I'm here with Jonathan, who has already chalked up 5300 points on a 5.12a. No pun intended. And if you're asking, "What pun?" I know you've never been to a climbing gym in your life, and so I'll explain.
Everywhere I look, the air is filled with floating chalk particles, the remnants of dusty-handed ascents up the forty-foot concrete walls. Each wall covered with oddly-shaped, chunky holds. Each route is named and marked with bright tape flags.
Jonathan is out there somewhere in a sea of athletic, lanky bodies, spandex and rubber-toed flexible climbing shoes. I own a pair, and a few minutes ago I even had them on. Squeezing into the shoes is no easy task; I feel a bit like one of Cinderella's step-sisters... though the slipper is not glass, smells like sweat and ultimately fits me like a glove. For the foot. Anyway...
I can see him, sporting a green shirt and the black harness I gave him for Christmas years ago. This hobby began for him in early 2003. We had just begun dating. A friend at work offered to take Jon to a gym and teach him the basics. For while, almost a year, I accompanied him. I wasn't bad. But quite quickly it was evident that climbing was Jon's niche. His height, long, slender physique and strength-to-weight ratio gave him an advantage on most routes.
Sometimes I think God built him for exactly this intent.
Most little boys want to climb, monkey-style, over almost anything. As they grow up, the daydreams about conquering the sky fade into the background. They still want it, you see. But along the way, the Grown-Up Demons whisper to the little boys, "Keep your feet on the ground. You have responsibilities and duties. Each of you must become a man who puts food on the table and protects his woman and offspring. Tarzan is fiction. Mr. Cleaver is real."
Of course, nowadays must boys and men realize that Mr. Cleaver, too, is fiction. The societal pressure, however, remains. And the best men in the world are those who lead healthy, happy, fulfilling lives with families they build in homes they buy with money they earn doing something which must get done. Those same men, though, have stopped lifting their eyes up. Everything they need and know is all around them. A king in his kingdom. A god in his universe. That's enough for most.
But some guys, like my sweetheart (and my dad, who continues to run off for weeks to fish alone in the wilderness), still feel that little tug of destiny from the treetops, the clouds, the mountains.
If we were living two-hundred years ago, Jonathan would be a pioneer. The kind without a wagon or a real plan. He'd simply pack and run west. The feral cries of vast expanses of untamed land and unnamed peaks would echo in his heart until he pounded his chest and screamed back in reply. If we were living 500 years ago, Columbus would have nothing on Jon.
There are very few unconquered places left. And so, men like Jonathan have discovered a way to satiate the need to propel themselves away from everything that holds them down (norms... mores... gravity...). And the best part? Their solution has manifested itself within urban centers like Sacramento, San Francisco, Concord, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley and Marin. The Touchstone Climbing Gyms are bursting at the seams with eager, enthusiastic men and women. When given the opportunity, they pull on harnesses and shoes and tie on ropes and scramble up walls. The best of these individuals hang at impossible angles, secured by their own taught fingers and rigid musculature. They are cheered on by the group below.
On the whole, Climbers are a laid-back bunch. They are modest and good-natured, empathetic. They believe in Karma and the power of positive thought. Theirs is a series of pragmatic, deeply-engrained rules and standards when it comes to the climbing code of conduct. They are quick to laugh. Quick to encourage. Quick to snuff out potentially dangerous behaviors. The knots they tie are simple and strong. I feel good about entrusting my husband's neck and spine and skull to this group. And his self-esteem is nurtured by the environment as well. Everybody wins.
Jon is about to climb a 5.11d. It's difficult. Negative slopes. Few footholds. Requires trust, balance, the occasional matching. I watch him in awe. He is strong. Some stretches are more confident than others. When he doubts himself, he loses valuable momentum. This sport is mentally intense. His engineer's logic serves him well in the pre-game as he gauges the route, the holds, and the crux. But once he's on the wall, it is his passion and determination which serve him best.
In high school I remember a famous quote which I took heart and used as my personal mantra:
Never let your passion and determination turn into ignorance and stubbornness.
I scrawled it on the back of my notebook (the place all good mantras begin) and carried it everywhere. Then, after high school graduation, as I pressed on to bigger and better things (things which my eighteen-year-old mind had not yet fathomed) the mantra was forgotten. Eventually, when reminded of it, I brushed it off, my relationship with a phrase meant next to nothing. I was young. Silly. I put too much stock in irrelevant things. After all, they were only words.
Then I declared my major as English. Suddenly words were the world. I wanted a mantra again. Something clever and multi-layered and immortalizing. I wanted to come up with it myself. So far, four years later, I haven't accomplished this goal. However, I have been reminded up my original mantra and I have proudly placed it in my mantra menagerie with the rest of the wisdoms of collected over my semesters as Davis and my intermittent obsessions with the Great Writers of our history. It was Jonathan's zeal as he clambered up the wall which rekindled my old standby, "Never let your passion..."
If there is anything Jonathan is not, it is ignorant. Stubborn, perhaps, but usually in a positive, pilgrim/mountain man sort of way. That's what he is when he grips the first hold on an ominous yellow 5.13 lead route. That... and utterly insane.
I can't watch this climb anyway. I've staked out the ultimate spot here in the gym. A comfy chair in the land of concrete and stone is a rare find. Plus, I'm on a roll. And I've been blocked in by a flood of climbers adhering to the final rule of the Climbing Comp Code of Conduct:
When the guy in charge yells, "Pizza!" swarms to the tables and grab until you have a piece of the bread, cheese and marinara storm. If anyone does not heed the call, he will undoubtedly end up with a disgusting combo slice rather than the climber's best friend: Pepperoni.
Climbers come in all shapes and sizes, all hair lengths, all genders (I would have said "both" but there are a couple of folks here who might well be able to argue me out of that contention. Yikes!), all ages. The best are broad of back, tan of skin, flexible and free spirited. Exposed triceps host a gallery of tattoos. From where I sit I can make out Asian language characters, flowers, barbed wire. Fingers are white with chalk, even as they grip their pizza slices and red plastic cups of beer. Men and boys are bare-chested. Those who are finished with the wall for the night are barefoot, as well. Ponytails swing from side to side as girls (and the occasional dude) hoists themselves up from hold to hold. A vague, happy buzz of chatter fills the room. Once in a while I catch a word or two:
"How 'bout some beta?"
"That hold was gnarly!"
"Foothold to the left!"
"Did he just ask what a 'rattail' is?"
Thankfully, I know enough of the lingo to hang in there with the crowd as they ease through the evening. Mostly I sit back and observe (in case you haven't noticed), which to me, the lady without upper body strength, is more fun than the climb itself. That and kissing the cutest climber in the room makes my night totally worthwhile.