Naked Disco Dance Party in J-Tree
by Luke Mehall
It is two o’clock in the afternoon on a warm spring day in the desert. “There’s a naked disco dance party tonight,” Holly says. Normally naked and party could be inviting, but in the climbing world the chances of a decent ratio of sexes is slim.
I’ve chosen the climbing life for the winter, a season that in J Tree, at times, can feel like summer. Living the dream, camping next to a brown government sign that reads “14-day camping limit.” I’m not past that limit, no sir.
“Write and climb,” is my answer for the usual, “So what do you do?” Of course I also wash dishes at Crossroads, the main social hub, the dusty little café and pub in the heart of town, to stay fed. It is all for the moments with friends in the sun on the perfect salt and pepper granite, climbing and observing the shenanigans of other climbers.
The climbers who come and go are interesting enough, but the ones who stay, who try to find ways to keep themselves entertained, are the best. Picture people who climb in superhero outfits, and surf atop Winnebagos driven through camp by their unsuspecting owners. These folks are the best campfire storytellers, and after two months, you’ve probably already heard one of Shoney’s stories about the local heroes, narrated with eyes wide, hands and feet in the climbing position, “And then Too Strong Dave…”
I’ve heard that some of these folks have lived in Joshua Tree for years, while others have been hiding in the desert since the fall. Though I’ve shared a campfire with a couple of them and seen others run through camp midday dressed in costumes, most of the long staying freaks are a mystery to me. I’ve seen their headquarters, an incognito campsite where music, substances and partying seem to be of equal importance to rock climbing.
Now it’s early evening and I am in my tent, in the routine, intending to get a good night’s sleep for strong training tomorrow. Then I hear the loud, obnoxious voices, “Disco party tonight, meet at campsite 17.” They grow louder, then softer, circling camp.
And then a female voice, “I’m going to take my shirt off.”
A male voice, “Don’t do it. You’ll just attract more dudes.”
An hour later, I look out of my tent as the rhythmic grooves of disco and funk float through the dusky air. Headlamps and unidentified glowing objects flash from atop The Blob, a hundred foot granite dome. Sleep is out of the question. I stagger amidst the bushes and boulders, drawn towards the lights.
The party isn’t exactly easy to get to. Soon, I find two others tromping around in the bushes and boulders, one with the brightest headlamp on the market. With one sentence, “You trying to get up there, too?” we become a team.
The heathens above notice our lights, but aren’t giving any help as to how to reach them. “Go up The Surrealistic Pillar,” they taunt from above, suggesting we free solo a difficult 5.10 hand and face climb.
Our international team of three: myself, a fellow from Switzerland, and a guy from Sacramento, try to find a route up to the party. We locate an easy crack on the backside, one that swallows your hand with each jam.
“Did I tell you I’ve never climbed a rock before?” our Sacramento friend says in fear.
We try giving a lesson but don’t want to encourage much risk taking to the newbie. A fall here would send him and his backpack full of beer tumbling a hundred feet into boulders and cactuses. He retreats.
We reach the top, our bare feet adjusting to the rough granite. The stars are a backdrop and my soon to be friends are all naked, save for a hemp necklace here, or some flip flops there. A small stereo plays seventies disco.
“Welcome to the party, man,” a six foot tall, naked dreadlocked man says. I have seen him around, climbing and camping.
I scan the ten naked people. No surprise, only two girls, one a dreadlocked free spirit they call The Mayor. This girl has been kicked out of the park over and over again, but slips back in. The Mayor is twirling some magical balls on a rope that change from yellow to green to red to blue in an instant. With a sweet look of innocence only a nude girl in California could give, she offers them to me to try, and encourages me to get naked.
Now I am amid the obnoxiousness, the openness, the idea to embrace the night, surely pissing off the climbers whose tents and fires look like specks in the low, far background. Then someone declares assertively, “Let’s do the Chasm.”
What the hell is the Chasm? I am clearly the only one thinking this, as the rest of the crew dances some more, puts on their clothes and down climbs off The Blob in different directions.
I get dressed and a walk off leads right to a fire in camp. Most people are naked again. The camp belongs to two tough looking biker dudes, one who says he is recovering from a wreck. One of my new friends is now wearing a bunny outfit, another has a curly blond wig on. Soon The Mayor busts out two torches. The torches shed a new light, as a crazier, wilder glow illuminates in the freaks’ eyes. Beats from a Congo drum, thump, thump, indicate the party still has a pulse.
The next thing I know, I’m the only clothed person running through camp. People are screaming, announcing the trip to the Chasm, trying to round up others to be part of this clan.
Someone questions why I have my clothes on. “This event needs to be recorded,” I claim, thinking if a ranger shows up I’ll be happy to have something on.
“Well, if there’s one thing we learned from Hunter S. Thompson, it was to participate,” he answers, and adds with a direct look into my eyes, “Gonzo!”
Naked again, I am entering a chimney, burrowing into a granite cliff, away from the moonlight into pure darkness. “The chasm of doooom,” someone yells, words echoing into the cave.
Move by move, beta is shared through the chimney, climbers tunneling, squeezing and down climbing; we pass a half an hour with no headlamps, only the shared word from above in the long tunnel up and then down through the granite rock. I wonder, where are we going?
Then we emerge, at a ledge, exposed and interwoven in a granite world, one where the stars are comforting, a tribe of tattooed naked climbers. Smoke pours from mouths, cold air blows through on our skin. We look out onto the endless granite and Joshua trees, each their own shape, with every limb going its own direction, barely visible by the moonlight.
Down climbing the chasm is horrible, the scraping skin, claustrophobic thoughts in the dark world. My mood lightens for a second when someone says, “Watch your package here.”
Just when I’ve had enough, there’s an opening: the sand, the boulders, the cacti, the horizontal world. We run again to camp on the road, no cars, only the pat of bare feet on pavement, and inhalations and exhalations. The bunny leads, fire torches behind her, dreads flying through the air. If the law were to drive by, it could be bad.
We arrive in camp. The crew, through inspiration or annoyance, has invited me into their group. I look up to The Blob; granite clearly lit up by the moon is stunning. Camp is completely quiet. My tent, weathered badly by the wind, poles sticking through the nylon, begs me to enter in it, to another dream.
A version of this story was originally published in Rock and Ice, issue 170. It was revised for Luke Mehall’s first book, called Climbing Out of Bed, which was released on July 4th. The book is available on Kindle here on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B008H3WFHS/rockclimbingcom. Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine.