The sun beat down through the open door of the van when I woke to a buzzing. 10 inches in front of me hovered a ruby-throated hummingbird. She flickered back and forth curiously inspecting my red shirt before turning and zipping off into the woods. It was a beautiful day, perfect blue sky, crisp mountain air. I staggered out of the van and looked out across the thick coastal forest towards the clear cold blue waters and the town several miles below.
We packed up the bags and drove into town where we ate bagels and drank coffee at a busy cafe. In town all eyes are pulled to the huge granite wall that sits above town. The Chief: 1,500′ of sweeping granite that draws climbers from across the country. It is a pilgrimage for the faithful who are compelled to climb these walls and we sat in the sun with those who had come and stared into the sky tracing lines with our minds eye.
We met Bob sometime later that afternoon. He was sitting in the Chief parking lot surrounded by bags of gear, discarded coffee cups and empty beer bottles. We drifted over and sparked a conversation. My climbing partner wanted to climb a long aid route, Cannibis Wall, and was eager for information beyond the meager description in the guidebook. Bob was maybe in his early 40s. He hailed from the flatlands of Ottawa and his curly shoulder length greasy brown hair tangled in his beard as he spoke. A long time Squamish big wall veteran he launched into a detailed description of the route, the gear and best strategies. While speaking his hands gesticulated wildly, illustrating high steps, gear placement and rope work.
His eyes gleamed with passion but it was a passion I was wary of… like the passion you encounter on street corners when a man is holding up a placard telling you the end is near. If you believe in the end, you are drawn to that man, but if you cling to a trace of your old life a filter keeps you from completely believing.
I had quit my job and sold my belongings to crawl inside a van and travel the country. I met my partner at the Seattle airport with a bag full of climbing gear and a wad of cash. I was running down a dream and a week out we were sitting in the dirt while a mad man described how best to spend 48 hours tied to the Cannibis Wall while we kept passing him joints and nodding.
It started raining that afternoon…. That dull steady coastal rainforest rain that seeps onto the coast and settles down for a long visit. In the wet muddy parking lot Bob handed us empty coffee cups. “You get free refills at Tim Hortons if you have a coffee cup. Here are some extras.” If we were going to start living the life of bums we might as well get started, so we smiled and accepted the gifts. He continued, “They toss out the donuts at 11pm. Check the dumpster in the back. Don’t get caught or they’ll yell at you.”
We piled into the van and drove up the long wet logging road and then collapsed for the night. The pitter-patter of rain beat down on the roof of the van and I lay awake thinking of what I had left behind.
It is always like this. You devote your life to a passion yet on the peripheral there is lingering doubt. During the day the doubt is hidden away and buried beneath the present. But at nights or when the weather pins you down, thoughts turn to girlfriend, dog, work, family; all left behind while you spend your days pursuing some mystery and your nights questioning the choices that got you to this place.
Morning came with more rain. We drove into town but were unwilling to use the cups Bob had given us and instead bought coffee. We spent the day walking the crags in the middle of town. Bob was hanging out at the base of a route. “I jimmied the window lock in the community center,” he told us. “They close at 8. If you go there afterwards and squeeze through the window you can get free showers.” We followed him around for a while and he regaled us with tales of Squamish big walls. He had spent weeks tied to these walls and was working his way through the long list.
The rain continued for days. We developed a routine: up early, down into town for coffee and then we walked the crags with Bob while drinking beer. The days began to blend together, the beers and the joints flowed freely, Bob kept telling us stories and we kept eating them up. “Here’s a gift. Take this when you’re up on Cannibis Wall,” Bob told us one afternoon. He passed us a small bag and we smiled and said we would. It seemed like the right thing to do. I was growing less wary by the minute… My old life slipping away as we fell into a haze of forgetfulness.
The weather finally broke. We woke to a sun beating down and we set out for our route. We hauled loads to the base of Cannibis Wall and after what seemed like hours of preparation my partner set out on the sharp end and began working his way up the blank greasy slab. I settled down into a pile of gear, the rope pulling slowly out of my belay device, the sun luring me to sleep while my partner sweat, cursed and fretted above me.
I drifted. This is what I had left it all behind for. I hummed that old Tom Petty song Runnin‘ down a dream while the rope inched forward slowly.
The last three days the rain was un-stoppable
It was always cold, no sunshine…
My partner had barely reached the anchors when the rain started again. He fixed the rope and rapped down as the wall turned into a torrent of water. We ran to the car passing Bob sitting behind his truck covered by an old tarp. Frustrated we drove back up the logging road and sat in the van. The bag Bob had given us sat on the dashboard.
“It’s never going to fucking stop raining,” I said as I reached for the bag. A few minutes later we sat with the empty baggie between us listening to the pitter-patter of rain.
The contents of the bag coursed through my blood and I fell back in a haze of emotion. I knew somewhere back there in the corners of my mind was this feeling of regret that swelled up every time I was grounded by foul weather yet, tonight a cloud of forgetfulness had settled over me and I felt myself slipping away. This is how it begins, I thought. The hours turn to days, the days to weeks, the weeks to months and soon you can’t remember what it is you left behind. Your life becomes a dream and you go wherever it leads.
The gift was causing me to slip away. Bob had given us a look into the life of a dreamer who had abandoned all to live in the present. This is the life he was offering – a life outside of the dull realities of work, taxes, family and debt. A life where the days blend into one, where the only reality is the present and the voices calling out from your past are bottled, buried and forgotten. A life alone where the realm of caring is pushed into a forgotten zone and the only thing that matters is the next sunny spell when you can escape into the mountains, your passion inching upwards while tethered to the earth with a thin rope.
I staggered out of the van and stood in the rain. In the woods behind me I could hear voices but I knew no one was there. The voices were from my past and they were shouting into my future but the sound passed without my understanding. I was trapped in the moment and the voices were fading by the moment.
The rain grew strong. The voices were gone and now replaced with the sound of something large pacing in the shadows. The hair stood up of the back of my neck and I started trembling. I crept around to the front of the van where in front of me a steaming pile of bear scat glistened. This was my present. Alone and forgotten searching for a dream while the dull reality of a grizzly bear materialized in front of me.
As I opened my mouth to scream she lurched towards me.
It was cold. No sunshine.
* * *
The sun beat down through the open door of the van when I woke to a buzzing. 10 inches in front of me hovered a ruby-throated hummingbird. She flickered back and forth curiously inspecting my red shirt before turning and zipping off into the woods.
I staggered out of the van with my head pounding. I was still raining and the steaming pile of bear shit was still there. Except that it was elk shit. And it was weeks old.
Later that morning we hiked up and retrieved our rope. The coastal rain had beaten us and we decided to head somewhere else. Driving out of town we passed Bob sitting on a tarp behind his truck. A pile of empty beer bottles and coffee cups surrounded him and his eyes were glued to the wall above him. We honked as we drove by but his eyes never wavered. Bob had run down his dream but it came at the expense of a past and future. Driving away I wondered if that dream would never come to me.