The Indifference of Rock
“NO PARKING. NO STANDING. FIRE LINE.” the sign reads. “BY ORDER OF ST. GEORGE FIRE OFFICIAL.”
Five unshaven and battered college students sit in the narrow street leading into a parking lot, obviously blocking the cars but not caring. They are disheveled, dirty, and satisfied. Although they look like the homeless of Southern Utah, they attend a prestigious school in Southern California, and are only borrowing the unwashed look.
Jim rejoices at their predicament, sitting under the brick wall’s shade, eating crumbly gluten free tortillas garnished with peanut butter and Honey Nut Chex cereal. Jim is tall, well built, and kind.
He has lived his life under other people’s orders. Not because they commanded, but because he found his niche following his family’s guidance. In high school, he played sports during every season: football, hockey, and lacrosse. His father had been a football star, and his one-year older brother started playing hockey and lacrosse, so he followed in their footsteps. Every male in his family had gone to the school he was now attending. Completing the revered engineering program was a right of passage.
But now, he is on his own adventure, an adventure he is sure no one in his family has gone on, a climbing expedition. Passersby leaving the Smashburger they are leaning against quicken their pace as they see the five boys. He is excited about being a bum on the side of the street. It is nothing he had ever experienced, but the sport is nothing he has ever experienced.
He is a smart guy; there aren’t problems he can’t solve. Those problems enthrall him. Math is exciting, but physics is unbelievable. There are so many variables, not just variables, but applicable variables. Math is abstract. Physics is real. He can feel physics. Physics is every time someone puts his foot on the ground and every time someone turns in her car. AP Physics in high school was the only class that really made him think critically.
One night, on a drunk binge, he was with a buddy who couldn’t shake his hand. “Sorry.” Max said. “I’ve just been climbing and I don’t have any skin on my hands. Shaking hands would be very unpleasant for both of us. For me, the pain, for you, the blood and dead skin.” Jim laughed.
“No way.” Jim responded. He had had countless blisters on his hands from cradling a lacrosse stick, but he’d always been able to shake a hand. Max opened his hands, and true enough, they were rubbed raw.
“I’ll take you later next week, I need to let these guys heal. If I go tomorrow it’ll be all pain.”
It was the greatest thing Jim had ever done, great in its rebellion. He walked into the gym and there was a stale odor he hadn’t smelled before. It was a slight musk, the combination of chalk and sweat, but the place was filled with sleeveless rebels. Grunts resounded through his ears, and there was a group sitting on mats clapping for a monkey-like individual who hung from the top of a wall. To his left, there were walls fifty feet high with ropes dangling from the ceiling. Right next to that wall was another the same height, yet there were no ropes. He saw a fit lady, with bulging shoulders, climbing up with a rope attached to her; she seemed to thread it through bolts on the wall as she went higher. Then there was a shorter contorted wall that snaked around the rest of the gym. Its topography changed in every location. There were walls that were at a ninty-degree angle, one obtuse wall, slab problems, overhangs, and even a cave with holds on the ceilings.
“This is top roping” Max said, pointing to the 50-foot high wall with ropes attached. “Lead climbing,” the fifty-foot high wall with no ropes. “Bouldering,” the twelve-foot high wall with no ropes. “Today we’ll start with bouldering. Give it a try, I’ll give you some tips when they come up.”
Calculative, Jim waited before making his first attempt. He slipped on the tight shoes and continued surveying the area. It was a trance. But, it looked like something he could do; it looked like something he could do well. He tried one of the easiest climbs, V0. He did it easily. He wondered why some people had to yell so loudly. Then he tried a V1. This was harder, but doable. Then he tried a V2. He couldn’t get a foot off the ground. Stubborn, he eyed the problem. Wanting to succeed, he knew it must have been his body position. “Can I watch you do this?” He asked Max.
Max scaled the wall with ease.
Jim took careful score of Max’s body position and tried to emulate it exactly, but even better. That was Jim’s niche, emulating but better. That’s how he had become the captain of all three sports teams during high school. Once a coach criticized his ability, he immediately fixed the mistake and rarely made it again. But, for once, he couldn’t fix it on the spot, it was tantalizing, it was entrancing, it was physics.
“Is there any organized competition?” Jim asked that day at the gym.
“Yeah,” Max responded, “But no one I know does it. You’ll understand if you stick with it. That’s not what it’s about.”
Jim, Max, and Brian had a week off from school during spring break and they were spending it in Joe’s Valley Utah, where there’s some of the best bouldering in the country. They drove up early Friday morning. Jim and Max didn’t know Brian very well, but that was the nature of the sport. Climbers propose outdoor trips in the gym, where they only knew one another from the hours testing their endurance pressed against fake plastic rocks. At the gym, climbers talk climbing. Understanding words like gaston, sidepull, mantal, knee bar, beta, and flash are paramount to maintaining conversation. There was rarely talk of family, school, or other hobbies. Speaking about work was prohibited. Eventually, climbers gather enough people, pads, and time to go on an expedition. It makes the trip more adventurous; they are not only learning about the landscape but about their companions.
They arrived at ten p.m. Only the stars and the moon lit the road, but that was enough to keep the area from complete blackness. They wandered on a dirt road until they found a camping area. Thankfully, there were open spots. The temperature dropped 30 degrees from school. Bringing their warmest gear, which was still only a thick sweater each, was a smart idea. They whipped out three pairs of gloves from the car and began trying to figure out how to put up their tent. Max made the mistake of not setting it up when he got it from the school’s outdoor shop. Eventually, they got it standing, lopsided. They stuffed the tents with comforters and nodded into sleep.
“You need the guidebook to find the problems, but they are sold out in the only store in town. There is some decent advice on MountainProject.com,” A couple camped fifty yards away told them the next morning. The boulders were spread throughout hikes and there was no way to tell which climb was which along the rocks’ faces. There were no trophies for this, no awards, not even defined climbs. Jim’s life was order and routine. That’s how he grew up. He was raised in suburban New Jersey. He played town sports growing up and his family frequently had fellow well-established families in town over for dinner. He was expected to do well in school. He was expected to excel at his sports. Now there were no expectations, just his drive to use his mind and body to solve the way up a boulder.
It was important to know the grading of a problem before hopping on, otherwise climbers could spend all day working on a problem completely out of their skill level, thinking it’s just within their grasp, assuming the first move is the hardest when it’s actually the easiest. The three boys asked the couple where they should start.
“New Joes has a lot of problems, a bunch of beginner problems too, and all the boulders are pretty close to each other.” The three boys looked at each other in approval. “Take a right from the parking lot, then another right, and you follow that road for about five miles until you get on highway 39. Go north for 2.7 miles, there’s no marking when to stop but just look at your odometer, and pull over on the side of the road, there’s a faint path leading up the mountain that takes you right to New Joes.”
“Odometer? No markings?” Jim thought.
They pulled over at the 2.7 mile mark. Jim’s phone started ringing. It was his dad. “Jim, I just got your message from yesterday. What’s this about going to Utah? I was upset that you chose not to come home for spring break, but I understood. I went out on adventures starting sophomore year at school, and same with your brother. But I went to houses on the beach. It sounded like you had almost no plan. And you’re spending a lot of time climbing. What’s that going to do for you? You can’t put it on a resume. Employers will understand club lacrosse and club football. It requires communication and sportsmanship.” The signal was shaky but Jim knew what the call was going to be about before he picked up the phone.
“Look dad, I don’t have time for this. I’m busy right now. I don’t know when I’ll have service but I’ll talk to you later.” He hung up.
“Everything okay?” Max asked. Jim nodded.
The three lugged out their crash pads and began trekking to New Joes. Two men in their early thirties were behind them, there was a point when the three boys kept walking straight and the two men turned off to the right. “The boulders are in this direction.” The men told the boys.
The men began leading. Soon enough they came to three boulders creating a nest of dirt in the middle. Five climbers lounged between the rocks. They sat on six crash pads lying on the ground, covering all the dirt. No one was climbing.
“Which problems are these?” Brian asked the newly encountered climbers.
“Monkey’s Tale, No Return, and Jedi Deathforce.”
“Do you guys happen to have a guidebook we can look at? We’re just getting to New Joes.” A woman handed Max her book. She looked like she was in her mid thirties. She was tan, wearing a sleeveless shirt with a flannel wrapped around her shoulders. She was rugged. “You’ll fall in love with this place. I’ve been here for three months.” Jim smiled. This is probably what his dad was afraid of. Jim was beginning to understand that a good job might not be the most important qualifier for a prosperous life.
The three students thanked the older group and kept walking. The next boulder they arrived at had a V3 and V5 problem on its face. Jim was climbing up to V5s in the gym and was excited to hop on some challenging climbs outside. “Where is Grapes of Glory?” Max asked a crowd of eight sitting around this new boulder
“You’re looking at it.” A shrouded figure responded.
“Chris?” Max answered.
The obscured person emerged from the other side of the boulder, “Max?”
They embraced. “I can’t believe you’re here!” Max followed Chris to the other side of the rock. Jim and Brian followed. There were five young adults reclining on crash pads, two others were eyeing up a section of boulder. Jim, Max, and Brian introduced themselves to the crowd. The new acquaintances were from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. They had two weeks for spring vacation and were spending the time driving south to climb. From here, they would go to Bishop, and then Joshua Tree, before heading back up to school. Chris was actually the one who got Max into climbing in high school. They grew up together in Springfield, Missouri and played high school soccer together. Now, here they were, coincidentally meeting up in Utah.
Chris led Jim, Max, and Brian to a good warm up boulder. They laid their crash pads underneath the problem. One by one, each of the three boys walked up to the boulder, planned out his route, softly placed his hands to feel they types of holds he would have to rely on, chalked up, and tried to ‘scend. They worked out the beta aloud, strategizing as a group, cheering when one successfully topped out. Jim could finish V4s in the gym, but outside he was struggling on V2’s. During indoor climbing sessions, climbers go to the gym and have two hours to wear themselves out. During outdoor climbing sessions, climbers are outside all day. Climbers would burn out if they continuously worked on problems. Jim soon realized that lounging was a necessity in outdoor bouldering. Almost all of the fun was simply being outdoors, lounging with friends, or newly acquainted climbers.
After about an hour the Whitman group walked up to the SoCal boys and laid their pads around the same boulder. In indoor climbing there was a set route with specific holds for each climb, to be used in a predetermined way. In outdoor climbing there was still a route and a predetermined line but any part of the rock was game. Jim enjoyed the freedom, more possibilities for him to consider.
The Whitman crew left around 4 pm Max walked back to the car to pick up his cousin and uncle, who were meeting the boys in Utah. Max’s cousin was much better at climbing than the three of them. He was a senior at the Baptist University of Missouri. He seemed to already know each boulder they passed. “I’ve been watching YouTube videos to prepare for the trip.” He explained. The next three days was more of the same, going to new locations, working on problems, trying to ignore that all the skin was scrapped away from the fingers and that every muscle ached from places they didn’t know had muscle to tear. When Jim walked up to a problem, he closed his eyes, in preparation for the pain he was about to beset on himself.
Max’s cousin and uncle brought a trailer with them. They cooked dinner at eight; the five of them ate at nine, talked for an hour or two, and then headed to bed. It was different living. Jim enjoyed its hedonistic undertones. When it rained on the third day, they drove south to Zion. It was a three-hour drive for a day of climbing; they decided it was worth it. Jim still hadn’t responded to his dad. He sent his family a message, “I’m okay, talk to you when I get back to school.” and turned off his phone. He could never before turn his phone off for an entire week. There was always someone, somewhere, he needed to communicate with. Not for this trip. He had enough cash for food and gas. He didn’t want to be away from his experience for a moment.
During the drive, Max and Brian texted everyone they knew who went on the school-orchestrated Zion trip. There were two friends on the Zion trip who were also climbers. The three arrived at their friends’ Zion campsite at midnight; their buddies had waited up for them. They were greeted with a hotbox in a tent. The tent filled with smoke and their heads filled with happiness. The five of them slept in that four-man tent. They woke up the next day to the smell of bacon and eggs. Jim left the tent and was greeted by ten of his classmates around the picnic table, which comprised the kitchen.
“Hey everyone.” He smiled.
“Woah, Max? When did you get here?”
The five climbers loaded up into two cars and followed some more sketchy directions. “When you get to highway forty, turn left onto Frost Road and follow it for 2.1 miles, pull into the parking lot on the left and take the only trail for about a mile or two,” MountainProject.com instructed. It took the five of them awhile to find that parking lot. They walked down the pathway and ate lunch around the red rock boulders. All five of them ‘scent a V3. It was the first problem Jim ‘scent that was also challenging for Max. They walked back to the car. “I need Smashburger.” Said Evan. They blazed the quickest trail toward the fast food establishment. They sit, in the middle of the parking lot, some eating Smashburger, others eating Chex and peanut butter in a taco shell.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt or looked more like a bum.” Max says.
“But a climbing bum.” Brian answers.
They stay in the parking lot for an hour until Evan says, “Alright, how about we go back to the campsite?” The four others agree.
Jim, Max, and Brian decide to stay with the Zion group for the rest of the week. They each have aches that could escalate into serious, climbing preventing, injuries if they keep barreling through the pain.
Jim calls his dad when he gets back to campus. “Let me talk before you do.” He tells his father. “You don’t understand this sport. Bouldering climbs are called problems. That’s what they are: problems. They are problems that you solve with your body. The sport is a combination of critical thinking, strength, and perseverance. By the third day of our trip, my hands were bloody and muscles I didn’t know I had were squealing in protest of my continuation. People from all over the world sit around boulders, these large chips of rock that people chalk up and attempt to climb. People lie on pads around the rock, supporting whoever is challenging it, whoever is trying to tame the untamable, whoever is learning they are nature’s bitch. Every climber knows there is a rock he can’t ‘scend. It’s so humbling. I’m not going to stop.” Jim has never been a talker, or a poet.
“Alright.” His father responds.
The Noble East
1920’s jazz is the inciting action. Black dress shoes squeak against the marble floor. Hard like money. The money that flows like curses exchanged in three languages. Everyone in the kitchen knows four words: fuck, shit, pendeho, puta. New faces are our soul. During quiet days we rot. When we want a customer to come in the door we want to be home. There’s no money without tips. Every night we’re mad. Mad because there are too many tables or too little. Mad becomes customary, and then necessary. How else do you live taking home minimum wage or ten times that, depending on the night? You have to be mad. You’re upset at the host for seating two more customers in another server’s table, or the waiter for not clearing-mid meal. Noise is good. Noise is money. Money is money. Noise is customers; noise is yelling hosts, managers, runners, busboys, waiters, dishwashers, prep cooks, sous-chefs, head chefs.
Anger is mistakes that can’t be made Saturday night. Soft-spoken advice is for slow days. Everyone hates slow days, standing and preparing for action that doesn’t come. You should come high. You can’t come high, either the restaurant’s busy and you’ll fuck up or it’s empty and you’ll fall asleep on the job. Either way you’re fucked. Tabletops get set and wiped, they stay vacant, the last customers finish desert. You sweep, mop, and get your cash. You say farewell and hope tomorrow will be busier.