A brief trip back to the east coast was exactly what I needed to hit the restart button, to start taking a more honest inventory of my life. As of late, I spend less time alone, and more of my days are filled with people, daily activities, and general regular routine. These are good constants to have. I was accustomed to empty parking lots or campground sites, with just a threadbare moleskin and maybe a bar of service, if I was lucky. I was conditioned to keeping one foot pointed in any direction, always ready to run. It didn’t necessarily matter where or how far; there just needed to be a Point A and Point B.
And now, things are quieting down for me as I nest a little bit. I have old patterns, though, that are stubborn and make it hard for me to let go of the tender affection I have for life on the road, as quixotic as it may be. A few times, unable to sleep, I took Shooter around midnight and climbed into the back of my car. I slept until sunrise blasted through the windows to jar me awake. (I’ve since transitioned to the couch, and finally, to my bed. It still feels weird.)
A part of me genuinely believed that by the end of the year, my life lens would be more in focus. I don’t really know how to autofocus, and I have yet to master it manually. The kinds of answers I was (and still am) in search of are the ones that many of us are seeking out: establishing financial independence, finding and accepting love, repairing family relationships, et cetera. The general pursuit of happiness.
Happiness, with age, changes, though, and the pursuit of what makes us happy adjusts itself accordingly.
A few weeks ago, I’d overheard someone say: “Climbing is a young man’s game.” and a slow panic crept in slowly as I started wondering what that meant. I mean, I’m not getting any younger over here, and in July I had broken my foot, which took me out of the game for three months. That was ninety some-odd days of thinking about climbing and not being able to. I half-jokingly said to my boyfriend many times: “I don’t think I’m a rock climber anymore!”
In three months time, I never really felt despair or depressed that I couldn’t climb. A little over a month into recovery, I ditched the crutches and while I could have been training or toproping in the gym, I never felt a strong urge to—and so I never did. I kept my idle hands busy, took some much needed personal time over the summer, launched a new business idea, and caught up with old friends. The idea that one day, I could break another bone or for any number of reasons couldn’t climb again reminded me of the importance of a well-tended to and well-rounded life.
Despite some mildly painful scar tissue, my foot was feeling good enough for everything but crack climbing. After a collective thirty-five hours in the CRV, I arrived in upstate New York to be greeted by a perfect Gunks morning. Sam Cervantes drove up from Brooklyn, handed me a bagel for afternoon noms, and we tied in once again.
We climbed Low Exposure (5.11-). It’s a short one—no more than forty feet of scrambling and squeezing into a non-committing roof crack, followed by some excellent hands and fists. Years ago, I had tried this route, only to be completely shut down. During my first attempt, I spent twenty minutes positioning and repositioning a fist that I just couldn’t trust. Eventually, I bailed. Making quick work of it this time, I set an anchor to be lowered from and began pulling the rope through for Sam to tie in. And there I was, belaying Sam on the carriage road, gravel between my toes and a small pyramid of wilting leaves starting to pile up around us. The sun shone through what would soon be half-bare branches, and I felt a keen sense of completion. It wasn’t as if I were suddenly “back”; it felt as though I had never left.
“Climbing is a young man’s game”—and maybe, for some, it’s true. I’ve often heard people say that they wished they had started climbing at Ashima Shiraishi’s age. (And maybe if you had, you too would have tendons made of kevlar.) I didn’t start climbing until my mid-twenties, and it never really felt like I found rock climbing; it always felt like it found me. Somehow, the universe knew—climbing knew—that my heart was ready, and that I was ready to start looking for that otherness.
And I looked. I found it on long drives, in starlit dinners of packaged Indian food and instant coffee, in the dirt beneath my nails and buried within wind-whipped hair, in gentle waves of granite, in the desert wind, and on top of summits—underneath a few summits, too. I found it inside of people I’ve met along the way and loved. I found it inside of love. I found it inside of me. So, I guess you could say that my initial search was successful. I found parts of me I didn’t even know existed, and now the search continues—I’m just pursuing different things.
I don’t feel the same compulsive itch to be rushing off to go climbing as I used to—there isn’t a fire in my belly like before. It’s kind of a strange thing to admit because nothing in my life has replaced climbing, and I love it, now more than ever before. I’d wanted to go climbing, but I wasn’t really missing it. But almost immediately after stretching my legs for a week on the east coast, I knew that something had been missing. During recovery, I felt like I had everything that a person should need to be happy, but I wasn’t fully satisfied. And when I was able to climb again, I began to fear I had lost my appetite. This wasn’t the case, though. I’m just not obsessing like I used to, but I am still looking. I will always be looking.
And while there are more new climbers than ever before (most of whom are baby cheetahs, sending grades that were previously non-existent and shattering records that once seemed impossible), climbing is what it always has been: the simple act of ascending vertical terrain.
Maybe it really is just a young man’s game, or maybe it’s obsession that is the young man’s game. Maybe I am getting older and further away from both, and its meaning to me is changing—or I’m the one who is changing. I’m okay with either one being true. Or maybe, it is just one of an infinite amount of avenues to a happy, well-tended life. Regardless, whether you’re thirteen or thirty, climbing (and life) should keep us pondering, dreaming, and constantly scheming.
Because the big secret that nobody tells you is that the pursuit IS happiness.