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Cars and Climbing
by Aaron Wilcher
Front Range Aaron (FRA)

Scouring the hillsides and flatlands of the Gotham City of the mountain underworld, Boulderado, for the minutiae and noir of bouldering triumphs and defeats, Front Range Aaron seeks out the bold, the fear(feck)less, and the mediocre. Part reporting, part personal essay, FRA pulls hard copy each week in another turbulent episode set in the sporting wonderland. Interviews, rants, editorials, and the naked truth of journalism, FRA leaves no boulder unturned.

EPISODE 1: DIARY OF DRIVING THE CRUX

Monday:

Like a mother tyrannosaurus rex, I hoard my necessities in an enclosure protected by security glass, keyless alarm, and cup holders. I have sporting goods, passing work clothes, smashed PB&Js, and mountaineering history books at the ready. The luggage netting is always full-provisions and weaponry for an expedition gone wrong in the backwoods of an 80s hitchhiker movie, starring the hitchhikers I sometimes pick up in the canyon.
Several days out of the week, like today, I pack for a multi-day trip, but I'm not going camping. I'm going to log hours in the lucrative enterprise of bad wage labor at several sporting outlets around that comic-mountain fantasyland Boulderado. It's not a B-horror movie. It's life in the windless doldrums of the time clock on the Front Range. While I squander time to boredom and placating middle management, my belongings in the parking lot comfort me; they nurture my imagination, reminding me that the next climbing trip is near, the next singletrack only a night of sleep away.
Lately, my gear tells me a different story. It says I'm more Gremlin than T-Rex. More Rambler than oversize SUV. I can't find my sweatshirt, keys, or climbing histories. I think I've forgotten my harness, when it shows up in the seat cushions or under the sleeping bag. I think I'm out of chalk, when it shows up in a big crumbly mess on the floorboard. The confusion of the workaday world outside my car has begun penetrating the hermetic interior. My organization is going awry, quickly. Maybe misplacing things is a metaphor for something more fundamental in my life. Something more building block. A Vee Zero I thought I'd conquered long ago that I have to go back to. I thought I was ready to top out, but I am really just on the start hold of a new problem.

Tuesday:

Today, my career counselor suggested I seek professional help, a sort different than her own. I was taken aback. Had I heard right? Why, after all, had I called on her in the first place? Wasn't she supposed to be the professional help I needed? Wasn't she supposed to help put me on track toward what kind of career I should be seeking-a life in journalism, writing freelance on the outdoors industry, doing nonprofit work for land access issues, running a small sporting goods company? No. Evidently career counselors read over resumes, do mock interviews, funnel clients into recruiting sessions, and give personality tests. But when it comes to life's most serious questions, like what we should be doing with it, the only answer she had to offer was that I first get lost and then get a shrink. Would the eco-Buddhist-recreation shrinks at Naropa have one of those student-in-training discounts? I considered it for a minute, but never called. I didn't want to end up on an Exercycle in the Lotus position talking about my childhood.
I protested the counselor's advice, to no avail. I had expected more from the process, I told her, even if we were talking on the phone, me here in Boulder, and her in a cozy, windowless office at my recent alma mater in apartheid Saint Louis. "I thought I could tell you about my interests and you could offer some sort of framework to get me on track toward preparing for my life. You know, troubleshooting," I said.
She quickly shut me down. This wasn't like technical support for software, she alluded, even if I was from the Bay Area. I could read her Middle America suspicions between the lines-here was another lost soul, moved to one of those granola-hippie towns. "If you're having problems making decisions, I think we're at a stopping point in the career counseling process. Do you have any medical insurance right now?" Like Tony Soprano, and the Italian family mythology that haunts him, I took the suggestion to go to psychotherapy to be a swipe at my masculinity. Pretty soon, my indecisiveness would shoot me off of a highball 5.9 problem at Flagstaff in front of some hot V12 climber girl and just leave me flailing around on some natty tree roots.
Maybe I let on a little too much to the counselor that I enjoyed the free time that jobs with very little responsibility offer. (I imagine a career counseling formula, pinned to her bulletin board: Lost Cause = Ambition % Responsibility - Free Time). The essential ingredient, I might have continued, for the dedicated climber, is the time to do what you most enjoy, even if sometimes you can only get out for an hour-and-a-half bouldering session. As every serious outdoors person knows, if you don't want to be groveling when you get into a tight spot, or get injured from overtraining, you've got to put your time preparing (code for play).
As my good friend, Krystal Baller, says, "The guys [and gals] who are on-sighting hard 5.12 aren't working fulltime." Who are counselors and therapists, after all, but the organizers of moral, ethical, and economic norms? Like some of the officials in our government, they seek a predictable alliance of statistics and behavior. (Wasn't it B.F. Skinner who locked his daughter in the basement and performed experiments on her?) Maybe what I need isn't a shrink, but a different perspective on what I should be doing with the hours in the day. I look outside the doors of the store where I work in an outdoor walking mall and wonder where the landscape rocks come from, how far they might have come on trucks, from quarries never visited by someone who wanted just to run their fingers over the stone, simply appreciative of the material.

Wednesday:

Like the egalitarian promises of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, and the economic bootstraps of the stainless steel Airstream, my puny SUV is a kind of poorly-built, rollover-prone Shangri-La on wheels, a subtle hope against hope that I am actually moving on.
Hidden behind the security glass on my Ford lies an amalgam of climbing and biking detritus, the sporting goods dream remnants of my childhood that will shortly expire on my thirtieth birthday. Like Jay Smith, a family man and climber I interviewed in the Boulderado shadows, whose minivan Honda Odyssey replaced his VW bus, all climbers are caught up in a discourse of the American landscape, of escape, rugged masculinity, and feminine and foreign conquest, a legacy as much from the nineteenth century as the 1970s environmental movement and the climbing explosion of the last thirty years. "I miss my bus, I've had a couple of them," Smith says. While he may be a serious outdoorsman, on the day I caught him the most prominent feature inside the storage area of his car was his infant daughter's training potty. Are ruggedness and nurturing contradictory concepts?

                photo of Jay Smith's Honda Odyssey

I needed to enlist the input of others. Was I really going crazy? Was my mobile home, the imaginary T-Rex, a surrogate family, a way to achieve a false sense of security? What did the opinion and insight of others reveal about life in the car, the mobile climbing society? How did other climbers' cars look? How were they balancing climbing and the everyday life of work and families and the "responsibility" in my career counselor's formula? Are we so different from the "mainstream" that we qualified as a subculture, a counterculture? Were we just a group of upper middle class yuppies with too much time on our hands; or would-be upper-mids with lifestyle choices made, or in the process of making?

Thursday:

Like many in my control group, my car has omnipresence in my life. To be honest, I think my counselor's suggestion of therapy threw me for a loop because she struck a nerve. For the last several months, I've been living out of my car, minus the bed I admit to having four to five days a week. It's not a bad deal, really. It saves me from a thirty-minute commute, the money for gas, and negotiating potentially scary road. I camp out twice a week, splitting a shift between two jobs, giving me a morning and an afternoon off-time to climb, to write.
Krystal B. also offered that, "when you have everything in your car, you never have to pack." True. I never have to spend the half an hour in the morning looking for some crucial piece of luggage I need for the day, because I know--it's already in the car. This is "organization" that Microsoft Office can't provide. It's a fail-safe, portable mnemonic device that will never crash, unless you crash your car, or it gets ripped off, like mine did in St. Louis last year. (The cops found it two days later in an alley, running and smashed up, about a half a mile from my house.) Just like Jay Smith, I too have a car I miss. Mine is a 1988 stepside V-8 Chevrolet Silverado pickup with a plush cloth bench seat. I'll never forget the day the wrecking yard came to haul it off, just in time for the winter ice to start covering the ground, making trips to Elephant Rocks and the Holy Boulders tougher still. I wonder if anybody ever got that thing back on the road.
Krystal B's girlfriend, Nappy Kat, tells the story of first meeting Krystal when he was living out of his car, when he was making frequent visits to Rifle.
"I asked him where he put his towel when it was wet."
"I told her," Krystal recounts, "I don't have a towel. Most truck stops have paper ones for birdbaths." Problem solved. Easy cognition. Vee zero minus.

            The inside of Krystal Baller's Car

Herein lies the tension of mobile convenience, suburban camping. There's the stigma to deal with-it's not just about time/cost savings and easy sporting goods retrieval. The stigma is partly a Romantic one, the one that carries some (some) cultural capital around the fantasyland Boulderado in the register of the (ig)noble Yosemite dirtbag climbing figure (a place some Coloradans will admit gave something to the tradition of climbing in the Rockies).
But car life's connotation also reminds me of a little monologue put on by a woman I met at a whose-booze climbing party recently. Her antics were a litany of commands beginning with, "Never date a guy who . . .". Not that I'd finish the sentence with, 'a guy who sleeps in his car two nights a week out of necessity (and convenience and a little bit of anticipation of future nostalgia about the whole deal).' But I might finish the sentence with, 'a guy who consistently stores three pairs of extra undies, a sleeping bag, 50 20-lb. white letter-size envelopes, bulk gymnastic chalk, toilet paper, stray water bottles, self-help books, three sweatshirts (all full of chalk), climbing rope, extra caribiners, the month's bills, library books, Climbing magazines from the 1980s, two pairs of climbing shoes (that I've yet to keep from smelling), lip balm smashed into the seat, Fig Newtons wedged under the cushions, non-pore-clogging moisturizer, maps of the United States, motel samples of various toiletries, random bike parts, laptop computer, other office supplies, digital camera, two pairs of sandals, laundry detergent, day-old newspapers . . . . in his car.'

photo of Frontrange Aaron's car

Surely, though, the enjoyment of having every household convenience in your mobile space can't just be reduced to gender essentialism--men want to be on the move, women want to nest--can it? Despite admitting to having an organized car interior, saying, "I have to have things put away," Nappy K. protested the gender explanation for mobile convenience, remembering that she was fascinated by Krystal B's system of organizing things in his VW bus. (I can only take her word for his car's "system," at the time since in ten plus years of knowing him the only one I've witnessed is total chaos. Sidebar: Krystal B's dad has been cleaning his garage for as long as I've known Krystal B.) In addition, she admits to frequently hauling Krystal B's stuff around, a kind of surrogate storage facility, care taking on wheels.
"It's a nesting and flight phenomenon," Krystal said.
Of their initial encounters, Kat says, "I was amazed his car didn't smell . . . . I mean that he didn't smell. The car smelled good because he did."
This got me back to my so-called career counselor and her profession's brand of psychological profiling, the brand not distinct from the kind of racial profiling of which elementary school teachers and inner city police are guilty. The tension of the stigma of living in your car seemed to revolve around two other formulas I drafted while doing research and interviews for this article:

FUNCTION = Aesthetic Mess (form) % Knowledge of Whereabouts of Belongings

MESS/NEATNESS = Gender Sociology % Individual Psychology

My informants, thus, became a kind of private case study I was doing for my article. They became climbing experiments, a redefinition of the bouldering problem, a psychological profile on what it meant to sleep in your car for kicks, to go without a shower for days, nay, weeks at a time, or sleep in a wet sleeping bag with Fig Newton crumbles all over while avoiding bad weather. Two informants emerged as representatives of what we might consider as a poignant, wider dichotomy in the climbing community. The quintessential Boulderado superheroes, they carry the climbing lunchbox to work everyday, inspiring us and others with the goodness of the morals, ethics, and style trends of our fair city's masses.

Friday: Day of Rest and Resolutions, the Sabbath day.

My gender theory about the male hunter-gatherer and the female drywall home maker was severely hampered when I met one astonishing informant, Angie Payne, whose climbing feats are well known to many. Like me, a Midwest exile, Angie came to Boulderado, escaping Cincinnati to attend CU and to get closer to good rock. Even though she admitted to having cleaned up her truck (a late model Toyota Tacoma) to appease parents visiting Colorado in the days before I interviewed her, there was a prior, crucial "system" in place, the kind that was clearly lacking in the kind of "system" that Krystal B. espoused, a whatever, wherever mentality. Her truck's organization revealed the discipline and polish of an burgeoning and accomplished competitive athlete: periodized training breaks up workouts into component groups; garnering sponsorships requires diplomacy and good PR; making it in regulated competition requires mental discipline, buying in to the organization of competitive sports, institutions and businesses. Under a wooden platform used as a bed in the back of the truck are small cubbies holding plastic containers with cooking, camping, and climbing gear. Angie has, in case of emergency, a snow shovel her dad bought her to dig out herself and her truck if she is ever trapped.

photo of Angie Payne's truck

That Angie admits to making a huge mess in her car, in spite of her system of organization, demonstrates that she bridges the gap between the need to have order, a regulatory mechanism, the hypothalamus of the auto-climbing world, but also the need for adventure, the style of messiness, of venturing out, stirring things up, making life not so neat anymore. Like the vague gap between what the climbing pundits have deemed "style" and "ethics," the need to both maintain some semblance of predictability, an ethics of order I'll call it, is balanced with the stylistic aesthetics of disorder and chaos, or the possibility of them. Angie, a handsome Midwesterner with a short, blond bob haircut, who smiles and greets everyone with a "hi," moved to Boulderado, Colorado to climb V12 and kick all her competitors' asses. Middle America and Wonder Bread met the X Games and spicy curry.
Maybe the ways we seek to organize and disorganize the things in our life is not so confined to essentializing definitions of gender or psychology. The question is more akin to taking a well-defined problem, climbed for years with the same set of holds and either finding a new one that isn't in the book, or breaking one off after a weekend's rain. The gravitational forces that keep us off the ground and the economic forces that keep us under good shelter are of a piece. We need to feel safe, to know were not going to fall on a bad landing, or be left out in the open overnight, but we also need to insert just enough unpredictability and excitement to keep everyday life interesting. We can do this by going up a V-grade, or by quitting our jobs, telling our bosses what they can do with their curt little orders.
Messiness in our cars is a way of communicating this to ourselves, a way of maintaining a private space that offers a controlled space for experimenting with smaller versions of the more frightening disorder that looms in the mountains and cities we pass through in our sealed off chamber. As a microcosm, arranging and managing the interior of a car, indeed inserting our whole lives into it, contains our problems into a space smaller than a tiny bedroom, a way of confining ourselves into the very private, the anti-public. For those of us who continually refer to our car in nostalgic terms of what use to be, or where we are going next, the simplicity of such a small place signifies the control parameters over which we wish we had more power.
There was one other Boulderado hero who epitomized this notion. If Krystal Baller is moderate left, Nappy Kat moderate right, Charles Vernon, another hopeful soul in the Boulderado climbing wilderness and my Flagstaff informant, wanders somewhere in the thicket known as the hard-line, capital "L" Left. He forms a part of what he calls a long legacy of climbers from the 1970s who have chosen the occupation of school bus driver for the job's sporadic hours, and copious amounts of time off. His trade, which he has done for four years, gives him five hours off in the middle of the day. The work is also seasonal, coinciding with the vacation schedule of the school district, and some of the peak months to log some major hours cranking holds and tanning your back.
Though he seemed to hesitate slightly about his own private three-day mess in his maroon Plymouth Voyager, Charles' handshake and easy manner communicated a certain pride in his itinerant lifestyle. He balked for a moment, saying that he has to "do something" about the mess in his car, put in shelves or drawers, but his enthusiasm for what the scene in his car represented far outweighed any hesitancy about disorganization. He shares an apartment with some friends, a flight attendant-like setup, where nobody is really ever there, a contingent, in-between-living-quarters arrangement. In the summer, he has no place but the Voyager. A mattress in the back and a mind towards the next move on the rock, he makes friends on the American road, sharing laughs and scary cruxes in front of an audience consisting of an unending landscape.

Photo of the back of Charles Vernon's Plymouth

Along these lines, Charles' brand of car mess, of impermanency and adventure, is not, however, limited to the enclosure of his personal vehicle. He takes it with him to work, sharing it with others, perhaps enjoying the idea of a communal vehicle, thinking that the young people he's coaching to and from school might be getting a sense of the American road, the traveling nature of the Boulderado landscape that will inspire another generation of adventurers to think often of someplace elsewhere, a private reality they can transfer somewhere else on the landscape of the imagination.
This is the beauty of bouldering, maybe different from the pure-no-equipment-or-restraints theory of its appeal. It's that, like many crucial, everyday decisions that we have to make, we secretly hope for no risk, to never be out of control. We want car, fire, earthquake, cell phone, stereo, health, dental, stock, eye care, bankruptcy, auto, life--every kind of insurance, every kind of protection we can get. The kind of protection that therapy and professional counseling and advice and acceptance from friends and family can offer. It's that, even with spotters, crash pads, ropes, or whatever other gear is involved, you'll never be one hundred percent safe, you'll never be accepted and revered by everyone who matters. At some point, there will be moments when a casual misstep or loose rock will mean a serious fall. I don't want to glorify the hazards of the metaphor, because far too much writing about climbing already indulges in sensational risk, injury, and death. I only want to emphasize a necessity. At some point we must move. We must cling to the precarious features that our body and minds will allow, a relationship so fragile with the rock on which we climb and the circumstances of our sustenance. There is no insurance. There is only hope, preparation, and the situation we're in. It's immediate. It is, to offer a phrase coined by our early seventies forebears, the ones Charles Vernon lives among everyday, the now.

Aaron Wilcher
early November, 2004

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