Saturday, August 30, 2014

"First Times" Make Life Worth Living

I walked out of work after successfully working on my road bike for the first time ever. With my first foray into bike touring on the horizon, knowing how to fix my bike is a must. It took me hours to do what a bike tech had done in 45 minutes but I had done it myself (with only a tiny bit of guidance) and that was what mattered.

As I approached my car in the parking lot outside, Jack stood next to his car in the space beside mine. He was pulling mounds of gear from the back seat and transferring it to the trunk and when we spoke I could immediately tell he was excited. "You should come" he said, "it's going to be awesome!" The sheer disorganization brought on by his excitement lured me in. "Pigeon Mountain. We're climbing. Come with us!" I didn't know where Pigeon Mountain was and I am a sorry excuse for a rock climber but moments later I was in the back seat of Jack's car sitting next to Bradley, Brittany in the front seat.

We drove northward up the interstate, the only direction worth going when you already live around Atlanta. Our path takes us up and over to the northwest corner of our state. We pass communities that are barely a cross roads and weave between valleys and mountains. It's a route I spent months photographing while in college and have not returned to in quite some time. As we speed further away from civilization, Jack pulls into a gas station. "Best Burger Around" it boasts. "Guess we'll have to fight for it", Bradley jokes. He and I jump out of the car to go buy some beer. We walk in and head straight for the refrigerated windows in the back but they hold no beer. It's takes us a while to find our prize, a whole row of refrigerated windows behind the cashiers counter. Bradley orders a twelve pack of Budweiser tall boys. The woman behind the counter pulls out an eighteen pack and sets in on the counter. Then she pulls out a pair of scissors and begins to preform surgery on the box of beer. First she snips the handle, then she starts down both sides. When the belly of the box will open up enough, she pulls out several beers and places them on the counter. Then she turns the box on its end and cuts the last line and it pops into two pieces. Twelve beers are stacked in one half of the box, placed in a bag and handed to Bradley. The remaining six are placed in the other half of the box and returned to the refrigerator. We thank her and are otherwise silent as we walk out the door, but are in fits of giggles by the time we are at the car. We finally realize how far out into nowhere we must be if this is a standard beer purchasing practice.

Jack pulls off the main two lane highway and the roads shrink in size from there until we switching back up the tight turns of the one way road on Pigeon Mountain. He stops and he pops a beer before he even pops the truck to get the gear out. "It's not a far hike in," he assures us. We all throw on our packs. Jack and Brittany both loaded down with the weight of gear needed by experienced climbers. Bradley and I loaded down with the weight of beers.

We throw down our gear in front of a beautiful, sheer wall. A ledge of some sort makes an easy start but it fades into a long stretch of crimps and pinches before disappearing under a big boulder holding the anchor on top. Brittany is harnessed up and tying in just moments after the anchor is set. We consistently joke Brittany about how often she says she is "psyched on climbing", "psyched on yoga" or whatever it may be at the time. It's a funny little thing she says but it's tapping in her ability to concentrate great amounts of psychical and mental power into selected areas of her life. The word to describe people like Brittany is driven, but thats not quite all with her. It misses the fun, the spunk, the contagious good energy of begin around her. While she is ready to go, the rest of us are taking a beer break. Bradley notes the division in our priorities. We start in on this first route; Jack belays Brittany, Bradley belays Jack, I belay Bradley and he returns the favor. I am the novice among us all. Bradley only started climbing a few weeks ago but he possessed upper body strength before and I am way behind with that. I make it half way up and then the harder holds get the best of me. Backpacking leaves you with no upper body strength to rely on. But I am happy because I have never been clinging to the side of the world before, brought there by the strategic placement of hands and feet.




We move about thirty yards down the trail and there is another wall. This one has a crack running down the center that even to me looks just the way it's suppose to. You couldn't have built a better crack in a wall if you tried. Brittany and Jack jump in on some trad climbing. This requires a ton of gear, heavy gear with strange names and and strange shapes. Brittany starts a lead climb up the crack. When leading there is no rope above you and no one below you belaying. You simply set pieces of gear in the crack and clip the rope that is tied to you into the gear. Brittany places pieces of gear in several locations as she ascends the wall. Correct placement is crucial and if these pieces slip, she falls. It's happened before. Six months ago she broke her back on a wall just outside of Chattanooga but a healthy mix of positivity and fearlessness has served her well in healing. This is her first time leading trad since then. It's a good wall though and she's a great climber. She reaches the top and sets an anchor for Jack. This is his first time ever leading a trad climb, so the rope at top is a safety net in case his gear fails. Brittany is technically belaying him but gives him way more slack than usual. He sets his own pieces, everything holds, and he makes it to the top with a quickness. By this time it's getting dark.

We pack up and return to the car and Jack suggests a trip to the overlook. We all agree. I don't know what the overlook is but in my experience with overlooks, they are well worth it. On the top of the mountain there is a gravel parking lot and a big open view off the side of the mountain. We pull in facing the twinkling lights of little towns below us but that's the ugly part. I open the car door, take a few steps and just lay in the dirt, content to look up forever. The night sky is crystal clear and the katydids sing their rhythmic song of the southern night. It's the kind of setting that makes you realize that the universe is built for the purpose of your exploration, for your happiness, for your constant failures and eventual successes. Why do we rob ourselves of this gift? Why do we not cash out on the promise of this beautiful world? Why can't we trust the universe?! My mind swirls with the sky as Bradley and I try to answer these questions but we can't because we are human beings and we only know what centuries of scared, untrusting humans beings have taught us.

After a while we pile back into the car but Jack has one more stop in mind. We zip down most of the mountain and pull off to the side. "It's muddy but it's safe," he tells us when Brittany and I express a bit of concern about caving. As we approach the mouth of the cave a blast of cold air over takes us. I suddenly wish I had wasn't in shorts and a tank top but as soon as we descend into the cave, the natural AC brings it down a few notches and it's a crisp but manageable temperature. Everything is slick. What rock isn't slick with sticky mud is smooth as a bowling ball from so many feet, hands and butts sliding over it. The initial climb down spits us out into a great open room. I have never been in a cave before but it's all I imagined it would be. Stalagmites and stalactites rise and fall from the floor and ceiling like drips in history. We can only see as far as the beam of our head lamps. Ahead of us and behind us is pitch black darkness. Jack leads us through a series of twists and turns as if he once lived here. After a while, after crawling deep enough into the belly of the cave to build anxiety, we came to a tight squeeze. "Beyond that, there is a waterfall," Jack tells us. But the rest of us are wholly unprepared for army crawling into the abyss. We turn back and the trek back up to the surface of the earth is a exciting as the trip in. Some places I recognize, other times I fear we are lost. Somehow Jack brings us right back to the mouth of the cave where we came in and when I hear the sounds of life above land, I am both surprised and relieved.


We climb out of the cave and my glasses fog up in the humidity of the night. One last time we pile in the car. Jack lights out for home, windows down, music up. My outstretched hand surfs the wind as we weave down out of the a mountains at twenty miles over the speed limit. I watch the night sky, the shooting starts and the barely visible Milky Way as they fade out somewhere beyond the light pollution. At that point there is only one thing to do. Have a dance party in the car. Bradley is free styling over beats. Jack and I nearly loose out voices singing heartfelt songs. It is incredible what you can do with a seven hour period when you've got friends ready for an adventure.

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