Front Range Aaron (FRA)
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
1: DIARY OF DRIVING THE CRUX
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
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.
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,"
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.'
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
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:
= Aesthetic Mess (form) % Knowledge of Whereabouts of Belongings
= Gender Sociology % Individual Psychology
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.
Day of Rest and Resolutions, the Sabbath day.
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.
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
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.
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