CDS Column: Home on the Road

CDS Column: Home on the Road

14066350_1588101947882551_955321454025779419_oWe are all part of a tribe. Family, community, state, country, it all comes out from time to time.

The Olympics, pitched as an instance of the world coming together, is one example. Countries meet on a global playing field, a time-honored tradition in camaraderie. But what is it really? Competition. Nationalism. The chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” that fill the stadium are a tribal call, a celebration of divisions, not just unity. It is about us and them, and us. Most of all us.

When Ryan Lochte acts like an imbecile it is not an individual insult but a tribal shame: “the ugly American abroad,” an old tribal stereotype. “He gives our entire delegation a bad name.” How true, a slandering of our tribe.

The Olympics are over. The overt national call has come to a close. But our tribalism has not. It never comes to an end, it is baked into the American fabric.

Some versions are ugly, acute reminders of the stereotype Lochte stands accused of reinforcing: the Ugly American. Those live in the political chants of Americans insistent on restricting entrance or accommodation based on religion. “No more Muslims” has somehow become its own tribal call. Same with “no more immigrants.” This in a country founded by immigrants, built on the principles of religious freedom.

The Ugly American indeed. But tribalism is emotional more than it is logical, it doesn’t always make sense.

Not every vision of tribalism is so bleak, however.

This summer I drove across the United States. First one way, from New Hampshire south to North Carolina, then across to Kentucky, Colorado, Utah, California, then the other, from Washington state back to Colorado and across the long green center to the Mid-Atlantic and the North. Back to New Hampshire, from the Sierras to the Whites, from one unending blue to the other.

In the eastern plains of Colorado I pulled off at a rest stop. It was a warm morning, yellow grass swaying in the breeze. I got out to stretch my legs, hit the bathroom and filled my water bottle. I was roughly 30 hours from home, a long stretch of road before me.

Across the way two men stood outside a green Honda Civic. They were scruffy, their clothes dirty. Modern hippies, maybe homeless, likely both. One had dreadlocks. The other held a leash that ran to a small black dog. Someone had written “Live Free or Die” in white paint along the Civic’s trunk. The dreaded man looked at me, nodded his head, smiled, and then pointed to his license plate with both hands like a maitre d’ showing me to my table: New Hampshire. The Granite State. “We are of the same tribe,” his smile said. I smiled back and waved, then steered toward the highway. Indeed.

A thousand miles later it happened again, this time crossing Ohio: A young man in a low-set Acura slid along the highway. He was driving fast, faster than I would have, weaving his way among the traffic. I saw him approaching in my rearview. I held my course to let him pass.

But when his window was adjacent to mine he slowed. When he paused, I looked. He stared back at me, probably in his early 20s, dark hair, a quintessential college kid. He smiled, raised his fist, quickly pumped it twice and then sped up, crossing back into my lane just in front of me. His plate: New Hampshire, the first I’d seen since Colorado.

What happened next is he slowed.

Not fully, but enough that his message was clear. “Follow me,” he seemed to be saying. “You speed up a little, I’ll slow down a little, and we can band together to cross this Buckeye State highway. As Granite Staters.”

As a tribe.

And here’s the thing: I did. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the months among American foreigners, of being surrounded by cars from California and Colorado plates, Kentucky-ites and Utahns.

The poignant reminder painted in green script and shadowed by a fallen Old Man was enough to push my foot on the accelerator. Maybe it was seeing someone call to me in brotherhood despite having no idea of my name. But cruising along I-70 with no reason to speed up beyond the wave of a non-friend I decided to exceed the posted limit a little more.

I lost him somewhere around Columbus where I-77 turns north. He pulled away amid the congestion, and like a cyclist too weak for the peleton I drifted backward. I didn’t find him again. And I was staying on I-70, driving east to see a friend in Philadelphia, my license plates having left out the full story of my destination. But I still smile as I think of him, a lone warrior whose befriending me stood on nothing but my tags. A true tribal spirit.

Maybe it’s only among foreign shores that such tribalism is born. In the West, highway speed limits read 75 mph. With cruise control pegged at 85 I’d find myself weaving past cars, flying faster than the flow of traffic. Weeks later on my return home through New York the posted limit read 50. I again pegged cruise control at 85, but this time I was the sluggard, a slow motion impediment crawling along the pavement. Empire State plates shot past like I was riding a farm tractor.

And for some reason it felt like home.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

Ended Hiatus

Ended Hiatus

13730801_1553661621326584_6611188446585815400_oOK. So I’ve been working in Belize for the last month, which has meant I’ve not been keeping up with my posting duties. Internet access was temperamental, time was limited, etc., etc. But I fly back to the U.S. in a few days (currently hanging out on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world), back to my car (parked just north of Seattle), and figure out whatever is next.

And honestly I don’t have any real idea what is next for me. I had thoughts of staying out west, but over the last month a number of things have been calling me back to New England. Not enough that I know I’m heading directly there, but I’m looking harder at a handful of opportunities near what has long been my home.

It feels good to have that pull. Belize has been amazing—working with American high school kids running a summer camp for Belizean middle and elementary students focused on improving their literacy skills. It was a time out, time off from the road, from climbing and adventure, time for human contact and connection and cultural exchange.

Belize-3503And it was an ecological exploration. Belize is home to the second longest barrier reef in the world, multiple ecosystem zones, caves, jungle, mountains and savannah. Iguanas crouch in the trees, tarantulas roam the forest floor, toucans haunt the air. I saw a manatee, two Harpy Eagles, a jaguar, held a boa constrictor, swam with sea turtles, pondered over leafcutter ants and got bitten by thousands of bugs. It was an awesome amazing trip, one I’ll be writing about more. But before that happens I wanted to share a video. My dance with sea turtles reminded me of it. At 2:25 is the job I think is probably most interesting in the world: sea turtle wrestler. Heck yeah! Lifetime aspirations! 🌊🐋

Shattered Glass Beach

Shattered Glass Beach

IMG_8192.JPGThe idea sounded cool when I read about it a month ago: a beach made of sea glass, stones replaced with ground shards of white, green and brown. Rare specks of blue and rose radiating in the sun, waves lapping the shore, giving the glass below the waterline an even more powerful sense of iridescence. Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, California. I wanted to see it.

I left Oakland on Saturday, the end of a month sleeping in beds (none of them mine and in four different states, but still). I had two weeks to get up the Pacific Coast to Seattle, where I’ll fly south at the end of the month to Belize. The Plan: surf, climb, paint, read, write and flyfish my way through Northern California, Oregon and Washington before my flight. See beautiful things, beautiful places. Maybe fall in love with one of them and decide to live there forever. You know, the usual roadtrip stuff.

I crossed the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, aimed for Point Reyes National Seashore, where two lanes snake across highlands, surrounded by ocean on all sides. It juts into the Pacific, America’s left-coast thumb. Stiff breezes rake over grasslands and grazing cows, an unceasing roar from the north. Sand beaches stretch for miles, some lined by dunes, others by cliffs. Elephant seals bask in the sun. Seabirds glide on endless thermals overhead.

13497627_1521654587860621_4683670894975756410_oI drove to North Beach and watched waves pound the shore. It was a desolate place. I wanted to stay, to take in the starkness. The sun had warmth, but not enough to fight the wind. I pulled on my jacket, wandered down to the lighthouse at the point, then over the peninsula to a protected harbor. All of it wild, lonely and exposed.

I spent the night in a boat launch parking lot. Coyotes yipped in the dark; the wind carried their calls. I read by headlamp until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I went to sleep still wearing my jacket.

The next morning I work up and drove the beach. The wind had died, the ocean was calmer, more orderly, but breaking against the sand. It would not be a surfing day.

Or so I thought. I got back to my car and saw a slip of white under the wiper. “Live Free or Die. 🙂 🙂 :-)” it said. It was a note scrawled in pen on the back of a paper receipt. “I moved here 21 years ago from North Hampton. No more ice cream headache! Come over to Drake’s Estero, wind will be offshore. Enjoy! Tony Szabo”

Surfing beta. The board strapped to the roof had given Tony the message I might need some direction about conditions. He was right. The estuary—I’d seen signs for it.  I climbed back into the Element and headed that way.

I came to Drake’s Beach and watched lazy rolling waves cut towards shore. The swell came north, the wind pushed its way south; a perfect combination. Small, but enough. I grabbed my board and wetsuit and headed for the water.

I’m not much of a surfer, the Pacific is a different animal than the North Atlantic, but it was fun, friendly but cold. After an hour I climbed out shivering, my hands numb. I fumbled my way out of my wetsuit, changed and headed north again.

Dinner, a podcast and a map later I knew I had 100 miles to go Glass Beach. I would be there by the morning.

IMG_8191.JPGThe morning was cloudy when I pulled into Fort Bragg, the ocean calm. I turned left of Highway 1 and parked, following signs to Glass Beach. “Please leave all cultural artifacts,” a note said. I descended cabled stairs to the shore.

And there it was—a beach of mostly seaglass. People were everywhere picking their favorite pieces, dropping them in bags, digging through the glass, mostly white, green and brown, the blues and reds long ago picked out.

This beach is a former dump. Until 1959 residents tossed all manner of trash off the cliff, and over the decades the ocean transformed much of it. Now it’s a park.

But a park with a past. Dig through the glass for a bit and your hands turn dark, grimy. The ocean did what it could to wash this beach clean, but even a half century of rinsing cannot rub the trash truly clean. Instead of a glow, the beach is a dull hue, still has the feel of a refuse heap. Down at the waterline it’s better, with the ocean actively rinsing, but even there bits of metal and old springs show through. The garbage dump is still home to garbage.

A few miles in either direction are more beaches, endless beaches. They are without glass, but they are also without the grime. The waves lap and coat them with salt, nothing more. These stretch in either direction, south to Mexico, north to Canada, broken by more cliffbands than roads. I went looking for the glass, for the one expired trash dump on 3,000 miles of beautiful coast. Thank goodness I made some stops along the way. I will be making many more.

13475114_1520378547988225_5068683986955992495_o

On the Road

On the Road

13071776_1474279299264817_5955152375711111058_oI stood by the side of U.S. 191 waving my arms. Another car slid past. Then another. And another.

“Damn it!” I shouted after the fifth went by without slowing. “Stupid!”

Rain was beginning to fall, and the wind had picked up. The clouds hung low over the mesa. The La Sals were covered in snow.

I was 25 miles from Indian Creek, 40 from Moab, and the battery in my Honda Element was down to Empty.

I’m such an idiot sometimes.

The plan was for a rest day. After three days of sandstone splitters my fingers were shot, my hands were raw and my arms were spent. I needed a shower, a refill on water, some internet and a grocery store. But instead I was on the side of the road miles from anywhere hoping against reason to flag down a pair of jumper cables.

Sometimes the adventure on climbing trips has nothing to do with the climbing.

Everything began in April. First stop: Washington D.C., the climbing Mecca. Andre, my scheduled Red Rocks and Yosemite partner, offered a session at Earth Treks and to let me crash in his spare room. After a New England winter of ice and snow it felt great to pull plastic. Humbling, but fun.

12961430_1458805094145571_3194725830949882464_oFrom there I drove on to Wilmington, North Carolina, for a weekend of freediving, descending like a SCUBA diver but without a tank, holding my breath as the light faded through the meters of oceanwater. Stealth-camping in my Element, eating meals out of Wholefoods, it felt like any climbing weekend, except that the worst advice you can give is “BREATHE!”

From there I drove west, the favored direction for the next six weeks. The first real climbing stop was Eastern Tennessee and two days at a secret cliff a friend was developing. “It’s a mix of the Red and the New,” he told me, “more technical than the Red but fewer stopper cruxes than the New.” An oath of secrecy later I found myself below a 40-meter high cliffband stretching from hollow to hollow, perfect orange rock towering above.

13002451_1459754597383954_5867903751223971741_o“This route is five stars,” my friend told me again and again. He was right. Beautiful sandstone, and to ourselves. We put up a new 5.12 with a fun bouldery crux near the ground and bolt after bolt of devious climbing above, 16 bolts of perfection. The Southeast is still full of hidden gems.

But I had friends to meet in the Red, as well as a project to attend to.

For Northeasterners the RRG is a transition ground, the place to switch from pulling on ice tools to grabbing rock holds. It’s a spring pilgrimage, one seldom observed fit for rock climbing.

A few years ago I caught a glimpse of Cell Block Six, a soaring line on the Midnight Surf wall. It called to me, a perfect transition route—big holds, big moves, lots of airtime—it seemed to shout “Welcome to sport climbing season!” I wanted on.

So day one: Warm up slow on 5.10, then head to where the cliff arches at angles that block the sun. Get on the project. Fall all over the project.

Day two: Recover from Day one.

It took two days of gravity testing, pizza dinners and sandstone buckets to clip the chains, but a pair of handjams after the crux unlocked the route. Desperate through the crux, I recovered enough in those jams to feel like the chains came too soon. The transition to rock season was on!

With the project in my pocket I turned west again, to Indian Creek. It’d been 13 years since I’d climbed in the Creek, I was due a visit. And after a few years mostly sport climbing the idea of splitters beckoned. Last fall I was part of an AAC exchange to the Caucus Mountains, climbing rock routes and alpine peaks in Armenia and Georgia. Our host was a strong and energetic Armenian named Mkhitar, and after the trip our group wanted to return the hosting favor. Mkhitar accepted an invitation from exchange member and famous alpinist Jim Donini to take a month-long tour of American rock, from the Creek to Red Rocks to Yosemite to the Black Canyon. Anyone who wanted to join was welcome to tag along.

13123396_1475909295768484_6295289621947350976_oThat’s how I landed on the side of the U.S. 191 waving in vain at passing cars.

The Creek is buried in technological darkness. Indeed, that is part of its appeal—no services, no cell coverage, just coyotes and varnished sandstone. The camping is primitive, the climbing superb. After the noise of Miguel’s and 1,000 miles of highway I sunk into that darkness with relish.

Jim, Mkhitar and a small crew had already staked out a camp and were on the rocks when I arrived. I spilled out of my Element and roped up, barely 7 hours out of Denver. Mkhitar’s face was stretched thin in a smile as he looked at the walls surrounding him. It was going to be a good trip.

But two days later after pitch after pitch of steep sandstone I needed a break. I tumbled back into my car and headed north. Rain spat as I climbed out of the canyon to the plateau, occasionally unleashing in waves, then quiet. I turned on my wipers, then my headlights. Red mud rinsed the land around me.

The first cell signal popped up a short distance from where the road to Indian Creek intersects the highway. My phone buzzed to life; emails downloading, text messages vibrating. I pulled over and switched off the car, leaving the key turned one click to listen to the radio. Three days away and a lot had happened; I started sorting through the layers.

Half-an-hour later, still sitting by the side of the road replying to a Facebook messages, the radio went silent. My phone battery indicator went from green to white.

“NO!” I shouted, suddenly realizing I’d left my headlights on. “NO! You idiot! What are you doing?!”

Half-an-hour—roughly the time it would have taken to get to Moab, where I could have done all of this internetting in the library, surrounded by central air, electric outlets and comfy seats. Instead I was now the proud owner of a dead Honda, parked in a patch of mud along the highway, rain moving in.

I tried the key: Nothing but clicks. I tried waiting a few minutes, hoping maybe the battery would recover enough residual charge, but I was too panicked to let it sit more than 90 seconds. More clicks. Finally I accepted what I had done, what I would have to do. I pulled on a fleece and stepped out into the spitting drops.

The first dozen cars didn’t even slow. Then came the fleet of rentals. “No,” the driver’s would say, one after another, “I don’t have cables. This is a rental car.” One guy offered to send help when he got to Monticello, but that sounded complex and expensive. “At least let me call you when I get there,” he said. “If you are still here I can send someone.”

I relented and gave him my phone number.

Drivers would see other cars pulled over and would pull over themselves, but they too had nothing to jump a battery with. (I, of course, was in no position to throw stones—where were my jumper cables?) I started to grow worried this could get expensive. I had cell coverage. I could call a towing service for a jump. But that felt like expedition tactics, resorting to aid climbing when I had set out for a free ascent.

I have learned that sometimes you can tell a car that has jumper cables. Sometimes the giveaway is the vehicle, other times it’s the driver. This time it was both. Truck. White. Extracab. With a diamond plate toolbox in the bed. A Utahn in his 40s with sandy hair, a mustache and well-worn Levi’s.

He was coming from the other direction. He slowed down and made a u-turn, pulled over all the way to the dirt embankment, letting his truck handle the terrain. He drove towards me, standing small against the desert, but stopped a few yards away. He was on his phone, and he just kept talking. He held up a finger. “One minute,” he seemed to be saying, “I’ll take care of this in one minute.”

Other cars were streaming past. I could be out there flagging them down, I thought. But I had a feeling.

He hung up the phone and rolled down his window.

“Do you have jumper cables?” I asked. The feeling was growing.

He paused, answered slow.

“Yep.”

The feeling was hope. “Can you give me a jump?”

Another pause.

“Yep.”

Another handjam rest. Maybe this crux would go too.

 

This piece originally appeared on the Trango website.