Note: this piece is published in Volume 17, and it is an excerpt from his book, The Desert. Both are now available.
Now some men will drive to the edges of nothing
So they can take a peek at the great abyss
Some men avoid love like it was a plague or something
So they can leave the seat down when they piss
Pendulum is a word I’ve heard a lot lately—used to describe anything from American politics to the range of emotions and experiences in climbing. Writing and climbing have been forever intertwined for me, and they swing together in my inner and outer pendulums. And so has love and the pursuit of romantic love. Love, I would dare say, is always there in climbing, or at least always there when it’s a positive climbing experience. And that love can become metaphorical: a great climbing experience can live within one’s soul as one of the ultimate adventures of life, love, and Mother Nature.
Words by Luke Mehall, Banner photo of the author by Greg Cairns
As I wrote earlier, I had a reputation for being a writer who wrote about his ex-girlfriends and love affairs too much, but that has never been something I’ve felt apologetic about. After all, I’m a fucking artist—who shall an artist apologize to for those that do not appreciate their art? To write about what other people won’t write about in America is perhaps the duty of the prose writer. And that, after all, was who I was, and probably all I would ever be.
All of this can seem inconsequential, but I think it’s also my duty to push past the trivial and realize that everything is everything, and all little details matter. And if my existence was simply to write, to love, and to climb, then dammit, I better do that the best I could and make it benefit as many souls as possible.
It was those cold late-November mornings in The Creek when I longed for love the most, longed to have someone next to me in my tent. And in those mornings, love seemed the most impossible. There was love of the community—we gathered and ate and drank and danced—but I longed for the intimate kind of love.
I looked for love in all the wrong places you could say: in women I knew I wasn’t compatible with in the long run, too young, too wild, too many kids from too many baby daddies, lived too far away, or simply didn’t even like me. That’s the curse of the hopeless (hopeful) romantic I suppose: we believe anything is possible, and it is, but we fail to see the obvious at times when there’s a chance at love.
And that’s how it was this morning, the day after Thanksgiving, when I woke up early as hell in the back of my Subaru, and it was cold, so cold and lonely. I couldn’t sleep because I was tormented by the thoughts of unrequited love. This one was too damn young for me, like she grew up watching Harry Potter young, and I grew up on the Care Bears, yet I wanted her and wanted to believe it could work. We’d gone climbing the day before, and I leaned in for a kiss at the end of the day, but she pushed me back. She informed me that she now had a boyfriend back in Boulder where she lived—we had a fling the summer before, and I thought maybe I had another chance because she told me she’d be in The Creek over Thanksgiving. But it was just that friend sort of reaching out, not the reaching out for love.
I sat there cold and alone in my sleeping bag for what seemed like hours, replaying the previous day in my head. I wrote sad thoughts to myself in my journal and kept peeking out for the sun to rise over the bend.
That was love, the sun on my face. That was a fine way to start the day. At Thanksgiving that year, the sun shined all week. We were lucky. The weather seems to either be sunny and perfect that time of year, or terribly rainy, snowy, muddy, foggy—one year, the Mog year, it was muddy and cloudy—or just plain cold. But the sun didn’t really improve my mood, so when everyone else went climbing for the day, I decided to go off on my own, take a little hike, get my mind and heart sorted.
So I drove off the highway onto a dirt road and rolled up it for a few miles. Not a soul in sight. Perfect. As I hiked, I started to feel better and less sorry for myself, doing that inner self-talk and realizing it’s just another day under the sun in the desert. Things will move on for you. The sun will come out tomorrow. Look at how glorious this life is; look at how beautiful and meaningful and meaningless it all is.
My plan was to hike up to a formation shaped like a submarine that only had a few routes on it, but at the last minute, another wall caught my eye, and I figured I’d hike to a wall that didn’t have any documented routes or any information, really. I carefully crawled up the hillside, kicking down loose rocks and trying to avoid busting any crust. Step by step, my mood got better, and it really improved when I got to the wall and found some unclimbed cracks—the goal of any climbing prospector in the desert. Each one I encountered made my heart aflutter, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the crew and tell them my findings. Perhaps this would be our own wall to develop; we could paint our own masterpieces.
When I got back into the main canyon, I joined the crew. Tim asked about my hike, and he could see the stoke from the look on my face, and then I sprayed him down about what I’d found. The wall was crowded that day, and I recall an old climber from Gunnison being there and complaining about how busy it was, how he couldn’t find anything to climb. I knew him, but he didn’t notice me, and he was putting off such a negative vibe I didn’t even say hello—plus the contrast of what I’d just found made me laugh; it’s all in your mind sometimes—there’s always something new around the bend in the desert.
Another warm winter with not a lot of snow followed that Thanksgiving—those seem to be the trend lately in the Southwest—so it wasn’t that long until we were back at The Creek. I’d been thinking about that new wall all winter and recruited Tim and our buddy Todd to take a look.
Todd was/is a character. I’d met him through our dear friend Adam Lawton, who died in an avalanche in 2012. He and Adam were best buddies; they skied the wildest lines together, and Todd was understandably devastated by his loss. I never would have known Todd if it weren’t for Adam, so every time we hung out, it reminded me of him. Todd is East Coast in his mannerisms, talks with that Massachusetts accent, and has the attitude to match. He is the best runner I’ve ever met, runs like Forrest Gump, like the wind blows. Adam brought him into our crew, and he fit in quite nicely.
We retraced my steps from the previous November. It’s impossible to exactly follow one’s steps because though trails do form quite easily in this desert, it still takes many trips for a trail to break in. I was excited about bringing my friends back to this wall—it meant we were one step closer to beginning the development; once they got psyched on the wall, we’d begin the siege.
We told a story or two—Todd told us about saving a guy’s life by unburying him in an avalanche (he was on the news and everything)—mixed with giving each other shit and taking a break now and again to look back at the expanse of desert.
It was dry as a bone, only slight traces of snow on the north-facing aspects; the contrast that usually exists this time of year between the white of the snow and the red of the rock and dirt was hardly present. Spring would be on its way in no time, and I was excited by the prospect of a new wall to completely consume me.
By this point, I’d scored a job in a local restaurant. So I would spend my mornings writing and my nights rolling burritos, folding tacos, and cheesing up nachos. It wasn’t a bad gig, and I could work whenever I wanted and take off whenever I wanted. The owner was independent minded and was running a wildly successful business; it was one of the busiest places in town. Plus it was based on the concept of healthy, affordable food—I liked that. I could live on just rice and beans if I had to. He even took time out of his days to meet with me and give me business advice for my zine.
I knew my spring, and perhaps many springs and falls to come, would revolve around working to put food on the table and escaping to the desert.
I’ve never been an aspiring real estate agent, but as we approached the wall, I tried to sell it, showing off all the unclimbed cracks it offered. I was anticipating, in my mind, their response. I knew they were going to love it.
“So…what do you guys think?”
Tim was the first to speak. “It’s cool…but…”
“But…?” I asked.
“Well the climbs are far apart, and there’re really not good places to hang out,” Tim said. “A good wall needs a good hang.”
My heart sank a little, but then Tim offered, “There’re more walls; look at them. We’ll find another good one.”
I quickly realized Tim was right, and we retreated to the main canyon to climb a pitch or two before the sun left us for the day. As we geared up, I realized I’d forgotten my harness. Another day spent in the pursuit of nothing—that’s climbing for you. Todd realized he had another in his car though—that’s climbing for you too: your friends have your back.
It wasn’t long before we were hiking walls again in the farthest reaches of the corridor, where there was no one around and it often felt like we were in the pursuit of nothingness. A beautiful, varnished wall, looking just like the other classic walls of the canyon, proved to have little more than a climb or two. Still, we kept hiking.
Later that spring, Tim and I geared up for another exploratory hike in an area that no one had probably explored since the uranium days. If anyone had, it was surely a climber in search of what we were after. A zone where only the cows, lizards, bunnies, and birds were. The silence though turned a focus on each and every step. I’d see things that I never really saw when I was in the main zone, where there was always human interaction going on. Even if we never found anything, we found a little bit of solitude, a little bit of silence.
That silence quickly comes to a halt when you send a boulder tumbling down the talus and watch it gain speed, knocking off everything in its path. Trundling, we call it, just made you hope that you weren’t fucking up a lizard’s day or something. But it was unavoidable. The paths leading to these unexplored cliffs were never straightforward; in fact, there wasn’t a path at all.
There was always some sketchiness, which usually occurred as we navigated different bands of rock, and there was a short vertical section on loose terrain. Somehow Tim and I always found these bands and ended up with some terrifying moments in between mellow hiking. Sections like this made us realize this is why the cliffs we were trying to get to hadn’t been developed yet. For forty years, climbers had access to the low-hanging fruit of first ascents that lie oh so close to the highway with little effort to hike up—that era still continues in its own way; the main canyon of Indian Creek is far from climbed out, but entire walls to be discovered and developed lie at the ends of roads with healthy hikes.
In the middle of negotiating a sketchy band of rock, Tim and I saw the most peculiar thing—on a panel of rock, a basketball-sized object looked like it had crashed onto it. As we looked at it closer, the only way it appeared that something could have struck it was from the sky. We were amused, and we were amazed. I only wish we’d looked around more to perhaps find the meteor or whatever hit it, but sometimes when searching, you’re only focused on the mysteries you’re hoping to discover. And I don’t know if I could find that piece of rock again anyway.
We continued up the loose cliffside and finally arrived at a wall. Relieved to be done with the hiking and excited to see what we could see, we immediately began our inspection. We walked the base of the wall with the necks of climbers, tilted back, looking above, always above. “This doesn’t look too bad,” one of us would say, but we weren’t saying it enough. After an hour of exploring the wall, we’d come to the conclusion that we’d come across another bust. Maybe that’s how the miners felt too, after they’d blown up a cliff band, hoping for uranium and only finding worthless sandstone. Cotton mouthed and sunburned, we planned our escape.
Anytime we’d have a bust, we’d call the wall Disappointment Cliffs Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, etc. Disappointment Cliffs was a long cliff band in the main canyon that stood right next to other fantastic walls, but it didn’t yield many cracks, surely to the dismay of the pioneering climbers that hiked the walls and hoped to find what they had at most other walls in the main canyon. We’d been hiking a lot, but we never found much, other than the fun of exploring; the fun of exploring though ain’t much fun unless you find something.
Still, there was another benefit—we found quietness and stillness. The art of doing nothing now had value, because it seems in society, with cell phone reception and all, we were always doing something. Not always something productive and engaging, but often just doing something that was essentially doing nothing. Once I had a smartphone in my pocket, it felt like a new era had begun, although I don’t know if I really noticed it at the time. I was just amazed I had a computer that fit into my pocket. Shit, I remembered Mom and Dad’s computers in the ’80s and ’90s; now that same accessibility was wallet sized. My buddy Dave called them hand brains.
And oh how they have changed our brains and our desires to be entertained and connected. What would Jack Kerouac have said about Facebook? What would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have tweeted?
Everything that was changing though also helped me become an independently published writer. As I steadily collected rejection letters for my books, I just published them myself and waited to see if people bought them and read them. They did. So I never lamented the changes to the publishing world that were brought forth by technology. Still, there was something about the constant possibility to go online, and I don’t know if we’ll be able to truly know how this affects our brains and society for some time. One thing I do know is that, even early on, it is hugely beneficial to disconnect from all of that and just be outside.
As the sun parched our bodies, we kept traversing this wall—maybe three or four hours into it—and the character of rock changed. Cracks, those cracks we’ve been obsessed with finding, started to appear. In vast numbers. At first, I wondered if they were a mirage, like water in the desert. Could it be?
I looked back at Tim, and he had that same stupid look on his face that I had. That validation of wanderlust, accompanied with the fatigue of the elements. I think we found what we were trying to find, I thought. I wasn’t confident enough to say it; after all, I knew Tim would tell me the truth. Tim wouldn’t bullshit me. When he started to talk, he was as excited as I was. I didn’t know what we’d found, but I knew it was something, at least something enough to know that we would return, to rediscover.
This piece is an excerpt from Luke Mehall’s new book, The Desert, now available. He will be touring the United States this year to promote the book. You can score a copy at our store. Sometime this year, or early next year, he will launch the Dirtbag State of Mind podcast from The Zine.
Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine.