I’m off in the North Cascades chasing pots of gold. Lucky for you I programed a reprint. This was my first (and to date only) published piece. It aired as a podcast on the Wonderful Dirtbag Diaries and can be heard in its edited state here.
Into the Dark
My first solo wasn’t planned. I arrived early at Lewis and Clark state park, twenty minutes from my home in Portland, to work on a project. But first I needed a warm up. I wandered to the base of my first trad lead, a blocky, unappealing thirty-five foot route named “Giant’s Stair Case”. I’d climbed it several times since then. I sat on the blocks at the base of the route, the park to myself, sipping my coffee. My mind and body where free from my usual pre-climb jitters.
For the three years that I’ve been climbing my biggest problem has been my head. Fear kept me climbing below my true level. At times I have been so gripped with fear that I had shaken myself off of routes. Soloing this route, climbing it without the rope, was preposterous. I slipped on my climbing shoes, and launched into the first moves. I moved effortlessly over the smooth basalt, my body acting without instruction from my fickle mind.
Topping out, I looked down to the empty parking lot, then past to the Sandy River. I could not help but laugh. My body felt charged. Though an easy route, it felt magical to me. Overcoming the mental barriers that held me back prior to this moment triggered something in my brain. I was no longer afraid of even the biggest whippers.
Throughout my life I’ve dealt with the ups and downs of depression. Sometimes it’s just a day and then it’s off, as fleeting as the now forgotten thought which brought it on. But sometimes it stays, hangs over my head, adding an extra layer of clouds to the already overcast sky that caps the Pacific Northwest in winter. In the past I dealt with this by turning in on myself, closing the door, and turning off the phone until I had plunged into the depths of the darker segments of my brain.
I moved to Portland in an attempt to escape some of those darker thoughts thinking a change of place could cure me. Within four months of living here I meet Amy. It wasn’t my intention to find anyone, let alone someone who had kids, but after two rain soaked lunch dates and movie we were an item. Six months later I sustained an injury on a trip to Yosemite, allowing me to spend more time with Amy and her two sons. Laid up, I put my energy into deepening my relationship with them. In January my lease was up and the rest of my stuff found its way to Amy’s apartment. For most of this time the skies were clear, but after a year storm clouds started to gather across the hemispheres of my brain. Having a family, demands that I be there one-hundred percent. Closing my door and riding out the storm was no longer an option. I started taking medication, something I had been resistant to for years, hoping it would help me stay present, not turn in on myself, or take out my frustrations on the people I had grown to love.
Even after a year, I still had moments where I only thought of myself. I hoped this was out of habit and not selfishness. One night the boys sat at the table eating their dinner. I started making dinner for myself without first asking if anyone wanted anything. Amy suggested that I start thinking of everyone, not just myself.
A half -hour later the kids had gone next door to spend the night. I told Amy that I was going climbing, leaving without telling her where I’d gone. Following a pattern that has dogged my whole life, I ran to escape the shame of not thinking about the ones I love first. I ran to a place I knew I would feel safe, to the base of another route. A route I’ve climbed forty times. It’s also the route where I set a top-rope for Amy and the boys, giving them their first experiences on real rock. My attempt at combining the two things I love most in this world. One of the few times where my passions didn’t conflict.
Rightly or wrongly, climbing is one of the few things I feel I’m doing right with my life. I have been more focused and dedicated to climbing than anything else in my previous twenty-nine years. I train hard, no matter what. On the days I don’t feel like doing anything I still drag my lazy ass to the gym. This insignificant thing is the only thing I can keep up at. All attempts to eat better, or spend less, to straighten out my life I have failed at time and time again. This one thing saves me.
I pull my shoes on and start onto the slab. Moving up the route I am encased in the shell of light from my headlamp. I’ve climbed here a lot, but in the dark it feels like I’m in a new place. The lichen glows in the LED light, and the route almost feels unfamiliar. But my body knows what to do. For a few moments my mind is still. I’m no longer tormented by the self-destructive thoughts that had followed me from the house. “Does she really love me?” “Am I doing everything I can to provide for them?” I usually answer “No”. Causing me to spiral further down, manifesting a reality I don’t want. For now, I am safe, my body locked in the moving meditation that I strive for. Reaching the top, I touch the slings of the anchor before starting my descent into the darkness below.
Halfway through the descent these thoughts catch me. I consider letting go. My life insurance will pick up the slack that I am unable to carry. A final act of compassion to save the ones I love from being dragged down with me. With three deep breaths I let go of these thoughts, and continue with the descent. Emotionally exhausted, I stop at the small ledge near the base of the route and sit. I turn off my headlamp, rest my head against the wall and cast my eyes toward the night sky. Fifteen minutes later I open my eyes. The cool night works its way through my sweatshirt. Wiggling my toes back to life, I descend. In a couple of minutes I’m back at the car and headed home.
Martha yells as I enter the front door, thinking I’m the friend she and Amy have been waiting for. She asks how the climbing was. “Good,” I reply “Do you feel like a new man?” she asks teasingly. I pause, considering her question. “Yes,” I reply. She hands me a drink, and Amy kisses me good-bye as they head out to go dancing. I’m left alone with the calm that comes from forgiving oneself.
Three days later, I lie on floor of the spare room in our apartment and cry. There is a cold feeling in the center of my chest. My things are slowly finding their way into boxes not knowing where they’ll end up next. I’m only able to work in half hour intervals, before I come across something that reminds me of our life together. A picture of the boys, a note from Amy pressed into a book, the ticket stubs from our trip to Hawaii, or the dog trying to climb into my lap. I’m leaving behind the most important thing in my life. Perhaps I had grown too comfortable, and because of that I was unable to maintain the balance between climbing, and my family.
I knew when I came back that night something wasn’t right. A rift had grown between Amy and I, something neither of us were willing to talk about. Climbing into the darkness, I confronted what I was feeling and unwilling to talk with her about. I needed to forgive myself for not giving them the attention they deserved. I failed by not moving the work I was doing on myself into my relationship with them. By constantly turning in we were no longer moving through life together.
Two months have passed since that day. I spent my holidays alone. The first step in my new life. When I moved to Portland I didn’t expect to find a family. Having one was the greatest thing I have ever experienced. I love Amy, and the boys deeply. When I was with them I was closer to the man that I want to be than at any point in my life. Something the hardest route or boulder problem hasn’t yet given me.
I still feel the cold in the center of my chest. Everyday I yearn to have my family back. But I also know, that whatever happens my life has changed for the better because of them. I am a better person from having loved them.