In the future I’ll probably count the summer of 2010 among the worst times of my life.
I know I have a lot of life yet ahead of me, and many tragic things are guaranteed and many more are strong possibilities, but the summer of 2010 was atrocious.
In the winter of 2009 I left a marriage, and from this future where we’re sitting now looking back, and from the past before it happened looking forward, this was the obvious outcome of too many years of what are already counted as only moderately mediocre times of my life. But, you know, Saturn returns and we have to do the hard thing. All that winter I bummed around Austin, Texas with no clear thoughts in my head on any subject. My mom stopped talking to me for a while. I had to put my dog down. One of my best friends is named Cody. I made at least one phone call every week that opened with “Cody, I’m crying.” I spent a lot of time bouldering in Hueco Tanks, and a lot of time on that 600 mile stretch of I-10 and 290 that separates Austin and El Paso. I worked a little bit, took Pilates Teacher Training, and gradually got rid of all my party dresses, Ann Taylor pants, leather shoes, housewares, and every person who had ever made me cry even if it had been an accident.
And it got hot.
Climbers in Austin relied on the limestone walls over the tepid water of Lake Travis through the six-month central Texas summer, April through October. The water level would start out high, making certain cliffs and coves safe for deep water soloing. Through the summer the lake level dropped. I think they drained the water from Lake Travis down the river to rice fields near the Gulf Coast, but don’t hold me to that. As the lake dropped, some cliffs lost their landing zones, lowballs turned into bold solos, and new features were exposed. With ever bigger boat motors and building restlessness, the climbers I had been spending all of my time with explored every curl of the winding perimeter of Lake Travis and started looking beyond. (I want to mention that I don’t think this routine has happened in this same way any summer since 2010, as drought and some political somethingorother with the rice farmers has brought the lake to perpetual puddle status. That will surely change someday, and the same people will probably go back to the same lines.)
So, that’s how I came to know Lake Amistad, which sits at the junction of the Devils River and the Rio Grande, on the border with Mexico way down in south Texas near the city of Del Rio which, if it isn’t already the subject of sad country songs from the 90s, should be. From Austin it meant drive west for a while as if you’re going to Hueco and after you get gas and Sonic in Ozona, exit 365, turn left. Lake Amistad is popular with fishermen, there are places to rent boats and go onto the lake, RV parks, lots of proper South Texas style recreating. We started going down there, and we always called it Lake Amistad, although the actual reservoir was not on the agenda. We’d put in at a boat launch just under a bridge and turn away from the lake of friendship and head down the water border. Make the turn around a lazy bend in the massive river and huge black, peach, and yellow limestone walls shot up on both sides, in both countries, a hundred feet some of them, topping out into gnarly desert and home to no plant person or animal that you want anything to do with.
With one or several people from the local climbing crew, I took probably eight trips to Lake Amistad, three or four days each. We boated in with all our food and fuel enough to tool around all day climbing then get back out to the bridge. The best camping we found was at what came to be called, rather unfortunately, Stab Vest Canyon, because some of these folks were dreaming of going on some ultimate vacation to a World Cup soccer game in South Africa that year, and Craigslist was rife with stab vests for sale to protect soccer fans. Or so they said. It wasn’t my thing and I never wondered. One weekend I brought sausage for myself and the guy I drove down with, the pre-smoked kind, but we had a fire and I was wishing I’d brought raw instead. The next trip I brought raw and then someone decided we couldn’t have fires anymore. I tried to boil my raw meat dinner into something safely edible while the guy I drove down with made it known to me repeatedly how I had thus far made this trip a terrible experience for him. Off with the evening gowns, he said eventually.
These were not to be my friends in the long run, I was realizing, and the medium term was fast closing down. At the time, though, I imagine that I was very worried and preoccupied that this was there was.
All I wanted was climbing. Climbing gave me some form that I could wrap myself around, and finally begin to see how my body and personality and complicated, contradictory desires had a strong logic to them.
Like tossing a silk sheet over a sculpture, climbing was holding me up and giving me a form, whereas everything else I had done left me fluttering around in the air, five to seven feet off the ground, shimmering but trapped on a power line or a bush at least once a day. Climbing is still this for me, like a skeleton. But at the time I only knew these climbers and this life, and I knew I loved something about it so I threw myself into it. I tried to act like the other girls with their real boyfriends, cooking and trolling around and remembering sunblock and hats. But I could never remember even my own sunblock or prepare a proper dinner for another person. And thankfully, even though I was a miserable mess, they kept inviting me down to Lake Amistad.
When my friend Rick and I pulled up to the boat launch at midnight, we were invited to join a couple in a small trailer who were parked for the night. Beuford and Debbie, coming down here since Beuford was a kid, looking forward to fishing and mostly happy to just be. Debbie apologized for the state of their small camper, and I told her I loved her home. And I did, it was so cozy, even though they both seemed a little off, and there was a fair amount of weed around. And this was south Texas. I felt safe in these crazy people’s trailer, and I let Rick decide when it was time to leave.
It was so hot, so fucking hot, even at night.
There was almost no wind ever. But speeding around in the boat, climbing high and falling into the moving water all day we would forget the hell that was waiting for us at bedtime. We started camping up in a cave with a short boulder problem or rope climb entrance. There was almost a breath of moving air at the far end of it. One day as I got out of the boat to climb up, I looked to the side. I missed, or stumbled, and plopped into the water, hitting my leg and my face on the rock on the way down, smashing a tackle box and sending sharp hooks flying everywhere. I think that was the time I realized that the guy I’d been riding down with actually didn’t prefer that I drown. Probably because I was going to pay for half of the gas that would get us back to Austin.
In the summer of 2010 I started up with a commitment I’ve kept to this day, where if climbing is an option, you take that option.
A guy named Travis was around that summer, he was one of those strange young climbers who are actually not climbers at all, just gifted athletes who are for now enjoying climbing. Travis and AO (whom I consider among my allies in any battle or it means I’m on the wrong side) and I went to Amistad together. We drove down on a Friday early afternoon, made the 5-hour drive, boat ride, set up camp in the cave, made dinner, woke up, made breakfast, climbed all day, made dinner again, and then someone spoke a complete sentence out loud.
“There’s a meteor shower tonight. Let’s go out on the boat.”
And so we went. Me and these two guys, exchanging no words beyond the absolutely necessary and avoiding a surprising number of those. It wasn’t awkward, but I had never done that before. I’m a talkie. We motored out to the middle of the river, out of the stab vest canyon, and cut the engine. We each took a quadrant of sky, and at first it was nothing. Then the occasional “there.” Within an hour (two hours?) there was a “there” or a “got one” from one of us every few seconds.
That weekend I spied a small roof under a huge wall of wide runnels, probably three feet across all the way up. I asked, gestured actually, to be rolled up to the roof line. I grabbed a few holds, pulling them off spewing dirt into the boat and into the water. I tossed the chose into the river, pulled on to what was left and kicked the boat away with one foot. The two roof moves were very easy and I pulled onto the face. I turned my head back to the boat, now only 12 feet or so below me on the water.
“I’d like to keep going.”
And I went. A few face moves and into a low angle runnel, like half of a giant tube, like a limestone waterside. I ran up it, easy stemming all the way with one foot on each side and pressure from each hand. Foot-foot, hand-hand, foot-foot, hand-hand. I got to the top then sat on the edge of the wall. The guys were sitting in the boat, squinting up at me from under their wide brimmed fishing hats.
“Think I could jump?”
I walked along the cliff to where I remembered the angle lowering more, to almost a ramp. At the last runnel, I turned my back, squatted down, put my feet on opposing walls, then started stemming down. I heard the trolling motor of the boat come on and whirr its way over to where I would come off. From a safe height I jumped, swimming in the cool green water.
The following week I returned to Lake Amistad, again with Travis and the guy I had been riding down with a lot. There was nonstop speech. When Travis wandered away the guy I’d been riding down with said to me, “Everything you say seems meant to cut me down” and I said, “I feel exactly the same way. It’s unlikely either of us are right. We have to get through this weekend.” I hope, but doubt, that this was the last time I did that.
The climbing along the river was some of the rowdiest I’ve ever done, so unknown, there was often no time to do anything anyone else had done already. There were so many lines, everything was available, we got to indulge in that old school kind of climbing mentality, how I imagine it before difficulty was the game, when it was all about getting to the top–just find the line of weakness. I’d been seeing a diagonal line of holes on a prominent, 90 foot wall. It dribbled up, big juggy-looking hand and foot holds, for about 40 feet then flattened out. I pulled on and started up the holes. When the holes petered out I make two easy moves onto the face. Then two more moves. Then a move that was longer than I expected, then another one that I knew I couldn’t reverse. “I don’t think I can down climb that one.” I said to the boat and to myself. From here I saw the wall up to that point had been very slightly low angle, and to come off would require pushing hard off the wall to safely land in the water.
And I just really didn’t care. I kept going up, there were holds, if stepped up high and reached up higher, my fingers always found something. Then I was at the top, in Mexico.
The boat trolled below me. “Do you see a way off?”
I started walking through the desert brush in my bikini and climbing shoes. Shoulder high bushes full of spikes everywhere. Brambles every step. The heat. To my right was more of this, more sand, plants evolved into their heinous stoic violence. On my left the steep drop down to the water and the boat, my ride. Beyond that, Texas. I kept walking, the boat puttering along keeping pace with me. The brush thickened, and I had to keep going, so I let it scrape me up, because there was really nowhere else it or I could be, and moving it away would just make it worse. I walked right up to the edge of the cliff, looking into a shady canyon off the main river. “This looks good, might be some loose rock so be careful,” was the report from below. I turned back to the sunny desert, stepped down onto a block, and climbed down.