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Coyote Waits

Submitted by roninthorne on 2003-05-23 | Last Modified on 2010-02-26

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Somewhere, out there, he is howling; running along the desert washes and hills, skirting the granite that surrounds my heart and world as the sun slowly dies against a cloud-strewn sky.

Coyote waits.

I sink the stopper into the perfect fingercrack, pulling once firmly on the biner with its sprawled mass of wires and battered heads, then unclip, and match a quickdraw, measuring the distance ability will carry me, a mortal deviation from the path in stone. Below, the face falls away, my line spidery in the alpineglow, my belayer smiling and steady, immune to gravity. Donna, a.k.a. Climerdee, has pushed just as hard as I have on the trails and faces of the days before, and she is just as happy to be here, chasing gentler lines in this odd, beautiful landscape of sculpted stone.

No worries, no world, just wind and the sky, and the great sprawling Garden that is Joshua Tree, Saddle Mountain and "Walk On the Wild Side" glowing gold in the distance, still, the highest stone still kissed by the mother star we circle.

I blow chalk from fingers already bleeding (damn the cuticles, anyway) and stand up, weight swinging to the side of the edge and crack, kinetic humanity. So pure...the layback sweeping me up, foot balanced high, sweet Jesus wasn't that nice, hearing a heart finally beating again, driving, the bone anchors driven by muscles, driven by dreams. Chains fall away, gravity at bay, and the stone lifts me towards Heaven.

Another chock, this one bigger, and a nice little cam to equalize, and then, in the corner of my eye- there he was.

Breathe, muscles dancing slightly, toes pressed in a high stance against the rock, fingers idly pushing away the draw and biner, other hand sunk in the crack. A raven croaks down from the wind in shadowed passage, and foraging ground squirrels blur into sudden motion, disappearing. I laugh at the clouds, call something incoherent down to Donna, who glances away only a second to follow my pointing gesture. I swap hands and look down as he circles.

How many times had we faced each other, across the years, across the miles, Coyote and I? How much of the Journey, the Desert, and the whimsical wonder of the world are locked in his silent, knowing smile?

In the woods of the east, climbing my first long-distance crags; strange yapping, quavering notes that rose to a crescendo and suddenly died. Loners, more solitary in their habits than their western cousins, shadows that moved suddenly and silently out of myth andf into the imagination of a young boy, there in the forests, at twilight.

And here, in Joshua Tree, a lifetime ago, during my first visit; many, many days and nights spent with tired arms beneath my head, the aches and flappers and scrapes and wounded ego all lost in a sea of stars scattered across the arching sky overhead, as the endless winds sighed through mesquite and the spikes of the Joshua trees.

So many mornings, awakened by motion, the dawn still a faint promise against the East, dark shapes suddenly motionless, suddenly gone, leaving only the sound of their brief motions, and the prints of their silent paws.

When you dwell in the desert, there are three truths-

There is not such thing as time

Water is life

Coyote waits

The final moves seem easier than I expect and remember, but somehow still harder than they should. I stand, sweat drying on back and chest, chilling my scalp as I look out across the desert.

I know he is out there. I organize the belay, automatically sinking cams and nuts, slings and cordelette equalized and biners locked, before I call "Off Belay" and CD begins to don her shoes. The slack comes in hand over hand, and I think back, to the gritty stone of Tahquitz.

We had schemed as we drove, early Friday morning; the miles of flat Arizona desert falling away as the Big Red Truck powered West, stuffed once again with gear, clothes, and food.

With a sudden unexpected shift of both our plans, there had been no doubt between Donna and I that we would, we MUST climb at Tahquitz; birthplace of great lines, inspiration and training ground of giants. Harding, Robbins, Wilt, Chouinard, Long, Bridewell, and oh, lord, so many, many more great climbers cut their teeth here, running it out on the long faces, sinking perfect gear in bomber cracks, chasing their shadows up The Open Book and playing mindgames on The Edge, or crossing the valley to Suicide, and sending the 5.11 Valhalla to become one of the Stonemasters of yore. Tobin had come here; the madman, soloing the Edge in his frantic days of screaming Life against the blackness.

We arrived at the hamlet of Idyllwild, which, having never been anything, truly, save an attraction, has absolutely no shame about being one of the finest. We wandered through an assortment of clueless rangerettes and gas station attendants, before finally driving through a small stretch of suburbia to find Idyllwild State Park. Money and directions changed hands, and we wound into the sculpted depths to our elevated, shaded campsite.

Once there, and established, there was no resisting the mountain's call, and we roared off in the BRT, in search of CRAGGAGE!

The usual assortment of wrong turns, U-turns, bad directions, and misadventures brought us to the parking lot, and the sea level climbers soon learned/remembered the joys of a five hour, zero-acclimatization drive, followed by a half-hour approach to a 8000'+ crag. I puffed, laughing at myself, staggering and trying not to fall backwards on Donna as we scrambled up the final loose stones of the trail to stand beneath the face.

Predictably, she looked at me and grinned and said, "We could have brought our gear."

I think I blacked out for a little bit at that point...

We were like kids on Christmas morning, wandering along, the Information Queen holding the guidebook, and reading, and pointing, as I gaped and nodded, drooling slightly on myself. The granite, white and speckled with black, so granular, so textured, so solid. I touched the stone, and felt all the weight of the city, drained from my pores, lifted from my shoulders.

The Open Book was our furthest stop, the profile of the beautiful and deadly Edge a stark knife of shadow across the perfect sky. Swallows reeled and dived overhead, locust and crickets already singing in the shadowed hollows. I looked at the opening moves of The Open Book, and thought about Royal, doing those moves years before in boots, with machine nuts slung on perlon, hammer and pins, a few tied slings, a swami or sometimes nothing more than a three-inch belt with the rope knotted through it. No matter my disagreement with anything else about the man, there was no doubt that he had stones.

The shadows of long passed climbers swarmed there, for an instant, and I knew a moment of silent joy, a re-awakening. For this feeling, I had left the green valleys of my childhood, left behind hearth and home. To see the wonders, to live a life worthy of a tale, and walk in the footsteps of the giants. I bowed my head and smiled, satisfied, humbled, and Hungry. I wasn't ready for this, not yet, but soon, very, very soon. I knew too well Tahquitz reputation for sandbagging, and I was going soft, very softly indeed, on my first run against her numbers.

We finally abandoned sleeping bags hours before dawn, almost too excited to sleep, and were on the face before the sun rose, on the classic Fingertip Traverse.

Then, in mid climb, we heard them.

The rising, yapping calls, racing through the forest, a crescendo suddenly cut off, with the kill-

Far from the desert, far from the wilderness, running along the shadowed alleyways at the edge of our worlds-

Coyote waits.

Donna led up the short corner above the initial third class, after a brief but furious battle with a legion of ants in the tree required to surmount the 5.10+ boulder problem of the corner. Actual quote from guidebook: "Climb the tree.."

I followed, slaying the tenacious little beasts as I went, cleaning the sparse but well-set pro Donna had placed in the somewhat irregular cracks.

Then began the great guidebook debate. Coyote laughed, dancing with uncertainty in our minds, the jester come to play on the vertical granite faces.

Ambiguity is the name of the game in guidebooks from that era, and the Tahquitz Guide set out to do this as never before. In Tahquitz, for instance, "runout" means that it would likely be faster to mail the rope to the next pro, rather than actually climb there. If the bolt or placement is within the same area or ZIP code, it is not, in fact, run out.

Many good bolts exist on the routes, some pre-Industrial Revolution, but good, nonetheless. You can clip ring bolts and fixed pitons probably driven to their graves by Kor, Bridewell, Long, and the Stonemasters, or even earlier, Yvon leaning back in etriers to critically eye his latest efforts at forging and ironcraft. There are chocks of assorted age and make, battered into shapeless bashies, as well as many fine #1 Friends, sunk and overcammed deep into fingercracks which refuse to give up their dead. Bail slings, complete with rap rings, left in the middle of nowhere for no discernable reason, wrapping the base of a manzanita the size of my thigh.

Ever downlead a fingercrack while using it as a VERY thin ramp? It is, to say the very least, a uniquely engaging experience. You are safe, you are safe... and then you have to lean down, face to the stone, breathe panting in your ear or hissing softly from your nose, jaw set, and remove pro you cannot really see. Doing thus, you suddenly gain the potential for a twenty foot pendulum across the cheesegrater, above an overhang, below which there is a much greater amount of air than there is information. If your last pro BEFORE that is a pin, likely set by Harding or Becky, that you jokingly clipped in passing, the entire experience becomes quite, shall we say, suspenseful.

Back at the lower ledges, I looked at Donna, who was just a little wide-eyed on the belay, and moved around the corner to the right, instead. If I couldn't climb Tahquitz 5.4s, I'd try their 5.6 alternate ending, instead.

Ten minutes later, I brought Donna up, grinning her way through the final crack/slab moves to the gorgeous granite patio of the South Summit. The victory hug was all smiles and few words as we turned and looked out over the rolling green hills of the San Jacintos, untying and re-racking in the shade of the enormous pine from which I had belayed. We ate, drank copious amounts of liquids, bitched about the stupidity of carrying packs, laughed at the hilarious sandbagging and beta, and eventually followed Clark the Guide and his young charge down the Friction Descent, via a few strategic detours Clark had come to know in his years in the area.

Back at the front, reunited with our gear, Donna racked up and sent the first pitch of Fingertrip, a fine dihedral/face climb with a tips-only, overhanging corner on a just-less-than vert slab finish.

This was Climberdee's hardest gear lead to date (she has since sent many of much higher grade), and she onsighted it in fine style, quietly chanting "You can do this" through the crux, and making it look far easier than when I arrived at the moves a while later. Although tall and athletically built, Donna has the fingers of a concert harpist; chisel-tipped and strong. Frantically searching, I balanced on the good holds, and drove my own my Ballpark Franks against the fine stone, but to no avail. The crack was piton scarred in only a few spots, and elsewhere too small for more than the bones of my pinky.

I eyed the crack, breaking away left, and shuffled that way, walking a thin ramp again, reflecting that it seemed my fate at Tahquitz. The crack/ramp placed me within long, long reach of the incut edge that would bypass the layback crux, and I heaved for all my ape-index was worth, no shame now, just gimmee those anchors.

After a long rappell, we looked to the afternoon sun, thought of cold beers and hot food, and made our way out, to the Truck. Fresh fruit, Alfredo chicken, angel hair pasta, and cold Sierra Nevadas, beneath the last glow of the granite high above, made the perfect end of a fantastic day.

And now we were here; wandering across the gorgeous stone of Joshua Tree, the tourists draining away as another weekend died and we laughed like children let loose in Wonderland; another granite crag, another perfect day. Bats danced against the sunlight, birds swooped and flapped heavily into the breeze... and in the distance, I hear them: coyote, calling, chasing the wind.

I know that trail runs forwards and back and back again, across solitary miles, and through the too few precious times when the wind does not call, and the Path take us away.

I know that I cannot turn again to better times, nor reshape the immutable past, nor truly see the interminable future. Through night and day, through all time and space, we wander, strange souls on a questing path, and we will cross, again and again; driving, living, loving, wounding, questioning each other, beasts of the same world, the desert and the stone, and the unending sky.

Beyond the fencelines, and deep within my heart...

Coyote waits.
No regrets Coyote,
We just come from such different sets of circumstance
I'm up all night in the studios
And you're up early on your ranch
You'll be brushing out a brood mare's tail
While the sun is ascending
And I'll just be getting home with my reel to reel
There's no comprehending
Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes
And the lips you can get
And still feel so alone
And still feel related
Like stations in some relay
You're not a hit and run driver no no
Racing away
You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

We saw a farmhouse burning down
In the middle of nowhere
In the middle of the night
And we rolled right past that tragedy
Till we turned into some road house lights
Where a local band was playing
Locals were up kicking and shaking on the floor
And the next thing I know
That coyote's at my door
He pins me in a corner and he won't take no
He drags me out on the dance floor
And we're dancing close and slow
Now he's got a woman at home
He's got another woman down the hall
He seems to want me anyway
Why'd you have to get so drunk
And lead me on that way
You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

I looked a coyote right in the face
On the road to Baljennie near my old home town
He went running thru the whisker wheat
Chasing some prize down
And a hawk was playing with him
Coyote was jumping straight up and making passes
He had those same eyes just like yours
Under your dark glasses
Privately probing the public rooms
And peeking thru keyholes in numbered doors
Where the players lick their wounds
And take their temporary lovers
And their pills and powders to get them thru this passion play
No regrets Coyote
I just get off up aways
You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

Coyote's in the coffee shop
He's staring a hole in his scrambled eggs
He picks up my scent on his fingers
While he's watching the waitresses' legs
He's too far from the Bay of Fundy
From appaloosas and eagles and tides
And the air conditioned cubicles
And the carbon ribbon rides
Are spelling it out so clear
Either he's going to have to stand and fight
Or take off out of here
I tried to run away myself
To run away and wrestle with my ego
And with this flame
You put here in this Eskimo
In this hitcher
In this prisoner
Of the fine white lines
Of the white lines on the free free way

-Joni Mitchell


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