My worst climbing road trip
-One or more unexpected events that irrevocably change the intended direction of otherwise very well-made plans.
-The main character’s desire to move forward, despite said events, even though continuing the proceedings may be patently ill-conceived.
-Other involuntary works that can only be mitigated if the main character had revised his course.
-Foods, such as bread
My worst climbing road trip started with a stale bagel. I should have seen that as a bad omen.
It was 2016. I was moving from Fort Collins, Colorado to Victoria, British Columbia—a 20 hours by car, plus a fast ferry. My car was a disappointingly small one, a washed-out cobalt blue 2001 Volkswagen Beetle that I named Ken. The AC was broken and pieces of panels were taped together with tape melted in the sun. For reasons I’ll never understand, Ken smelled of pencil. His separation had taken years to prepare.
I mowed down the bagel — ending its two-week residency in my fridge — and tackled the packing job in front of me. Getting all my stuff inside the car involved a complicated game of sorting and negotiating. Books. Clothes. Laundry basket. Strings. Material. A poster of an oiled-up Alex Honnold. The car groaned like a puffed up animal as I managed to close the last door. I left Fort Collins around 4 a.m.
I had just graduated from Colorado State University, or was pretty close anyway. With 12 credits remaining until graduation, I decided it was time to leave and complete the rest of my classes online. Cheaper that way, and I had been invited to live and train with a friend in Canada. It was an opportunity for me to have everything I had always wanted: the best coaches and the best facilities. I could become the best World Cup climber possible, or so I thought. Hope is the parent of ignorance, or so I learned. But I was delighted to feel free.
Is it worth it? Let me work
I put my thing down, turn it around and vice versa
I turned up the music and rolled down the windows. Cold air blew across my face as I traced the hills and valleys of northern Colorado, a verdant ocean despite the waning year.
Ti esrever adn ti pilf nwod gnaht ym tup i
Ti esrever adn ti pilf nwod gnaht ym tup i
The sun hadn’t peaked yet when my car suddenly lost power. The accelerator pedal did nothing, and as I leaned onto the shoulder, my car came to a stop. Ra-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, I say, turning off the car. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. I turned on the ignition and prayed for juice. No answer. I tried again. No.
AAA came an hour later. The driver had one of those full-size tow trucks, which made my little disassembling car look like a pathetic child’s toy. He let me sit next to him, on a fuzzy bench that had peanuts stuck in the cracks of the cushion.
“Where to go?” The driver asked.
“Can you take me to Seattle?” I said half-jokingly.
He towed me the maximum amount that was still free for my membership. Nearly 200 miles later, we arrived in a dry land town in Wyoming. A stray cat stood guard outside the peeling auto shop, the only one within 100 miles. The mechanic, wearing Crocs and a flannel, told me he could fix my bug in a few hours. But first, I had to get all my stuff out. I obeyed, then went sulking to a nearby cafe, killing time doing my homework for my online speech and communication course, which might just be the dumbest thing I’ve ever paid for.
The car dilemma was, as you might have guessed, setback #1. You could say this was the part of the trip where I should have re-thought my timeline, which was to go like this:
- Day one: Leave Fort Collins at 4am Drive for at least 12 hours, find a motel.
- Day two: Road to Seattle. Stay at a monastery booked through Airbnb because a) it’s cheap and b) what professional athlete doesn’t yearn for monastic simplicity?
- Day three: Take part in local bouldering competitions, ideally winning, and thus completing a festive return to competitions after taking an entire month off. (Before that, I had competed in World Cups in Europe. Tired of lackluster results and just plain tired, I had returned home to Colorado for a much-needed break.) After the competition, I would cross the border into Canada, get in the best shape of my life and then become the World Cup hero I knew I was destined to be. There could be no turning back.
Four hours and $500 later, the mechanic finished with my car. I packed everything up and found myself on the road again, this time in the dim early evening light. I stopped that night at an old motel that smelled of cigarette smoke and dreamed of podiums.
The next day was white lines and yellow dashes. Waving grass fields under a falling gray sky. It was much colder than the day before, so I kept the windows closed. I went from podcasts to music and back to podcasts until finally, late in the evening, Seattle’s space needle appeared, a smeared metallic blip in the unfolding cityscape. Halos of amber exhaled from streetlights and cars as people dripped from restaurants like water from a broken faucet. Suddenly the sink went out: the lively nightlife faded and I found myself in a bad part of town.
You have arrived at your destination. I clicked on my GPS and double-checked the address. Yeah, that was it. In front of my car, a man without shoes and wrapped in an old blanket staggers past, a brown bag clutched in his fist. He fled into an alley, then I found myself alone in a deserted street. I gathered a toothbrush and a bag with extra clothes. All my belongings remained in my insect, all a little too obvious. My bike, a cheap black Schwinn, was strapped to the trunk, unlocked, and barely hooked up. With one last look back, I crossed the block and made my way to the entrance of the monastery.
On the doormat, a pile of human shit sat like fallen ice cream. A monk in a traditional saffron robe welcomed me inside. He led me inside the chapel, adorned with gold paint and cheap plastic relics. A bare cot stretched out in the center of the room under a window with steel security bars. A beam of light painted the ground and danced on the worn belly of a laughing Buddha, who watched me through the deepening night.
At the comp there was no way around it: I was tired. My body was inflamed and swollen from lack of sleep and movement. But For God Sake, this was my fun re-introduction to comps, the starting point of my incredible ascent to good – no, great – results. My state of being didn’t matter. I smiled. I bouldered with friends. I shook the wall like a bean bag.
This is the part of the recipe where I should have taken more care. Ra-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta…
I landed badly. My ankle quickly swelled to the size of a softball. Is it broken? I was not sure. My head hissed and my eyes filled with water. I choked back my tears as someone carried me to a chair. “Do you want to go to the emergency room? someone asked. I thought about it. “No,” I said, because an x-ray would be cheaper in Canada. Someone gave me an ice pack and I found myself preparing for an online multiple-choice speech and communication test.
Later, between qualifying and finals, some Canadian friends drove me to CVS where I bought a pair of inexpensive crutches. The padding was thin and cracked and they were digging into my armpits. We went to a restaurant and had coffee and food and planned to cross the border together that night.
The music sounded, the lights danced, the finals began. I watched until I couldn’t take it anymore – my ankle taking its own pulse. I hobbled to a corner of the gym until it was time to go. When the finals were over, my friends helped me into the car and we drove the two hours to the border.
Can you guess? This is the part of the story where all my stuff in my car looked suspicious. The officers searched my car. They took my phone. They took my laptop. I waited under the yellow-white gaze of the fluorescent strips and watched the flies rubbing their little hands on a sticky linoleum table beside me. An hour later, at 1 a.m., an officer called my name.
“We are in a hurry,” she said, “but we cannot let you through without sufficient evidence that you can support yourself and that you are not going to work illegally. You can try again tomorrow with bank statements. She smiled. I couldn’t help it – I laughed out loud in front of her. Then she handed me my things and walked away. I say goodbye to my friends with a shrug. “I’ll find a motel for the night,” I said, then found myself alone and back on the road.
The motel was only a few miles away. A bruise continued to sprout on my ankle, the skin taut and waxy. The motel attendant, a chubby teenager with earrings, took pity on me and gave me a downstairs room. Tired, hungry and in pain, I hobbled across the yard and into the room. I locked the door and drew the pink paisley curtains.
Later that night, the doorknob tinkled but didn’t fully turn. I saw someone’s shadow stand momentarily outside my window before continuing.
There is a parable by Franz Kafka title The rescue will begin in due time. The story is about willpower and its ability to persist. In one segment of the story, a farmer attempts to cut bread for his children. When he is unable to do so, he says to his children, “Why should you be surprised? Isn’t it more surprising that something succeeds than if it fails? Kafka, of course, uses the slice of bread to symbolize life’s most mundane, everyday tasks. The bread has its will, and we have ours. The father decides not to give up, saying, “I’ll try again tonight. I won’t let a loaf of bread turn me into a monkey. He is forced to let himself be cut at the end; of course, he has the right to resist, so he resists.
The next morning, I decided to test my omens again. I found a bagel shop before heading back to the border to try again.