Vail Daily column: Choose your poison
December 5, 2013
I found my limits and passed them fighting wildfires a long, long time ago, before my eldest was born and grew to a quarter century of adulthood.
Mark Twight blew mine, and no doubt yours, away by climbing icy cliffs light and fast, but for up to 60 hours at a time.
Cheryl Strayed exceeded hers on the Pacific Crest Trail, after tearing the tags off gear she bought, lacing up brand new boots that proved to be too tight, and bearing an overloaded backpack she could barely lift on her first backpacking trip. She hiked from the Mohave Desert to the Columbia River this way on the Pacific Crest Trail.
I lived my big test, of course, and so go off memory.
Twight, a climber who writes, shared in his "Kiss or Kill" collection of essays he wrote for various climbing journals with postscripts for the book.
Strayed saved up the memories from her trek in the mid-1990s for 2012's bestseller "Wild," which made Oprah's list of favorites, and deservedly so.
Our valley has a thick vein of souls who push their limits, too. You know them. Their tribe includes Mike Kloser, Josiah Middaugh, Chris Anthony, Ellen Miller, Anita Ortiz and plenty of others, including the next generation of some of these venerable names.
We have 24-hour runs and rides, various trans-Rockies treks, the Tough Mudder in answer to a whole nation of growing comfort — and girth to show for it.
Plain vanilla skiing and snowboarding carries a taste of this adventure seeking. These sports, while made as comfortable as possible and luxurious around their margin, still are not easy to master. The weather, by all standards but skiing's, is cold and crappy. And a handful of us die each winter engaged in our snow sport, whatever it is — lost to collisions with trees, avalanches, falls, heart attacks.
The best orthopedic surgeons in the world sharpen their skills on us. After all, you're not a true local until you do something requiring their scalpels, arthroscopes and snippers. Yep, that's my whole family now. Wrists, feet, ankles, knees. Oh my.
Twight takes us inside a punk climber's soul through his essays. He's elite among this breed that is elite to begin with. That is to say, crazy. He's arrogant, full of anger, absorbed in climbing, which is all that matters or at least what matters most of all in his gut.
If not apologetic, he's at least self-aware, though. And hey, a guy taking on the Eiger and all isn't going to be too afraid to just write what he thinks and feels, whatever you or I might think of him. Why would he care what we think?
He threw his life to the rock and wind until one day he knew more dead friends than live ones. I don't know that he stopped climbing altogether, but I gather from the book he stopped climbing as much, and got into other things.
He runs a gym now that trains athletes, military clients and other crazies. His regimen quickly hardened actors for the Spartan epic "300," about the battle at Thermopylae.
Maybe I could have hung in there at the peak of my firefighting days. Maybe. I like to think so. But he takes clients stronger than I ever was to the real edge and beyond, as he did to himself while a climber. I gather that you'd have to listen to the punk rock of Skinny Puppy, the Sex Pistols and DOA that inspired him.
He's far beyond me, but I have to admit a seed of kindred spirit, however tiny that kernel. I remember the hyper aliveness sailing in two-, three-story-sized seas; dragging a running a drip torch through brush dense enough that I stepped on the trunks and branches a few feet above ground, thrashing just ahead of the fire I set in hopes it would run toward the mammoth thing burning a ridge away rather than uphill under me; and the too many cases of alligator arms paddling down faces of waves too big for my inconsiderable talents and nerve in Santa Cruz after big storms. Oops missed another one, darn. Or I'd pearl and my "ride" was me balled up tight while bouncing around, not knowing up from down, while remembering there was an even bigger swell right behind this one.
You have your memories, too, I know. The entire horizon humping up huge still haunts the occasional dream.
I never liked heights, so climbing didn't sing any siren's songs for me. I climbed a few trees, rappelled for training when necessary, signed up to be a smokejumper specifically because of that queasy feeling in the gonads and behind the knees. Then I promptly blew out my already bad knee ignominiously practicing departures into a sawdust pit, cinching a career in journalism.
No way could I ever do what Twight did. I'm sure I would have frozen from pure fear on some ledge just high enough to get myself killed. Just wasn't my thing to seek for fun.
Strayed's story comes from the opposite end of this spectrum. She grew up in the country in a home without running water, but she'd never gone backpacking before she took on the Pacific Crest Trail with the pack she named Monster.
Her suffering is accessible. Anyone can buy the necessary gear and start walking, after all. I loved backpacking and had a weird fondness for going into rainstorms along the coastal areas and forests from Santa Barbara to Eureka. The woods tended to be empty then, except for me or us. Campfires could be a little problematic.
Strayed knew none of this. She overloaded and fought through, dealing with a series of hard, hard life events following her mother's death from cancer when she was 22, my daughter's age. Her family fallen apart, her marriage killed by her own philandering, bearing a budding heroin addiction, she walked. She walked out as well as in, if you get my drift.
She endured not terror but boredom, pain with each step in too-small boots and a too-heavy pack, and a young lifetime of too much suffering to make sense of.
Where Twight pounds away, tiresomely at times, Strayed crafts in her writing. The hike is the cord tying her story together as she flashes back and forth in memories, mirroring the monkey mind that hops around on its own as you run for any distance, or do the dishes — or backpack the PCT. Her touchstones are those painful, beat-up feet and Monster. Suffering.
The Buddha had his way, which went inward in stillness. That ain't the Western way. We climb. We hike. At least around here that seems to be the case. Even yoga is an activity, part of a fitness plan.
The closest I come to meditation is when I run trails. I need movement, and a little bit of pain to understand I'm trying to achieve something, to let my mind off leash.
The act of striving — physically, mentally, spiritually — implies effort against something, generally ennui, I think.
Writing this evening instead of watching a show or game on TV might be the tiniest seed of suffering, but it's there. I need to will myself to make the effort, harden my mind, and, well, strive to do something better than just sitting there, comfortable.
When I lose and sit there, the resulting ennui becomes suffering, too. It's far more insidious than plain, straightforward pain. It's more like a soft voice of disappointment, a tiny mournful song. I could be using my talents instead of squandering them as I watch, eat, drink.
Ah, tomorrow, tomorrow. Then I'll be something special, but knowing tomorrow I'll be in the same place, bathed in the cathode blue light, suffering through lethargy that sets, cement, and gets only harder to break.
Better to scare the crap out of yourself untethered on a slick massive cliffside, or blindly buy a bunch of backpacking junk and forge on while your courage is up, deal with the rest of it later, even if that means terror in the dark, the only human for at least tens of miles, under the stars.
Suffering, after all, comes no matter what. Best choose your poison, and just go for it.