Last and First

It’s 9:30 in the morning and still grey—Seattle, I love you and your gloomy skies.  It’s the cusp of the New Year and while I’ve been pensive for a while, thinking about what this year has been and what next year makes pensive seem a small word.

In a certain sense, I’ve finally found my footing. I’m stronger than I was a year ago in many ways and I’m starting to organize again—both poetically, artistically and athletically.  I’m in a place where I can host guests and have dinner parties.  I have a car to pick up friends at the airport and I’ve helped my company nearly double in size.

In another sense, I still have no idea what I’m doing.  I still don’t know how to occupy emotional space with anyone else. I still crush on boys that are wrapped up in their own stories or for whom the timing is just enough off that it’ll never work. I still have heartache and loneliness. I burn my dinner and I’m socially awkward and I have bruised knees and tangled hair and can’t keep my laundry folded and in order if someone were to pay me only for that.

In other words, same old same old. Just a person, as any person is.  I am starting to think, even more strongly, that we are all replaceable.  That sounds self-deprecating but I really don’t mean it that way.  It’s just—we’re all so similar, even in our differences.  One of the strangest things about my father dying was how completely specific and, at the same time, how completely impersonal it was.  My grief is unique but every single person on the planet will either go through this same thing or die and their parents will go through the same thing.  Biological parents, chosen parents, the family we are tied to with blood or the one we find for ourselves—we all lose someone or are lost ourselves.  It put a lot of things in perspective for me.  So, heartache. So what? So, love. So what? So strength or weakness or sorrow or joy. It’s all this big roiling mass that we dip in and out of as our lives weave our stories.

I don’t know what 2014 holds for me.  This might be the year I climb a 12a. This might be the year I fall joyfully in love. This might be the year I start publishing again.  This might be the year I don’t get another tattoo. This might be the year I break a bone, the year I really start to bike around the city, the year I learn to drive standard, the year I learn to love broccoli, the year I start using hot sauce.  There are so many possibilities—it’s just a lovely, terrifying blank page. I realize, in writing this, that I have no expectations.

El Potrero Chico

Where to start? I’m not even sure. Start at the beginning—that’s usually a good place.

I met H. through friends of friends on a climbing trip. He was looking for a partner and so was I, so we plotted together and met in person for the first time the night before we left, to load my car and shake hands. I remember thinking, as we leaned against our cars in the late summer night, ok, this guy seems ok, we seem comfortable enough. The space between us has an interesting shape, but isn’t heavy or uncertain. The next day, after work, I met him at his office and we headed off for the hours-long drive from Seattle to Smith Rock. I’ve been in many cars with people I don’t know, but I think this was the first time that it was only myself and one other stranger.  We sang to the radio, we chatted, we drove—we made it to Smith under cover of stars and spilled into the rented house to join our friends.

I can write about that weekend, but this isn’t about the weekend in Smith.  It’s about my secret words (Do you want to climb?) and what happened next.  H was already planning a two month climbing trip—first to Mexico and then to Thailand.  A week after we met we were sitting on pillows in a tent in the middle of SeaCompression when we started talking about his upcoming trip.  You should meet me in Mexico.  I paused.  Are you serious? The tent was cozy with people and pillows and smoke. Do you want to climb with me in Mexico? A week later I’d booked tickets.

There are many reasons this was a foolish, impulsive thing to do. I’d known H. for two weeks. I know absolutely no Spanish. El Potrero Chico is known for its long mult-pitch routes, and the longest thing I’d ever done was two weeks before, with H. at Smith; 5 pitches, 5.9 at the hardest, and I didn’t lead anything above a 5.8.  Instead of cancelling the tickets, I bought the El Potrero Chico guidebook, I bought gloves for the long raps down, and thought—ok. This is a terrible terrifying idea. Let’s go.

I am the girl who lowers, step by step, into cold water. I am not the girl jumping off of the bridge into an icy river. I am the girl who makes lists and plans and has exit strategies. I need someone else to startle me into adventure, to hold out a hand and say, come with me.   I fret and worry and have Band-Aids in my wallet and flashlights in my glove box.  I bought a ticket to a place I’d never been to meet a man I barely knew to climb things I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish.

The plane landed in a grey and chilly Monterrey Mexico.  I made my way through customs, picked up my luggage and followed the direction of traffic out into the terminal to find H waiting at the gate.  Sleepy and dazed, all I wanted to do was jump up and down. I’m in Mexico. I’m in Mexico. I’m in Mexico. We drove through back to Hidalgo, stopping for food and then heading to La Poseda, the climbing camp at the edge of the canyon.  It was slightly after noon, and in short order we were gearing up and heading to El Potrero Chico.

Clouds still hung low in the sky and caught at the tops of the spires.  It looked like something out of a legend—dark rock towering over the desert. My body felt heavy and tired and looking up made my head spin.  We were headed to Will The Wolf Survive—a 4 pitch climb, 400’ with a 10a for the final pitch.  The first pitch was the easiest, but I didn’t know the rock yet and didn’t want to lead anything quite yet.  We tied in, checked our knots, and started.

Will the Wolf Survive From the moment I started to climb towards H, I was in love. The rock—I don’t know how to explain it to someone who doesn’t climb.  It made no sense and it made complete sense.  Like a kiss you suddenly find yourself in the middle of and falling into.  My whole body felt like it was made of laughter and the kind of waking-up you get when you jump into a glacier lake.  As if you’d been sleeping for years and only now, for the first time, found out how to stretch.  The climb went smoothly, if cold.  H kept leading, I kept following.  We huddled together at the top, hiding from the wind, took a photo, rapped down and hiked back to camp. 

Another friend from Seattle was also at camp, renting one of the rooms.  We met up with her, drank tequila and pineapple juice, showered and headed into town for dinner.

I woke the next morning to the sound of a pack of dogs barking and roosters crowing, wind moving around the tent.  Voices floated out of the morning and gear clinked as other parties gathered their things for the day.  The camp kitchen door slammed shut. Laughter.  More wind.  We made breakfast and instant coffee and geared up. Estrellita.  12 pitches, 11b with variations that bring it down to a 10b.  1200 feet. We were planning on linking a few pitches and alternating leads but I was still nervous.  Even on the longest cragging day I’d never come close to climbing 12 pitches. 

Estrellita

rapping off of EstrellitaThe climbing isn’t difficult, but it’s a long day.  We alternated leads and did the easier variations to the route and made it to the top in four and a half hours.  There’s a palm tree on top, and a metal box with odds and ends and a folded piece of paper instead of a log book, with a rock on top instead of a lid.  We signed the paper, took some photos, and began the descent, walking back into camp before dusk.  My body was sore and tired but buzzing with joy.  That night we gave L. a ride to her hotel in Monterrey and headed into town for hambergessas and drinks.  As we waited on the porch three other climbers from camp came up and joined us.  We sat for a few hours, laughing, eating, drinking beer.  The night grew longer around us and eventually we all headed back into camp.  H and I rejoined a few folks in the camp kitchen and outside grupera music kept a steady beat.  We eventually made it to sleep.

Hacienda del MuertoHacienda del Muerto ruinsThe next day was our rest day.  The initial plan was to find the petroglyphs at Boca de Potrerillos but no one seemed to know how to get there.  We went into town to the café, but they didn’t know either.  So we struck out towards Mina, with a loose idea of what road to turn onto, but we never saw it.  Instead we found ourselves at Hacienda del Muerto.  H had only seen the gate closed but it was wide open this time, and we drove in and parked. A well stood prominently in what looked to be an old courtyard and a church cut into the sky, but besides that all other walls were worn and falling back into the desert.  We walked quietly through the ruins and tiptoed through the church as the sun warmed our backs. 

Back in Mina we drove around looking for the Museo Bernabé de las Casas to ask directions to the petroglyphs. For a museum, it hides fairly well.  No one was at the gate but we could hear voices in the back and walked into the courtyard to find two men putting peanuts into bags in the lobby of an auditorium.  H. talked with them and the younger of the two men showed us to the door and told us it would be 25 pesos.  Inside the lights flickered on and displays of life from the early 20th century.  The lights were on sensors but it took a while to trip each one—we walked into a dark room and halfway through the lights would snap on and we found ourselves further and further back in history; recreation petroglyphs, fossils, mammoth skulls, dinosaur bones.  It turned out we’d been going through the exhibits backwards, from modern history towards the creation of the earth. H found a room full of geodes and minerals and we puzzled through the Spanish signs, trying to figure out what each one was.  When we were done, he went over to the office again to ask for directions to the petroglyphs and was handed a half sheet of paper with a map printed on it. 

We pulled up to the parking lot to find two pickup trucks, a dog and a man watering something. The signs were worn and sun bleached and a building hunkered slightly past the gate.  We weren’t sure if it cost anything and as we walked along the path the man called over to us.  He wanted us to sing the guest book in the building. And then, nothing.  A wave, and we continued on.

PetroglyphThe wind had picked up but the sun was still bright.  The first path off of the main road led up the hillside and within a few feet we saw our first petroglyph.  They were everywhere.  Suns, figures, shapes that looked almost like writing, shapes that were just patterns.  Fields of dots.  We hiked up and up the path and I couldn’t help but feel like a girl in a story, finding one drawing and then looking up, into the distance, to see another drawing slightly off of the path. And another.  We hiked up and back down, and then along the main path again, and back up another hill before we realized—if we were going to make it to the hot springs we’d have to head out.

The parking lot at the hot springs was empty but the pool was still open. We paid and followed the spiral down to the entrance to the pool, pushing the doors open.  Immediately the steam made me feel overdressed.  The pool glowed a white-blue and the subtle scent of sulfur drifted with the steam.  Brick pillars arced and punctuated the water’s surface and condensation dripped in uneven rhythm.  We changed and stepped into the warm water.  I can’t really do justice to the glow—to the cavernous brick ceilings, to the way light streamed through the stained glass skylights, or the way the water rippled quietly around our bodies.  The warmth soaked into my skin and everything felt electric.  After, we walked to another room beyond the pool—circular with sandy mortar along the walls, a strong brick domed ceiling and a circular skylight of a bright red sun. I lay back on the wooden bench.  My friend Nicelle told me I’d find magic in Mexico.  Skin tingling magic. Nicelle was right. Magic. 

We drove back to camp under starlight and a near full moon. The next day turned out to be my final day of climbing, Black Cat Bone.  9 pitches, 10d, 800’.  I led the first pitch and could already feel the soreness in my body.  10d. I haven’t climbed a 10d outside, let alone on the 7th pitch of a climb.  Keep going.  This is ok.  He thinks I can, so I can.  I trust him. 

Black Cat BoneI led the easier routes and H led the 10s.  The easy pitches were easy, but run out.  There was exposure and for the first time I could feel the yawning canyon at my back and a hint of what, just a few months ago, would have led to fear and panic.  Breathe, move.  The rock was sharp, but solid.  At the crux I had to rest, and I cursed; I could see the moves and couldn’t make them. I rested again. Try again. Do it. I tried again and moved through it, and found myself at the roof and moving over it.  It took 5 hours to make it to the top, but we made it. We flipped through the log book and found H’s signature from three years ago and signed beneath it. It was a long rap down and we finished in the dark. 

We woke the next day both sore and tired, with a plane to catch.  My fingertips were the red of skin a few layers down and my shoulder ached.  Climbing was over, but the day was bright and sunny, so I laced up my sneakers and went for a run through the canyon.  The wind still tasted like evening and shadow but my skin warmed quickly in the sun.  I ran along the road, through the canyon and past it, passing a few climbing parties along the way.  At the halfway point I paused to stretch and looked back at the sun warming the spires of El Potrero Chico.  There is magic in this place. 

That night, back in Seattle, I had trouble falling asleep.  I wanted the sound of dogs, the sound of wind, the sound of sleeping in a tent.  I wanted laughter and slamming kitchen doors, the stretching sound of a slack line, the metallic sound of gear being sorted and arranged.  I haven’t even mentioned the other people at camp and how kind everyone was, or the earthy camp scent that coated my body the entire way home.  It was a glimmer of a life I’ve heard about my whole life—plotting the next adventure, planning the next ascent.

I thought my magic words were Do you want to climb? I had no real idea what that meant, or how true it was.  The answer is always yes. Yes, yes, oh yes.   

El Potrero Chico

Hotel Alexis

packed and readyWoke up Saturday morning ready to give H a ride to the airport so he could wing his way to Mexico– only to find out that Dallas is mostly shut down due to ice.  I always have issues when trying to fly through Texas and this bodes poorly for my leg of the journey next week when I fly out to meet him.  Still, we’ve discovered a few things.  Waiting on hold is no longer necessary– the airline will call you back when your turn in line comes up. This meant a couple more hours of sleep– and also resulted in the second discovery– H gets absolutely no cell service in my apartment.  Cue a cozy Greta and a chilly H, trying to re-book his flights– me shivering out to the car to bring coffee and sit for a while before scurrying back inside to scan over poetry and stress out about what I’ll be reading on Tuesday. (He’ll leave later tonight– fingers crossed that my part of the trip is a little smoother.)

It’s always strange when you find yourself caught in a place after you had planned to leave.  I know it’s happened to me a few times– I’m never sure if I should deal with Real Life things that might not have been tended to, or I should act like I’m already gone, considering I should have been.  I always end up feeling like a ghost-person, not entirely present where I am yet not yet where I’m headed– days of not-quite-anywhere-solid. It’s a frustrating place to be, and I’m glad at least that we found out about the cancelled flight before getting to SeaTac, and that his flight was cancelled before he got to DFW to sit stranded with the thousand other travelers, watching ice glint and searching for outlets and places to sit.

Throughout the day H’s stuff slowly spread around my apartment– it was supposed to be unpacked under a Mexican sun and yet here he was, under the bright cold Seattle sky, digging through for running clothing so we could shiver around Green Lake. I think he was the first to say Hotel Alexis and it seems a good name for my home right now.  Tomorrow I’ll pick up Nicelle and we’ll read together at the Hugo House.  The next day it’s planes for us and out of town, but E. will be coming in from Denver and staying at my place while I’m gone.  I come back, he leaves to cat-sit for another friend, and a few days later B comes back to stay for an indeterminate time.  Then AWP hits town and I have already told my friends that I will help find couch/bed/floor space for everyone. I am throwing my secret lair open and inviting people into my bubble.  I have the spare sheets folded, a stack of clean towels, a stash of extra toothbrushes and enough needle and thread to fix everyone’s torn things.  Welcome to the Hotel Alexis, I hope everyone enjoys their stay!

 

Let’s Do This

This past Tuesday was the Send and Social at the Bouldering Project.  This basically means that the gym is a little more crowded than usual and there’s free beer up on the balcony. I went with a handful of friends and we both sent and socialized, as expected.  At one point we were sitting down in the far corner of the gym watching people work on two problems, a V4 and a V5, I think.  (They were red and blue—the Bouldering Project is switching off of labels and into a color banded system.)  I was feeling sort of tired and just watched for a while before trying the red one.  While I sat there a girl kept trying the same problem and she and kept getting farther and farther along but couldn’t finish it.  Still, you could tell that she was happy and each move higher was the best she’d ever climbed.  I overheard her talking with her boyfriend about it—and watched her watching other people climb it, puzzling out how to finish the final few moves.  I jumped on for my try—it’s a fun corner route, and up my alley as far as a climb that plays to my strengths.  I slipped at one point but caught myself and finished the route cleanly, but stayed in the corner to see if the girl was going to try again.  She was next up and as I watched I started to cheer her on a little—come on, you got it. Go for it. Nice. Come on.  I didn’t know her name, but it was fun watching her get past where she’d fallen before, and then hit the next move.  She finished the route and you could just see how excited she was—she hung for a second off the top of the wall and looked around, probably trying to find her boyfriend.  He hadn’t been watching—or at least, she didn’t seem to find him.  She came down and walked over to me.  Was that you cheering me on? She gave me a big hug, we chatted for a little bit and then she ran off to find her boyfriend.

I’m competitive to a fault. I go for something that’s supposed to be an easy jog around the lake and end up sprinting in to make sure Random Guy doesn’t pass me at the end.  I want to be better, faster, stronger.  This has spilled into climbing a little bit, but in general, I climb with people who are much stronger than me.  It’s also a little difficult to “compete” in something that’s so individual.  That said, cheering the random girl made me think about one of my favorite races in college where competing switched over into teamwork.  I am always the girl cheering my own team on while I run, but in this particular race I was running along the final 800 meters without any teammates in sight.  There was a girl near me that I kept trading places with and eventually we found ourselves running shoulder to shoulder as the finish-line came in sight.  There was a stretch along a fence line before the course took a left turn into the final stretch and I don’t remember if she started it or I did, but we began talking to each other. Come on. Let’s go. Let’s finish this.  We were stride for stride, and we hit that moment you can find where you are working alone, together. Come on. I felt her fall back and I remember turning my head, come on. Get up here. Let’s do this. She said, go, you have this, and I took off.  I tried to find her afterwards to thank her, but I just knew she was a girl, in a uniform, with darkish hair in braids— not a very unique description at a cross country meet.

I don’t think I would have finished that race as well as I did without the random girl I ran beside.  I don’t know that the girl I cheered on Tuesday would have sent the problem if she hadn’t heard my support.  I know just thinking someone is watching and supporting me gets me to try that move I’m scared I won’t make, to risk just a hair more, to pick up my feet a little higher and power in to the finish. I love this—we are better together. I don’t think it’s about proving anything, necessarily.  I know very well that it doesn’t matter to anyone else what I am capable of.  But, thank you for watching. Let’s do this, whatever it is. We are stronger when we are side by side.

some of my cross country ladies

some of my cross country ladies

Happy Holidays from the Vergalla ladies

Last year my sister asked me to make holiday cards to send to her clients– this year I decided to document the process a little better. So here we go: holiday prints 101. 

Step 1: Befriend crazy and wonderful backcountry skiers. They will fill your head with stories about mountains and bring you back beautiful snowscape photography from their adventures.  The first print I made was from a photograph taken by my dear friend B. Through him I had the good fortune to meet Kyle Miller.  Kyle’s proven to be one of the kindest people I’ve ever known and he’s given me full reign of his photographs and instagram feed. Last year’s image was of Nason Ridge, here in the Cascades.  This year Kyle is traveling in Australia and New Zealand for Eddie Bauer. I asked my sister to look through his photos and she picked an image of Mt Cook/ Aoraki from the end of September. 

SuppliesStep 2: Get your supplies ready. I printed Kyle’s photo, in reverse, for reference.  I use a soft rubber plate for the print and generally use a linoleum cutter that’s hooked rather than straight.  I find it easier and it seems to have less stabbing danger. 

First cuts

Step 3: Use water soluble markers to draw the image on the plate. I tend to draw the positive, not the negative, and indicate with squiggles where I’ll end up being somewhat free-form with the blade.  

test image

Step 4: Test print and readjust. At this point I usually hide the reference photograph.  It doesn’t really matter what the image is supposed to look like, work with what you have going. I ended up smoothing out the river banks and adding some illumination to the band of mountain that’s not yet snow-covered.

ready to print

Step 5: Ink it up and get printing.  I use water soluble inks– they’re just easier to deal with.  They aren’t water-safe but cards aren’t, by their nature, water-safe. 

cards drying

 

I printed up as many cards as I had card stock and they will be winging their way towards Philadelphia by the end of the week, with a few set aside for Kyle when he gets back to the US in late December.  

Next printmaking project: the peaks of the Pacific Northwest for B’s beer labels. So much to do, so much to do. 

 

Invisibility

There’s self-perception and reality. I assume, pretty much always, that no one remembers who I am. I don’t know why this is, but I just figure I don’t stick out in a crowd.  I know this probably isn’t true (and definitely wasn’t true when my hair was every shade imaginable) but still, I just operate under the assumption that no one remembers me or knows who I am. I think it’s a little bit like seeing someone in a mirror—if the angle is such that YOU can see HIM than the angle is such that HE can see YOU. This is just science.

I go to Stone Gardens almost every Monday. Lately I’ve been going Wednesdays as well, possibly another day over the weekend. I see the same people there, every Monday. I don’t know any of their names, but I know them. The taller guy with a lot of tattoos and small black gauges in his ears that almost always climbs alone. The guy with dark hair and a near scowl and his much smaller female climbing partner who are usually wrapping up right as I get there.  Then of course, there’s the Stone Gardens staff. Some I actually hang out with outside of climbing, but the others I just know from being there. Keith, who sets the routes that KILL me and is usually sitting behind the counter when I get there. Kyle, who I met out at Exit 38 this summer and throws his shirt down off of routes same as I do (and did some bad ass routes last night). Rick, who at this point I actually climb with sometimes and teaches the youth climbing classes on Monday nights. Some of their names I learned from overhearing, some I learned from introductions, some I picked up from volunteering at the climbing competition at Seattle Bouldering Competition. I still assume they don’t remember me.

Yesterday I found out—they know me! They know my name! Objectively—duh. I come in at least once a week, I swipe in and my name shows up on the screen. Not to mention, I have a few visible tattoos which always help with remembering someone (at least for me) and I’m good friends with some of the folks that work at Stone Gardens. Emotionally—I suddenly felt like a Cool Kid.  It’s a funny feeling—to realize that you aren’t as invisible as you think.

It’s getting cold in Seattle—the mountains are already snowcapped. So, in honor, a piece I wrote about skiing without any skiing in it.  This was written out of stories from a friend I love, dearly, who will be returning home soon.

Night Skiing

One moment, the ocean is its ordinary self. Breaking in sets of three, deep grey and predictable.  The next, it pauses, folds a right angle and rushes the cove. Later, the pier is drowned and mermaids learn how to breathe again.  She didn’t say “perhaps” she said “paper” and if you watched her hands, you would have seen each sharp crease before the warmth of the candle carried the moon to its place.

Borrow a cup of sugar and the sky unscrolls.

A color called iceskate, romance with a blade. Morning stacks room on top of room, illumination switches up. Stretches to a combination of take-out and coffee cups, lunch eaten at a desk.

No one ever says “the best time for photographs is the brightest point of the day.”  It’s always the witching hour, the breaking. Light that is just before it gets difficult to read.

You are squinting your eyes at the page. You’ve missed the window.

Later, when you look back, it will be impossible to differentiate day from night.  Except for the color of a shirt, the way one person is looking over her shoulder and another has his hand raised in a wave.  Hello or goodbye—another thing difficult to discern but for memory. Snow throwing light everywhere like it costs nothing at all.