Monday, March 31, 2014

Three little words.

Now I Understand.

I read Jon Katz’s short story, The Wannabe Singer, this morning. ( )

It struck me deeply. My parents supported so many choices when we were growing up. Guitar lessons, a set of drums, pick-ups after play practice and band practice, summer programs. If we were interested, and it seemed remotely healthy and creative, they would find a way to help us make it happen.

I grew, slowly, into adulthood. I got married at age 22, and divorced a few years later. My world was exploding into the great outdoors, while she would have been content to build a house on the corner of her father’s farm and raise babies. I went back to school. I changed majors, floundered financially, and eventually dropped out.

The only constant was that I needed to be outside, preferably in the back country. Preferably climbing. Preferably surrounded by BIG air, in really high places, no one around but my partner and maybe a peregrine or a hawk.

I worked in an outdoor equipment store. I taught climbing and outdoor skills at Ohio State and the University of Cincinnati. I filled in the gaps with construction work. I had very, very little. But, I had in excess of my needs, which fits philosopher John Locke’s definition of wealth.

My father never sought wealth. In fact, I know he turned down promotions that would have involved moving our family. Stability was the prime directive, and this was his plan for it: The children will have a rock-solid anchor. They will grow up with life-long friends. Their universe will have a well-defined center.

And, it was great. We had all of those things. We never did without anything we truly needed. We knew where “home” was. We were encouraged to be whatever we wanted. But, that took its toll on Dad.

When I chose what was perceived to be a really unstable, impoverished life, I think it really shook him up. Mental illness had devastated members of my mother’s family, and I’m sure he feared me going off the deep end. What I lacked the words to explain was that, in following my heart, I was finding a form of stability that spoke to me. I’m not sure I understood it myself at the time. I just knew that working hard for money wasn’t the end-all for me. I had held a well-paying job, owned a house, had a hard-working and loyal wife, all at a very early age. It was the All-American package I had been raised to seek, along with almost everyone I knew. But it wasn’t my dream. I wasn’t happy.

So, I started ditching things. Job. Marriage. New Car. I bought climbing gear. I climbed. I scrapped. I guided friends out west in the summer, and stayed in their houses over the winter.

In 1993 I began working seasonally for the Colorado Outward Bound School. It was a huge breakthrough; I could earn money in the wilderness, teaching others, ALL SUMMER LONG.

I turned 34 years old that summer. In the fall I returned to Ohio. My father asked, “What are you going to do for the winter?” I told him I would find a job. I was staying with friends in Columbus. The stress on his face frightened me a bit. I thought he might have a heart attack right there. He mumbled something, and the conversation ended.

I know that the mere thought of me climbing scared the hell out of him. He never really wanted to see the slide shows from my trips, although he sat through them. I could hear him sucking through his teeth at wildly exposed images from Devil’s Tower, the Middle Teton Glacier, and other places. But, I kept climbing, and kept coming home safely. I don’t think he ever came to peace with it, but eventually he settled down a bit.

Seasons passed, and I began working year-round with Outward Bound. Summer mountaineering courses led into autumn wilderness leadership semester courses, which carried into spring semester rockclimbing camps at Joshua Tree, and Utah canyoneering courses in March and April. By May I was training the new hires for the mountaineering program, and the cycle would start over.

During that time, Mom and Dad retired and moved to Florida. One spring they informed me they had been riding bikes on the rail trail, and were up to fifteen miles on their outings. They wanted to come out to visit, and spend some time with me. Where was I going to be?

I was shocked and proud. They were now more active than ever, and were coming my way. “I’ll be in Moab in May. I would LOVE to show you around the canyon country!”

I bought the book “Easy Hikes in the Canyonlands”. I asked my friend Wren to give me a short list that I could check out before they came. What she didn’t know about the Moab area wasn’t worth knowing. We went out hiking together and picked out three or four good ones.

Mom and Dad arrived, and we did a couple of rim hikes in Canyonlands National Park, and some nice rolling walks among the Arches. At one point, along the rim looking down on the Colorado River, my Dad said, out of the blue, “I want to go INTO a canyon. I want to walk in one.”

I stopped by Wren’s place, and she suggested Negro Bill Canyon on the River Road (“the river” being the mighty Colorado). The mouth of Negro Bill Canyon was across the road from the Colorado River, and we could enter the canyon from the bottom- not always an easy thing to do.

The trail had one rock band of about three feet in height- just enough to sprain or break an ankle if one of them slipped and fell. With a bit of pushing and shoving, we cleared it.

The canyon country of Utah, in May, is hard to match in raw, and I mean RAW, beauty. Most every cactus is blooming in full color. Penstemon, claret cup, globemallow, all splash off of the spring greenery that only shows itself this time of the year.

We walked about a mile down a nearly flat, sandy path. Wren, you chose well, my friend. We roamed past aromatic sage, flowering prickly pear, wild ephedra, flowering purple sage, and loco weed. We were surrounded by red rocks and blanketed under a deep blue sky. The sun was not yet over the rim of the canyon. We were in full color, yet in full shade. Canyon wrens fluttered, ravens croaked. Lizards did push-ups on the rocks. A golden eagle soared overhead. If I had called on all of my friends to give testimony to my life in the backcountry, it would have had little effect compared to this.

My father stopped, scanned the canyon walls, and paused.

“Now I understand.”

I was to turn forty years old in a few weeks. My father was in his sixties. I didn’t know if I would ever hear those words. I would still have led my life my own way, but a burden had been lifted. I was more free than I had felt in years.

Mom and Dad were tired. They assured me they could get back to the car by themselves. They left their video camera with me in case I saw anything they might like.

Once they were down the trail, out of sight and sound, I set the camera on a rock and hit “record”.
I showed them a few skills I had learned, building a fire with sticks and all of that, then put all of that stuff away. I looked into the camera, into their eyes, and told them just how important they were to me, that they had succeeded so fully in encouraging me not to follow my own drummer, but to BE my own drummer. I told dad how important it was to me that he could understand why I was here. I turned off the camera and headed deeper into the canyon. They wanted me to. They expected me to. To turn back on their account would be to ignore their wishes for me. I videotaped and narrated some natural and human history, showed them some petroglyphs, and headed back to the trail head.

“Stability” for me has always been about keeping my mental bearings more than keeping a well-stocked bank account. It was always tough. Relationships and money never lasted long enough. Transportation was always a bit of a folly. I single-handedly killed three Chevrolet Chevettes. In a row.

But, I became crazy-resourceful. I spent a winter in Leadville, Colorado, at 10,000 feet above sea level, doing winter maintenance at the Outward Bound base camp. The winter nights at 10k, with no light pollution, are indescribably clear. And wickedly cold and brutal. At other times I slept in vehicles along some of the mightiest rivers, wildest canyons, most remote places in this country. 

At the end of it all, I woke up one morning next to Laura, on her first visit to see me in South Dakota, in my van. The back doors were open, and a huge herd of buffalo whispered past the van, parting in front, then reconnecting at the back of the van, only a few feet from us. Hundreds of them meandered past, gliding across the prairie. There was no sound but the wisping of their hides on the tall grass, and it’s a sound I will never forget.

What became clear to me, after a decade without an address, without bills, without a phone, is just this:

Home is, indeed, where the heart is. But it doesn’t have to be a place. So long as you follow your heart, you will always be at home.

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