My mother introduced me to Peter Pan when I was six-years-old. I fell in love with the 1960 television production of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin. She would dig up the VHS and put it on for me and I’d watch it over again and again, until I was sure that the VCR would break from excessive rewinding. I remember being a kid and staying home from school, days spent on the couch with flat ginger ale and chicken soup from a Campbell’s can. These are some of my happiest memories.
Not only was I enthralled with the magic of a never-world far away, full of swashbuckling pirates and mermaids, but also with a mischievous boy who was charming and adventure ensued wherever he went. The fact that Peter was played by Mary Martin made me love him even more, proving to me, right then and there on that couch, that anything the boys could do, the girls could do, too.
Plus, he could fly.
My roommate Adrien and I watched “Hook” recently and my heart was filled to the brim with love for a magic that I’d forgotten. You know, the magic that you felt when you were a kid when you were actually bored with store bought toys and used your imagination instead? I was always running barefoot in the grass in our backyard (which was small, but to me, felt like there were acres of it). I was Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was Caddie Woodlawn. Sometimes I was even Xena, Warrior Princess.
Sometimes I like to be Xena, Warrior Princess when I’m climbing. I’m Meg Murry, who was stubborn and self-conscious, but a badass time traveling mathematician. I’m Starbuck from Galactica, the cocky, anti-authoritarian, whiskey swigging fighter pilot. I’m all of the best things I saw in these fictional characters growing up, and then I’m me.
I made my third trip down south this year, and it came with revisiting old friends, making new ones, and exciting crag epics. Zack Slade and I made it to Stone Fort despite gray clouds that were rolling in. The rain held off and we were blessed with the company of Ron Nance, as well as plenty of daylight in our little spot behind the Glamour boulder.
In a recent conversation with Pamela Pack, she revealed a wide roof crack to me—it was one like I have never seen before. Chris Chestnutt and Kirk Brode put this thing up with much gut and grit. At once, your entire body is engulfed in the start of the crack, and then you’re desperately (and blindly) trying to crawl out of the crack without falling out of it.
Kirk informed me of the first ever party on Human Chew Toy in 2008. Jeff Achey, a photo editor of a climbing magazine, was down south doing an article on roof cracks at the time, so Kirk and Travis Eiserman took him to as many roof cracks as they could find. Travis knew of a roof crack at Stone Fort and that day, they ran into Chris Chestnutt randomly in the boulder field.
Kirk belayed Chris first, who fell at the crux but made it to the top. Then Kirk climbed and onsighted and Chris sent it his second attempt, giving Chris the FA and Kirk the FFA of the 11d monster roof crack. Travis and Jeff both sent it on their second attempt as well.
Kirk’s dog, Cosmo, standing next to the rock, inspired the name of the climb. When he told me this story over the phone, I imagined a beautiful, normal-sized, long-haired dog with a miniature rag person, head hanging out and legs flung across the side of the dog’s mouth. He was right to name it Human Chew Toy: “One second it’s chewing on your head and torso with your legs sticking out, the next second it’s chomping on your thighs and legs, then your side and one arm (and at this point, you’re hoping it don’t let go of you). I felt like an action figure being abused as a dog toy.”
I’ve only climbed a few offwidths, and the truth is that I’m so inexperienced that I don’t even know if they are considered “true” offwidths—and then there are inverts that are a complete mystery to me. I approached the roof without even knowing what it looked like—only things I’d heard from Pamela and Zack. But I was mother fucking Xena, Crack Climbing Warrior Princess, and I was armed with big cams and my game face (which often resembles my gawky, scared face).
Talking with Kirk afterward, he confirmed that we all climbed out of it in a similar way. I can’t quite put into words my excitement for moving out of the invert and back into the crack, right side up. It was a proud moment and I deeply thank Zack and Ron for being there for it. I’ll be back for the complete send, some day.
And as I drove back to NYC, I pulled the car over to watch the sunset. I was feeling kind of rushed to get back home, and the thirteen-hour car ride suddenly seemed difficult to deal with—and then I saw the sun setting. I suppose that every sunset is special and sort of perfect in its own right. But I stepped out of my car and just stared into the sky, thinking: I want this sunset every day.
This last trip south was especially meaningful because it marked the four year anniversary of my high school best friend’s suicide. I was lying in bed, crashing at Zack’s and completely exhausted from climbing that day when I happened to glance over at the date on my phone. How could I have forgotten? Was I so wrapped up in the trip and seeing friends? When it hit me, I was suddenly sitting in my Bushwick apartment four years ago and getting the worst phone call of my life.
It took me a few years to find my heart again because I never gave myself time to grieve. I was too busy trying to be brave for everybody else, and I kept telling myself that I couldn’t go through life allowing pain to dictate how I behaved.
And since then, what I have learned about mourning is that it’s cyclical, and you can’t do it alone. You have good days and you have bad ones. Moments like that will always pass and figure themselves out if you let them. And I did…and they did.
Fast forward four years later, and life did go on, not with great joy, but with a somewhat surprising contentment that I never imagined I’d really know. I used to be afraid of losing the people I loved, constantly thinking: It may happen. One day, someone I love will disappear and I won’t be able to go with them.
The impression that it leaves only makes you grip a little tighter and kiss a little harder every time you do.
And what happened is that being a part of Mikey’s adventure has made me realize how unique my own is. What happens next is that you continue to love the world they leave with you. Every pitch I climb, every mountain I scale brings me a little bit closer to him, in a way. When he left, I promised him that I’d live a little bit extra for him, in little ways and in big ways. All of the days. And every day, you do things with more purpose.
Although his departure was premature, it’s the memory of Mike that remains timeless. For me, he will always be a skinny fourteen year old punk kid, skating down the block to meet me at my house in the early morning hours when the rest of the world was sleeping. I’ll always be kissing him with strawberry Lip Smackers chapstick in my back pocket. We’ll always be stupid kids watching that stupid sunset and then waiting for that sunrise, together. He’ll be Peter Pan, and I’ll be Xena, Warrior Princess.
In loving memory of Michael Cocchiarella
May 7, 1986 – August 14, 2010