If that seems opaque, suffice it to say that I often feel out of phase with the world, somehow present but not participant. More specifically, I'm talking about the real world, the one in which we're all supposed to 'find our way', the world of media, commerce, progress and violence, the world in which things happen. This is not the same space in which we have time to reflect, where we do things to advance our own understanding as opposed to trying to fit into that of someone or something else. The world of experience and experiential learning has a sort of intrinsic continuity that I find much easier to synch with than the one where strip malls and subdivisions blanket the horizon. Alright, I'll admit that these aren't separate worlds per se; they exist on the same planet that's shooting through the void of space at 30km/s, in the same temporal dimension that appears to govern all that we are and all that we experience. Rather, at least for me, they are different spaces, constructs that somehow contain certain events and experiences, placing them in some semblance of a context.
If you haven't guessed by now, this is leading towards another climbing-related vignette, a meditation on why climbing is both definitive and ruinous. Like any good drug, it provides relief in its immediacy and yet demands participation at the expense of everything else. There is a balance, they say, to almost everything. Nothing can seem less balanced, then, than a life predicated on intermittent bursts of extreme effort, risk and personal success punctuated by lengthy frustration, ennui and horrid inertia. I claim no uniqueness in being such a slave to extremes, at a loss as to how to play mediator between the warring factions. But since, for aught I know, this is my life (and my blog), time shall be spent writing of it, perhaps overmuch. While the world often seems composed of tribulations and malevolence and I an infinitesimal grain of sentience parasitizing a void-battered mass of rock, whiling away it's existence in exile from all true meaning, it's difficult to remember that life is sprent with amazement and joy if one's eyes are open. Here are tales of how Joshua Tree National Park and rock climbing, two of my most favorite things in the universe, help me remember how to see.
Climbing is about exploration, both geographic and personal. The actual experience of climbing is, at best, deeply spiritual. The concepts of success and progress are products of egocentrism, endemic to many of our pursuits. Their inclusion, though perhaps mandatory, is best tempered by an understanding of why, in the first place, we choose to pursue some of these things that, like climbing, are only quantifiable in the most crude fashion: arbitration via a scale of difficulty in order to 'measure' the value of our experiences. Why this inexorable propensity toward quantization? Perhaps simply because we must compare ourselves each to the other in this inexorable game of primacy.
Scrambling and boulder hopping through the rugged terrain above Indian Cove, into the huge series of washes and canyons comprising Rattlesnake Canyon, the enormity of this ancient place once again gave me pause. After ten years of extended visits to Joshua Tree, I realized, there were still an almost infinite number of astonishing spaces within. Even in such a dry year as this one, water trickles from pool to pool in rock worn smooth by millenia of rushing streams, in runnels carved out of the immense batholith that comprises all of the weathered, time-worn rock formations in the vicinity. This particular area slopes sharply down to the desert floor near 29 Palms, providing a drainage for almost all of the north end of the Wonderland of Rocks, an immense conflagration of domes and outcrops stretching for miles. At times a raging maelstrom many feet deep, the perennial presence of at least some water is a boon for animals. It also creates a unique environment to explore.
We entered the canyon seeking a few particular climbing objectives, but the day was given more to hours of wandering through myriad different desert environments. Our path was via lush groves on hillsides, through intricate canyons and secret coves of rock. As with many such adventures, the actual objective is often of secondary importance until it's imminently close at hand.
After a long approach up vegetated hillsides above the canyons and finally down a steep, exposed and technical gully, we found our climbs, which reside on this impressive buttress of smooth patina:
They were more than worth the trek, adding punctuation to the journey and themselves comprising somewhat of a journey. Intimidated after all the blissful wandering, it was hard to gear up for the somewhat serious nature of rock climbing. After a couple of hours here, it was time to spend another couple of hours descending back to the car through another series of intricate, smooth-walled watercourses, boulder-strewn canyons and washes.
This is a special place. I have a temptation to hoard these experiences, but I'm no hoary dragon in its lair and this particular trove is there for anyone to go and have a look.
It's easy to feel the synchronicity of things when this is what I wake up to, morning after morning, until all blend together into a sort of trance. The harsh but wondrous landscape drives me into a state of constant awareness: a missed step in the boulders might mean broken bones or far worse; a moment of inattention might mean missing something incredible.
The organic, almost soothing appearance of the rock formations belie the often frightening intensity of the climbing played out upon their canvases. The cracks, so perfect and elegant from afar sometimes turn into flaring nightmares, seams of sharp-grained monzonite that take scant protection and require every ounce of technique and fortitude to climb. The faces, though often featured with countless huecos, patinas and inclusions, are just as often blank as a new page, climbed via the most bleak crystalline finger holds and a trust in shoe rubber that borders on the religious.
It was on one such stretch of rock, though featured with enough moguls and dimples to offer only a moderate challenge, that I found myself really waking up to climbing again, as though the rest of the trip my eyes had been merely half open. I left the ropes and harnesses at camp because I like the freedom of moving around without them on the rock. I never like to push things too far in this direction, but I do push them enough to enjoy the sense of responsibility and presence of mind that can only come from putting oneself somewhat on the edge. While others push this genre of climbing to mind-bending crescendos, walking razor-fine edges between experience and annihilation, I keep a good distance back from this edge and simply try to see what I can see from there. This reticence doesn't obviate the need for caution, nor does it reduce to zero the chance that something might happen, but life can never be so utterly sterilized and to approach it with such focused intent is sometimes a source of relative control and certainly of valuable insight. I climbed a route I have done a dozen times with a rope on. A chimney, cracks and a large flake system lead to an exhilarating dance up polished but well-featured slab to the top. The slab came into sharp focus as I approached the end of the secure flake. To climb something of this nature, even something relatively moderate, is to put trust entirely into one's footwork. A single slip often means losing control. To fall while tied into a rope, especially on this climb, is within reasonably safe bounds. Without a rope, no fall is acceptable and most will end in the same result after a certain point. I don't seek out such tenuous sections of rock for idle scrambling; for me something like this requires the utmost confidence and concentration in this context which is seldom something I can muster everyday. To leave the safety of the flake for the slab is to commit oneself to ones abilities and also to a variable amount of chance relative to those abilities. I committed myself halfway, feeling the edge of panic at pushing too far ahead without meaning to before retreating to the shelter of positive holds. I repeated the process several times and the panic ceased, changing to focus. I tried to time my commitment to the climbing carefully so that no one below was watching, reasoning that a person at a distance would mistake my hesitation for fear and complete abandonment of any sensibility when in fact it was the exact opposite, the building up of control and a real sense of confidence. I moved back up to the slab and stood up once, then twice. In my mind, I was committed and had done so as part of a conscious choice. To retreat, though possible, would likely have been more perilous than to advance. This, among other things, ran through my mind peripheral to my focus. I though about what a foot slipping from the well-worn holds would mean, the strange paradox of this sun-drenched stretch of granite, warm in the afternoon, dissolving into the yawning void that waits, without waiting, for all of us and for all things.
Then I climbed upward with precision and care. Every foot placement was made with all the expertise I could conjure and I trusted each implicitly. Each step was made with confidence, with a sense of coordinated motion flowing upwards towards the top. Then I was there among the windswept huecos. I thought of alternate timelines where I wasn't there at the top: where I had fallen to the ground; where I had survived the fall; where I hadn't; where I had chosen not to pursue that climb, with its friction-dependent finale, in the first place. These timelines radiate from us at every turn, vectors of causality receding into the unthinkably vast gulf of potential outcomes. Whether their moments of force alter our own paths retroactively or whether we are at the whim of some far greater momentum, I can't say. Free will is an enigma woven of these inexorable forces in the opacity of their machinations.
As the afternoon sun descended towards its nadir, I pondered things less grandiose: the times when a rope granted me a false sense of security while I tackled much harder climbing with equally dangerous outcomes; the strange euphoria wrought by the weathering of dangerous circumstance; the curious ability to compartmentalize fear, panic and doubt without ignoring their existence, so key to survival, without descending into the nihilism of mere unchecked bravado, without losing the ability to reason in a rush of epinephrine. Then I looked out at the familiar desert vistas and felt life course through me, almost new in its intensity and I felt an irrepressible grin spread across my face.