s edge—each move in front of him of greater consequence to all that lay beneath him. His condition eerily transcendent to us all.
“He’s not going to make it,” someone said from the fire ring.
“What if his light goes out?” another voice echoed.
Were we watching Christian? Or was this microcosm entirely about each one of us and the precarious light within ourselves? I no longer knew. But for my money, I was watching more than a single man on the edge up there.
“This guy,” said Damien, aghast, “he can die, right here.”
“Maybe he wants to,” a Spanish voice replied from behind me.
While we were frozen together, watching Christian move at a sloth’s pace, the tension became unbearable. What a damned fool, I thought. But as he continued, my belief is that each one of us saw the same vision up there: we saw ourselves. Blasphemy, after all, may be but a shade of gray when seen at the right angle. We knew it could’ve been any one of us up there—only a hairline’s width of circumstance between us.
When Christian got to the top, clean and without so much as a toenail placed in the wrong plane of balance, neither he nor we made a sound. There was no victorious outcry, no ridiculous monkey call or chest-pounding male bullshit. It was dreadfully silent. Quiet as your last breath.
“Son of a bitch.” Dave exhaled in relief a lifetime later.
However clean his execution up there, we all knew Christian had just gotten away with something, barely squeezing through his own small window of coherency. I see now that right there, we had a window too.
Just when something like sobriety might have crawled up out of the infinitesimally small crack it dwelled in and hit us with a stroke of clarity, we poured booze right over it. That many fools, unkempt and unaccountable to anything of purpose—heartbreakers, lonesome loners, mystics, and misanthropes—all of us trying to bury the dossier of our deeds gone wrong under the cold desert sand: we didn’t stand a chance.
Eoin, who understood more than I did about friendship, blurted out, “Well, your mate’s still up there, guys. What say you we show him he’s not alone and give him some companionship, eh? The fucker’s probably thirsty too, you know.”
Hallowed are places life takes us, I thought a moment later. Scurrying up the backside of the 150-foot Blob in a single-file formation, we free soloed The Bong, as one large group, sounding like cattle coming in from the prairie—the clanking rings of suds and swill echoing from our pockets and chalk bags. At the top, still as ever, was Christian, headlamp now off. With a thousand-yard stare at the Milky Way, he waited silently for his own coyotes to call out, assuring him that he too was not lost.
Quiet for the coyotes, Christian still had us and more of the vice, which fed us all. How exactly we traversed that moral plane from judge and jury to the accused and defended I still don’t know. We’d been scared for our lives by Christian’s solo, perhaps just twelve ounces or one strong pull of the hard stuff prior, and now, here we were on top of the same chunk of rock with him, no ropes between us all. It did not stop there either. There were a handful of easy routes on the Blob, a fact not lost on hungry souls.
We spent the next hour running laps in the dark, rallying back at the top between each climb for another chug or slurp of whiskey, only to set off again. Mike, having a come-to-Jesus moment, ended up all the way out at the Cyclops Rock. Soloing to his comfort level and eventually laying supine in the sand, fingers combing the earth he’d been missing for so long, he found what he would later describe as his place in the universe. Some climbed only a lap or two, others more. Neil laughed out loud when ripping his pants on a downclimb, bursting a pair of jeans that he would later duct-tape and keep for another near-death experience on the Central Torres Del Paine, down in Patagonia. But no matter the climb, we always rallied back to the top, where we looked down each time to see Milton, who sat there contentedly at the fire we’d left burning.
Finally, near midnight and high above the Hidden Valley Campground, with total disregard to the normal folk who sought sound sleep down below, we grabbed hold of that now perfect drunk. Strung on the wire, between the illuminated fragments of our lifestyle and the delusional inevitabilities of it, we emptied whatever we had left in our bottles and sung out to the heavens. High on the wanderlust of the world before us, we took one long collective gaze, a full and satisfied look at the splendor before our eyes—only to forget it completely, sozzled to the last neuron.
No longer in the gray, one and all faded to black.
Once upon a time, a drifter sat in my old pickup truck and told me that me and the fellas I ran with were standout, that we had queer habits—that we burned for something we could not attain. He said we were an old breed, the hopeless type, cursed with extradeep feelers for life, which stick to things like pain. He even said that the hardships we put upon ourselves were equal to the hardships we were running from somewhere else. That it was the architect of all that was good and all that wasn’t within us.
Milton’s face was the first thing I saw that next morning, his nonjudging eyes looking down at me through the window of my tent as he offered me a cup of coffee. No doubt, he knew about pain, after all. His took him across three state lines. Ours forced us up high and lonesome walls, bred rapturous benders, and slaved us to a vice that often dealt in aimlessness—not to be mistaken as hopelessness.
Some of us nearly died at the hands of that vice, damned to sink with the lot of poor souls who find in the bottle only a barren darkness that man was never made to endure. Others continued onward and upward into the greatest heights and wildest peaks, successful on the surface yet driven still by a deep fracture within. But whether by the vacant promise of the next bottle or the hollow burnout after a summit flare, in time, we all faced our own emptiness.
Looking back, it was precisely Dan and Jo, with their postcard-perfect humility, their love in the little things, and their simple pleasures; they were ones we should have followed. It was right under our noses the whole time. Happiness the likes of rosy rom coms and inglorious clichés, it turns out, was not only not to be judged; it was precisely where the magic of life—the little bits of unfettered joy and the unparalleled freedoms—occurred. It was always in that most fundamental love. And were I not so damn hungover, perhaps I would have seen it then.
But the point is I could not have seen it then. I, we, needed to endure precisely what we did in order to get exactly what we got. We needed that road trip, as we needed the next one. We needed months and years of learning how to righteously lose ourselves in a series of days and weeks.
We needed to toil; we needed to suffer; we needed to burn. We needed the inspiration and the disillusionment, the connection and the despair. We needed hundreds more nights pissing out of tents, frayed and barely hanging on, desperately passing through both the self-imposed and the unwarranted breakdowns of life. We needed every heartbreak, the pain and loss as loved ones came and went, just as we needed the flashes of light that shone between them. We needed all of it. It is the very fabric of the human condition to be stricken so.
Living in that kind of suspension, floating in the vast cosmos of the human experience, can often feel cold. But we are more than the pain that surrounds us, as we are more than the darkness that may now define us. The great fact of life is this: That we are all, each of us, of the light. Always will be. No matter the tensions, chosen or inborn, that pull at us. No matter the circumstance.
Truth is, we were not all gray, after all. Even the winter’s haze passes with time into glorious patterns of light. Only now do I see that even then, as each of us walked our razor’s edge of life, all in, with no direction home, none were truly lost in the great order of things.
In fact, exactly there with all our pain, our fractures, our broken hearts, and our damaged souls—there at the very peak of our blindness, at the apex of our misdirection—we were not solely shades of gray. We were angels alight, full Technicolor, fantastic beings in the many splendored spectrum of color that no book nor word nor story can tell.
Halfway through that coffee, after Dan and Jo had started breakfast, Milton asked once more if he could get a ride into town. Quietly, dodging the maze of wasted bottles that lay strewn in the aftermath, so as not to awaken the gang, I found my keys, and we set off. Much as the day before, not a lot was said, though much was felt. Down at town, taken by the emerging crowd of the Saturday farmers’ market—perhaps Milton’s first chance to reintegrate to society in months—he swooned with an excitement I hadn’t seen and asked that I park the car. Suspended for a moment, as he toyed with his matted beard, Milton contemplated a new direction under a sudden gravitas.
Looking at me from the passenger seat, he unbuckled himself and opened the door, putting foot to floor with a new hope. “You go ahead,” he insisted, smiling. “I’ll find my own way back to where I need to be. I reckon you will too.”
Milton shouldered his pack, dusted off that woven sweater, still stained by bourbon and coffee alike, and stepped back into the world, never to be seen by my eyes again.
Lucas Roman is a nursing student, who writes for his partner, Nathalie, his friend Jeremy, and the last of the red-hot lovers. His first book, a collection of nonfiction climbing and adventure stories, titled Aperture Alike, is currently ranked 669,464th on Amazon’s top sellers list, so get it while you can. His next book, in development and title pending, will be published once again by Di Angelo Publications, in 2022.