Rock Climbing with Goofy Faces
Free-falling is a sensation that is both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. This act of total surrender to gravity where the only person that can save you is your belayer on the ground. Every time you go climbing you have this near-death experience where someone repeatedly saves your life. Kind of like a game of Russian roulette where you trust someone to take the bullet out of the cylinder for you, every single time.
As the sun peaks over the steep rock faces the sounds of tents unzipping and climbers stepping out onto the crunchy frost covered grass fill the air. Of course, there are those that are already hunched over their iso-butane stoves making oatmeal, brewing coffee, and praying that they can get their morning poops out before embarking for the day. As they stand there trying to warm their hands with the little bit of heat radiating off their pots, there is a stillness in the air. A mutual feeling that radiates in the groggy minds of everyone (even those with the hangovers) that this is their happy place; this is what life is all about.
It was an unseasonably warm September day when I made the 2 ½ hour drive on a whim. The first time I parked in the rutted-out gravel parking lot of Miguel’s Pizza I was a naive new climber, having only climbed outside of the gym a handful of times. Even so, I’d still heard the legendary reputation of this place. Growing up just 3 hours north I’d seen the stickers and T-shirts with that goofy faced logo plenty of times. However, what I didn’t know at the time, was that face was more than just a logo that looked as if it had been designed in Microsoft paint by a 5-year-old. It was the symbol of sport climbing in the United States and one of the most recognized in the whole world. Even more than that though, it represented this place of refuge. A home for the misshapen puzzle pieces like myself that don’t quite fit in anywhere else.
I had just clipped the third bolt and with it came a sense of temporary relief. Now there’s almost no way I’d fall the full 50 feet to the bouldery forest floor below. I straighten my arms, gripping onto the gritty sandstone holds with just the friction of my fingertips, affording my forearm muscles a momentary break from the flood of lactic acid. As I do this, I compulsively dip my sweaty hands into my chalk-bag, as If I were coating a slimy chicken breast in flour before cooking it. Now it’s time to focus on getting to the next bolt without falling. It’s time to shut out the voices in the back of my head telling me that this is too dangerous, that I should pick up a hobby that doesn’t put me into mortal danger every day. Like golf for example. How many golfers end up dead or paralyzed? I suppress these thoughts as best I can as I step my toes onto the exposed ledge only the width of a no. 2 pencil. Just millimeters of rubber and rock contact preventing me from falling into the void below.
I don’t know if it was the odd shaped building with bright yellow siding, the strange painting of a colorful face on the front door, or the striking diversity of the customers. Yet somehow, I knew that this place was exactly where I needed to be, the precise kind of atmosphere I have always craved. “How did I go 24 years before discovering this paradise?” I thought while taking in the sights and smells that are present at a pizza place that doubles as a world-renowned climber campground.
I have never been any good at making friends. The therapist in the military attributed this to severe childhood trauma. He speculated that I am constantly on guard due to being neglected as a child. As a result of this un-mended issue, and compounded by 6 years in the military, I became accustomed to doing everything alone. Christmases spent alone eating tortilla chips and guacamole, secluded camping trips in Arizona with just my dog, and all the uneventful days in between that make up the majority of life.
So, there I sat in the shelter that night staring longingly at all the groups having a good time, fighting back the frustration of loneliness. What a gut punch it was to have found my favorite place, yet to have nobody to share it with. So, I did what I had trained myself to do in similar situations over the years. I sat at an empty table acting like I was on my phone, trying my hardest through body language to portray that I was only waiting on friends. I would play this off for about 15 minutes before getting up to move somewhere else where I could play the whole act all over again. I would do this repeatedly before anyone had a chance to catch on that I was completely alone. I knew I had perfected the art of hiding it, but I still felt anxiety that everyone still knew how alone I really was.
In psychology this is called the spotlight effect. The persistent feeling that everyone is watching and noticing the things you’re most hoping to hide, spotting the things you’re most insecure about. The doctor said that the medication he was putting me on was supposed to alleviate these feelings but that it would take a few weeks to kick in. What humor there is to be found in my situation. Having the strong desire to tiptoe my way up a steep cliff face, putting life and limb in danger with every step, yet being too scared to have a simple conversation with another human.
As I stand there on the pencil for an edge my leg begins to shake violently. In climbing this is called “The Elvis Leg”. An uncontrollable muscle spasm that is due to a mix of physical exertion and crippling fear. This is when the voice of reason begins to scream the loudest, flooding me with primal fear to encourage survival. I am about 10 feet above the last bolt clipped which means if I fall from here, I will fall those 10 feet plus however much slack my belayer is giving me. Hopefully, I won’t hit the ledge below me. This thought crosses my mind as I step my right foot up high, contorting my hips in closer to the wall and reaching my left hand high for the chalked feature above me in a dynamic movement.
It is hard to believe that people travel from all over the world to climb in this small, rural area of Eastern Kentucky. Each Person crowded together in their stained goose-down jackets and colorful wool beanies. It is a melting pot of individuals where the crowd on any given night will consist of professional climbers, doctors, college students, world travelers, and everyone in between. All with different backgrounds, yet with the same vertically driven passion for climbing up the hardest variation of natural rock formations they can.
I decided it was time to call it a night, ending my solo performance worthy of at least runner up for an Oscar. I affixed my headlamp and started the walk back to my car to sleep for the night. Every step closer giving me more anxiety, knowing that in the morning everyone would depart to go climb for the day while I would be left alone. I would then have to make the 2-hour drive back to the city without getting the chance to climb. These were the thoughts going through my head as I heard someone yell out my name. I turned around confused, expecting the source to be calling for someone else that shared my name. A common occurrence seeing as Tyler seems to be one of the most popular names for any guy between the age of 18 – 35.
When I turned around, I was struck by the familiar face of my cousin, Kelly. I had not seen her in nearly 10 years, and she was one of the last people I ever would have expected to run into here. She was just slightly shorter than me with even paler skin, dirty blonde hair, and a slender but fit frame. I hesitate to call her beautiful seeing as she is my cousin, and this story takes place in Kentucky. I’m not trying to give the wrong impression here; this isn’t one of those kinds of stories.
Along her side was her boyfriend Eli. A stalky guy with a baby face and a fast-receding buzz cut. This contrasting mix gave him the appearance of the Gerber baby with the hairline of a stressed-out middle-aged man. I had never met him but knew that he was a recent graduate, who would soon be leaving for the Air Force as a commissioned officer. He didn’t really fit the stereotype of someone I would expect to see at Miguel’s. Wearing a Nike dri-fit shirt with matching basketball shorts. He stuck out like a sore thumb amongst all the Patagonia fleeces and Chaco sandals.
We made our way to one of the picnic tables that I had sat at alone just a little bit ago. It turned out that contrary to my first impression, Eli was an avid climber with multiple years of experience. He had come down here to show another guy around, acting as a personal guide in the expansive climbing area he knows so well. Kelly asked who I was down here with, and so I lied saying that I was supposed to meet friends, but they bailed on me. That’s when Eli recommended instead of driving home in the morning, I go climbing with them for the day. I tried hiding my excitement and relief at him asking me this.
That next morning I was up before the sun had even peaked over the cliffs that surround the campground. I was finally one of those people making my oatmeal and coffee with friends like those I had seen and envied so much before. All while trying to play it cool as if I don’t need these people as much as I really do. Is this the medicine kicking in like the doctor said that it would? Is my brain finally holding onto the serotonin that it has failed to produce since my Mom’s overdose? Who cares whether the source of my happiness is coming from a pill, it’s finally here and that’s all that matters.
As soon as my fingertips clenched around the chalked jug, I knew that it wasn’t as good as I had hoped. “Fuck!”, I bellowed out in fear as I started slipping off the hold. I kicked my talon shaped climbing shoes into the wall, hoping to find any decent feature that my toes could catch on, but there was nothing. I was slipping because of the sweat, sweating because of the fear. Both things just feeding off each other until I couldn’t take it anymore and felt all the friction disappear. “FALLING!” I yelled as I went airborne, giving my belayer the verbal cue to catch me before I fell too far.
The third member of the group, Luis, was a cardio-vascular researcher from the Pyrenees mountains of Spain. While Eli looked more like a guy that you’d expect to see playing pick-up basketball in a community center than rock climbing, Luis was quite the opposite. Strikingly muscular with a long black beard and covered head to toe in dark tattoos. He had the appearance of a rugged mountain man. Giving me the impression that he had just returned from an expedition on Everest and immediately ridden here on a Harley blaring heavy metal. “Phew, as if I didn’t already have anxiety feeling like I had to be worthy of their friendship”, I thought as I stepped into the back of the car.
It turned out that contrary to his intimidating appearance, Luis was one of the kindest and most welcoming people I have ever and will ever meet. Instead of a Harley, he drove a modest navy-blue Honda Cr-V, in which he did frequently blast Metal. However, the only other first impression that ended up being correct was that of his adventurous spirit. He had been all around the world on various expeditions, such as Ice climbing in Canada, scaling the Alps of France, and a current goal of summitting the highest peak in every US state. More impressive to me is that he too had mastered the art of doing these things alone.
The air whizzed through my hair as I began my free fall. It is in these moments that time seems to simultaneously slow down and speed up. I can hear the scream of the wind and see the rock face whizzing by as I plummet. Right as I began to worry that I won’t be caught I am pulled to a halt as the rope connected to my harness goes tight. “Got ya!” Luis yells up in his thick Spanish accent. I curse to myself as I start pulling my way up for another go.
Within this piece I tried incorporating several different elements that are all tied together. First, and most obvious being the place mentioned repeatedly, Miguel’s Pizza. I attempted to capture the feelings that I associate with this place. Both the good and the bad ones.
I mention throughout my own battle with mental health issues that were affecting me deeply at this time. Specifically the feeling of loneliness and the hope that this magical place could somehow fix it for me. Which in the end it did, through the friendships I found there.
The constant flashbacks to climbing act as a way of illustrating the stress through a realistic description of the thought processes. This helps to engage the audience as well, as it helps to familiarize people that have never climbed with the feelings.
In the opening paragraph I bring up the concept of a belayer being there to catch you. This is meant to be symbolic and to set the tone for the rest of the piece as you cannot climb without someone to belay for you but for those that are alone or anti-social, finding a belayer is the scariest part.
Overall, I feel that I was effective at creating a narrative that recounts the moment I feel I overcame my mental block. There is an uncertainty whether it is attributed to my new medication at the time, a happen stance situation, or a combination of the two. Either way, I’m thankful for this place and these people within the story.
****Also, if you look at Miguel’s in the cover image, which I took recently, you can see the goofy faced logo referenced several times in this story.