Sitting on top of Nook’s Rock a light breeze rattled the pines. I felt “shush’ed” into silence. My dog circled 20 feet below, tripping about as he looked up at his papa, sitting there Indian-style like a Patagonia-clad devotee. 20 seconds ago I’d ticked off a little project called “Nook’s Rock Traverse,” alone in the woods. I was supposed to feel jovial. I was supposed to yawp to the sky and grin maniacally and dance a jig atop the monstrous boulder. Instead, I plunked down and breathed heavily, looking below at my dog. Back and forth he ran. Stopped. Looked up. Back and forth again. I sighed, opened my chalk bag, and down-climbed a warm-up route to the ground.
Packing up the pad an act entirely soulless. I’d just done a problem that should have brought joy, but instead I felt the surrounding forest a harbor of loneliness. Hunched over my trinkets I felt like Ahab or Don Quixote, a sucker on a fool’s errand. The climbing shoes looked ridiculous on my feet. The scars on my hands meaninglessly self-inflicted and for the first time objectionable. I felt victim to an unnamed syndrome. All this, after sending a nice little proj on beatiful Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, my most hallowed stomping grounds.
A friend was meeting up with me in the afternoon, and as I didn’t want to shred my skin before the next session, I climbed the hill and jumped in my car for a two hour nap. I didn’t sleep, though. I thought. And thought and thought and thought. I thought, “Why do I climb these stupid little boulders? What does it all mean?” I also thought, most of all, “Why didn’t I feel one speck of satisfaction after topping out that 20 move monster? Why do I feel so…lame?”
Answers – solutions – like anything important, come wrapped in layers of brick and mortar. Chiseling and picking is the only way. Figuring the perfect equation feels like spinning a Zen koan in the mind until the little bugger lands right side up. And there are no guarantees to a solution at all, most times. Especially in a one-sided diatribe in the packed auditorium of your own mind.
It didn’t take long to smoke out why I climb. I climb like I read books, or run, or write. It feels natural and good. I have many homes in the landscape of my mind, but climbing sits atop the most beautiful peak. When I’m there I feel free and athletic and more powerful. I feel at home with my paw in a chalk bag like my grandmother did with a hand in an oven mitt. My problems don’t disappear so much as slink back in fear of the granite or limestone or gneiss I’m pulling onto. Yet, neither are the problems defeated by the raw physical power of the act nor by the deaf and disinterested stone upon which they bash themselves. The problems are banished and told to get to the back of the line for a few short hours because the paparazzi of the senses has arrived to snap photos of the most important mental juggernaut living on Mount Person…Happy Fun Time. Shut up and sit down, problems; we all know you’ll be there when this damn session comes to a chalk-dusty end…
Yet, “Nook’s Rock Traverse” lent me a pensive frown where I should have slapped my thighs and roared like a lion over a kill. I hadn’t been thinking of my problems…the traverse went down quiet and slow and with perfect harmony. My beta was dialed and it felt…easy. So, what had my craw? Why was I acting like such a Sad Sally all locked up in my Ford Focus on my favorite bouldering mountain in the Front Range? I scanned the car. My dog slept because dogs don’t have problems. My crashpad sat closed because it is a device of utility and only alive when launched into motion. My shoes asleep inside the pack, a perfectly warm little burrito of recreation. And me, the only human heart beating in the car, a rearview mirror reflection my doppelganger companion. The only one in the car. The only one.
Were I a student of Confucius, I would have been raked upon the temple with a snappy little sapling. The irony of it all is almost astounding, despite my very thick skull and slow wits. “Nook’s Rock Traverse” felt easy as cheese and I sent it almost immediately and the temps were perfect and the sun shone while sometimes flecked with dry dustings of snow. But it wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t complete. It was a record setting swim around a desert island, upon which one lives. It was deciphering the layered semantics and symbolism of Ulysses in the sterile grayness of solitary confinement. It was George Lucas forgetting his perfect dream in the morning…
It was climbing alone when one doesn’t want to.