Tag Archives: travel

Thanks, Climbing…

Thanks!

A bunch of my friends are heading south for Creeksgiving. If you haven’t heard of Creeksgiving, it’s a Thanksgiving spent in the desert-crack-climbing capital of the world, Indian Creek. My friends didn’t make up the term—climbers have apparently been celebrating Creeksgiving for years. From across the country they come. Some dig a pit in the ground and slow-cook their food all day while they’re out dangling from fist jams. Others drive into town and pick up rotisserie chickens and the like. My friend Rick recounts using an Orion Cooker to convection-roast a turkey one year.

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Now Year’s Resolution

The view from a narrow part of the Angel's Landing trail, Zion National Park

Dec. 30, 2012 – My wife Kristin tells me how much fun she’s having. We’re out bouldering in the lunar basin of Moe’s Valley in St. George, Utah, and she’s not even climbing — just hanging out and offering moral support, which I think is damned decent of her.

“I like to get away from home … from our day-to-day life,” she explains. “I feel like I can actually see you now, without all the anxiety about work and schedules and things we have to do.”

I feel the same way. We see each other differently out here, surrounded by nothing but dirt and rocks and sky. It reminds me of those early days of our relationship, when there was still so much we didn’t know or assume about each other. We were experiencing “beginner’s mind” — that state of being where everything is new, even if you’ve seen it a million times, as Kristin and I have seen each other.

In one popular Zen story, a teacher pours tea into a student’s cup until it overflows and spills out across the ground. The student jumps back, surprised, and asks the teacher what he’s doing.

“Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations,” the teacher answers. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Travel can help empty one’s cup, as it did in Moe’s Valley for Kristin and me. I also think it’s a grand goal to be always working to empty your cup.

Most folks take the turning of the year as a time to reflect on milestones and accomplishments, to set goals and make resolutions. Indeed, the month of January is named for Janus, an ancient Roman god with two faces, one looking towards the past and the other to the future. Personally, rather than looking behind or ahead, I like to think of the new year’s transition as a great time to start living precisely in the center, in the eternal Now.

The day after our trip to Moe’s Valley, Kristin and I headed to Zion National Park, about 40 miles northeast of St. George. We wanted to hike to Angel’s Landing, even though we’d heard it could be  sketchy this time of year. In the visitor’s center, a woman told a group of tourists, “Oh yes, Angel’s Landing: people fall to their deaths on that hike all the time!” Which seemed a little alarmist to me. We decided to go anyway.

The hike was mellower than we had expected, not too steep and well-paved most of the way. Towards the end, we donned Microspikes — little chain-and-spike slip-ons that give your hiking boots great traction on ice and snow. We clambered up some steep sections of snow-frosted stone secured with chain handrails. The going got a little hinky, so Kristin hung back on a flat platform under a dead tree where a California condor the size of a small child hunched silently in the sun. I went ahead a ways to see what the terrain was like.

I headed out across a narrow bridge of stone, maybe two feet across. The ground dropped away hundreds, maybe a thousand, feet on either side. Striated red walls reared up again in the distance, forming towers and walls and arêtes. A meager river meandered through the valley to my left. I felt the wide-open void pulling at me. I let the moment radiate out from me and back into me. My thoughts tumbled into space, melting into air as they fell. My cup was empty.

In his essay “Zen and the Problem of Control,” philosopher Alan Watts writes “When the will is struggling with itself and in conflict with itself it is paralyzed, like a person trying to walk in two different directions at once.” It is tempting to look ahead and back, not just at year’s end, but all the time. We see the world in terms of past and potential actions. We’re constantly writing and rewriting the narrative of who we are and what we might be, all the while judging ourselves against this fictional character. I do it. We all do it.

We can reach specific goals through this process, but we can also lose track of the more important things that underlie those goals. We think, If I can just lose weight, or climb a certain route, or make more money, then I will have succeeded! Those are all fine things, but really what we’re after is to feel more like what Watts describes as a person “all of a piece with himself and with the natural world.” We assume we know the path that will make that happen, but for many reasons — because we’re trying to walk in two directions at once, perhaps — it’s easy to misdirect our energies.

Our resolutions may or may not move us towards a sense of deeper satisfaction, but I’d like to take this symbolic entering of a new year as a reminder, like the ringing of a bell in a Zen ceremony, to start this moment with an empty cup. As for the next moment, I’ll deal with that when I come to it.

Go Ahead, Eat the Mystery Meat

Mystery Meat at Petzl RocTrip Mexico

“Good Luck,” said the skinny French waiter with bulging eyes and a bad comb over. His accent was thick, so it came out sounding more like “Gewd lock,” but the meaning, and the meaning behind the meaning, was clear. We were screwed.

We’d walked into the uninspiring back alley restaurant in the tourist/climbing town of Fontainebleau, France, with low expectations, but it was late, and as my traveling companions and I had just arrived via plane, train, and automobile from the United States, we were well past picky.

Four of us, there were: my friend Jack, his girlfriend Wendy, and Wendy’s sister, Katy. The girls ordered salads Niçoise, while Jack and I scanned the manly meat section of the menu. I’d studied French for years and was ashamed to admit I had no idea what the hell I was looking at, so I just ordered the agneau, which I knew was lamb. Jack got the bœuf. We sipped cheap Pinot noir and waited for the food to arrive, mute with hunger.

At long last, the server dropped our plates on the table and quickly departed. Before me lay not the glistening, browned rack of lamb of my dreams, but an array of pink, flaccid, strips of raw meat, arranged in a soggy semi-circle around the plate. No garnish or sides. Nothing to trigger my already primed Pavlovian salivation response. Jack’s plate looked much the same.

“So is it, like, tartar?” I asked, hoping someone at the table had seen something like this before. Blank stares from the girls.

“I think so,” Jack said, sounding unsure.

“Shit.”

We gazed down, weighing our hunger against the likelihood of food poisoning. Jack ate a bit of his beef first. Then I tasted mine.

“Hmmm… It’s pretty good!” he said, relieved. It was good, or at least good enough. We began to dig in.

I’d eaten about half the plate of uncooked lamb when the waiter returned, carrying a heavy black block. He looked at Jack and me as he set the block down on the table and then proceeded to reach across and tong a strip of my lamb, laying it across the block’s surface. The meat sizzled merrily. It was now clear that the hot stone was meant as a cooking surface, with which we would add flavor to and kill the colonies of food-borne bacteria cavorting on our meat.

“Ahhh!” our table collectively cooed with embarrassed agreement. “Or course! We get it!”

The waiter’s eyes seemed to bug a little farther from his skull as he saw my half-empty plate. “Good luck,” he said, and then turned and walked towards the kitchen, where the busboy and another waiter loitered. They huddled together to exchange bets on the fate of the foreigners who had just consumed the uncooked and heretofore unrefrigerated meat dishes of dubious provenance. Jack and I could only cook and eat our remaining meat strips and then brace for what I assumed would be a night of intestinal pandemonium.

Back at our gîte, I had a hard time falling asleep. I lay in bed, head spinning with hypochondriacal anxiety, monitoring my stomach’s every gurgle like a volcanologist examining the peaks and troughs of a seismograph readout. Eventually, exhaustion overtook me and I sank into a listless slumber.

Sunshine, birdsong, the smell of a coffee and baguette with jam, no wrenching stomach pains — this is what greeted me as I awoke the next morn. I felt fit as a French fiddle and ready to climb on some of the finest sandstone ever formed. The waiter had wished us good luck, and good luck we had. All my worries had been for naught. Looking back, I mark this experience as the beginning of the end of my longstanding food neurosis.

* * *

When asked how many times he’d had food poisoning, writer, chef and host of my all-time favorite food & travel show, No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain answered thusly:

Just a few. Nothing too serious. My crew — who are more careful and fussy about street food, get sick more often — almost invariably from the hotel buffet or Western-style businesses.

Likewise, I’ve visited rural Mexico and rural China, eating whatever was put in front of me, and managed to escape Montezuma’s Revenge and its equally debilitating Chinese corollary. In my travels, I’ve learned that there’s an important difference between thinking something looks or smell gross, and the likelihood of that food actually causing you harm. This bears out my belief that it’s surprisingly hard to predict when food poisoning will strike. Alongside the expected poultry and ground beef on the CDC salmonella-outbreak list, you’ll find such unusual suspects as mangoes, cantaloupe, pine nuts, alfalfa sprouts and even turtles and hedgehogs (I do not believe the last two were ingested, but you never know…). This year, nearly a dozen people were sickened by, and one has already died from, a listeria-tainted ricotta cheese. Ricotta cheese, for Pete’s sake! You just never know.

And like Bourdain’s camera crew, every time I’ve gotten really sick from food, it’s been at some run-of-the-mill American establishment, the most notable instance being a Wendy’s in Athens, Ohio. My cheeseburger, a tad pink in the middle, tasted fine, but that night I was gripped by the irresistible need to purge my stomach contents. I spent the next six hours shivering and groaning on the floor of a toilet stall, taking turns sitting on and driving the proverbial porcelain bus. So weakened was I by the unforgiving onslaught of beef-bourne bacteria that my friend had to drive me home in my own car. It was years before I could bring myself to eat another Wendy’s burger. Bourdain, who identified the most stomach-churning thing he’d eaten in his travels as “lightly grilled warthog rectum,” avoids American fast food whenever possible. And he never eats chicken nuggets.

All of this is just to say, there’s not much point in worrying.  One of the wonders of the climbing lifestyle is the many places it takes us. Foreign lands, forgotten backwaters, wild deserts — the dedicated climber will often find herself in places that she otherwise never would have visited. And in those places, she will have to find food. What is available, what the locals are eating, will not always be familiar or appetizing — heck, it might not even meet the most basic food-safety guidelines — but it is part of the adventure. All the hand wringing in the world won’t sanitize that street taco or that mystery-meat kebab, so either don’t eat it and live with your gustatory boredom and ravenous hunger, or chow down with your friends and relax, knowing the chances are good that you’ll be fine.

Still, I’m going to have to pass on that warthog rectum. Thanks.

Photo Friday: Sorry for the Lack of Posts

I’ve been out o’ town lately (in Denver — see photos below), shooting a video with the inimitable Timmy O’Neill and the talented Mr. Jim Aikman. Plus I’m getting hitched next week to the wonderful Kristin M–, preparations for which event have had us running around like a pair decapitated baryard fowl.

Life is good, but busy. Too busy to post anything of substance. I’ll get some more stuff up soon after our wedding. Until then…

– The Blockhead Lord

The ever-patient Kristin M--.

The ever-patient Kristin M–.

Timmy O-- freeing "The Nose" (and "The Eyeball") of a public sculpture in Denver, Colorado.

Timmy O– freeing “The Nose” (and “The Eyeball”) of a public sculpture in Denver, Colorado.

View of the Coors Field from our crash pad in Denver.

View of the Coors Field from our crash pad in Denver.

Denver street art.

Denver street art.

Indoor art at the Hyatt across from the Colorado Convention Center.

From a walkway leading to a side entrance of the Colorado Convention Center.

From a walkway leading to a side entrance of the Colorado Convention Center.

Photo Friday: 11 Shots from Oz

Years ago, I took a trip to Australia for my friend’s wedding. I took a month for the trip, so I’d have time to go climbing and exploring the countryside. I rented a Subaru in Sydney, learned to drive stick and drive on the wrong side of the road, and went on a mini-walkabout. It ended up being one of the greatest trips of my life. (Up there with the trip where I proposed to my fiancée in Paris, a trip to Greece with my parents when I was in my teens, and the RocTrip China trip.) I could easily write a five-thousand word travelogue about my time in Oz, but I have neither the time nor the inclination. Instead, I’ll share a few selected photos of the thousands I took. Happy Photo Friday!

A view of Sydney Harbor

So first I flew to Australia and got a hotel in Sydney. I was sure to find one with a nice view of Sydney Harbor and its famous bridge, which offers tours up on top of the arched supports.

Roos on the horizon

Then I drove out to the countryside for my mate's (that's Aussie slang for friend -- "G'doy, moite!") wedding which was at a nice country club. On the way, I passed a lot of roos. That's Aussie shortspeak for Kangaroos. Roo bangers are not people with a kangaroo fetish, but sausages made out of kangaroo meat. (Think: bangers and mash, the British dish... Australians are descended from British stock, you know!)

Wallaby and wallababy

Here's a shot of a roo and its joey (joey means offspring -- love it!). These were plucking around country club. They're as common as deer on the East Coast of the US, but much cooler to watch. I mean seriously, they jump to get around. Crazy!

Taipan wall in the Grampians

This is the Taipan wall, a climbing area in the Grampians, which is a National Park. (If you look closely, you'll find a climber in a red shirt hanging on rope somewhere on the wall.) Taipan may be the single raddest sport climbing crag in the world. The routes are long (150 feet or more), runout (in Aussie fashion), and ascend gorgeous lines on perfect sandstone pockets, edges, and slopers. I traded belays with some locals and a nice Austrian couple who were on an around-the-world climbing trip. Lucky there were there, as I was all flying solo on this trip.

Taipan under moonlight

Taipan under moonlight.

Herpin' at Hollow Mountain

Herpin' at Hollow Mountain. Here, Klaus, one of the Austrians mentioned above, holds one of the Grampians-area lizards, of which there were many. We found this one just around the Hollow Mountain Cave area (see below). No reptiles were harmed in the making of this photo.

Klaus goin' for it in the Hollow Mountain Cave

Here we find Klaus goin' for it in the Hollow Mountain Cave. This V8 sat at the very lip of the 40-foot deep cave and guards the end of the famous Wheel of Life, which is boulder problem / route that was originally graded V16 by Japanese climber Dai Koyomada. I think Klaus sent this rig. I can't remember.

Chris Webb Parsons gunning for Wheel of Life

Here's a shot of one of the locals I climbed with. His name Chris Webb Parsons. While I was in the Grampians, he was very close to sending Wheel of Life (pictured here). When I had to head back to Sydney, he handed me the keys to his house in Sydney and told me I could crash a few days until my flight left. He was going to stay and work on Wheel, he explained. I did, and he did, and then he sent the Wheel, which was, I think, its second ascent. Helluva nice guy and really very strong, too.

Flower field

After a week in a tent at the Grampians, I started to get a little funky. On the way to find some showers in town, I drove past this nice little scene. Australia is full of vistas like this. Because the population density is so low, it's not uncommon to get a view without any man-made structures. Oh wait, there's a barn there in the distance. Never mind.

The climber's life

Another one of the nice locals who made me feel at home. This fellow had a nicely appointed climber's road-trip van and a plucky pup to go along with it.

Syndey Aquarium

Before heading back to the States, I decided to take advantage of my time in Sydney and hit the aquarium there. I haven't been to many aquariums, but this one seemed excellent. Here, the sharks get to watch the people watching them, thanks to a handy glassed-in walkway.

Photo Friday: Three From China

I’ve been taking pictures since I was a wee lad. My parents got me a basic film SLR when I was in high school, and I shot as much as I could afford to develop (ah, the good ol’ film days!). Starting in college, I began to work my way up the digital ranks. An early Sony point and shoot, then a D70, D80, D700, and I just put in a pre-order on the D800.

These days, I live in scenic Salt Lake City. Well, the surrounding mountains are scenic, at least… when they’re not shrouded in lung-searing smog. I also travel a lot for work and for pleasure. Both things offer plenty of great photo opportunities. Recently, I went to China for the Petzl RocTrip. I managed to grab a few nice shots, three of which comprise my first “Photo Friday” post. If you like them, keep your eye out for my travel report from RocTrip China, coming soon. In the meantime, Andrew Bisharat, on his blog eveningsends.com, has posted on the same topic, here and here.

A Farmer Plowing in the Getu River Valley, China

A farmer plowing his rice field in the Getu River Valley, China

Climbing on the Rim of the Great Arch

Climbers on the outer rim of the Great Arch, a limestone formation so large that Chinese fighter jets once flew through its mouth, or so I've read.

Two Climbing Couples Being Wed in the Village of Getu He

Two climbing couples getting married in the village of Getu He, just before a big dance party started. A moment later, climbing legend Lynn Hill came out and helped perform the ceremony. It was a surreal moment, at least for the Westerners in the audience.