The Last Good Day

“There’s no way of knowing that your last good day is Your Last Good Day. At the time, it is just another good day.”

— John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

You could feel it coming.

As the Coronavirus crisis was mounting in the US, we were in Southeastern Utah, near Moab, rock climbing the impressive desert towers that dot the area.

My climbing partner was a Swedish woman, Anna, a full-time climber who lived on the road. A “dirtbag”, we say in the climbing community. Without a permanent home, remote desert was about the most socially-distanced she could be.

I had a home; but amidst the mounting anxiety, I’ll admit: I wanted to escape. Lockdowns had not yet begun in the USA. But I read the news everyday. Italy closed. France closed. That omnipresent graph, always growing. It was coming.

Amidst a world that seemed to grow darker every day, I needed something to hold on to. I needed one last good day.

My partner and I drove to Moab from separate directions, alone. We met, ate, camped in the desert. In much of the Utah desert, there is no cell service; no push notifications. No worries.

Southeastern Utah holds a lifetime of documented climbing; two lifetimes, for those willing to venture off the edge of the map. We had hopes of lasting out the panic there, knocking out the endless towers in the area.

We would only end up getting two.

Castleton Tower. And some dude’s van.

Our first morning together, we climbed Castleton Tower, an impressive, popular pinnacle. The route went quickly, smoothly. Anna and I had never actually climbed together before tying in at the base of the Kor-Ingalls route, and it was a relief to find our styles and skills compatible.

We had met a few weeks ago, in Joshua Tree, southern California. I had spent a week there to celebrate a friend’s birthday; he and I had an epic bender. Anna had been camped next to us, with some friends from back home. They were drinking less than us, climbing more. “Living the dream,” as they put it. Southern Californian winters were a lot nicer than those in Scandinavia.

I headed home, they stayed on the road. We kept in touch.

Anna and I smashed out Castleton in three hours, signed the summit register, and were back on the ground before mid-day.

As we rappelled the final stretch to the ground, we encountered another party racking up at the base of the North Face route. It was an employee from my climbing gym, back in Boulder.

“Oh yeah, you’re out of a job, huh?” I asked her. The gym had just closed, preemptively. The last time I had climbed there, I had been unable to escape the mental image of the virus floating through the air, attached to chalk particles.

“For that job, anyways,” she answered. “They’re going to pay me for the rest of the shifts we had scheduled, but after that…” she made a face.

I wished her luck with her climb and rejoined Anna where we had stashed our backpacks. We ate lunch at our packs (smashed sandwiches), hiked another 3/4 of a mile or so along the ridge, and started up our second climb of the day: the Honeymoon Chimney, a huge body-sized gash on a nearby tower.

Start of the Honeymoon Chimney. A long, unpleasant pitch of offwidth to tight squeeze chimney.

The Honeymoon Chimney is quite a bit harder than the Kor-Ingalls, as the summit register will attest, if you ever make it up there (great reading, really). A full accounting of the climb would take too much space and interest only climbers, so I’ll just say Anna led the entire thing, and there was still much cursing on my part.

The crux of the Honeymoon Chimney — you must transition from the wall on the right to the wall on the left, and then bust out some pretty difficult face climbing. The route follows this same fissure all the way up. It starts out just wide enough to get a knee in the crack, and eventually widens to what you see here.

We topped out on the climb just before sunset. The summits of the towers in Castle Valley are wide, flat, and to be honest, outrageous places to be. Highly recommended. Two in one day? Just awesome.

Summit of the Honeymoon Chimney, with Castleton Tower in the background.

We were able to climb the next day too, although sore bodies and a questionable weather forecast kept use close to the ground. We took a rest day and hiked the day after. It was beautiful: full of smiles, laughs, fresh air and peace.

Hiking along the river bed near the Corona Arch (no relation)

And then the virus happened. Seemingly, all at once.

We heard on the radio that the county had passed a total ban on camping in the Moab area, including primitive and remote sites. We could have escaped notice. The desert is large, and lightly patrolled. But it would have been a losing battle. There was no hiding from the situation, no matter how badly we might want to.

I am sure many of you had similar moments of realization

That sinking feeling. The knowledge that everything had changed, and things wouldn’t go back to normal for a while. It was tough to take. We had already had our last good day, and we hadn’t even realized it.

Kane Creek, Moab, Utah

That night, we sat around one final campfire, burning quickly through wood I had brought to last weeks. The two of us newly acquainted… at the same time barely friends and yet deeply connected; the unique bond forged by a climbing rope, high on the side of something serious.

A nice satisfaction in the bones.

We stared into the fire. I drank a beer. We shared music, quietly, over the Bluetooth speaker. Our tastes were nicely compatible. The night stretched on, and we shared stories a little more personal. Another beer, another log on the fire. The desert all around us. A small sadness that we would not get more climbs in. “That day on Castleton and Honeymoon was pretty great though, right?” “Oh, man! Yes…”

Summit selfie.

The virus had dashed our plans — I would return home to work and quarantine. An unending stream of messages, concerned friends and family, and commitments seemed to be dragging Anna out of her dirtbag Neverland, back to a reality she had no desire to do business with.

The next morning, as I drove towards Denver and she headed to Salt Lake, we would have plenty to think on.

But by that final campfire, there was little to complain about. We were in America. Alone, in the desert, breathing the brisk nighttime air. A hint of a chill; the fire slowly smoldering down to embers. At that moment, for however long we could make it last, we were free.

Thanks for reading! This is just a little story about my experience with the CoVID-19 pandemic. In the grand scheme of things, taking some time off rock climbing and adventuring is obviously not a huge sacrifice — but I hope my story can be relatable for everyone who has had to make changes, give up things no matter how “unimportant”, and all of you who continue to deal with these strange days!

This story was also published on Medium. Many of the photos in this article were shot on expired 35mm film, if you are interested in that aspect, you can learn a bit more about that process here.

I would love to hear about your “Last Good Day” in the comments, if you care to share.

10 thoughts on “The Last Good Day

  1. I love Moab. My daughter had a place off the beaten trail somewhere, where she had to have her own snowplow to get to the “main” road to go to work. Did you get a chance to his Fisher Towers? A lot of that area is used for films. I am so envious of your trip. Glad you had fun!!

    • Didn’t get into the Fishers, sadly. They took my breath away when I came down the canyon from Colorado, though! I took a few photos on my film camera, but unfortunately due to incompetence and inexperience with the equipment, they didn’t really come out :/ I’ll have the picture in my mind’s eye for a long time, though!

      • I used to have my own talent agency many years ago in Colorado and we often sent actors and extra’s (background artists) to those back areas for films. I always loved those backdrops.

  2. Beautiful images and thoughts! Clearly, climbing is a passion – and it’s hard to set aside what we’re passionate about. I suppose my last good day could have been taking my 89-year-old mom to a hockey game – a passion of both of ours! But I think the last good day may really have been when I kissed Mum goodnight at her assisted living home. She’s still there and I’m not allowed to visit. Good days will resume when I’m allowed to hug her – and feel safe that I can. That may be a long, long time… Anyway, thanks for taking us along on your trip – hope you can get out there again soon!

    • We feel the absence of family especially stoutly, I think. The uneasy thought that if things turn in just the wrong way, we might have already had our final memories with these people is hard to shake.

      I have a similarly sticky memory of shooting pool with my father for the first time in a long time, right before all this. It sticks out nicely.

      That your mother stays safe and you two are touching again soon! I’m sure she feels misses you all the same.

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