The Obed

I woke up early on Saturday morning. My two friends and I drove down that horrendous strip of I-40 West, through Knoxville and into the endless cliffs of the Wild and Scenic Obed River. I left behind all the stress of chemistry lab, and the maps of the cardiac system that tend to overwhelm, and all the shitty phone calls from doctors. We brought the dog, Rocket Girl Beer, a complete trad rack and too many ropes and instant coffee. We sailed down to into Tennessee with weak arms and all the dust that had collected on our climbing gear and so much excitement that I don't think I stopped talking, once, ever, the whole trip.
It's been forever since I've been on a climbing trip. I didn't realize that when I left Seattle, when I left Index and Leavenworth and the Exits and the Tieton and Squamish, Snow Creek Wall, Orbit and Outer Space and Heart of Gold and Total Soul and Infinite bliss and all of the rest, that I would quit climbing nearly completely. I never intended to do that, but I fell into other things. 

I sunk a lot of money into a mountain bike and I fell in love with the endless tangle of trails that are right down the road.  Then I fell in love with a redhead who claims to be afraid of heights, although I know that's just code for I'd-really-rather-kayak, and we got a house that needed to be skinned and gutted, and I went back to school, and I got a job, and I got a little lazy about meeting new climbing partners. 

I have a lot of excuses but I think it boils down to this: I let myself forget how purely and perfectly and I love to be outside on rocks, and the cool nights of woodsmoke and the sore, slow early mornings that follow. 

And then Rip moved to the Southeast. Rip, one of my best friends from Seattle, moved to Nashville two weeks ago, and now the Obed is directly between us.

So if you think about it, I didn't quit climbing. I just waited around until my favorite climbing partner to join me. And it took him just over a year.
Thankfully, Nell and Josh were in the same place as me- they'd taken a rest day that had lasted about a year, so we all struggled and fell and slowly made our way to the top of the some not-too-crazy routes. The woods were red and apple green, a mix of sweltering summer and new autumn, and the dog barked at every leaf that twirled down from the sky. 

I remember one glorious moment where Rip, belaying me from far below, said two words, some Arrested Development joke we used to say all the time, and I laughed so hard that I fell off.  I was leading, a foot above the bolt, and I landed halfway down the route. I have rope burns on my back from getting twisted up at the impact and all I was thinking is, "This must have been how Tina Fey felt when Amy Poehler joined SNL; 'My friend is here! My friend is here!'"  
That night we slept at Lily Pad campground with a lot of other climbers. Nell and I drank the Rocket Girls and then the marshmallow lover's hot chocolate with the little packs of freeze dried marshmallows. On the tin roof on top a the shed, a dog named Monster dropped tennis balls on our heads.

There was a crowd around the campfire but everyone was tired out, and sat at Rip's feet and tipped my head back, watching the white smoke turn into a fresh white spray of stars. The crickets were very loud, and in the shed behind us four musicians played Angel from Montgomery and House of the Rising Sun. Hometeam made a few discerning laps around the fire before choosing a young blonde man to curl up with for the the evening. When I went off to bed a few hours later and carried her with me, she was obviously angry at being pulled away from such a scene. 
Dave spent the weekend paddling the Gauley River in West Virginia. We got home at the same time on Sunday night, and used our last shred of energy to bike into West Asheville for dinner. Then we went back home and struggled to stay awake through one episode of Breaking Bad before that hard-won fatigue caught us in its jaws.  

I used to climb every weekend in Seattle. But this was the piece of the puzzle that I'd been missing for so long. I'd always been elated to leave the city on a Friday night and drive towards mountains and rivers and rocks. And I still am. But now on Sunday I'm elated to come home. And between the happy leaving and the happy return, I think that covers it all. 
For more photos of adventures, coffee & dog, follow @melinadream on Instagram

Cloud and Dazzle

The Northwest has been dazzling me lately. My God, what a place! Is it me? The light switch in my brain has been clicked back on and now I can truly see where I live? Is it spring, everything coming alive at once and bursting and buzzing, the fat fluffs of pollen that swirl in the air like snow?

It's none of these things. It's just this place.
For memorial day, rain threatened the entire state, but Rip and I and everyone we knew took our chances. By Saturday evening we were three pitches high on Castle Rock, surrounded by cool air, beneath silver clouds that had not yet broken open. Up there, overlooking the now-green Leavenworth and the white raging Tumwater, we talked about important things: dinner, and what type of cookie we might buy for the fire tonight, and whether or not marshmallows were in order.
The free campsite at mile 8 was brimming with people, completely overrun, but we snuck through the woods in the dark, Rip carrying me on his back over streams, and found our friends Molly and Chris and Max. They'd saved us a spot in a patch of lavender colored wildflowers, and built up a big fire. Rip played his guitar. Just a few feet away, down a deadly sharp bank, Icicle creek roared with its springs surge, molecules of water that were once deep snow on the sides of Stevens Pass, and I dreamt, somehow, about water. 
In the morning the rain came, so we hauled off to the Cafe down the road to wait it out and search through the books for routes that might possibly be dry. We waited and waited. The Portland boulderers gave up and went into town to drink beer. We refilled our coffee cups a fifth time. And then we went home. In Sultan we drove through a panoply of weather- a flurry of pollen, rain showers, sun bursts. The rocks in Index were drenched.  
That night, Will came home. And the rain kept up, and the Northwest continued to dazzle. For a kayaker living in the desert for the past year, Will did not complain about the rain. We walked outside for hours. We sat inside a crowded restaurant and drank white wine and saw a late showing of the Great Gatsby. 
The week wore on, Will was gone again, and the days marched by nearly as fantastical and color drenched as the Great Gatsby had been. Even sitting in my nearly empty apartment, mid week, working away on very dull tasks, I caught myself staring out the kitchen window, at the lime green leaves in my neighbor's driveway bowing under rain drops the size of pearls. I was having a hard time focusing, a little bit transfixed by the world.

I think it was that night that Chris and Molly had a bonfire. I held on to the cool neck of a bottle of wine and leaned against the broad shoulders of my old friend Seth, who just today left me for Alaska. I got loopy on woodsmoke, mist and alcohol and spotted a boy through the smoke who I'd once treated pretty bad. Seth said I should apologize and I did. He said I should write about the apology, and I probably will. 
Too much water and woodsmoke, absolutely too much fresh air rolling off the sound (but unarguably the perfect amount to drink) even perhaps too many late night cherries (it's cherry season) but something made me wake up sluggish and slow and heavy in the head the next morning.   I was mostly worthless most of the day and this frustrated me to no end. It wasn't till late in the evening, around sunset, when I finally got a grip on myself and took the whining, restless dog to the beach. 

There, just me and the dog, I was treated, completely undeserving, to this sunset. 
We are so lucky to live here. I hope these weeks keep rolling in, wave after wave. 

(Welcome home, Molly and Chris!)

Statues in Ritzville and other fine things

(For Zen Ben, of course.)

When I was a teenager climbing in Vermont, my first partner was named Ben. Ben was a sweet, soft spoken boy from the town up the road. He drove a tiny rattle trap car, and together we would drive around the green mountains looking for new cliffs to explore. We'd bushwack to the base and he'd lead us, pitch after careful pitch, using a handful of silver iron nuts. Then we'd sit at the top and watch the sunk sink over our home state, and then pick up and figure out how to get down. I was fifteen and he was sixteen.

One day he told me about a bouldering spot he'd discovered in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. "It's like.....Shangri-la up there," he said shyly, eyes on the road. "Do you want to go with me?"

I'll never forget the revery in his voice as he said that. To a young Vermont climber, nothing held the promise like a seemingly endless field of boulders, deep in the splendid Whites, with nobody else around.

But I never made it to that field with Ben, and then he took a long fall in Colorado, about 800 feet, and he left us too early.

Whenever I find myself standing at a new crag, in a valley I've never been to before, I always think of Ben, driving down highway 89 whispering, "It's like Shangri-la."
Two weekends ago I found myself in such a place- Post Falls, Idaho on a misty day with Lisa, Amber, and Jake. There was a torrential, unrunable river to our right and to our left, a crooked path running past route after bolted route of beautiful, empty rock. We had the place to ourselves for the weekend, and with no one to fight over rocks with, we were lazy. In the mornings we slept in for hours, made coffee and drank it by the lake and cooked breakfast. So much better than the usual pop-tart-and-Via-coffee-now-go-stake-out-your-climb approach.
I led all the climbs that weekend. Jake's new, Amber's in an ankle cast and Lisa was in a grad school haze. So we'd agree on a route and I'd climb up, slowly, my mind blissfully empty, calculating only the very next move.

Jake Cooper Photo
I've had so many teachers in this sport, but for now there are no teachers. I don't mean that there is nothing more to learn- nothing could be farther than the truth. There will be more leaders, they always show up when you need them, they'll push you and take you much higher than you've ever been, and on walls so big and grand you never thought to even consider touching them, but lately it's just been me, not afraid and not crazy, climbing what I can and not thinking about the rest.
Amber Jackson Photo
That is, until I saw this project and I knew I'd fail, and fall, a lot, but at the same time I knew it was mine. My big, fun, swinging clean fall project of early summer. Nothing I could throw up the first time, but a very good reason to come back to Idaho. 
Amber Jackson Photo
Amber Jackson Photo
Amber Jackson Photo
We had big plans on Saturday night. Spokane has a redneck bar with a mechanical bull, I'd packed my cowgirl boots, and we'd also spoken of a fire right on the lake. We brought marshmallows in anticipation. But we were so tired after dinner, the climbing and the beer and the general laziness had rendered us completely useless, so we lay on one bed together, the four of us, and we drifted off to Jake's stories. 

The bull, the pile of driftwood on the beach, just more reasons to return. 
Amber Jackson Photo
This winter I struggled to find enjoyment doing anything. I tried. I pooled together the things I loved, I spread them around and then stood back and stared flatly, feeling nothing, wishing I could just go back to sleep. Apathy, the hallmark of depression, life is a long dull road that just keeps going. Winter in a dark and wet city. 

Now, at the dwindling end of May, I find I need very little to feel content. The other day Seth brought me coffee in the morning. The night before we'd had some wine perhaps, and I was sort of crawling around the house, searching for my wallet, and then giving up with my head on the kitchen table, the one I found on the roadside after my roommate took all the furniture. I called Seth and told him I'd pay him a million dollars if he brought me some coffee, and he did and now I owe him a million dollars. The first sip was so delicious I felt this overwhelming sense of joy, more joy than I'd felt for the past six or so months, and I almost burst at the seams. I was on a work call and had to mute the phone so the person on the other end wouldn't hear me laughing. 

Sometimes I find myself laughing when I'm doing the dishes, I don't know why, but it's better than being too serious I suppose. 

The weekend in Idaho was pure contentment. I felt like Ben in a field of boulders, smiling up at the sun, with no reason to hurry.
On the long ride home, we got a little lost and ended up in a ghost town. There were statues of people on the street, doing everyday things, waiting to cross the street, leaning against the library, conversing silently with other statues. But we were the only living people. Maybe a few months ago I would have sided with the statues- pretending, stiff, appearing like a whole person but on closer look, just an effigy. Those days are gone, for now, and after a half hour or so of wandering we all loaded back in the car and made a beeline for the highway, Jake bought us some marshmallow bars and we sang little mermaid songs all the way home.
That's right, we did. Listen, I'm not cool. I'm not one of those really cool outdoors people. I really don't fit in with the scene at all. But still, we have so much fun being here, doing what we do the way that we do it.

The mostly photos report on Squamish

My final year at my beloved and beleaguered high school, the Academy at Adventure Quest, I lived out of a tiny, bright orange, one person tent. It was really no more than a bivy sack with a single curved pole that kept it suspended above my head by a few inches. Most nights I'd drag my sleeping bag outside and sleep under the stars, but when the weather was bad I'd lie on my back in the tent,  staring up at the orange nylon, listening to my discman and eating squares of Black Forest chocolate. I was an extremely content in there.

We spent our final semester in New Zealand. There were only eight of us kids by that point, the school limping towards towards the cliff of its unsettling demise. We were six boys and two girls, and by this point in the year, the boys had turned mean.

One week we did a trek in the Southern Alps. It rained all day, every day. We camped the second night on a hilltop overlooking a massive blue and white glacier. A fierce storm blew in that evening, kicking up wild winds so strong they ripped my English teacher's tent in half. She staked the shredded corners to the ground and to her ankles, and lay splayed on the ground for the duration of the night, a human anchor.
My little tent was stuck to the earth by five tin stakes. Each time the wind blew them out of the ground, I'd hop out and try and shove them back in, but it was no use. The rain fly flapped loudly, like a lose sail. Inside the tent, the fabric pressed so tightly against my face I could feel it against my nose and mouth. It seemed as if the whole thing was going to lift off the ground and blow into the glacier, taking me with it.

That night, I was not content sleeping alone in my tent. I was tired and almost frightened and everything was soaking wet. I remember that the splendor of the storm, the adventurous thrill that should have consumed me at the moment, was lost in a dismal sort of loneliness. The howling winds made it sound like I was the only one on the planet.

What a completely different situation it would be if I had a girlfriend lying next to me, and the two of us were trying to hold down the tent, and if we went sailing over the cliff into the ice, at least we'd be shrieking together. Sleep was out of the question, so I tried to write in my journal. With all the melodrama of the sixteen year old girl I was, I wrote "I'd give my right eye to have a friend with me right now."

I was thinking about that night last week, when Amber and I were falling asleep at the climber's camp beneath the grand wall in Squamish, BC. Our two dogs were curled up at opposite ends of the tent. The climbing that day had been phenomenal, perfect cracks and clean faces, but I'd been fighting off thoughts of Andrew the entire time. The sight of the big walls he'd told me so much about made my stomach flip with the memories of our multi pitch days together. That part of me, the part still tethered to him in my mind, is a real fucking bother.

But finally, after a very lively evening, I lay in the tent next to Amber and the memory of that night in New Zealand came bubbling up. We'd been talking for about an hour in the dark, and I felt a sudden stab of affection for her, of pure, almost giddy gratitude. The connection between old boyfriends (and all the rejection and unworthiness that comes with them) and climbing is dissolving, and once again the sport is starting to belong to me and my friends and the girls I would have, apparently, traded my eyes for twelve years ago.
We went to Squamish! Four people, three dogs, three crash pads and one car. We left on Thursday night at 8:00pm, were hopelessly lost in Vancouver by midnight on the dot, passed out at the camp site by two in the morning.

Four days gave us just a taste of the unending sport and trad routes of that little town on the road to Whistler.  We even spent a half day engaged in the insufferable sport of bouldering. I'm really not into it, it's too hard and tedious for me, but my friends are obsessed, I don't know, they're crazy. But I will say they look good doing it.
This never happened.
Amber Jackson Photo
Things got real interesting when we roped up, as we didn't have a guide book, and when we did find a guide book we didn't know how to read it. We put up some ridiculous difficult routes. By accident.
Amber leading the 5.11d we thought was a 5.9
Sunshine taking a stab at the crux
The result
Me leading a 5.10d we thought was a 5.8 
Amber lent me her tights.
Like any climbing trip, the rewards...
I've been climbing for seventeen years now, in nine countries, and Squamish was some of the best rock I've ever put my hands on. 
As for everything else. Bolt by bolt it gets easier. That long night when I was 16 did not end up with me being swept alone into the blue glacier, and neither will this one. 

Tieton Photobook

I don't trust myself around boys. I let them do everything. It's a bad, bad, bad habit. 

I sit back as they lead the climbs, coil the ropes, start the fires, plan the routes. When I was working at New River Academy I let them load 17 kayaks on top of the van every morning. I'm serious, I don't think I loaded one boat during a paddling road trip that lasted a year. I figured, what the hell, they're taller than me, they're stronger than me, they're better at this than I am, and they don't mind. 

But what do I do when the boys evaporate? Because let me tell you what I've learned: Boys. Evaporate. 

Lisa and I went climbing in Tieton this past weekend, just the two of us. She set up the tent by the side of the road while I got the fire started. I put up slow, halting leads. We learned which cracks lurked with rattlesnakes and which buzzed with wasp nests. Tieton is not for the faint of heart. 

The routes we'll frequent this summer may look different than last year; not so big or majestic or tricky or rugged. But we'll get there, or somewhere close enough, we'll inch along. 

Here are some photos from a weekend where there was nobody taller, nobody better, nobody stronger, nobody more capable than us*. Here is what we did ourselves. (Oh, and as it turns out, when there is one of you climbing and one of you belaying, you can't get too many climbing pictures.)
*Except Jeremy Park, who we keep running into. He's everywhere. And so handsome! 

All flask, no hootch

Lee Timmons Photo
I full on ate my feelings the other day, and they were delicious. I don't normally do that, but I just had so many, what was I supposed to do, compost them?

It happened at a Mexican restaurant in Eastern Washington, I was by myself, it was probably the first time in my life that I was alone at a restaurant after a climbing trip. Usually you go out with your climbing partner and drink margaritas and wash the blood and dirt off your hands in the restaurant bathroom. Then one of you drinks gas station coffee and drives home while the other plays with the radio and falls asleep. I've done this a thousand times and each time it's close to heaven.

But I was alone this time, dirty and bloody as ever, but alone in a giant booth built for a family of six. I gotta say, I missed the shit out of Andrew, and I was happy, and I finally felt like myself again, like there was finally some hootch in my flask.

Let me explain.
Rip Hale photo

Ten o'clock on Friday night, I'm digging through the back of my car looking for my ship flask while Rip sits in the dust and sage and plays The Ballad of Love and Hate on his guitar. He's drinking from a big bottle of cheap whiskey- he told me he bought it because the label was pretty, which in a nutshell is why I'm friends with Rip.

"Here it is!" I say triumphantly, pulling the flask out from underneath my sleeping bag and tossing it towards him. "Could you fill that with whiskey? I'm all flask, no hootch!"

Rip stops playing guitar and gives me a look like I'm some sort of hero. "All flask, no hootch," he says."I think I like that."

I stopped climbing five months ago and it's made me feel like a total loser, which I hate to say, because there isn't an uglier word in the English language. I wouldn't direct that word towards anybody that I know, anybody except myself.

But that's how it goes. I wasn't just heartbroken this past winter. Heartbreak is acceptable, its got its own whimsy, its own cult following, like the rocky horror picture show. People write a lot of beautiful songs about heartbreak. What I felt was decidedly more unflattering- jealousy, envy, rejection, ugly stuff we don't talk about because it would illuminate our fantastically flawed, utterly insecure shadows that we try so hard to keep camouflaged. 

I couldn't separate climbing from Andrew and Andrew from pain and I'd have done anything to avoid running into him. So I avoided the sport, the community, the gyms and all the events- the bouldering comps, taco Tuesdays, send and socials, parties, fundraisers. I did other things instead, like sit at home and try to untwist the rebar from off of my ego. Also, skiing.

Climbing leaves you pretty quick if you're not diligent. First the calluses disappeared, and then the strength, the confidence, the identity. I'd stand there in the mornings with my skinny shoulders and soft fingertips and look around my room- all the pictures and gear and guide books- and feel like a complete fake. All talk, no substance. In other words: all flask, no hootch.

Well it was about goddamn time that I got rid of all the angst and got back into the shit. 

Last Friday, Lee invited me on a last minute trip to Vantage. Lee is this astoundingly fun, confident, strong, funny girl from the South who makes wine and takes pictures, and you want her by your side when you reintroduce yourself to the life you've been hiding from for half a year.

I'd never even met her, yet I knew this to be true. 
Lee is a kayaker from Asheville, and she's friends with that band of adventurers I used to hang with down in Boone. It seems like we're always one step away from each other- she was boating down in Chile right after I was, she ran the Grand Canyon with my love Will, we have some of the exact same photos from down in that ditch. I forget when she started reading the blog, but she did, and then we started writing back and forth, and she sent me letters and a book of poetry while I was on the boat.

If you're ever looking to win over my heart, send me a book of poetry when I live on a boat.  

Well, then she moved out West, and we've been trying to meet up for ages and I keep almost but not quite making it down to Hood River. So when she invited me out to Vantage, there was a crash as whatever I was holding at that minute fell to the ground and I was loading the car up with my sleeping bag and my climbing rope and my ship flask. 
The first time I meet Lee she's running towards me in the desert in the dark holding a bottle of Rose. She squeezes me like an accordion. 

For the last few weeks everything has been getting better and better and now I feel like myself again. When Lee hugs me, my old friend I'm meeting for the first time, everything is back where it belongs.

I fought the sadness with medicine, and luck, and snow, and writing, and alcohol, and taking all the advice from my mom and my brother in law and my friends and readers and strangers and books and forceful talks from my roommate. I fought it with writing, and work, and Ren, and business trips and crying and bath tubs and sleeping in the basement of Steph and Ammen's house. I remember lying in bed for days, with black sand in my head, but one day I woke up and the winter had melted mostly away, Nici was calling me from her picturesque land line in Missoula with a martini in her hand, Will was shaking his head and smiling down at me with that smile he gets, and Lee was throwing a pair of climbing shoes at my head and saying "Hey, get up, let's do this." 
Lee Timmons Photo
Saturday is sixty degrees and drenched in sun. We're looking up at a climb and counting the bolts, gauging its possible rating since we don't have a guide book and we don't know where we are. "Looks pretty good," I say to Rip. "Why don't you lead it?"

I haven't led in forever. I figure I'm out of the game for a while.

Rip's tying in but then a stranger appears on the trail and says, "Oh, that's a 5.10 C!" and disappears around the bend. Rip turns to me, he's got the look, he says, "I don't think....I want to start on this."

It looks good to go, so I say I'll try it. What the hell. It's not pretty, I hang on the draws, but it's solid. I lead it bolt by bolt, I fall twice and it doesn't scare me, I finish the climb and when I get to the chains I lean back and think, "Holy shit." As in, Holy Shit, I did it. It's all the eloquence I can muster. 

The calluses are gone but the muscle memory remains. And the confidence. The confidence instilled by following Andrew up hundreds of routes, up cliffs and big walls and faces I'd never have seen without him, of being nine pitches up and thinking, I'd better figure out how to get up this because I have no choice, the self assurance I gained when we stood on top of Total Soul in Darrington on the fourth of July, and he gave me a hug in the evening sunlight and said, "You just floated up that." 

Here I've been fighting off all the bad things, but the good things remained locked in hidden vaults somewhere in my memory. They were there all along. 

In that instant, on top of a granite spire near the Columbia river, I see straight. I see what is gone, and what is good. 
Later that day, Rip decides to stay for another night, and I drive home with the dog. I get hungry and find the Mexican place, and I'm alone with all these emotions and realizations swimming around my head like tropical fish in a tank, and there's a menu and there's no one to stop me. And so begins the eating- carne asada and margaritas, the meteor-like ball of fried ice cream with strawberry 'topping'. And thank God. It's been a long five months. I'm fucking hungry.

Pearly Gates

We had one final adventure before the good weather left, and a lot of other things went with it.

It was a few day's after Lisa's birthday, and we invited her and Colt to climb with us for the weekend in Leavenworth.

Andrew and I did a lot of secret preparations for this trip. We packed all these extravagant snacks and microbrews and whiskey and the good coffee, and a big card with a snail on it and overpriced shower gel in a colorful bottle as a birthday present. We debated over dessert options and settled on a big chocolate cake, and Andrew was very intent on their being candles. I remember thinking that this was good- having a boyfriend who was excited to find the right candles to put on my best friend's surprise birthday cake. This was a very good thing.
The weekend weather was beautiful, although the land around Leavenworth is on fire and so the valley was filled with a heavy bluish haze and the air was thick to breath. On Saturday we hiked a brutally steep, sandy approach to the Pearly Gates wall. Such a lovely name for a wall. Such a demoralizing hike.
The day was brisk with the unmistakable chill of early winter, and in the evening we found a free spot to camp off of the road, built a fire and pulled on down jackets and hats and gloves. Lisa cooked for us over the camp stove while we drank beer and laughed hysterically for an hour or two before launching into those conversations you can only have with your very closest people, and only by the side of the road around a campfire.

Then Andrew and I stepped away and put the sparkly 2 and and the sparkly 8 candles into the cake and lit them and came out singing. The four of us ate the entire thing and then crawled away towards our tents for the night. We fell asleep immediately in long underwear and fat down sleeping bags, the dog at our feet.
Sunday Morning in Leavenworth means one thing- the cafe on Icicle Road where every climber in a fifty mile radius begins their day. We went for coffee and breakfast and saw twenty five different friends from the city, all out to capture what could be the last dry weekend of the year.
The day turned out to be hot. Andrew wanted to climb everything. Lisa and Colt wanted to leave early and get margaritas. There were wasps on the rock. We took photos:
At the end of the day, Andrew and I climbed four pitches up what was probably the most technically fun piece of rock I've ever been on. It was face climbing and I felt like I flew up behind his ever strong and solids leads. The views from up there were stunning, hazy and golden, but the only picture we got was a victory shot of us when we finished, dirty and tired in waning light. As we descended in twilight the colors around us deepened, and the mountains and trail turned blue, then silver, then completely dark. The air tasted like a wood smoke.
I'm writing this all simply, because it was simple: the four of us, sitting exhausted in town drinking basil margaritas with rope-blackened hands, making plans for the next trip, Lisa already typing a grad school essay with her laptop on the corner of the table, my hand on Andrew's leg, mind wandering towards my new job, my new house. All of us happy, all of us going in a good direction. So simple.  
                                                    Happy birthday, Lisa love!!

The Fish on the Dock

There are two stories I could tell right now. The first one is the triumphant story where I sleep on the side of the road next to roaring Icicle creek, climb eight pitches up Orbit, take pictures of Andrew's bloody fingers at the summit, stand at the edge of the cliff in the cold wind and hike out by moonlight. The story that I like to tell, the one where I'm strong and energetic and healthy, falling asleep in the passenger seat as Andrew drives down I-90 in a torrential rainstorm, safe after yet another big adventure, bringing us back to a city brimming with everything familiar.  The life that I've carved out just right.
The second story is that one where I'm failing, flailing, flopping around- picture a single fish in a net on the dock- the one where I'm late to everything, where I get lost, literally lost, in the passageways in the ship and I'm scared of my own room because there are no windows and it's next to the engine room and it's loud. The part where I'm exhausted and overwhelmed and fantasizing about quitting and falling asleep during the expedition team meeting and crying in my car to Randal, and my tears are white with salt which means I'm very very dehydrated because I can't find the water on the ship. That story where I'm sea-sick when I'm on dry land and the world is constantly tipping around me and the dog sits alone in the house all day and it's back to sleeping pills at night.
The transition into boat world has been tough. It feels like hell. I'm fairly certain I'm not doing a good job at it, and I always do a good job. With everything. Except this. As it turns out, two full time lives is one too many. 
One of our vessels, the Safari Spirit, burned down at the harbor last week, and the crew has been laid off or thrown in to a new job, a demotion by necessity, onto a new ship. The Safari Endeavour is still afloat, with a full crew working every hour of every day to get it ready for embarkation, and I should be so grateful that it was not my ship that burned. But all I can think is, if it had been, if I had been on the Spirit, I could go home, and crawl into bed, and go back to my normal life and nobody could blame me because my ship no longer existed. 
Of course, I can always just gloss over it. Glossing is an art, like everything else, and I've mastered it. I've mastered the wild, envy-inducing elevator pitch of my life:

I'm going to live aboard a boat, and soon we're heading to Southeast Alaska and I'll be there all summer leading kayak trips through Glacier Bay and being a medic and on the weekends, until we leave the harbor, I go on these huge climbing adventures.
You see? Look how I can word it so that everything sounds so perfect.

I'd rather tell it like that.

I'd rather not tell the second story at all, because I don't want anyone to know what a rough time I'm having, how terrible I am right now at my job, at my own life.

How Weather Works in Paradise

Our first day back was so long awaited. We spent the season inhaling chalk dust and ripping up our fingers on gritty, neon plastic holds, lying on our backs at the Seattle Bouldering Project and daydreaming about the day we could be released from our winter confinement. About the day the rain would stop, and the sun would beat down on the rocks throughout Washington and we could once again spend every hour of daylight inching up their warm, dry faces. I live in a city that is wet for six months out of the year, and by the end of that sixth month, the idea of dry anything feels like pure fantasy. The concept of dry, sun-warmed rock seems so remote it's almost cruel.
Then the weather flipped upside down onto its head, and all of a sudden I was sitting at the base of the Lower Town Wall in Index with Andrew, hiding from the sun, and we were both covered in sweat and completely shell shocked. What is that thing in the sky? Why is it burning my skin? Why am I so thirsty?
In my rain daze, I'd forgotten that sunny weather isn't all pleasantly warm rock and gentle breezes. We were a few pitches up on the sun-exposed face, just above the shady, sheltering pine trees, and that burning orb in the sky was scorching the strength right out of me. After we rapped back to earth we slunk around for a while, looking for the next route, eventually retreating to the base of the rock where there was a slice of shadow and refrigerated air leaking from the cracks. Why is that bright thing making me feel sleepy?

Oh my God, in this city and its monotonous climate I've forgotten how weather works.
Our first day back was the beginning of April. It was cold in the shade but the rock was dry. We climbed a three pitch classic called Rattletale. On the second pitch, I discovered something new about myself. I don't actually know how to climb crack. I've been climbing now for 16 years so I just assumed I could catch on, but crack climbing is completely different than everything else. It's like a different sport.  When I daydream about climbing, I think about clean faces, catching a tiny lace-thin protrusion for your toe, gripping little chips with your fingers. Either that or giant, pumpy overhangs with holds like buckets. But not crack.
Smith Rock Face: Daydream Material
Not this junk show of jamming and and locking twisting and wrenching, tape and dirt and blood and skinned hands. I don't physically know how to do this, I realized, which is a bit alarming when you're already two pitches up. I scratched my head and thought about what to do next.  Then I lay-backed the whole thing, which is essentially like looking at a big, beautiful, bouncy rapid and deciding to take the exhausting, rocky sneak route on the left and hope that nobody sees you. (Which I'm also really good at doing.)
Layback Technique, aka Not crack climbing.
But Andrew caught me. And the next weekend we were back at Index, doing laps on the easy crack at lower town wall as he patiently showed me, move by move, the proper crack climbing technique. Because our plans before I go to Alaska involve cramming a summer's worth of big wall and trad into a few short weeks, and there's only so much lay back and sneak routes and faking it a girl can do before she needs to nut up and learn how to jam.
I'd like to point out, just for the record, that after the sun fell behind the cliffs and the day cooled around us, we started to function again. Andrew put up the most inspired lead I've ever seen, a really effing hard route called Zoom, and I was able to follow him, and we were redeemed. And on the walk back to the car on the train tracks, in a tunnel of trees and their new, light-green leaves, I was reminded that we live in Paradise. There are many places of Paradise around the world and this is one of them. And so was the hole in the wall Mexican place we found on the way home.
Then again, maybe Paradise has less to do with where you are and what you're doing, and everything to do with who you're with. Who knows? I don't know such things.

Half Days

We saw the sun this weekend.

The SUN! That warming thing in the sky!? WE SAW IT! It's REAL!
Once the low, thick ceiling of cloud has lifted off our tremendous city, the sky becomes immeasurably high. Instead of flat white, you look up and see a deep blue basin above you. You can see miles and miles and miles in all directions, the Cascades cut jagged blue and white lines into the horizon, Rainier rises rippled and immense to the South.

If you stay inside on a day like this in my city, it's a proven fact you'll lose a bit of your mind. Just a little piece. But it adds up.
The sunlight, saturated colors of the town made me realize how freakin sick I am of taking the same photos day after day: grey sky, wet street, coffee cup, shoe. Grey sky, wet street, bare branch against cloud, hey look, is that a cup of coffee? I'm tired of rain, tired of steam, tired of coziness, tired of dampness, tired of halfhearted cold, tired of documenting it. Give me some hot asphalt, neon Popsicles, sun dresses, sun burns,   daisies, cherries, mud, aurora borealis, slick black records spinning under a diamond. Give me stripes on a beach towel and burning white sand and blood caught on pale sandstone.

Just please don't let me take another picture of another coffee cup at another coffee shop on another drizzling day, and don't let me take another picture of the way headlights shine and splinter when I'm running the dog in another downpour.
On this sunny Saturday, I had to work at three and so did my friend Amber, so we went on a half day outing. We pounded everything we could into those morning hours: an early wake up, highway coffee, back roads, lost trails and downed trees.
Amber is leaving us, moving to Arizona where it never rains. Her final climbing day in the Pacific Northwest was suitably....cold. And wet. But filled with dogs, snow, rock and moss nonetheless.
There was deep snow at the base of Lost Boys wall off of exit 38, on the logging road near the fire Training academy. The first half of each climb was numbing cold and soaking wet. Climbing into the sunlight that hit the top of the crag was like hoisting yourself into heaven. The blood rushed back into my fingers and toes, sun glinted off the metal gear and pressed warmly against my face. Sun on my skin in February in Seattle felt like the enormous relief of drinking water after you've been running, thirsty, for hours.

And, as always, climbing with friends, there is nothing better.
My favorite shot of the day:
Someone did not behave herself:

And even half days get a suitable ending of Northwest malted hops. We also made a fantastic discovery: homemade potato chips at the North Bend Bar and Grill. All you intrepid Washington adventure types should try them as soon as possible. Except for those individuals who claim to dislike potato chips.
Would you look at that sun! I should have brought my real phone camera had no idea what to think of all that light.
(I love you a lot Amber, we'll miss you, but keep that guest room empty because I'll be down there soon to visit you in the desert. So very soon.)
Thanks Chris Joose for the photo

Friday Night Neon

And, for my 608th post, an 80's party.
The Seattle Bouldering Project, a warehouse at the headwaters of 1-90 where I work a few days a week, continues to be a source of unending fun. Seriously. Working has never been such a good time. We get this DJ every other Friday night. He's always smiling and charming, you can just tell he's gotten away with a lot of good shit in his life.

This Friday, to celebrate it being January whateverthehell, we added four kegs of beer, neon, Madonna and Michael Jackson. 
The resulting chaos was ridiculous- I've never seen the place so crowded. People were crawling all over the place, climbing under each other, falling on top of each other, lying in a heap underneath the walls. People were like, "Oh, it's 80s night, I guess we don't have to follow the rules."
The only vacant spot in the gym was the cave, which most people couldn't handle in their parachute pants. That meant my crave-worthy, mouth-wateringly magenta project was wide open for me to play around on during my scant 15 minute climbing breaks. I still haven't finished the thing. 
 This party was all about the ladies.  Holy shit, everywhere you looked another fly girl with crimped hair was crushing the shit out of something in a unitard. Until the drinking really went off, at which point we couldn't handle the climbing and so we did the dancing. 

So I guess we'll see you there next time. 

This is for you, Will: 

Arcless: Without Arc

Last night I climbed at the brand new, high walled, rad but crazily crowded Vertical World which is, thankfully, just across the river from me in Magnolia. For the past nine years I've been a devout follower of Stone Gardens, but in the last year the scene exploded and now there are new gyms everywhere and I belong (in a roundabout way) to all of them. I used to know everybody at Stone Gardens, either by name or by face or by reputation. Now I'll climb to the top of the wall and look down at a room filled with people who dress like my friends and act like my friends but who are actually total strangers. Like a little alternate reality.

A few of those strangers introduced themselves last night. They told me they read this but had never met me in person. That's got to be the best perk of writing the blog ever, when that happens, it's always a burst of energy and happiness. I had to laugh, though, because three people last night - three!- told me they particularly loved the previous post and they wanted more like that.

My god, so do I! Those posts are the absolute most fun to write. They practically write themselves. I do hope that one day- preferably when I'm still pretty enough (oh, I'm going to get slammed by that sentence)  the man will be a boringly perfect fit. Until that happens, whenever life delivers in the realms of dating disasters and poisoned hamburgers, I'll keep writing about it.

But what do I write about in the meantime?

Because I mean most of the time, I'm not out on a bad date, or any date at all really. They take so much energy. You have to schedule yourself a recovery week after those things. And by date, I'm really referring to any of the things that are fun to write about: big climbing trips, traveling, barfing, girl friends morphing into guy friends. Things that have a story arc.

A lot of my time is spent just going along, with no clearly defined rising action or falling action. No action of any kind. They look like this:
And this:
And lots and lots of this:

But I think I'm going to go ahead and write about the normal things, even if they don't have that neat little arc. The whole point of this blog is to write everything. So here we go, Arcless.

Last night I actually climbed. This was a big surprise for me. Imagine a climbing gym, if you can. Now imagine spending every evening of every weekday there, getting really strong and pretty good. Not crazy good, but good enough. And after a while, naturally, you start to get to know the people there. Everybody who works there and everybody who climbs there. Now picture a little drain in middle of the floor. And imagine yourself slipping into the drain and disappearing.

This is what I did. I fell into a hole. Ever since this past summer, all I've really wanted to do was write, work and take walks by myself. I don't know what hit me, but I went with it. I'd go to the gym every now and then, or stay late after work to boulder, but I was mostly just dicking around. The only time I felt truly happy climbing was outside, but that became difficult when winter came. I lost a lot of strength and the thought of building it up again, and getting those painful blisters that turn into callouses was depressing. I was like oh, shit, forget about it. Let's just do something else.

After Christmas though, I really started to miss it. I went a few times to different gyms and started getting it back. And last night, when I fought, fell but ultimately finished two 11B's and led a bunch of easier but overhanging stuff, I was like- oh, right, this! I really like this. I really like this. Everything about it. Maybe if I don't get exactly what I want- which is to be the head writer of SNL and live in New York, marry a Seth Meyers look alike, have two beautiful children and then retire and live richly outside of Montpelier Vermont without ever having to work again- I can still be happy.

It was quite the revelation.

And after the gym shut down, we went to the High Life. I think there were ten of us all together, and I knew less than half of them. So I met a few more people. We had nine pound porters, and these little pizzas, and some other things, and since nobody ever brought us a check we stayed there till almost midnight.

It must have tired me out, because I went home and slept for thirteen hours solid. In my dreams, I came up with a comedy piece about describing my own physical heart in an extremely complicated manner. It's not worth writing, of course, but I always to mention when I write something in my sleep. Something in there deserves the credit.

And then today happened, and it was a very slow and, as you can see, very dark. I woke up, basically, just in time for sunset. That's gloomy. I had no pressing deadlines, and the real job I have keeps getting pushed back and pushed back because of funding issues. So it's alright if I wake up late.

But I don't like it. It's disconcerting and disorienting. Why is it that I'll sleep and sleep and sleep for more than half the day? I don't know many people who do that. What is my brain doing? I'm certainly not getting any taller, sadly.

It makes me think of that Tom Waits song: What's he building in there? 

So there you have it. The dreaded second act. Are you still reading? Are you still here? 

Classic Adventure Story

Are you craving a classic outdoor adventure, the likes of which you used to enjoy weekly on The Wilder Coast? Well look no further than this post. We just wrapped up an old fashioned epic in sunny Index, Washington. This weekend had everything- missing teeth, boys, kimchi, the bible, yurts- just some friends from my WFR class getting together for some trad climbing and general raising hell.

I wonder what people who actually raise hell think about people like me using that phrase. You know, people who go out and drink and fight and then end the evening by burning down a courthouse. And then I'm like Oh yeah, we got into someone's hot tub! Whose hot tub was it? WHO KNOWS! Raise the roof! But now I'm just giving away the story.

To start at the beginning, we spent a wonderful afternoon climbing very long, tall routes. We had to tie two 60m ropes together to make it work, which is safer than it sounds. Index is all trad climbing, and for those of you who don't understand what that means, I will break it down for you. Trad climbing, as opposed to sport climbing, is scarier and more expensive and the people involved are a bit more gaunt. But, it does enable you to climb some incredible cracks. The cracks in Index are all classics, world class stuff. I loved it! Now I'm addicted to crack! ha ha no really, everybody who climbs, it's time we stop using that joke. That joke has been done a lot. We're all getting tired of pretending to laugh at it. 

Chris was the only one amongst us who climbs trad so he did all the leading. Chris is a climbing ranger on Rainier, a friend from WFR, and the unsung hero of my piece The Over-Brewed Bro, which he said he found 'Funny' and 'Just a little insulting' and 'Did you have to use that picture' and then after a few days, 'Nah, it's fine.' We love you, Chris!

As a sport climber, I'm used to big faces with a bunch of tedious crimpers. Your fingers and toes do all the work and all the flesh between them is just dead weight. Face climbing makes me feel like a fatty. Crack, on the other hand, is a full body adventure. First you dip yourself as deep as possible into your chalk bag, then you jam all your limbs into the crack and wrestle your way up and I'm not kidding, that's how it's done. Crack climbing celebrates The Whole Woman. 

We climbed until sunset and then coiled our ropes and returned to our little camp next to the beautiful Skykomish river- the river where I learned to paddle. Incidentally I call all rivers I've ever run "The river where I learned to paddle" because one never stops learning, am I right? The one exception of course being the Rio Claro, which is the river that made me go bat shit insane, temporarily.

Lisa and I went down to the Sky to unwind and play with the dog. There we found a boy sitting alone on the bank drinking a PBR, smoking pot and leafing through his bible. All our splashing and being-girls-ness caught his attention and he introduced himself. His name was Nathan, he spoke with a strong Chatanooga drawl and he had that frightening friendliness of the deep South that makes the brains of Northerners short-circuit.

"Interesting combination of things you got going there, Nathan," I said, gesturing towards the paraphernalia in his lap. Maybe it was rude but I couldn't help but point out his recreational drug use, combined with beer and marijuana. Nathan raised his PBR can towards the heavens. "You know, Jesus, he's my friend, and I talk to him like my friend. And I hang out with my friends I like to drink beer and smoke pot."

Well alright.

Nathan had a few bros kicking around and we  invited them over to our corner for dinner. Chris and his friends cooked up a great meal out of Chris's dumpster diving finds. Something with Kimchi and noodles and oil in excess, it was really good. As we ate, someone said "Well if you're going to get your meals out of a dumpster you might as well eat the fermented stuff," and we all nodded appreciatively. Paul, who has children, quietly ate a block of cheese and nothing else. Then Jeff made us all Gin and Tonics with slices of lime out of the back of his truck and Lisa and I made a roaring fire. 

As soon as it was completely dark, a boy showed up around our fire. His name was Abe, he was missing a tooth and he proudly declared to all that he lived in a van. I played that trick on Abe where I pretend that we've met and I'm really sad and disappointed that he doesn't remember me. I think that trick is funny but nobody ever likes it and it always sets a weird tone for the rest of the evening.

 After a few rounds of camp fire stories a la Jeff, Abe invited us all to a place where he's house sitting. "It's got a hot tub and everything," he tells us. Boy lures girls to unknown grown up's house with promise of hot tub. Boy, how many times has this happened- and you get there and the 'hot tub' has a big green cover on it and obviously hasn't been used for a decade. But you keep going because the allure of a hot tub is that good.

Lucky for us it was a legitimate, working hot tub, steaming away in the back yard of somebody's lovely home. All of the boys pulled off their clothes and hopped in the tub- everyone except Nathan, who stripped down to his boxer briefs and climbed in cautiously saying, "Y'all, I'm cool with y'all bein' naked but I'm gonna leave my unders on. I think it's a cultural thing."

Since you're wondering, Lisa and I stayed put in our Patagonia bikinis. You just don't pay that much money for a bikini only to whip it off in front of company. As we soaked, the expression on the boys' faces said if they'd known we were going to stay clothed, they would have probably kept their trunks on because now it felt weird. I can recognize that look from a mile away.

We stayed in that hot tub for about an hour and told another round of stories. To relieve ourselves from the steam we'd jump into a cold outdoor shower. Then we'd see the boys naked in total silhouette, and forgive me if I'm wrong but what boy wouldn't want to be seen naked at night in an extremely cold shower? A win win for all.

There were about eight of us in the hot tub and Lisa and I were the only gals. Lisa kept having to move around and sit in different places because someone was playing footsy with her under the bubbles.

After a while we all exited the hot tub and wrapped ourselves in towels. By now it was early in the morning, and we lounged around in whoever's house it was. I put on my Carharts and my black Regulatory 1 full zip jacket and found a nice corner of the couch. Let me tell you something about those Carharts- you don't fuck around in them. They're big and shapeless and they zip up at my waist- my actual waist, not my hips where pants should live. I look like a lady who owns an all women's painting company, if you know what I'm getting out. There is no flirting or flitting around, no head-tipped back laughing while putting my hand on the guy's chest because you're so funny- not when the Carharts come on.  I where them when I want to say, "Sorry bros, you're out of luck." And if ever there was a time to stress that message, it's when you're fresh out of the hot tub in a stranger's house with five boys who are still getting over the disappointment that you and your best friend didn't take your swim tops off.

Lisa on the other hand was just shimmying all over the place. She and Abe made some gyozas from out of the freezer and apparently the process of frying them, and the subsequent adding of the hot sauce, was just too hilarious.

Around 2am Abe announced that he knew of this Yurt across town which might be cool to check out. The town of Index is about 3 city blocks so it doesn't take much to go across town. I wondered how someone who lives out of a van had so many houses at his disposal, but I didn't say anything because I wanted to check out the yurt.

The yurt was worth any pain that subsequently occurred inside the yurt. It was built on top of a long hill full of slippery, winding stairs, and all the trees were draped in colored Christmas lights that were turned on, as if someone was expecting us. Abe promised there would be sheets and blankets and pillows at the Yurt, but I know never to trust a man when he promises you bedclothes. I've been burned before. So I grabbed my sleeping bag and my pillow from the car and when we get up there guess what- no bedclothes. Not even a plush throw or a knit Afghan. So when we finally call it a night, I'm sharing my sleeping bag and pillow with Chris on the top of a rickety bunk with a terrifying ladder.

At least our close quarters yielded a really nice talk.  We were very warm and talked quietly to each other. Our talk went something like this:

Chris: Will you turn your headphones down?
Me: Sorry.
Chris: Listen you gotta turn it down even more
Me: I'm listening to The Lonely Island- so funny- ever heard of them?
Chris: I'm going to go sleep in your car.
Me: You can't. You can't put the seat back, there's an entertainment set in the back
Chris: What?
Me: An entertainment set. A piece of furniture a TV is meant to go on.
Chris: Then could you just turn your music off? It's 3am, I want to go to sleep.
Me: I can't get to sleep without it. I'm a terrible sleeper.

And so on. I loved it. I live for cozy late night talks with friends under one sleeping bag in somebody else's yurt after a night of raising hell.

We woke up around noon the next day and Lisa, Chris and I had coffee and bagels in the one cafe in town. We talked about some good things, about being 26 and having no idea what we're doing and all that. Then we met up with our smooth chested friend friend Andy Dahlen and climbed some more classic routes all day.

That's just what I love about climbing, is all the randos.  And the crack. Wonk wonk wonk.

Thank you to everyone who entered the Patagonia giveaway. It was nice to read about all the nice places out there that seem really nice. Nice work. Stay tuned for the next giveaway coming up soon.  Congratulations to our winner, chosen by random number generator:

Photohyrdaulicturbine Although I live in Seattle, fall is one of the best seasons to head for the east side of the Cascades as the storms don't quite have the umph to fully saturate your weekend plans. I love land of larches, the rocky alpine regions, such as the Enchantment lakes. This past weekend while running through this beautiful string of lakes surrounded by precipitous granite and small alpine glaciers, I found myself fascinated by the small larches precariously perched on Dragontail's cliffs, imagining the small bird that carried seed many years ago that somehow managed to survive in this beautiful, but harsh landscape. Now these few dispersed trees are bright yellow--their final hurrah before winter's ferocity returns.

I hope you wear this hat on your next adventure to the Enchantments. Take a picture and we'll post it here. 
Email me your info at Melina (dot) Coogan (@) gmail (dot) com. Spambots need not respond.

Photo credits: Lisa Niemann, Jeff Pierce and Paul Bongaarts