I tendered my resignation via email from the computer in the Hueco Rock Ranch.
The year was 2007, and I found myself stranded in the Texas desert. My flight back to Ohio, back to my job writing words I didn’t mean for companies I didn’t care about, had been delayed due to ice storms slicking the country’s midsection. The upshot was a few extra days spent among the cactus and creosotebush, honey mesquite and soaptree yucca. I got to see the rock art of Cave Kiva and the Starry Eyed Man with his unique green pigment. With held breath, I spied a family of mowhawked javelina trotting through low vegetation. From the front deck of the Rock Ranch, I regarded the star-sprayed flank of the universe, sublime in the crystalline February night, and the neon yellow and orange sunrise in the morning. As I climbed, my bones and sinew played a tune on the textures of eons-old syenite porphyry like the needle of a music box clicking over its patterned wheel.
How could I go on doing something that didn’t inspire me in a world where places like this exist? I knew I had to make my way towards something more fulfilling, even if that meant multiplying the uncertainty in my life. I sat down at the small desk by the door of the Ranch and clacked together an explanation of my decision for my boss, certain in a way I rarely have been in my life.
What I take from this story is the power of a place like Hueco, where all kinds of time — geologic, cultural, and personal — intersect on an extra-dimensional plane not unlike “The Dreaming” aboriginal Australians speak of. I’ve felt a similar intensity of being in places all over the country and the world. Looking out over the autumn fire of trees gone red, yellow, and orange in the Shawangunks in upstate New York; staying in the deserted Mount Stapylton Campground in Australia’s Grampians National Park; hiking the serpentine trails of Antelope Island, populated with long-eared jackrabbits, bison, and antelope like some sort of parallel reality afloat in a great saline lake.
In a 2012 New York Times article, Eric Weiner talks of “thin places” — spots where the atmosphere separating heaven and earth narrows so much we can see to the other side. In such locales, Weiner writes, “for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again.”
“Thin places are often sacred ones,” the article goes on. It lists churches and mosques rich with history. Other thin places on Weiner’s list include airports, bars, Rumi’s tomb, the Buddhist village of Boudhanath, in Nepal… All very human places — places made by our hands and our conscious ingenuity. I too have felt a transcendental pulse in such places, but more often I find it in coördinates that evince little trace of human busywork.
This year I returned to Hueco for the first time since I wrote my resignation email. As I circumnavigated the giant jumble of textured stone known as East Mountain, our tour guide offered to take us to another of the area’s ancient petroglyphs.
“Can we please hurry up and get to the rocks you climb instead of the rocks with drawings on them?” said one of the other climbers on the tour, sounding like a spoiled kid. It pulled me out of the moment and reminded me that we climbers must approach the beautiful places where we ply our trade with eyes, minds, and hearts open. From the most broke dirtbags to the richest trustafarians, we do ourselves and each other a disservice when we climb with nothing but the masturbatory self-satisfaction of ticking projects in our hearts. We must remember that reverence and respect don’t stifle the mood of climbing but deepen it. In an era of rapid growth in our little sport, the time to live and teach this lesson is evermore upon us.
At Hueco, regulations abound. You can’t climb until the park is open and you must be out before 6 p.m. You need guided tours to travel in most of the park and must reserve spots for self-guided tours in the rest. Newcomers are required to watch a 20-minute instructional video before entering the park and several of the most popular areas — the Mushroom Boulder being only the most recent — are closed indefinitely to protect the fragile environment and cultural artifacts. Climbers, like artists, are an individualistic bunch. We chafe against rules and restrictions — I’m certainly no exception, but I also believe in the strange magic of places like Hueco. For me, the thing that makes such places thinner than the those I inhabit on a day-to-day basis is their natural state, the possibility of solitude, and the lingering echoes of eons past.
As climbers, we find ourselves in such places more often than most, and more than most we should respect and defend them. Thin places are keys to understanding important things, though what those things are differs greatly from person to person.
Back in 2007, Hueco helped me to see deeper into myself and make a simple decision that I’ve never really doubted since. “In thin places, we become our more essential selves,” Weiner writes. Once you realize such places exist, it’s no waste to spend the rest of your life questing to find them again and again.