This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of Climbing Magazine. To fit the space allotted in the magazine – and to make it far more digestible too – it was edited and shortened significantly. This is the full version.
all photos by Forest Woodward
My alarm fills the silence in my van, but I’m already awake. It’s 4:30 in the morning, dawn’s light just beginning it’s journey through the forest on the rim of the Black Canyon. I’m not sure if I slept at all last night, but I don’t want to get out of bed. My heart already feels like it’s racing, and a feeling of doom permeates my movement. I sit up and peer out my window, looking to see if my partner Whitney is awake in her car beside me. I don’t see any movement, but force myself out of bed anyways, knowing that we need all the daylight we can get today. I turn on my headlamp and will myself to go through the motions of pulling on the clothes I set aside last night, brushing my teeth and pulling my hair back. This is crazy, I think. Why, when I already live with so much anxiety, am I hellbent on creating more for myself? There’s a reason why most people sleep in comfy beds in the shelter of a house, routine waking them into the known, the safe. Why do I call this fun? And yet I continue forward, not trusting fear, speaking truth to myself: everything will be okay. You love this challenge. And everything will be okay.
“That’s an interesting set-up you have there,” the police officer says as he leans through the passenger window, past my rotated passenger seat and into my van. My sleeping bag is tossed across my bed, and my coleman stove lies folded up on my shelf. “Yeah, I live in here,” I answer, and quickly add, “I’m a traveling rock climber.” That description hardly makes sense to me, but I figure it somewhat justifies the fact that I live in my car. “You live in here? Where do you go to the bathroom?” he questions, suddenly forgetting about the California stop that I pulled seconds ago.
When people find out that I live in my van, “Where do you go to the bathroom?” is usually the first question they ask. It’s something I have never thought about, and every time I’m faced with the question, I’m caught off guard. What’s the correct answer? The bushes? The Chevron gas station with the large CLEAN RESTROOMS sign? The outhouse at Beef Basin in Indian Creek? Belay ledges? Where do you go to the bathroom, officer? I think. Probably in as many places as I do throughout the day, I’d assume.
I have lived in houses of many sizes, in closets, makeshift basement rooms, in attics. I’ve lived in floorless tents in the Oregon backcountry, college dorms and college apartments, Swiss chalets, and a renovated garage. For a few months I’ve lived in a Subaru, and now, I live in my van: Ol’ Blue.
Ol’ Blue is a 1995 GMC Safari that I bought for $1500 from an ex-boyfriend, the first ever boyfriend of my adult life. I was 28, and completely broken. I wasn’t so much broken over the failed relationship, but moreso over the “cracking open” that the relationship initiated. Deep in my late 20’s I felt as though I was learning lessons I should have learned when I was 13. He didn’t complete me like I thought a man would; he didn’t make life happen for me like I was hoping. My world was small, and fear had ruled for so long. Boxes and checklists, all in black and white, vestiges from my religious upbringing. I was riddled with anxiety.
Yet I was starting to feel an inner strength and independence bubble up within me – I wanted to feel big, powerful even. I wanted to know what freedom felt like, and I wanted to take care of myself. I wanted to not feel so much fear anymore, in climbing and in life. For the first time I was beginning to feel ownership over myself, and was starting to wonder, as Mary Oliver writes, Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?
And so I moved into a van. And I started climbing. Not just tiptoeing around the edges of climbing like before, but really climbing. Setting goals. Taking initiative. Leading. Thinking of myself as a climber. Trying hard. Falling and getting back up again.
It’s been over three years, the van has gained the name Ol’ Blue, and I’ve taken to calling her “her.” My phone often tries to autocorrect words to Ol’ Blue, I suppose that’s how often she comes up in conversation. Ol’ Blue has watched me drive through teary-eyed and sobbing landscapes one year and sing and dance to the radio the next; she’s been with me through my first 5.12, my first published article, and my first understanding of true love. Ol’ Blue and I have been through the most fantastic and terrifying period of growth together; with her I have learned what strength looks like, what it means to be empowered, independent, and capable. This is our story.
The breeze filters through the bright green forest and sun hits the south facing wall from overhead. It’s a busy Saturday at Index, the local crag outside Seattle. Climbers lap Japanese Gardens and Godzilla on top rope, and the usual crowd gathers at the base of Tatoosh and Thin Fingers. These are Index’s moderates, and as far as moderates go, they’re pretty hard. I gear up for Tatoosh, a varied 5.10, and my cousin Jon hands me more finger-sized gear, saying “You’ll need it, trust me.” I start to question what I’m doing. I hate leading, I hate the fear, and yet something in me wants to face it. Something in me wants to learn how to be afraid and not let it control me.
I climb shakily, hanging on every other piece. I feel angry at Jon for thinking I could handle this, annoyed by the sun, frustrated with the moves. I want something to blame, anything, so that I don’t have to handle this fear myself. At the crux, my body refuses to move above my ycam, and I ask Jon to lower me. Words of frustration and hatred fill my head, and I feel like a failure.
I’m on the verge of the summer of 2013. On the last day of the school year and my final day as a teacher’s assistant at a middle school in Seattle, I move all of my belongings into a friend’s basement, putting aside two rubbermaids full of gear, a box of books – including all of my journals from the last five years, – and some clothes. I won’t need anything else.
I’m headed out on the road for the first time, in my new-to-me van. I built a bed in the back that I’m able to sleep on side-to-side, making space for a shelf and a “living area” behind the front seats. The day following my last day of work, I drive north from Seattle and meet my mom in Bellingham: she buys me a cooler and a floral rug at Ross, and it gives Ol’ Blue a real homey feel. In a pullout on Chuckanut Drive, we cut Reflectix for all of the windows, both for insulation and for privacy. That night as my mom and I share my tiny, barely one-person bed, my dad texts me a photo of the van he lived in when he was 23. The next morning Mom heads north and I head south, down I-5 towards California. I am terrified.
It feels like I’m leaving for college, and in some ways, that’s the break I’m about to make. I’m about to grow up. A lot was changing in my life, and it was about time.
I grew up in a very fundamental Christian culture, one that taught me that God had a plan for my life, told me that I was simply an empty vessel, devoid of self. I took all of these ideas to heart, probably more than my parents and teachers intended for me to do. At the age of 27 I was unable to make my own decisions or feel any sense of self worth. I didn’t know what I wanted, and if I did, I certainly didn’t think I was allowed to have it. I had to stay on the right path, and I wasn’t sure where it was or how to follow it. I was absolutely ruled by fear.
I said “I can’t,” a lot, believed that this, that, or the other thing was just too hard, not for me. I wasn’t good enough for that group of people, not charismatic enough for that job, not strong enough for that climb, not free-spirited enough to live in a van and climb all summer. I’d hang from metaphorical and real pieces saying, “This is too hard! I’m too scared! I can’t do this!” So many excuses kept me from living the life I wanted to live.
Fear was a convincing voice that wouldn’t shut up, saying everything is wrong, nothing will be okay, and that most things are scary. People are intimidating, the unknown is terrifying, decisions absolutely paralyzing, and normal human emotions truly crippling. To-do lists, volunteering, excessive business, and school obligations were thrashing arms and legs, frantically treading water to keep my soul afloat. Fragments of myself would shout from all directions, should, not allowed, what if: desires constantly being shot down.
Moving into Ol’ Blue was the first big step I took in the face of fear. I knew what I wanted, and I was tired of letting my desires be trumped by terror. One step, as it turns out, was all it took.
The day is calm and sunny, comfortably warm even up high near 14,000 feet. I’m on Mitheral Dihedral on Mt. Russell, deep in the Sierra. We are three women, climbing together up the beautiful, left-facing granite corner that continues pitch after pitch. It’s my lead, and I’m nearing the ledge where I will stop to build an anchor. I’m not there yet though, and I’ve run out of gear that fit into the crack. The hand crack is narrowing, and I’m becoming more and more scared by the second. My right leg starts shaking, and then my left. I can’t control them anymore. I start to down climb to my last piece of gear, hoping to get to it and yell, “Take!” Shaking, I realize down-climbing isn’t feasible. Fall, or to continue climbing: those are my options. I shout down to my friend Polly, yelling, “Watch me!” and feeling absolutely flustered. I want her to save me, to do something for me. I can’t stop shaking, yet I’m paralyzed. I’m so, so scared, frozen in a jitterbug dance of fear.
And then I come to a startling realization: I am the only one that can do anything for myself in this moment. I am the only one that can save myself.
And so I climb, and I made it to the ledge without letting go. I speak truth in the face of fear, and experience success. Power. Freedom.
As I begin to develop a voice as a climber, one that is able to talk myself out of irrational fear, one that has faith in my gear and belief in my body, one that speaks with confidence about route finding or weather, I begin to develop a similar voice in my non-climbing life. Once so meek and unsure of myself, needing others to make all my decisions for me, I find confidence, and feel empowered. My relationships are changing, becoming healthier, more life-giving and fun. I’ve become bigger, able to speak my mind. Bolder, and happier. Perhaps I am letting love replace fear: love for myself, others, and the world.
Now I find myself perched on the side of a wall in the Black Canyon, a notoriously intimidating area known for run-out climbing. The worst part of the day – the fearful anticipation – is over. Whitney and I battled poison ivy down the approach gully, arriving at the river and the base of the route, and started back up again. It’s a perfect day, and we’re still in the shade on our south-facing route. But none of that matters to me right now; all that matters is right in front of me.
My last piece is about a body length below my feet, and a 5.10 move looms above me. From a large jug, I look ahead, searching for holds and my next gear placement. I don’t see either. I chalk up, for the fifth time, and climb up from the jug, getting the undercling, moving my left foot up, and reaching high with my right hand. “That hold sucks!” I think, as I cautiously down climb to the safety of the jug. I am terrified. Again and again I climb up and down, wishing for better holds, wishing this was my partner Whitney’s pitch, wishing there was a bolt next to me. I’m terrified, and part of me wants out. But the bigger part of me doesn’t, it wants to face this challenge head on. I’m not swept away by emotion as I used to be, unable to think rationally and flooded with anxiety. I keep my head about me, assessing the risk, understanding the move, and shout to Whitney, “Watch me!” not because I want her to save me, but because I want her to know I’m going for it. And then I go for it, heading into the unknown on 5.10 terrain with no idea where my next hold or piece of protection is, because I trust myself.
Ol’ Blue is getting old now, and I’m not sure how much longer she’ll last. Bumps affect her more than they used to, half of her doors don’t open, and she can’t manage to light up her dash anymore. The windshield wiper pump doesn’t work, and her oil is constantly low.
I’m getting older too. Recently, I’ve begun to feel something shifting, the tides changing – threads of monotony lacing my driving, working their way into my thoughts, into my once fully-contented van sleep, into this climb eat sleep repeat lifestyle. Maybe I’ll never fully “settle down,” but I can’t imagine living in Ol’ Blue forever. These days I find myself wondering how much she has left to teach me, how much more we can learn together on the road. I have learned to own my life, that there are no limits, that fear is not meant to impede, but to show me that I’m alive; for the first time, I’m starting to feel like taking these lessons to a larger world, a world bigger than rocks and myself.
But for now, I’m still in Ol’ Blue, headed back to the Sierra, excited for a week of climbing with a good friend and partner. My gobies are less prevalent now, and on my fingers now instead of on the backs of my hands, a display of progression on the rock. But my soul’s skin feels stronger too: wiser, more grounded. More capable of fighting off the anxious thoughts that still knock at my door, as they likely always will.
The fading light of the setting sun whispers through my windshield, “all is well,” and for once, I know it’s true.