|Lee Timmons Photo|
It happened at a Mexican restaurant in Eastern Washington, I was by myself, it was probably the first time in my life that I was alone at a restaurant after a climbing trip. Usually you go out with your climbing partner and drink margaritas and wash the blood and dirt off your hands in the restaurant bathroom. Then one of you drinks gas station coffee and drives home while the other plays with the radio and falls asleep. I've done this a thousand times and each time it's close to heaven.
But I was alone this time, dirty and bloody as ever, but alone in a giant booth built for a family of six. I gotta say, I missed the shit out of Andrew, and I was happy, and I finally felt like myself again, like there was finally some hootch in my flask.
Let me explain.
|Rip Hale photo|
Ten o'clock on Friday night, I'm digging through the back of my car looking for my ship flask while Rip sits in the dust and sage and plays The Ballad of Love and Hate on his guitar. He's drinking from a big bottle of cheap whiskey- he told me he bought it because the label was pretty, which in a nutshell is why I'm friends with Rip.
"Here it is!" I say triumphantly, pulling the flask out from underneath my sleeping bag and tossing it towards him. "Could you fill that with whiskey? I'm all flask, no hootch!"
Rip stops playing guitar and gives me a look like I'm some sort of hero. "All flask, no hootch," he says."I think I like that."
I stopped climbing five months ago and it's made me feel like a total loser, which I hate to say, because there isn't an uglier word in the English language. I wouldn't direct that word towards anybody that I know, anybody except myself.
But that's how it goes. I wasn't just heartbroken this past winter. Heartbreak is acceptable, its got its own whimsy, its own cult following, like the rocky horror picture show. People write a lot of beautiful songs about heartbreak. What I felt was decidedly more unflattering- jealousy, envy, rejection, ugly stuff we don't talk about because it would illuminate our fantastically flawed, utterly insecure shadows that we try so hard to keep camouflaged.
I couldn't separate climbing from Andrew and Andrew from pain and I'd have done anything to avoid running into him. So I avoided the sport, the community, the gyms and all the events- the bouldering comps, taco Tuesdays, send and socials, parties, fundraisers. I did other things instead, like sit at home and try to untwist the rebar from off of my ego. Also, skiing.
Climbing leaves you pretty quick if you're not diligent. First the calluses disappeared, and then the strength, the confidence, the identity. I'd stand there in the mornings with my skinny shoulders and soft fingertips and look around my room- all the pictures and gear and guide books- and feel like a complete fake. All talk, no substance. In other words: all flask, no hootch.
Well it was about goddamn time that I got rid of all the angst and got back into the shit.
Last Friday, Lee invited me on a last minute trip to Vantage. Lee is this astoundingly fun, confident, strong, funny girl from the South who makes wine and takes pictures, and you want her by your side when you reintroduce yourself to the life you've been hiding from for half a year.
I'd never even met her, yet I knew this to be true.
Lee is a kayaker from Asheville, and she's friends with that band of adventurers I used to hang with down in Boone. It seems like we're always one step away from each other- she was boating down in Chile right after I was, she ran the Grand Canyon with my love Will, we have some of the exact same photos from down in that ditch. I forget when she started reading the blog, but she did, and then we started writing back and forth, and she sent me letters and a book of poetry while I was on the boat.
If you're ever looking to win over my heart, send me a book of poetry when I live on a boat.
Well, then she moved out West, and we've been trying to meet up for ages and I keep almost but not quite making it down to Hood River. So when she invited me out to Vantage, there was a crash as whatever I was holding at that minute fell to the ground and I was loading the car up with my sleeping bag and my climbing rope and my ship flask.
The first time I meet Lee she's running towards me in the desert in the dark holding a bottle of Rose. She squeezes me like an accordion.
For the last few weeks everything has been getting better and better and now I feel like myself again. When Lee hugs me, my old friend I'm meeting for the first time, everything is back where it belongs.
I fought the sadness with medicine, and luck, and snow, and writing, and alcohol, and taking all the advice from my mom and my brother in law and my friends and readers and strangers and books and forceful talks from my roommate. I fought it with writing, and work, and Ren, and business trips and crying and bath tubs and sleeping in the basement of Steph and Ammen's house. I remember lying in bed for days, with black sand in my head, but one day I woke up and the winter had melted mostly away, Nici was calling me from her picturesque land line in Missoula with a martini in her hand, Will was shaking his head and smiling down at me with that smile he gets, and Lee was throwing a pair of climbing shoes at my head and saying "Hey, get up, let's do this."
|Lee Timmons Photo|
Saturday is sixty degrees and drenched in sun. We're looking up at a climb and counting the bolts, gauging its possible rating since we don't have a guide book and we don't know where we are. "Looks pretty good," I say to Rip. "Why don't you lead it?"
I haven't led in forever. I figure I'm out of the game for a while.
Rip's tying in but then a stranger appears on the trail and says, "Oh, that's a 5.10 C!" and disappears around the bend. Rip turns to me, he's got the look, he says, "I don't think....I want to start on this."
It looks good to go, so I say I'll try it. What the hell. It's not pretty, I hang on the draws, but it's solid. I lead it bolt by bolt, I fall twice and it doesn't scare me, I finish the climb and when I get to the chains I lean back and think, "Holy shit." As in, Holy Shit, I did it. It's all the eloquence I can muster.
The calluses are gone but the muscle memory remains. And the confidence. The confidence instilled by following Andrew up hundreds of routes, up cliffs and big walls and faces I'd never have seen without him, of being nine pitches up and thinking, I'd better figure out how to get up this because I have no choice, the self assurance I gained when we stood on top of Total Soul in Darrington on the fourth of July, and he gave me a hug in the evening sunlight and said, "You just floated up that."
Here I've been fighting off all the bad things, but the good things remained locked in hidden vaults somewhere in my memory. They were there all along.
In that instant, on top of a granite spire near the Columbia river, I see straight. I see what is gone, and what is good.
Later that day, Rip decides to stay for another night, and I drive home with the dog. I get hungry and find the Mexican place, and I'm alone with all these emotions and realizations swimming around my head like tropical fish in a tank, and there's a menu and there's no one to stop me. And so begins the eating- carne asada and margaritas, the meteor-like ball of fried ice cream with strawberry 'topping'. And thank God. It's been a long five months. I'm fucking hungry.