As a spasm of tears flooded my eyeballs, I pitched my head forward and between my knees so that the salty liquid could drop directly from my eye sockets onto the cement floor. We, women, do strange things to avoid smudging our eyeliner. I recognized in the moment that this irrational outburst could probably be identified as a panic attack. For no reason based in reality, my body had decided that someone I once loved was about to die. It responded accordingly, spraying me (and the room) with urgent grief. I struggled to breathe for the next forty-five minutes and in the aftermath I ached for answers. I desperately wanted to know why. Why do some of live long, healthy, relatively charmed lives while others burn at both ends until they’re nothing but ashes? Why must some children face atrocities? It is easy to see why my own suffering is necessary and useful but when I look at the imprints of terror and cruelty in the lives of others, that theory seems quite feeble. What, in a world full of fear and pain, is the point? What is the meaning of all this living? These are time old questions. They crashed into me like a fifteen foot wave swallowing an amateur surfer. They pulled me into the depths, stole my breath, and somersaulted me until I didn’t know which way was up.
Despite periodically needing to place my head between my knees, I trusted my resiliency. I’d been pulled under by despair and risen to surface many times. History indicated that with time, this wave would pass and eventually I’d bob back to surface and pull in a big breath of hope. Meanwhile, I still had a great deal working in my favor. For one, handfuls of people were willing to listen to me ramble off these questions. Some laughed. Some shook their heads. Some questioned my grip on reality. Some went toe to toe with me and my existential questions, playing the stoic devil’s advocate to my emotional scramble for certainty. In addition, I was packing my bags for a climbing trip in Moab, Utah. Pascal said, “All men’s miseries derive from being unable to sit in a quiet room alone.” Yet, in this case, it was high time I put the bare necessities, namely my harness, tarot cards, warm weather gear, and a toothbrush, into a backpack and jumped into the backseat of a truck that was heading out of cell phone service. In addition, I’d be spending the entirety of the weekend with a band of merry hoodlums that included some of my favorite humans on the planet. When I get stuck in the cycles of my own head, more contemplation or time alone is not the most effective solution. Sometimes, I need to run wild. I had a fever, and the only prescription was a climbing trip.
Instead of driving the twelve to fifteen hours north to this mecca of red rocks, my schedule forced me to fly to Utah to join the other half of our party on the southern journey from Salt Lake City. As soon as I took my seat on the plane, I could feel the pulse of looming clarity. Something about travel clears my head. Maybe it’s the exposure to a variety of people and lifestyles. Maybe it’s the reading and scrawling in my journal that inevitably take place in a plane or on a long car ride. Maybe it’s the sanctuary from monotony that comes from standing somewhere new, or even old, for a window of time. Whichever it was, as the wheels of the plane lifted off the tarmac, my heart lifted as well.
I’d lived out a good portion of the four years between ages eighteen and twenty-two in this area of Utah. These were not happy times. As I wandered the literal landscape of my most enduring existential freak out, I could easily gauge the distances I’d traveled mentally and physically since that time. The memories soothed my worried little heart. I might still be panicking when the waves pull me under, but over time I’d learned that this body and mind are buoyant.
The day was laced with personal conversations, podcasts, and snow capped mountain tops. Despite the elevation, I was already breathing easier. The last bubble of anxiety popped in my chest when Chris’s bright blue beast of a truck turned right and onto the road that led to wall street and Jaycee Campground. My stress fell away with my cell service. Moab feels as familiar and as uplifting as blasting “Born to be Wild” on the stereo while the windows are rolled down. The towering sandstone reads like an intricate tapestry of overlapping ambers, maroons, and charcoal. The muddy Colorado River moves by slowly, unaware that other rivers might be lauded for their rapids or their crystal clear waters. The Colorado doesn’t care. The Colorado doesn’t give a shit. It creeps by, dirty, constant, and all the more beautiful for its murkiness.
The next day dawned with the click of propane, the whoosh of flames springing to life, and the sounds of water simmering on the camp stove. After multiple pots of coffee, more than a little dilly dallying, and a very little driving, we tossed racks and ropes directly from the truck bed to the base of the crag. Alex, our fearless leader, sent a handful of classic climbs, including Flakes of Wrath, Pinhead, and Visible Pantyline. The small chance of rain the following day spurred us to climb as though there was no tomorrow. It was possible there wouldn’t be. The potential for rain or tragedy accented each ascent with an air of gratitude. We climbed by the grace of Mother Nature. If she rained down hardship, our ambitions would be stalled. The towering sandstone sent frequent reminders that we were guests there, frail and fallible and at the mercy of the generous, or, at times, withholding weather. At the base of Gunsmoke, a stunning and humbling 5-11 crack on Maverick’s Buttress, a chunk of rock pounded into the earth passing mere feet from my face. My eyes widened at the force with which it hit the deck. It’s thud drove home the point. I am not hosting the mountain. I cannot control the pace or the murkiness of the river. I can note it’s beauty. I can appreciate its existence, and if the forces be willing, I may be able to summit it’s peaks, touch its curves and crevices, or ride it’s current, yet I am still its guest.
On our final day, back at wall street, after I’d sloppily slugged myself up “Another Roadside Distraction”, two police cars zoomed past our crew. Our group grew somber after an ambulance followed, and our suspicions were confirmed when a helicopter flew overhead while we drove away. Another climber had not been welcomed by the wall. We had been lucky. Someone else had not. The sirens rang out a call for humility. We are not invincible. Each time I hung my body weight on a finger jam, or plunged my arm shoulder deep into a crack, I understood that if my foot blew, I’d be facing a broken limb or digit. The band and I agreed, however, that not being on the rock, or not being out there hearing, seeing, and touching every inch of this world that we could get our hands on would be a far worse fate. There are indeed risks. People get hurt, yet somehow that makes it all the more precious, more interesting, or at the very least, more exciting.
That night our campsite was packed full of feasting, fire spinning, and make-shift, though at times magical, music. As the sun fell behind the sandy rock, I left the safety of our campfire to witness the arriving night. Resting on the path that led to the river was a set of blanched bones. I, too, will one day perish. I’m a guest in this body. This little package of flesh let’s me dance, climb, walk, see, and sing, but at any moment, any or all of these things can be taken. In the past, the bones of dead animals were carved into our first tools. Will my body, or my life, be of any use after I am gone? How might I be a more gracious host? A generous host doesn’t peddle their wares, lock their guests in, or make demands on how they should enjoy their stay. Instead,
they offer up their home, their skills, their experience, or their hearts to be utilized and appreciated, while risking and accepting that, at times, this offering will go unnoticed, or even scorned. The host offers anyway. Maybe this body will host a human life. Maybe this body will be bones by Friday. First and always, however, I am a guest. I hope to be a grateful one. How might I be more considerate and appreciative? How might I minimize the messes I leave behind me? Can I take the time to notice the beauty in the rock, the river, the feasting around the fire, this body, and this life? Can I be open enough to sing for my supper and to host others as I have been hosted? Can I attempt to accept of the murkiness of this life, instead of wishing for clearer waters or a faster or slower pace? May I remember how small and impermanent I am? These questions and intentions fill my heart like fresh oxygen after a long submerge. The matriarch of this natural world did not gift me certainty. She didn’t answer the original questions, but she let me hold things that made me feel more alive and showed me sights that renewed my hope. She let me catch my breath.