Red Rock and Life Lessons



Vegas. Everyone has their own agenda. But we don’t climb because of wet rock and it continues to drizzle lightly throughout the day. Clouds saunter across the buttresses and ridgelines—desaturation, more or less, like ships penciled by a thick fog, mooring cautiously. I feel like I’m the verge of a head cold. Why does that sound British to me? Drizzle turns to heavy rain. Friends are still out jogging along the hills. I breathe in the cool air and honestly wish I was running, too.

People eventually leave for The Strip and the rest of us bundle up. The rain stops. It’s a quiet fire at first. Then Dakota, a friend from Yosemite, rolls in with a gang of random strangers he collected from other campsites. We’re suddenly the epicenter for bringing in the New Year in the Red Rock Campground. Drunk people slur and strip down, take body shots off of others’ backs, weirdly slurping and laughing at themselves for sucking up beer and liquor in such a hedonistic way. The fire reflects off their skin and shirts always go back on without wiping the mess first, and all I can think about is how sticky they’ll likely be for the rest of the night.

I drank earlier, so by the time the thick of the countdown arrived, I felt pretty darn sober. But I didn’t care, I was hardcore people-watching and laughing myself silly over the things the drunkards were doing and saying. You can say anything, really. People were either yelling where they were from or yelling for no pants. Some people laugh after everything they say, but you could argue that they were happy there, in every breath. My friend Alison thought it would be funny to tell a young stranger that her friend Jack wanted to take a body shot off of him, and the guy actually started to take his shirt off before he realized Alison was making it all up. And it was suddenly very awkward. Yeah, maybe body shots are weird.

Suddenly it was time. The countdown to zero drowned the music and champagne bottles were popped and sprayed. Fireworks could be heard beyond the mesa, where Vegas lights washed out the stars. We cheered and jumped and I scanned all the gawking, high-on-life faces. One chap actually did pull his pants down, cupping his sex with one hand and fist pumping the air with the other.

So one year ends and another one begins, but we all feel the same, don’t we? Within five minutes, people are spread out and gone, stumbling back to their own damp fires and sticky skins. Beer cans and bottles litter the space around ours. Those of us remaining clean up. It’s all a placebo, in the sense of new time, isn’t it? Instilling a newfound dose of confidence and motivation. But it works, and it’s hard to deny when a new number changes everything.

Wedding Day, 7/2016. Photo: Cheyne Lempe


Wandering dichotomy. Physical ability and progress were immensely stumped for the majority of last year. I had to take a break from running, limit climbing, and minimize hiking. And in the end, it still wasn’t enough. My foot is still injured. But, yes, I married Patrick. I don’t have anything new and profound to say—but why do we feel the need to come up with something profound?


I hit a mental block the other day, on a route. I was a few inches too short to clip a draw from the comfortable foot rail. So I stood there, switching out handholds and shaking out for fifteen lengthy minutes. My belayer was chatting and long gone from paying attention to me anymore. Maybe I was hoping everyone would forget that I was even there, that I would forget, and somehow teleport back to the ground. Or better yet, that an unrelenting wave of confidence would rush my lungs and I’d just make the stupid move.

I hate it about myself. I’m a coward and that is why I am not a stronger climber, right? Patrick led the route directly to the left of me, and upon lowering, I gave in and asked him to clip the next draw for me. I positioned my body and reached below, grabbed the rope, drew it above me and handed it off to him. Click. The world suddenly changed. I was no longer beside myself. Nostalgic residue. I laughed as a rabid woman released from a feverish cabin locked in winter. I made the move flawlessly, finished the route as if nothing happened, as if time had been a slow-filling balloon, now rushing to catch up to the firing of its own gun.

During the long drive out from the scenic loop, Patrick offered some of his otherworldly wisdom: When approaching the unknown, you have to approach it as if approaching a door, he stated. You obviously can’t see what’s behind it, and you have all this noise and all these distractions that make the door seem impossible to open. That is the fear. You have to accept the noise as noise, as in, accept that yes, you are afraid, then face the door and open it anyway. Once you pass the barrier your mind shuts up. No more noise and no more door.



This is a desert place that, on the surface, seems less wild being so close to Vegas. But the crimson morning alights the Joshua Trees just as sweetly as the vast National Park in California. The sun, just as orange and eerie as any place. Cold clouds change the horizon altogether, and the silhouettes of distant hills and mesas, just as painted.


Patrick almost decked on a boulder, his tailbone only a few inches away when his projection was finally stopped by his belayer. No one really knows what happened, as he was halfway up a route, but in a flash his life was left purely to chance, like a coin toss, gambling for either a free pass or potential paralysis. Somehow, he swung with great luck, standing on the boulder when he pendulumed back, everyone aghast and left with their nervous laughter. Like the King’s cup no one ever wants to chug.


“See you in the next life,” a young man named Matt joked to Patrick as we left the crag the other day. They both thought they were familiar, but upon discussion, there was no way for them to have actually met. That is what the desert always seems to say when it’s time to leave. A new time, a new mindset, under new circumstances—life as the nature of things. Nature as the life of things. Where we yield to the impulse of belonging.


Yesterday the hike back from the mouth of Oak Creek Canyon was ghostly. We tried to race the sun. Challenged ourselves to not taking out headlamps. Why? Fun, I suppose. My eyesight reduced to gray shapes that penciled the path between shrubs and cacti. I followed Patrick, his footprints, or the sounds of his pants swishing in the periphery. How the brain weighs more than the mouth. Brain followed the maze, set legs to autopilot, bad foot aching. My own pants slid and swished against the flora, occasionally abrading prickly limbs. Amazing it was to navigate by twilight—a half moonlight and city-drowned starlight— across subtle desert slope, to approach blackness but never be afraid.

This morning, I heard Patrick state, “I wish we never had to go,” while packing up. The clouds dissipate and the distant buttresses emerge, alpine-esque but red-breasted, reflecting dawn. Nature is such a beacon home; we only get to spend relatively short windows of time immersed in it. As is to be expected right? The child only grows to leave the home.


Our first night here in Red Rock, our friend Paul had made an off-hand comment: “I like the sounds a campground makes.” I asked Patrick what his favorite camping sound was. For him, it’s all about the morning coffee. It starts with the meditative act of hand-grinding the coffee beans. Which sounds like someone drawing circles with ceramic rocks. Then comes the delight of his Italian espresso hissing as it boils into the upper chamber.

I tune in to this campground. The wind, the pans and stoves, heavy outhouse doors, car doors, scuttling shoes across gravel, tent zippers, jacket zippers, cackling fires, dogs barking and their scolding owners, small shrubs tingling the breeze, nylon sleeping bags, all distant and near, water bubbles and pan simmers, coffee lips in the morning, beer chugging at night, shrinking aluminum cans, and farts, late-night pissing into the soil.

Which brings me to Dean Potter. Paul told a story about someone asking Dean how he did all the amazing things he did (like speed ascents, free-solos, expeditions), and Dean responded by saying something akin to, “You know how you have to piss in the middle of the night? Well, I get up and piss.”

So if there is anything profound to offer for New Year’s, maybe it’s the critical reevaluation of having to just get up and do. Or even starting with the notion that we know better. And 2017 can only be a better morning for it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.