Giving it Back

Yesterday I returned from a short climbing trip to the Red River Gorge. Door to door it was about 530 miles and took about 9 hours. Maybe 10. Drives like that, it helps if you have edibles. Speaking of driving, I’d like to address something: We all know that both Iowa and Nebraska are unparalleled awful places to drive through, worthy of voluminous accounts of all the ways shapes and forms of nonsense that makes their roads such a hellacious place to occupy space. But I’d like to address the compacted colon of the North American road way system: Indiana. I will sum it up in as few words as I can and I will address the state directly.

Dear Indiana: Fuck every square mile of your interstate system. Three lanes of traffic on two lanes of road. People regularly driving five under in both lanes and not passing (see also, Iowa and Nebraska) which forces people to use the right lane for passing. Every fifth driver who uses the right lane as a passing lane. As many FIBs as in Illinois. Seven hours of driving in conditions I can only describe as “constipated”. The only thing fast about driving in Indiana is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For all these reasons and a near endless litany of others, Indiana, I award you an honorary Brown Star of Travel. It amounts to little more than a spot on the list of places so awful to drive in that you should literally drive up to the border, fly over it, then get in another car and continue driving. Enjoy your place of reverence alongside the likes of your Midwest counterparts. You suck, so fucking hard.

Also, fuck Illinois.

 The Gorge is unreal. There’s a reason why the climbing world has been blowing it up and any other article will tell you all about why you should go climb there. In all ways it is immense. Perhaps unfathomable is a better way of putting it. Come day three I began to put the size of the area into perspective. It’s difficult to comprehend how many areas there are to climb, even when you’re standing there in the middle of i

This trip has been a long time coming. In January of 2018 I went to see Nic, my best friend who I met in Texas. He and his family moved to Kentucky in 2015 and shortly thereafter I left Texas, too. When I visited him in ’18 he took me to the Gorge and pointed at all the things that could be climbed, told me all about the volumes of crags, took me to Natural Bridge, the top of whatever great chimney that guy talks about in the book “In the Red”. I wasn’t a climber at the time, so I had yet to hear about the RRG climbing from any other source but him.

Two years later I’d gone from pouring over Dirtbag Diary episodes and haunting Mountain Project to neophyte climber. We had big plans for a RRG climbing trip lined up for the spring of 2020 when something happened. I can’t really remember what, but it was like there was this catastrophe of global proportions that prevented me from flying to Kentucky in March of 2020… I just can’t recall what it was.

So, spring of 2021 rolled around and Nic and I started new plans for a trip that never quite panned out. Until I was stoned in the shower one morning last month and made hard and fast plans to go to Kentucky for my 42nd birthday and to celebrate the 2nd anniversary of when I started climbing. Nic paid for some of my gas, and I took some time off and made figuring our rent for the month a huge anxious mess, threw my gear in my newly acquired Deuter Guide 34+, and hit the road three days after a 33-mile hike with my cousin.

Nic isn’t much of a climber. He is a climber; he just doesn’t do it much. He’s also incredibly shy in his approach, literally hiding out in an area until all the “real climbers are gone” (his words) and then he gets on it and does his thing. I do everything to encourage him including give him my old shoes and chalk bag because otherwise he’d never spend the money on himself. I also encourage him to get a crash pad because he’s going to break an ankle someday, so I keep telling him. In his scouting for our trip though, he became something of a local guide, figuring out what’s where, and what areas have concentrations of what grades, etc. A rock-climbing guide myself, it was a very special thing to have had my bestie serve as my own personal climbing guide for the weekend.

That was one of the parts of the intense duality of this trip, that left me choked up and half crying after a 25’ three-piece trad lead. It was a dream come true. There we were, both climbers, doing our thing, like we had talked about back in Texas.

Texas was a long time ago. When we left, Allie, Nic’s oldest was going off to college, Broadie (his youngest) was in grade school. Allie just graduated and is engaged. Broadie is driving and holding down a job. Me, Nic, and Kim (Nic’s wife) are all going grey. Yes, it’s been a long hard few years since then.

It was in Texas, back in 2009, maybe 2010 when Nic turned me onto a podcast called the Dirtbag Diaries. That’s what got me into climbing. Rock climbing popped up on my radar and I wasn’t able to focus on anything else. It was the closest I’d ever come to having ambition. It took a decade, but there I was. Doing the thing I wanted to do for so long. And I’d basically pushed it onto my friend until he had no choice but to take it up almost by default. I was a climber so he had to climb, because ain’t no way in hell either of us will let the other leave us behind in pursuit of some grand or new adventure.

Through all the climbing I’ve gotten to do I’ve always wished Nic could be there with me. He’s motivated purely by the adventure aspect and completely happy to hike in with a load and belay all day and never climb a thing unless he sees something that speaks to him (I think more speaks to him than he lets on). To him, the going is the point in going climbing. Climbing may or may not happen. But there will be walking through trails with a pack. Or sometimes off trails. There will be getting lost, eating snacks, marveling at trees, taking moments to appreciate bridges and mushrooms, and there will be listening to bird calls and stopping by streams. There will be sweat and dirt and mud and nature on nature’s terms and the need for things like compasses and orientating your maps. Because that’s just being outside with Nic.

This was only the 2nd time I’ve had Nic on the other end of my rope, and this time I got to bring it full circle and belay him. It really was the highlight of my trip, because I know it’s not a thing he gets out and does. Seeing Nic Martinez send a climb, smack them biners and then call “lower”, it was like seeing coyote at sunrise; It wasn’t exactly a unicorn, but it was plenty rare.

That moment was me getting to give it all back. Nic gave me adventuring, he took me paddling one day and after that I wanted to explore and adventure all the time. There is a direct line from that afternoon canoe trip to me climbing, and from there to him climbing. Maybe it’s a circle, or a loop of sorts, some weird oblong shape instead of a line, but my point is there was a succession in events. Either way, if you ask me what the best part of climbing in the Red River Gorge was, I’d say it was belaying.

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