I dub eras I’ve lived through, starting with graduations. The engagement era came soon after, with facebook life events popping up after every holiday. The wedding era naturally followed (most Saturdays are booked for a couple of years in your early 20s), then the first wave of pinterest pregnancies, and now I’m notified of second and third rounds of babies.
During the tattoo era (somewhere in between graduations and engagements), many of my friends inked up. I lived in Madison at the time. Weekly I listened, over a craft brew, to someone describing the art on their body: telling the story, reliving the memory, proving the significance of something that had happened in their lifetime. Living in a city of protest, part of me wanted to make a counterstatement and get an absolutely meaningless tattoo. Just to ironically say nothing. I joked around that I was going to get a picnic table on my ribcage.
I finished work this Saturday, drove home to throw the last of the gear in the car, and drove to Wisconsin to rock climb somewhere new. This place was named The Picnic Area. I hoped the maker of the routes was a smart ass.
If you’re unfamiliar with route names, you have to interpret them with a sly, slightly stoner attitude: No Such Thing as Too Much Sax, Sticky Fingers, A Good Day to Die, Ben Dover, Projectile Vomit, Straight No Chaser, Grey Expectations, Good Knight, Rapprochment. Climbers are their own culture. Even the most delicate, disciplined climbers crack jokes at the crag or are willing to take a whipper (at least from the climbers I’ve met).
I was fortunate to be out with two climbers a few grades (or more) above my level. That’s fantastic because I can learn by observing: one of them climbs with powerful cadence that flows easily solving one problem after another; the other chooses very precise and balanced moves that are astoundingly confident and smooth. They climbed, in their own style, a 5.10d called Electric Stove Couch.
My turn. The wall was shady and blank. I could see the first move: it’s a wide side pull with your left hand and a high step on your left leg. You sort of barn door up, onto the wall (gracefully, if you can) and catch a small, angled lip with three fingers waaaay out with your right hand. You sort of look like a bird who smacked into the cliff face. I chalked up and swung up. The boys had, from there, gone straight up. I saw nothing in my reach. I brushed the cliff with my nose and looked down: there was nothing for my feet. I felt my fingers clamp down on the crimps and dismay creep into my skull. I didn’t see the route.
I am not a powerhouse. I am not educated enough to climb technically or even traditionally (yet) I do not think. I am a student. A very determined student. Luckily, with a very patient and encouraging belayer, I was able to discover and string together the first few moves. They are slow. They are groundwork moves that set you up to get into a position to actually make progress – the moves in themselves are not necessarily productive. Every movement slightly adjusting balance and reaching to the absolute maximum for me. Right hand reaches so the tips of my fingers find a lip, then move left foot onto a small sloping angle. Left hand pull over, right foot smears up until texture. Bump right foot directly below my body onto a micro-ledge (the size of a quarter glued to the rock). That frees the left hand to move up, and up (!), and peel .
Climbing a hard route is a lot like starting a relationship. It’s awkward. It feels risky, safe, then risky, then safe. It’s unfamiliar and uncertain. It’s enjoyable but it can hurt. It needs to arrive at an anchor. It needs a sequence.
Admittedly, I fell on that route a dozen times or more. I worked it until I was burnt, then I moved right and played with some other fun cracks and chimneys and a roof, and in the golden hour we came back to Electric Stove Couch for more. I woke up this morning with sore arms, sore shoulders, and a sore back.
But I took measurements. I will do it. It’s a shame that great things take time when we have so little time allotted to us from the beginning. I want it so much. I want to master the sequence and solve the puzzle at my fingertips. I want to stand on nothing and do my dance. There is something beautiful about discovering a sequence, practicing it, and pushing it further. I wonder what the makers of the route thought about.