“There’s no cell service at the Creek.”
Jake’s garbled voice came through Meg’s car speakers. We were testing the ranges of civilization, on I-70 out of Colorado. Red, scrubby desert stretched for miles all around us.
“The only way to communicate at the Creek is by posting a note on the message boards,” the voice on the phone said. “We’ll meet you there tomorrow. Good luck.”
As we cruised through Moab, headed South, I sent the last messages I would send for three days. They bounced up from the Utah desert, hit a satellite, and then redirected across the Atlantic Ocean, to Italy.
We’ll be out of touch for a few days, I said. Let’s use this time to think about things.
Please be careful and come back in one piece? The response came. Otherwise all this pondering will be pointless.
Sure, I said, and the car continued on.
Within seconds: no signal.
Tomorrow would be the first day in four months, or maybe more, that this woman I and would not talk.
We drove on, and for there first time in months, I put my phone aside, my mind at ease.
A few months before:
‘So, I have to ask: what is this? What are we?’
‘Let’s just try and keep things light,’ she had replied, and my heart dropped out of my body.
She was a charming Italian woman I’d dropped everything to chase. We met traveling, in Morocco.
I never much believed in the concept of love at first sight, but after my first conversation with this woman, I’d gone straight to my sister and said: “She’s the coolest person I’ve ever met. I think I might be a little bit in love with her.”
Three countries later; with a grand total of six days spent in each other’s company, prior, we were in Italy. I was on her home turf; at her mercy.
At that, particular, heart-rending moment, we were on the coast, in Arenzano; watching the fiery sunset over the sea.
We’d been in Italy a week, together every moment. The romance had been intense; a whirlwind, in every sense of the word. For me, at least. Nonetheless, there she was, saying:
‘Let’s just try and keep things light.’
I can’t blame her, really, I thought. You had to come here with no expectations. You knew you were taking a risk in following this. You knew you were exposing yourself.
I’ve never had any problem with exposure.
I am a climber, after all.
Upon my return to the US, my friends all kept asking about the mysterious Italian woman that had stolen my heart.
“Is she a climber?!”
“Oh, you were in the north?! Did you two go to the Dolomites? Did you see Chamonix?”
I didn’t do a bit of climbing, I said. I was following my heart. And she doesn’t climb.
But Dan, they said. Your heart is in the mountains.
They weren’t wrong.
I had returned home to Colorado with an amazing story to tell, but one that lacked a clear ending. My heart was still in Italy, with C. We remained in touch; in the end, we had not succeeded at ‘keeping it light.’
But, C had no job, no life for me to join. And she refused to consider coming to the US, to join me. I had little agency in the situation; nothing to do but wait.
So I went to the mountains.
My other love affair.
Weeks passed; I climbed and climbed, and the dream of Italy began to feel further away. I climbed rock; ice; plastic; everything I could get my hands on. I remembered the language of the mountains. How to move on rock; how to place gear; how to link rope systems to achieve more complex results. Idly, without a real plan or purpose, I started to think on bigger objectives.
I could do that, I would think, when looking at walls or summits or reading stories of those bolder than I.
Let’s grab Rainier; the Teton; let’s plan a trip for this summer.
My partners came at me earnestly. They had want of me.
Jake wants to do the Diamond. Hit him up. Start training and you two can grab it by Sep.
A dedicated partner… some time… I had the desire. I didn’t mind the exposure.
But my heart wasn’t quite in the mountains any more.
C, messaging me every day, ensured I stayed thinking of her.
How could I book a trip to Mt. Rainier, which needed to be planned months in advance, when she taunted me with the thought of being together, soon?
“What if I just bought a plane ticket to Lisbon in April,” she says, on the phone. “Would you come with me?”
“Yes!” I say. “I could do it. I would come give it a try.”
We kind of settle on that, as a plan.
I have spent the last years on the road. I am ready to go. I begin telling my friends.
As soon as C buys her ticket, I am prepared to buy mine. I will sell my car, I tell her. It is a nice car. Nice enough, anyways. That money would give me my start in Portugal. You just have to make the first move, I say, and I will follow.
C is passive though, lacking in boldness and without the strength to go.
She calls me, often, crying. Her self-worth is in the gutter.
Each fresh job rejection leaves her feeling more powerless.
I am the only good thing she has to hang on to.
I don’t realize this at the time, of course.
I think it is something more.
While she equivocates, I climb to fill the time.
I buy a pair of secondhand ice tools for $50, technical ice axes that usually go for $400+, too cheap to turn down.
“A fat lot of good they’ll do you in Portuguese spring,” my friend Meg says.
But the reality is, I’ve bought the tools because I’m not sure that I’ll be going to Portugal.
And at that moment, climbing is giving me a lot more than C is.
Alone in my room at my parent’s house, waiting, I swing the axes through the air, violently. They are menacing, twisted and sharp. The tips, designed to stick in frozen waterfalls, could kill a man. I swing them with utter fury — an expression of deep desperation. And then, before I get the satisfaction of feeling the pick strike anything, before penetrating any of the issues, I exercise control. I pull it back. I stop.
It’s enormously frustrating.
My phone dings, my heart jumps, and I put the axes aside.
Every night, like this.
While I climbed, C went traveling.
It’s her vice, as much as mine.
Moldova, Poland, Scotland. She goes all across Europe, looking to distract herself.
She will not consider coming to the US.
“It’s too expensive,” she says by way of excuse. “And besides, I don’t like the US.”
“You haven’t seen the West,” I say. ”Colorado and Utah are a lot different from Ohio,” where she’d spent a largely unenjoyable year on exchange in high school. “It may as well be a different country.”
“But it isn’t,” she says, snobbish and closed.
She is elitist, she is narrow-minded and afraid. Yet… she is also idealistic and innocent; stunning and child-like in inspiring ways.
I cannot resist.
“What do you want to do?” I ask her, one night; one morning; one of the innumerable days we spend linked so completely that the day is just one continuous WhatsApp conversation.
“I wanna live in a van,” she writes back. “I wanna live in a collective of artists and creators and travel the world and find beauty with people who appreciate it.”
“Come join us in Indian Creek then,” I say. “Plenty of idealistic climber bums living in vans out there. The deserts are beautiful.”
I add: “And I’ll be there.”
She is flippant in return, unwilling to seriously consider me.
And so, I go to Indian Creek with the people I have on hand.
People who do care.
Indian Creek is a rock climbing spot
Indian Creek is about seven hours drive from my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. It lies deep in the deserts of south-western Utah. Hundreds of miles from anything resembling a major city, the Creek is remote: special, and sacred.
The native Americans were here. You can see their ancient histories carved into the sandstone; centuries-old figures dancing, hunting, searching the vast American landscape for the spirits of their ancestors. This stuff belongs in a museum. Instead, it’s just sitting there: ancient petroglyphs adorn the walls, mere meters away from climbing routes.
Just about the only people who visit this section of remote desert any more are dedicated rock climbers. If there’s anyone in the Creek at all — if the extreme weather hasn’t kept them away — they’ll be climbers. On a good day, driving down the canyon’s single-lane road, you can spot them like ants on the walls: hundreds of colorful specks, struggling their way up perfect splitter cracks: unbroken vertical fissures streaking up the red sandstone walls.
The Creek is full of climbers living out of vans, people with little more to their name than a triple-rack and a couple ropes. It’s that type of place. It pulses with a certain power.
The people here are all on the same page.
“Everyone here is hot, Meg,” Jake says, in the parking lot of Donnelly, our first day at the Creek. “Everyone here is a ripped, serious, trad-daddy. There are no fucking gym kiddies here,” he says, laughing.
“Hey, by the way,” he added. “Anyone have a knife? We core-shot our rope the other day, I gotta chop off the end.”
I grab one from my pocket and toss it to him.
“Thanks Dan,” he says. He holds the blade over a lighter, superheating it for a second, then chops the damaged part off his climbing rope. “There,” he says with a big smile. “Good as new! Who wants to lead on it?!”
He cracks a beer, swigs it down.
It is 10 a.m. in Indian Creek.
For once, I don’t know what time it is in Italy.
Later that day, my first day climbing at Indian Creek, I’m leading a route on gear. That means I’m taking the rope up, and placing protective equipment in the rock as I go, to catch my fall. There are no bolts at Indian Creek. It’s a trad climber’s mecca — no place for beginners.
Still, this was my first trip to the place. I was an experienced climber, but a beginner at the Creek. Your first trip to the Creek will emasculate you, everyone had warned me. Nonetheless, there I was. First day, first climb, and I was on the sharp end.
Some sixty feet up the route, I took a wrong turn. I kept trying to climb up an ever-widening crack instead of stepping out to the right, and following a smaller crack up to a chimney.
This is the sort of thing that happens sometimes when you’re climbing; your flow state can betray you.
I started to panic as I noticed my mistake, and my increasing tiredness. I tried to place my partner’s brand-new #4 Ultralight, but found it too small for the gap in front of me. As I went to put it back on my harness, it popped out of my hands — a sure sign I was tiring. Amazingly, it landed balanced on my leg, instead of plummeting sixty or seventy feet to the ground.
A stroke of luck, especially since I didn’t have $130 to replace the Ultralight.
I saved the #4 with fumbling fingers, and reracked it. I took a deep breath, noticed the smaller crack, and tried twice to place cams. The first was too big, the second, too small. My arms were shaking like crazy.
I decided just to climb down to my last piece and call for a take. I made a few movements down, and suddenly, unexpectedly:
I just pop off the wall.
I fall for long enough that I start to think something has gone wrong. My top piece of protection must have come loose, I think. I should have been caught by now. I invert. I’m falling, upside-down, through space. Time slows. I can see the canyon floor approaching, and one perfectly calm thought crosses my mind:
I’m going to hit the ground.
Just as I think that, the rope pulls taut and I come to a rest, 15 meters below where I had been before. A large ledge sits a meter above me. Only pure luck kept me from hitting it.
Holy SHIT! My belayer yells.
I look up. My pieces all held, thank god. My belayer, it seemed, had just been a touch distracted.
Hanging on the end of the rope, I looked to our left. No one else at the crag had batted an eye.
Welcome to Indian Creek.
“Let me down,” I say, hanging in space on the end of the rope, my heart pounding.
“Nah, you sure? Go climb it again!” she encourages.
My head for leading’s shot though, even if my arms had the strength, which I don’t think they do. I lower off. I’ll stick to top-ropes for the rest of the day.
I think of the messages I’d received as we came into the Creek. Please be careful and come back in one piece.
Asked to be careful, with everything to live for, the first thing I had done was to go and throw myself off a cliff.
Jake comes over, beer in hand, and flashes the climb, wearing sandals.
“You whipped off “The Thing?” he says, dubious. “That’s the easiest route here.”
Our first night there, we meet up with Matt: an ex-vet living out of his camper. His VA stipend pays for his expenses, he says. Mostly. “I’m thinking about basing myself out in this area for the next month or so. There’s a lot of good flying, biking, climbing… and the stargazing’s second-to-none.”
He sets up his high-powered telescope next to our campfire, and points out nebulae.
He and I end up tripping acid together.
Sitting on a rock, late at night, under the stars, we discuss the power of the place.
“This is a cool spot, man. A really cool spot. All these people, just here to do the same thing…”
“Look at all these fucking vans!”
“It does me good man… to know there are all these people out here, with no jobs!”
“Just bumming’ around… experiencing life…”
“I love it when people tell me they just quit their jobs. I fucking love it.”
I think of C during this conversation, feeling so wrecked back in Italy because no one will hire her.
I wonder if she would ever come to Indian Creek; if she would have the fortitude to quit her job and live in a van.
She tells me it is her dream, but there, my imagination augmented by the acid, it seems so improbable.
It’s my first time to the Creek, but already, I know in my bones, it will be a special place for me.
In the same place, deep inside me, I know I will never share this desert with her.
The acid threads my thoughts together, giving me images of Italy.
Glimpses of a future that I feel will never come.
As the zia said in Arenzano: It’s a bit sad.
But Matt is good company.
An American radical.
The next morning, we return to the walls for another bruising day. Our group is eight, maybe ten strong. Between us we carry two hundred cams, a dozen ropes, and decades of climbing experience.
We set up, spread out, and rotate from climb to climb.
Still rattled from my fall, I allow others to lead.
I pass the morning chatting, watching, belaying, and enjoying the landscape.
Crack climbing is a specialized discipline within rock climbing. It’s a form of climbing which, basically, uses no handholds, or footholds. Climbers ascend splitter cracks like the ones at Indian Creek by inserting their hands and feet, and then painfully twisting them until they make enough contact with the walls of the crack so that the climber won’t fall out.
Matt describes it: “It’s like I’m hanging off mah bones!”
Climbers wear tape gloves to protect their skin from being completely sluiced off by the walls. Yesterday, while chatting with someone, I’d put my tape glove on backwards: protecting the inside of my hand, instead of the back of my palm, which is the part that makes contact with the walls. I’d climbed anyways, without bothering to fix it. I’ve still got the scars.
I top-rope a few cracks, including a monster off-width which takes me the better part of an hour to thrash my way up. The Violator, they call it. By the time I touch the chains, my left shoulder is completely raw and abraded, due to the fact it’s been wedged against the sides of a giant crack for an hour. My knee is bruised in three spots, blood is leaking out from under my tape gloves, and my sensitive spots ache. It feels a bit like I’ve just finished a BDSM session.
Which, truthfully, isn’t a bad metaphor for crack climbing.
It hurts; but it hurts so good.
Later, we’re sitting around the campfire, watching it flicker in the dark. We’re all drained. It feels late. In reality, it’s probably 8, no later than 9. No one has a watch. No one has a phone. This is a place outside of time.
It gets surprisingly cold in the desert at night. We all wear our puffy jackets, and still we huddle close to the fire.
“You climb, you eat and you sleep so you can climb again — and that’s it, really, huh?” Kerina asks.
“And drink!” Jake chimes in from his dark corner of the circle. He raises his beer and flashes a big smile. Most of us return the gesture. Some are too tired.
Jake’s got further plans for the evening. He and his big-wall buddies are going to go climb Supercrack Buttress, one of the most popular climbs at Indian Creek, by the light of the full moon. And they’re going to do it completely blasted.
“Didn’t you guys grow up like me, learning to climb just totally shitfaced in the woods of Virgina?” he asks us, laughing.
“Nah, man,” most of us respond.
“Just don’t make ‘em like they used to,” he says as he shakes his head.
I’m one of the youngest members of this group.
Serious climbers, each and every one of them. Almost all with climbing resumes more impressive than mine. Some live out of their vehicles. I am one of the only people sleeping in a tent, here, in the Creek.
Sitting around the fire, we discuss old adventures; future objectives.
I chat with a very cute woman to my left. I’ve just met her here, in the desert. I like her vibes, her face, her awesome dog — but her climbing skills are easily the most attractive thing about her. She’s much better than I am, I tell her, honestly.
“You seem like you climb a lot though,” she says to me.
“I try to fit it in,” I say. “But I travel too much to become a *really* good climber. I’m just back from four months or so abroad, trying to get back into the swing of things.”
“And he’s going to fucking move to Portugal,” Meg says from across the fire, disappointment in her voice. “So he’s never going to be a good climber!”
“Portugal?” Sam jumps in from across the camp fire. “I thought you were tangled up with some Italian woman?”
I’ve never told Sam this, but I like that she knows. It warms me, here on this cold night without cell service, to be the subject of gossip. It feels like I’m part of a family.
“Yeah,” I laugh. “I did get a bit tangled up.” I stare into the flames for a second, thinking about my phone. I look up, smiling.
“Really cool woman. We met in Morocco, then spent Christmas in Budapest, Hungary, then I went and met her family and we traveled all around Italy for a month. “
“Wow,” the woman to my left mutters. Sam, across the fire, nods attentively.
“She’s out-of-work at the moment,” I say, “but she wants to go live in Lisbon. She’s gonna move there in April, and she asked if I would come with her. So if she goes, I’m going to go over there and give it a shot,” I say.
“Any chance we can get her out here?” Sam asks.
I laugh out loud, involuntarily. I look down at my tape-gloved hands, the dried blood seeping out from underneath the bandages. I thought about the fall I’d taken; when I seriously thought I might die. Or at least spend a very long time in the hospital.
I thought about the stakes we were playing with.
I look around: the nature; the vans; the vast, endless beauty of the American desert… Matt quietly strumming a guitar, just out of my focus. Beer and weed around a campfire, late into the night…. I could almost talk C into liking it. But as I thought about it, I could never really place her there: sitting around that campfire, chatting shit, being one of the group.
I could certainly never imagine her thrashing her way up a splitter crack, cursing and cutting up those too-smooth hands, the same ones I’d caressed at the desk in Chefchaouen. Imagining her leading was almost comical.
“No, I say. “I don’t think so.”
“She’s a fragile little thing.”
“Why bother then?” Sam asks, dismissively.
Sitting there that night, surrounded by strong women who speak straight and share my passions, I do entertain the thought. Why bother?
But I already know the answer:
There are some things worth sacrificing for.
The next day, on our way out of the Creek, I lead two climbs. I don’t fall.
I leave Indian Creek confident in myself, and with a greater understanding of what my risk tolerance entails — and the potential consequences if I miscalculate, or trust the wrong person to hold the other end of my rope.
Still, the second we hit Moab and cell reception returns, I’m glued to my phone, once again.