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Shadows of Perspective

Submitted by roninthorne on 2006-12-22 | Last Modified on 2007-01-22

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by Michael Gray

Days come; spring from the calendar into existence, flare like roman candles and fall back, into the sweet nostalgic mists of memory’s scrapbook, a kaleidoscope of life. We see things not as they are, but as they appear, highlighted by hope and back-dropped by shadows of perspective.

Another climbing trip emerges from the week’s end, and gloomy forecasts of inclement weather; three days of freedom to burn, laughing at the odds and singing in the rain. With nothing to lose but time, Thursday night is spent stretched out in a battered back room booth at Luigi’s, reading Eric van Lustbader’s "Black Heart" and humming absently to the tunes of "Ziggy Stardust" while awaiting the arrival of my friend Doctor Doom a.k.a. Funky Mike Fisher. A group of rowdy sorority sisters from the local University crowd in, filling the central tables and remaining booths, and soon Mister Fisher arrives, joining me amid a sea of feminine voices and forms. We subdue our disgust at the situation with pitchers of Star Hill and Newcastle to wash down Luigi’s fine fare, presented artfully amid the crush by a delightfully lithesome server named Liz.

Other friends turn up every time we try to leave, and soon Mr. Charming (the other Mike) has made about a half dozen new friends among our impromptu dinner companions. They hover around him like moths to the flame, and I smile at the inevitability of it all. A visit to the brownie locker, more pitchers of cold brew, and the evening dissolves into a slow fade of laughter and clinking glasses, falling silverware and shouting voices from the kitchen, David Bowie howling his slightly nasal cant to rock’n’roll infamy in the background-

"Ziggy play-ed… gui-ta-a-a-a-a-ar."

Friday was Friday, as it always is, and the opportunity to sleep in until the sun was actually above the horizon was too good to pass up. Nonetheless, by 8 a.m. I had tunes pumping and French-pressed java jumpin’; huevos and queso combined with chorizo and frijoles negro on fresh tortillas and the air filled with drifting wisps of aromatic smoke. Over the machine-gunning guitars of Godsmack’s "Go Away" and Twizted’s "Voices", John Wayne and Randolph Scott silently fought for the love and affections (mainly the affections) of some saloon girl as I shuffled myself and the Panzer ever closer to departure.

Ack! As one of my best friends would no doubt exclaim. Double Ack indeed… there was an entire bag of forgotten laundry tucked in a back corner of the rolling experiment in Chaos Theory I variously call "home", or "the Panzer", or "that big, grey, rusting pain in the ass parked out there in the lot…"

You always hurt the ones you love.

Upshot of everything is an unplanned trip to the laundry, where I spend the better part of an hour reading, dodging screaming ethnic children and wildly racing laundry carts, and determinedly NOT staring at a stunningly beautiful Thai girl as she folds laundry. She looks up, catches me watching, and her eyes seem bottomless, like the gaze of the Buddha, as she smiles, shyly, and returns to her graceful movement. When the blood returns to my brain from its rush out to the nether regions of my anatomy, I find my ears filled with the buzzer of the drier behind me, my clothes finished at last. I drop them absently in the basket, and wind through the crowd towards the door. Her voice is soft as I pass, and in my surprise I nearly stagger straight into the door.


She is smiling again, head bent to her task, as I spin through the doorway, fumble for the van keys, toss the basket inside. My head is filled with a thousand impetuous thoughts… I should go back in there- introduce myself…

Realization hits me, a flash of epiphany and I smile, shaking my head, laughing softly at myself. It was a nice moment, a sharing of friendship between strangers in a strange land. Maybe once, a decade ago, the rest of it could have happened, but now it is a much different world, and I am a much different man. Thankful for the wisdom, I climb into the van, and wave briefly as she glances up, and I drive away.

In a complete change of tone, I slide Vangelis’ "Polar Shift" CD into the player as I head out of town, the cool synthesizer notes and soaring, poignant melody lifting my heart above the towering storm clouds rising to block the western sky.

My path, of course, snakes straight into the heart of darkness.

Ten miles out of Harrisonburg, I close rapidly on the event horizon. Flickers of welding flash lightning strobe the ridges, and the smell of ozone and rain is thick. The leaves, torn by sudden winds, turn pale bellies to the sky, now black with boiling clouds, as thunder shakes the van.

Then the rain is on us; too thick to see more than fifty feet at best, it brings traffic first to a crawl, then veering hastily into pullouts all along the wooded shoulder of 33 West. I think of the storm-damaged crowns and branches of oak and hickory lining the roads, listen the moan of the winds, and keep the Panzer rolling, wipers frantically failing to sweep away the flood as I lean forwards over the wheel, eyes straining at the misty road.

Three miles and a half-hour later, I break out of the other side of the storm, just as I wind into the first curves ascending Shenandoah Mountain, the dividing line between West Virginia and the Valley. Leaves and gravel cover the road, blown from ditches and hollows by the gushing force of runoff. Red water rages along the shoulder of the road as I push the rainsoaked Panzer up into sunshine and blue skies, the next set of anvil headed monsters already building off in the southwest. Construction crews delay me briefly, huddling miserably in their raingear in the sticky humidity, before I finish the asphalt slalom down into Brandywine, swinging away from Sugar Grove Naval Base and towards Franklin.

More rain, and the river at Franklin is red with silt. No more action there than on the day three weeks past when Funky Mike and I had invited folks from far and near to come help us work on the blown out trails. The response had been underwhelming, to say the least, and the backlash had yet to come. Shaking my head at the lack of motivation in the climbing community, I drift back in time as the highway unrolls beneath me; back to the previous weekend.

Rain had dogged us then, as well; sneaky little showers that hounded our heels and chased us down the rap lines into the Cirque. Sheltered under the inward-leaning walls, both Mike and I had battered ourselves against our testpieces. While showers came and went, and bluejays screamed from the trees overhead, we pulled and pushed, hissed and grunted and cursed and laughed, quickdraws glittering as they swung, chalk motes hanging in the brief sunlight, the air filled with the smell of warm stone and moist vegetation. We had climbed hard and taken some grand wingers, both achieving personal bests that somehow were not- quite- good enough to top out.

Ropes had been left fixed overnight as we jugged out on separate lines, only to find the rain waiting; its first drops pattering down as well hurriedly stuffed packs and coiled jug lines into shelter, the rising hiss as we double-timed it through the trees and across the meadow, and the fat slap of huge drops as we dived into the shadowed interior of the Panzer just ahead of the deluge.

More climbing, more trailwork, and more rain, the following day. Trembling fingers found crimpers above the roof too moist to stick, and defeat- for now- was admitted. We shrugged it off and turned our energies towards trailwork, a good late lunch, and, of course, scoping out future nightmares.

Moorefield is still dry, coming in from the south, although I pass through another Great Flood-type rain just outside of town. Following a hunch, and a small hand-lettered sign, I pull into a wide, empty lot, secure the Beast, and cross the road. A tiny bell announces my entrance into the antique shop, where a jumble of ancient bottles and bookcases and bric-a-brac sits waiting for customers who will never come.

"How y’doin?" comes the high cry from the back, and I wander though the shadowed aisles to find a familiar scene; the proprietor and friends seated on worn, overstuffed, rumpsprung sofas and chairs around an old wood stove, spittoons and canes all within easy reach, a small brown jug slid not quite far enough out of sight behind the sofa.

Upon request, the owner of this proud establishment assures me that they do indeed have honey, still, and he would be happy to sell me as much as I would like. I take a quart of golden ambrosia, for the pittance of a likeness of Abraham Lincoln, and fill out the purchase with a couple of loaves of bread "fresh-baked right out back" by the grand-daughter whose photo I see in many places around the store. We talk rain and crops, unemployment and foreign affairs, the way folks here have done when opening or concluding business since before this town had a name. I wish them all a good day and take my leave.

Back outside, the rain is beginning as I head out of town and begin climbing; drifting in gauzy curtains of grey across the rolling blue peaks of Spruce Knob and Dolly Sods, falling in thick white curtains across the ridges of the Alleghany, the winding serpent of the Potomac.

I spend the evening much as I will spend the next two days; hiking between showers, exploring the more distant reaches of the crag and the ruins of an old mining camp; soaring walls and countless pockets, grungy cracks and hanging death blocks, faces covered with poison ivy and loose stone; crumbling buildings and discarded bottles, broken crockery and moss-covered trails, steps that lead nowhere, an old chimney still standing above the blackened foundations of a hut half a century gone. I stand silent and motionless in the forest, drinking in the echoes of the past.

Distant shots remind me that it is Spring turkey season, time once again for brave men to take to the hostile woods in order to blast dangerous avians with handheld artillery. The same gentle souls who drive their 4WDs off road every chance they get, tossing beanie weenie, Vienna sausage, and Bud cans in every direction, honking their "Dixie" horns, yelling Yee-haw every time "Freebird" plays and generally making themselves a hell of a nuisance to those of us who spend the other nine non-hunting months of the year living in perfect harmony with these same creatures. The snarl of a four-wheeler comes to me from over the ridge, and I head back towards the Panzer, before irritation and memory of my own past can lead me into confrontation.

More relics hide in the forests near camp, and I spend a leisurely evening "woodscombing"; looking for ancient glassware and old trinkets amid the leaves and shrubs, wandering amid ancient foundations and weathered boards, beneath the shadow of hundred-year-old trees.

Returning with my few treasures, I wash them and then, prompted by the increasing growling of my stomach, turn my thoughts and efforts towards sustenance. Flame leaps and water boils as I cut and dice and blend, humming a few snatches of some old Van Halen tune. Dinner is tortellini smothered in a pesto and olive oil sauce of my own devising, topped with Parmesan and complemented by salad with red wine vinegar dressing, toasted garlic bread and ice-cold Red Hook Extra Special Bitter.

Notes in my journals (which you are reading the transcriptions of, even now…) justify another cold brew after dinner, accompanied by the Ronin version of a fine cigar. After few more chapters in one of the three books I am currently reading, I duck out of the van for a last weather check and Nature call. It is clearing, a bit, but I can smell the rain, and the heaviness of the air portends continuing showers. I shrug, smiling as I secure the front and crawl into the Panzer’s rack. Beyond the windows, tree frogs and whippoorwills fill the night with song.

I wonder for a moment how my friends are, far-flung as they are across this spinning globe; Mel and Jamie, Aid and Lhotse, Bilesr and Climberdee and bmsullivan and John Burcham up in Flagstaff, Chris and Laura and their new baby, Walker and Renee up in New York, Maggs out there in the foothills of Heaven. Wonder if Steve Baldwin was in any of that action out on Hood. How Leo and Karen and the baby (now a youngster) are, and if they are still in Vegas. I chuckle at the thought of Babs somewhere seducing young Aussies, my little buddy Rich le Mal contending with Marty Karabin for the most routes developed in Arizona, DeChristo shattering the linear-thought modes of the unwary out in Trinidad. I wonder how the Phoenix Bouldering Comp is going, and what HA/mountaineering madness syudla and MC are cooking up, and whether they have suckered Steve into it again. I wonder how climer is doing, and remind myself to write. I wonder where Snowleopard is, and if he’s seen the Buddha on the road. So many people I've met, out in the snow and the stone and the high country. Paths, interweaving... perspectives, shadowing reality.

I wonder how my family is; my aging father and mother, my sweet sister and her loving husband, my shining neice, Mallorie, scattered uncles and aunts and cousins. Always the black sheep, it has never been for want of hearth and kin.

As it will, the mind slips from kin to old feuds, recent heartbreaks, and former loves. I wonder if it is still worth it; trying to hold the line against the onrushing wave of climbing commercialization, guidebook rip-offs by "heroes" everyone seems to worship no matter how questionable their methods or ethics, sell outs by my own mentors and young climbing icons, bad calls and media whoring by today's young hotshots. I wonder just when it was that we became the enemies of the state, and, seeing what we have become, wonder how it could have been any different.

There's anger there, stirring below the surface; a sense of betrayal and loss that has so many times spewed out as rage, changing nothing, hurting only myself. I shake my head and the Beast settles back into slumber. Not tonight.

A few twists and shuffles and I settle deeper into the bag and try to remember what it was like not to fall asleep like this, alone.

Then the patter of drops sounds on the van’s roof, and I burrow deep into my bag and blankets, watching rain streak along the darkened glass until sleep comes.

The stone remains. All else is only passing shadows of perspective.


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4 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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Hell of an article. Driving from Charlottesville is the same for a lot of people I guess. Congrats
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Powerful ending!
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I liked this, but I found your depiction of hunting a caricature. Not all hunters are boisterous, littering, and lazy. Many are experienced naturalists and lovers of the land. Read Aldo Leopold to find an articulate example of an enlightened hunter.

I still liked your article. Thanks for contributing.
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Thanks for the comments. In my neck of the woods, hunting pretty much IS a caricature. This perspective comes from growing up amongst true sportsmen who revered the land and their prey, as well as respecting the traditions and the power of the weapons they were in possession of. They tried to leave the forest better than they found it. I myself no longer hunt, but I remember those values, and see very, very little of them in todays' dog-laden, technology advantaged, road-hunting, ATV driving participants in the sport. Your comments may be true across the entire world, but they are by no means representative of the majority here in the south, nor in the greater continental U.S. I have been hiking, climbing and camping across for the last two decades.

Again, thank you all for your input.

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