I was put on drugs by the time I was seven years old, a kid labeled as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD, a scam of all scams if you ask me. “They” gave me Ritalin, a stimulant used to carve and mold the overactive mind and energy of youth into something the government’s system wants you to be. From that age, up until I turned 20, I was a lost soul, and I almost lost my soul. Luckily, I found climbing. Without it, I’d probably be dead or in jail.
[story by Luke Mehall, excerpted from his second book, The Great American Dirtbags, more stories of freedom. His first book is called Climbing Out of Bed]
I grew up in the twin cities of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, and in my high school and pre-collegiate days, in the 1990s, our town’s climbing gym was billed as the largest in the world. I’d heard about it, but never had the gumption to go over and check it out. When I started climbing, my interests were in mind-altering substances: marijuana, LSD, and psychedelic mushrooms. I was also smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and popping stimulant pills called dexedrine to focus in school.
My first climbing trip was down to the grey sandstone of Jackson Falls in Southern Illinois, four hours from home, nested in a sweaty forest, the wildest place I’d seen in my “adult” years thus far. My memories of the climbing that day are foggy, distant, and blurred. I remember waking up in the morning and my friend, Caleb, who had taken me under his wing, handed me a packet of oatmeal. I was so clueless about the outdoors I had to ask what to do with it.
Getting into climbing, tying that figure 8 is almost as simple as pouring hot water into an oatmeal packet, almost. I remember it look me at least four sessions to master that knot, so it’s safe to say I learned very little about climbing that first day. The window into the past, now fifteen years ago, remembers more about the setting that surrounded that actual act of climbing.
There was a waterfall, maybe thirty feet tall, and everyone we were with was jumping off, landing in a very narrow pool, and screaming when they emerged from the water. Out of peer pressure, I jumped after contemplating it for an hour. I missed the perfect landing, and my feet his stone shortly after I hit the water. I was uninjured, but needless to say I didn’t jump again.
Climbing culture is probably easier to study and comprehend in the beginning than the actual act of climbing. I knew of two cultures at that point in my life, the lower and middle class people living in Normal, and the hippie culture I spent my weekends with at Phish and Widespread Panic concerts. The representation of our crew was two real climbers, Caleb and his older brother’s friend Justin, who was the best climber out of all of us. They spoke of the rocks and mountains out west, and how someday soon they were going to move out there, because that’s where the real climbing experience was. And, then there were the rest of us, friends of Caleb’s encouraged to try out climbing for the weekend. I knew I was there for the weed and the beer as much as the climbing, I mean what does climbing mean before you experience it? I didn’t have an exercise routine; my regimen of endorphins and feeling good was related to the substances I put into my body, by drinking, swallowing or smoking.
The others on the trip, from the suburbs of Chicago, where Caleb had recently moved from, were scary. A dark aura of death surrounded them. One drank a beer with breakfast. I don’t know why I remember that more than dangling off a cliff thirty feet, struggling up my first ever climb, but I do. And, I remember the heroin.
I remember three of the others sneaking off into a tent, to put that needle into their veins, for that high. I remember Caleb getting mad because they brought “that” into his van, weed was one thing, heroin was another. On the drive back, sitting on the floor in the Ford cargo van, I looked out to watch ten police cars in a row pass us, onto other crimes or accidents.
I wasn’t infatuated, intrigued, or even interested in climbing after that trip. But a seed was planted. Big things happen in our life, courses are set, usually when we’re not old enough to understand the importance of decision. Whether it’s a decision to pack up in a van and go to a climbing area, attend a certain college, or put a needle in your vein for a high, the story that is our lives as adults starts with the first chapter, one we write when we don’t realize we’re writing a book of life.
It was the climbing gym that got me hooked. I can remember the day I finally mastered the Figure 8 knot, April 20th, 1999, the same day as the Columbine tragedy.
The gym made sense to my domesticated, Midwestern mind. Plastic holds with tape on them indicating where to go. Ratings that I could measure my progress with. The seed was germinating. Perhaps it was that simple release of endorphins into my body from exercise. Or, maybe it was the hope that climbing might end up taking me somewhere, because I knew where I was at was no good. That night, I sat at home and watched the story of Columbine unfold, kids gone wrong, a country gone wrong. Innocence and youth lost.
At this point I living in my parent’s basement, only 20 years old and I’d already dropped out of two colleges. My mind was as dark as the basement, and I worked nights in a restaurant, and slept until noon, or later. I quit doing Dexedrine, only to learn that the withdrawals are worse than the drug itself. The cigarettes and constant pot smoking only added to my depression, and I convinced myself I was sick, and was going to die soon. I went to the doctor, and decided to do some routine testing. I had been sleeping with a hippie girl I was calling my girlfriend, later realizing I wasn’t the only one she was having sex with. The doctor did the usual STD tests, and I was clean. Months went by and I still felt terrible, each day was closer to death and nothing else. Like many depressed people I still got up and went to work, bussing tables and acting like everything was okay. I didn’t tell anyone about how bad I was feeling, which made it worse. I was in my own private hell.
Was this the point in life to stick a needle in my arm? Find a new drug, a new high that might take me somewhere else? If I was going to die, and we all are, did it matter how I got there? I felt like there was nothing out there for me, fifteen years of schooling had led me back to the basement of my parents’ home.
There had to be a reason why I felt so bad, and there had to be an escape route. I went to the doctor again and requested more tests. Finally, something came back, I tested positive for hepatitis, and that is when I made the plan to runaway.
I left behind a trail of notes to my friends and family, saying how sorry I was, but I just had to get out of Illinois. I contemplated suicide. My first mission was to find the hippie girl and tell her she’d given me hepatitis. It was before the time of social networking or cell phones, I went to where I thought she was by word of mouth from other friends. I traveled from the east coast, back to the Midwest, then to the west coast. I went to all kinds of places I’d never been: Maryland, Pennslyvania, Nebraska, Utah, Arizona and everywhere in between. I smoked cigarettes and popped dexedrine to stay awake. I fell asleep at the wheel more than once, jolted awake as my car drove off the shoulder, sending a rush of adrenaline that kept me awake until I could find a rest area to sleep at. Rest areas were my home for a couple months. I searched and searched for the girl but never found her. It was for the best. I felt terribly guilty and wandered cities alone. It was the worst shame spiral I’d ever been in. I felt like death.
Acceptance finally came, I wasn’t going to find the girl, and I needed to contact my friends and family. It was a slow process of healing, especially for my parents, but they showed unconditional love. They even supported me when I said I didn’t want to come back home, that I wanted to remain out west.
The hepatitis thing was actually an error on the part of the doctors. I had received a routine vaccination for hepatitis, which made the test erroneously indicate that I had the disease. In my own heart I realize I’d manifested it in some way.
With a clean slate I wandered to a small mountain town called Gunnison, Colorado. I camped alone for a month, still trapped in the tyranny of my mind. I’d pick up hitchhikers whenever I could for company, and to try and score weed.
Slowly, something happened, I was transformed by a culture and a landscape. It didn’t happen overnight, shit, it didn’t even happen in a month, or a year. But it happened, and it happened because of the rocks that crop up from the earth, and the people that climb those rocks.
I didn’t tell anyone my story, I only told people I climbed. The scene was quiet and we invented our own rules, and had our own epics. I really got to look death closer in the eye with a series of mishaps, rappelling off my rope one time, and taking a head-first 35 foot whipper another time, landing five feet above the ground.
I clung to those adrenaline moments of feeling alive, and knew I wanted nothing to do with dying young.
And then I reflected, and chose a path. I quit smoking cigarettes and popping pills. I never felt like I needed a new drug, climbing provided all the rushes I needed. I still partook in alcohol and marijuana, but it was always secondary.
There was another side that I could never see while trapped in my young mind. There were rocks and mountains out west that presented a promised land, they would heal my troubled mind and confused soul, I just had to get to them.
Years into the healing, as a competent climber, I’d make my way into the Black Canyon, just two hours from Gunnison. With the 2,300 foot Painted Wall, and some of the other tallest walls in Colorado ‘The Black’ calls out only to those who seek adventure from climbing, and the other gifts that suffering on walls and constantly facing fear provides. With a reputation of runouts and loose rock there’s also a heavy dose of danger. Still, more people die of suicide in the canyon than from climbing.
And, there in the deep shadows of two thousand foot walls, a raging river, and swallows swooping by, I was on the other side, with a will to live and stay healthy, climbing upwards to the light.
This piece is a chapter in Mehall’s second book: The Great American Dirtbags.
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About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.