Maybe I’m A Dirtbag?

I realized – last night – that I was going to see my mom (who’s here, visiting from Arizona), and that I smelled terrible and couldn’t remember the last time that I’d showered. Friday maybe? Or maybe it was Thursday? I know I paddled the river on Saturday, which is pretty much the same as showering…

Since that river bath, over the next five days, I’d climbed twice, biked six times, gone for a run, played soccer twice, and lifted weights four times. Plus there’s that whole Summer Sun Angle (Heat) = Sweat thing.

I’d also mowed the lawn, worked in the yard, gardened, and picked up dog poop in the sun three times.

For my mom, I took a shower.

How To Climb Like A Beginner

All injury stories are the same. I was feeling pretty good, starting to climb well when I…

(Choose a verb: BROKE, STRAINED, TORE, DISLOCATED, LACERATED…)

my

(Choose a noun: KNEE, SHOULDER, HAND, ACL, WRIST, ANKLE, LEG, MCL, pinkie…)

OR

I wasn’t feeling very good, hadn’t been working out hard enough at that time, when I pushed it more than I should and I…

 

The injury’s not where the story gets interesting. Yeah, I’ve had injuries before (broken ribs, dislocated thumb, fractured wrist, etc.) and yes, you’ve had injuries as well. You tore your rotator cuff. You snapped a tendon in your ring finger. You injured the whatever-its-called in your elbow when you fell off your nephew’s trampoline. Really, our individual injuries are not that interesting.

But our attitudes? What we do after our injuries? That – to me – is much more interesting.

Unfortunately – for a while at least – after surgery or getting the cast off or the knee brace, or doing physical therapy, we have to climb easy. We can’t go hard. We can’t run up The Rostrum. We can’t send that Bishop highball we’ve always to finish. We can’t project that 5.12+ trad route at the Gunks. For a while, we have to keep from getting injured again. We have to maintain good attitudes and sound training fundamentals while still climbing easy. And that’s difficult. Most of us – naturally – want to go hard, want to push our abilities, want to send something that we’ve never sent before. But the road back to climbing hard starts with climbing easy. There’s an art to climbing easy, and in my experience, a lot to learn from that time period of easier exertion.

 

With Beginner Routes, There’s No Competition

I’m a competitive person. If three of my friends and I are attempting a difficult route, I want to send it first. I don’t mind if someone else is successful on the route as long as I’ve already been successful on the route. See, I like to win the game. I want to win the game even if no one else knows that we’re playing the game. If everyone thinks we’re just having fun, I might be competing in my head. That makes me seem like a jerk, but truthfully, I sometimes am a jerk. I’ve competed for who can be the best at throwing rocks at a metal sign, for who can open the well-sealed jar of jam, for who can find the prettiest piece of petrified wood.

I’m way too competitive.

The problem with being a way-to-competitive-climber and having a significant injury is that there’s no competition on beginner routes. Everyone can climb VB or 5.6.

That bodybuilding guy with zero footwork who wears a leather vest to the gym, wears no shirt underneath, and climbs with bent arms all the way up the wall? Yep, he can climb 5.6.

That college girl who yells “SPOT ME! SPOT ME! SPOT ME!!!!!” in a hysterical voice the second she leaves the ground on the easiest VB taped-route? Well, she sends that level too.

So if I’m climbing beginner routes – and only beginner routes – I’m on everyone’s level. Actually, I’m below most people’s level. There’s no one to beat at climbing, no one to be better than. So I have to let go of my competitive mindset, and that’s probably good for me. Thinking about it a little more, I realized that letting go of a competitive mindset – at least once in a while – is probably good for most climbers. Maybe if we all spent a little more time climbing easy routes, we’d find joy in the process and we’d let go of ridiculous competitiveness. For example, we might stop selfishly hoping for our own friends to fail on tougher routes until we send them ourselves.

About to send her project

Roo climbing into the overhang – about to send her project.

 

Because Beginner Climbing Is Climbing Just For Fun

Climbing is supposed to be fun. When Alex Lowe was told in an interview that he was one of the best all-around climbers in the world, he shook his head and said, “The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun.”

And it’s not like I don’t have fun climbing. I have a lot of fun. I sometimes laugh and smile all day long. But I’m pushing myself, pushing hard. I have a lot of goals, and if I don’t meet my own high expectations, I get disappointed. I feel like I haven’t “performed.” And how weird is that?

Performed.

It’s as if a day of climbing with my friends is actually a violin recital and there’s some classical music critic in my head asking if I played Tchaikovski’s symphony well enough.

I tend to get caught up in my “what’s next?” mentality as well. If I can trad lead these five middle-grade routes in one day at my local crag, then I should be able to do “Astroman” the week after next.

But what’s after 5.7 if you’re only a 5.7 climber right now and you don’t push it? Oh wait, I know the answer to that: More 5.7. Always. And maybe a few VBs and a sprinkling of 5.6s as well.

To be honest, isn’t Royal Arches one of the best routes in the Valley? And what does that go at?

Never mind that you’ve always avoided Royal Arches because you don’t want it on your 8a.nu scorecard…

unintentional cool guy face

Beware of making unintentional “Cool-Guy” face. Trust me, neither of us are very cool.

 

Make Up Endurance Challenges

Since you’re not at the gym or crag to “perform,” you can climb without worrying about sending hard routes. But just because you’re climbing without a high-end goal, doesn’t mean you can’t make up challenges for yourself. Easy endurance challenges are great.

For example:

  • Climb 20 VBs in one session. Then another day, climb 30. Then 50. Inside, at the gym, this challenge is sort of a fun one or two-hour workout. But outside, it takes a lot of exploring to find twenty or more VB rock routes, and it’ll be fun finding that many easy boulders even in your home area. The first time I did this challenge at my favorite bouldering area, I realized how much I loved the location, how cool it was to climb easy volcanic rocks in a beautiful ponderosa and juniper forest.
  • Do pyramids on a VB. Climb up one move, down one move, then up two moves and down two moves, up three and down three, slowly building to climbing the whole route in one vomit-pumping, VB-obsessing manner. This is an excellent drill inside or outside, and your forearms get tired.
  • Research the height of a famous, long, easy rock route, then go to your local crag and climb that height in one day. If you want to be obsessive compulsive, count the total pitches of 5.5, 5.6, 5.7, and 5.8 on the famous route and climb the route in full-imitation-mode, pitch by pitch, at your home crag.
warm up route

Roo on one of our favorite easy routes

 

Don’t Care What Other People Think And Don’t Get Caught Up

This is difficult for competitive people. Trust me, I know. Although I’m not the strongest climber in the world…or North America…or my own region…or even at my small, local gym (please don’t tell anyone how weak I am), I like to be thought of as a strong climber. I hope people think, “Look how strong he was on that cave route. He made that look easy.” But the truth is, “strong” is a vague and relative term for most of us. Stack me up against a beginning climber and I look pretty strong. But when I hear that Chris Sharma warmed up on two V7s at Bishop, I don’t feel so strong anymore. So why do we worry about comparisons? Why do we hold so tightly to our faulty illusions of greatness?

To climb easy well, that is, to enjoy easy climbing, I have to stop caring about what other people think and how I compare to them. And to do this, I have to turn down local “hard-man” offers. I have to avoid getting caught up.

The scene:

A local hard-man takes a long drag on his cigarette. Crushes the tip with his calloused fingers. Says, “Pete, I bet you could send this route pretty quick? Wanna jump on it?”

I shake my head and am grateful for what I get to climb this day. I say, “No, I’m doing an easy day on these 5.8s over here.”

Local hard-man, shirtless and tan, stretches his neck one way, then the other. “But don’t you wanna burn down this 5.11+ real quick? I’m sure you could.”

It’s a trap. I have to watch out. I just saw him fail on that route and he doubts I can do it. He wants a failure comparison. He hopes that maybe I won’t make it to his highpoint, so maybe he can say, “Yeah, but Pete looked like crap on it too. It’s pretty sandbagged for 5.11+.”

But I can’t fall for this trap even if I think I can do the route, even if I’ve done the route many, many times before. I can’t get re-injured on something meaningless. So I have to say, “No thanks. But lemme give you a belay if you wanna try it again.”

It’s a dangerous world out there at the crag. Stick to your easy game plan. Stay easy. Stay healthy. Get stronger slowly.

Try-Hard Face

Avoid “Try-Hard” face as well.

 

Focus On Form

Quiet feet. Straight arms. Steady pace. Decisive hand-placement. Use every part of your body. Don’t waste your time trying to find the best part of every hold. Push off your feet much more than you pull with your arms. Rotate your hips. Roll your body through each move and keep a steady progression.

In Fall Of The Phantom Lord, Dan Osman talks about putting three-quarters of his body weight on his feet. Think about that as you climb 5.6, 5.7, 5.8. It’s pretty cool to focus on that sort of efficiency and recognize when you’re climbing smoothly, effortlessly, like a trout swimming through an eddy.

 

Climb With Kids

Some of this essay makes climbing easy sound like a mental challenge or somehow less fun, but that’s not true. Some of the most fun climbing days of my life have been on easy routes. Many, many, short, easy routes. Or long easy routes. So many fun days when the grades didn’t matter at all.

Climbing easy is especially fun with kids because kids climb for pure joy. They swing on overhanging holds. They sing as they climb. They chase lizards to the other side of the boulder. And sometimes they only want to climb barefoot.

So do what they do. Take on their mentality. Sing with them. Run around and explore. Take off your shoes and catch that lizard. Climb with a child’s sense of wonder.

 

Roo on a log

Maybe do this instead of stressing about sending that hard route?

 

Finally, Renew The Mind

So what’s wrong with VB? What’s wrong with infinite 5.7 pitches? Do I always need a challenge, or have I always been worried about what other people think?

VB is like a beach in Costa Rica, like body surfing warm moderate waves. Don’t worry about how it looks. Don’t be too competitive. Relax. Enjoy the process. Go back to the beginning of your climbing life but with better technique and more gratitude. As Bob Dylan once sang when he was apparently talking about rock climbing, “There’s no one to beat you, no one to defeat you, except the thoughts of yourself feeling bad.”

 

 

Peter Brown Hoffmeister is currently climbing easy in the sun, recovering from a car accident.

Free Copies Of GRAPHIC THE VALLEY Today To The First 75 People Who Respond

 

Novel forthcoming in July, 2013

Tyrus Books is running a flash giveaway of my first novel, Graphic The Valley, today in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the National Parks. The first 75 people who click the link above and contact Tyrus will get a free hard-copy sent to their mailing addresses.

Joshua Tree N.P. Writer-In-Residence, Day 13

So many beautiful days here. The sky is a smear of pure blue, and even high cirrus clouds don’t mean rain coming.

An update:

– I followed a Mexican Rosy Boa into the creosote the other night.

bayofLA2

– I rock-climbed with a few survey biologists.

– I rock-climbed with two excellent Japanese climbers all afternoon one day even though we didn’t speak each other’s languages.

– I explored another granite-piled mountain behind my house.

IMG_4762

– I finished revising my novel (THIS IS THE PART WHERE YOU LAUGH) and sent it to my editor at Knopf.

– I found a hipster mustache in a rotten potato.

Photo on 2015-03-31 at 12.30

– I camped out five nights under the stars.

– I found petroglyphs with my buddy Coop.

IMG_4787

– I read and read and read, and especially liked Nicholson Baker’s THE ANTHOLOGIST and Anne Patchett’s THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE.

– And now I am incredibly excited to be going home soon to see my girls.

Update From Joshua Tree National Park

View from the front porch of my cabin.

View from the front porch of my cabin. The Lost Horse Wall is half a mile away.

As the writer-in-residence the past three days in Joshua Tree National Park, I’ve revised 72 pages on my novel, written parts of three poems, worked on a new story, and read for hours and hours.

Off-the-grid cabins, in the back-country, up a service road, past a gate, are sort kinda a little bit quiet. Who would’ve thought?

What else have I done?

Bouldered 10 routes.

Rock Climbed 5 pitches.

Stared at the stars.

Watched the sunrise over the Lost Horse Wall.

Researched flora and fauna.

Explored to the summits of three domes near my cabin.

Hiked and ran 9 miles.

Watched a black lizard sun himself on a rock on my back patio.

Followed a coyote as he yipped and jogged up an arroyo.

Stood still as two jackrabbits chased each other through the underbrush.

Nudged a yellow and brown centipede as it crossed the road.

Maybe The Pace Of This American Life Is Wrong?

Sometimes when I drive to a youth soccer game three hours away, I think, “Wait, why are we doing this? Why do we spend so much time and money on a game for kids? Also, in most of the world the local children play barefoot, with a half-deflated ball, on the beach or in the local vacant lot, and they still end up being better players than U.S. teenagers.” Our whole youth soccer club system is a broken mess, yet we…I mean…I, I have spent so much time and money on the system.

This is just one example. A microcosm. Maybe we Americans have it wrong. In soccer. In other things. It seems like we always find a way to spend a lot of money and drive long distances, for everything.

Or what about the pace of daily life? Driving, stressing, too much homework, complicated play-date schedules, expensive kids’ birthday parties. What are we doing? Why are we living this way?

My family is doing better than it was. We got rid of our second car a few years ago and try to bike or carpool most places. Recently we pulled our older daughter out of club soccer and put her in a cheap local kids’ league. We let our other daughter trade organized sports for “pretend time,” skateboarding, and jumping on the trampoline with friends. We’re encouraging our kids to explore in the local fields or small plot of woods near our house rather than play inside.

But we’ve also tried to drop out as a family a few times. We started small and built from there. Three times we’ve pulled our girls out of school in the middle of the year to go somewhere else, to experience something different. The first was a nine-day camping trip in the fall in Yosemite when the tourists were gone from the valley, the bears were out, and the nights were colder. And even though that trip was short, during the time that we were gone, the girls missed two soccer practices, two soccer games, two friends’ birthday parties, and at least twelve hours of overwhelming homework.

In Yosemite, we swam in the Merced River, saw nine different bears (including a mother bear and her two cubs who wandered past our tent in the high country), rock climbed, bouldered, went to the LeConte Museum, hiked, and saw a cougar eating a ground squirrel. But mostly we did nothing. We played card games and read for hours in our tent. We sat and watched birds. We put on snorkel gear and followed fish up through river eddies. The trade for six days of school and nine days of daily life was well worth it.

Then, last year, we went to Tucson for three and a half weeks in the winter. We stayed in a house in the Santa Catalina mountains and hiked, canyoneered, swam in creeks and the local pool, got sun on our skin, climbed a little, explored ruins, and hung out by the fireplace at night. Ruth got stung by a scorpion on her hand but she still loved the trip, and it was wonderful being away from everything we missed at home, more social engagements and school requirements than I can possibly list.

And now, we’ve taken another break from This American Life. We scheduled a trip this winter to Central America, planned it for February and March. I took a leave of absence from my day job to work on my fifth book (my third novel), and we pulled the girls out of school again. We’ve been in Congrejal, Costa Rica, for the past month, 1 kilometer outside of a tiny two-block by three-block town on the Pacific Coast.

We rented a small native house en el campo. There are fires in the ditches at night – burning palm fronds – large spiders and centipedes and black scorpions and beetles in our house, dirt roads, incredible stars with zero light pollution, and yellow beaches two miles long. The food is different, scary sometimes (we chance food poisoning each time we eat out – but that’s not often as we mostly eat rice and beans and local fruit at home). There is no rock climbing but I climb coconut trees on the beach, cut down three or four coconuts, cut them open and drink the milk with my nine-year-old Ruthie or Jennie.

My thirteen-year-old, Rain, is surfing and reading and journaling. Both girls are home-schooling, and we get their work completed each day in three or four hours. We’re reading world history together as a family. Learning the geography of Central America. Studying native plants and animals of our local area.

The nouns are different here. Back at home we see squirrels in the trees. Here we see Howler Monkeys. Estuaries in Western Oregon have carp and frogs. Here they have 16-foot crocodiles.

We have wild horses and coatis in our yard.

We surf each day.

I write 1000 new words on my novel.

We bike around because we have no car.

We stay outside until after dark, live outside everyday, and even though it averages 98-degrees, we’ve adapted now and the days no longer feel too hot.

Jennie pumps her fist in the air and yells, “I love that there are no rules here!” as we bike along a pot-hole filled road, wearing no helmets. There are no stoplights or stop-signs even in the town nearby where people lay on their horns and yell at each other, drive on the wrong side of the road or swerve all over the place in their cars. Motorcycles pass us going 60.

What would we be doing back home right now? I’d be working 60 hours a week. There would be dance practices and soccer practices and games and performances. We would have play dates, drive regularly, be late all of the time. We would have to work to be local. But when the location is small, like it is here, localism is natural, unforced, nothing difficult. We eat the limes and cashew fruit from the trees next to our house. And there are more green plantains than we can fry.

I know that we can’t live in a perpetual state of vacation, but maybe that’s not what this is. I’m working here. The girls are doing schoolwork. Jennie and the girls are making art together. Our lives and the development of our minds has not stopped.

So maybe this is just a richer life? Maybe there is no one named Jones to keep up with. Maybe we – as a family – must stop every year, stop to think and read and write and hang out, as a family, because these years will end soon, and the girls will go to college, and we will have missed our opportunity to take them out of their culture, out of the daily speed of U.S. city life.

In ten years, both girls will be out of the house and this will no longer be possible. They will be leading other lives. They won’t want to be dragged to Central America by their parents. They will have their own chosen obligations. They will lead their own lives of personal interests.

And our chances will be over.

So for now, a slow life, something different, something other than the daily pace of life in the United States. Here, for a moment, we avoid (as Tim Kreider of the New York Times says) The Busy Trap.

And the soccer here? We play every day on the beach, barefoot, with the local boys. We play on the sand, goals scored through two sticks stuck one meter apart. We call the barefoot game “Pelada,” which translates as the crazy naked woman.