I haven’t written in 16 days. We did so many things I barely know where to start. The first thing was Sue and I backpacked two nights at LaPush to Rialto Beach. It’s a 3 mile round trip and people were towing wagons with full size beer coolers up the deep gravel of low tide. I painted two moderately good plein air landscapes, though both frustrated me and I was wishing I had oils. Water colors and pen are so difficult when the light is bad or there is too much movement.
Next we went to Uncle Ed’s funeral. He lived a grand life and died at 95 with his 4 kids and wife by his side. He knew it was coming and they told me he was joking right up until the end.
We saw him in the spring and could see the natural slowing down that happens at that age. Ed was a huge presence in my life, and our kids too. I guess that’s what an uncle should be. We were lucky to have him just a few hours away. Even as we had grown kids of our own we continued to visit Ed and Mary Ellen. Their new earth home was right next to one of our favorite climbing areas, so we naturally stayed at their house from time to time. After my parents passed, Ed and M.E. were as close as I could come to still having parents. Staying at their house was almost like being home. They had great grandma’s old dining room table, featured in over a hundred years of our family history. My mom was also named Mary, so my dads sister Mary, who Ed married, was early on called Mary Ellen (ME) to cut down on confusion.
Back when I was a kid, we lived 15 minutes from grandma. All her kids and grandkids (me and the cousins) would gather every holiday…which at least meant Thanksgiving and Christmas, if not more.
Dad had a ping pong table in the basement as long as I can remember. I’d play with my friends, and I’m sure we played a bit in the family too. But dad and mom were never really that into the game. I know my cousins played a bit, definitely remember a few of those games. But the real player in the family was Uncle Ed. He must have been about 50 when I first became aware of his talent. I had been slowly growing into my game through my awkward teenage years. Meanwhile, he played at work with the guys on the Prosser cattle station where he worked as sort of a scientist slash cowboy. They tested different feed on cows and put plastic windows in their stomachs to research how food got digested.
I was gradually growing up and becoming a talented player while he was hitting the downward slide of his 50’s. Ed was very, very good…but I was young, fast and learning quickly. * Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance. * – David Mamet. The family used to watch me and Ed play. We’d have 20 people down in the unheated basement cheering us on. They were epic times.
But then I decided to drop out of high school with only 2 credits needed to graduate. I wanted to march in the streets protesting the Vietnam War. I felt it was my duty to ‘go back to the land’ and live naturally…to stop consuming…basically stop pursuing the American Dream. I cut down 20 slender fir trees for tipi poles, sewed the tipi and began living the dream. I had a part time job as a printer, but spent most of my time embedded in the hippie culture of 1970 Olympia. When the tipi got too cold I’d hitchhike to California and live on the beach off the kindness of strangers. Dad had wisely kicked me out…can’t blame him looking back…I would have done the same. I spent 3 years off the rails before I came to my senses and went back to college.
There was a period there where I was estranged from the family, for obvious reasons, living in my lonely tipi. But dad felt bad. He knew I was a good kid, just a bit lost. He called me up to invite me to Thanksgiving Dinner. I thought about staying pure sitting around my campfire in my lonely tipi, eating my lentils. But then he said that Uncle Ed would be there….and wouldn’t I like to play some ping pong?
Ed, through the magic of ping pong was able to reach out and make me feel included. I’m not saying it was a turning point, I really had to hit bottom before that happened. But it was a huge step in the right direction…and boy, did we play some wicked ping pong!
Since we moved to town Sue and I play ping pong twice a week at the community center. We usually have 3 tables playing doubles for a couple hours. It’s one of the highlights of living in town. It’s social, it requires a lot of skill, and there is a ton of raucous laughter. Trash talking is expected. I really miss it when I go on trips.
My other town sport is unicycle which I do almost every day. I’ve been pedaling my unicycle in the local baseball stadium parking lot. But the last two times I went there they were either having a game, or paving the parking lot. I like it there because, unlike the tennis courts and those annoying tennis players, the stadium lot is almost always deserted, other than a few skateboarders riding the public ramps. I’m just another weirdo wearing wrist guards.
Plus the lot is big at about 3 city blocks across, and there are posts and walls for me to lean on as I start. I need that help because I can’t get on the uni without a wall. So, to make a long story short…I’ve been having wind problems. Meaning, I run out of breath and have to stop to rest after crossing the parking lot. I’m not just winded…I’m literally heaving for breath, like a horse that just ran a race. It’s awful. My heart rate never gets above 145, but that rate feels unsustainable and I have to stop and rest until it calms down.
I can go back and forth across the lot just fine…usually. But with all the stops it takes 45 minutes to go a mile. Sometimes I push it up to one and a quarter. The wind problem has been very frustrating. I was plateaued for months. Oddly, my climber friends and Sue noticed that I was hiking uphill faster, so my wind is improving…just not noticeable to me on the uni.
But, today. Today there was another darn baseball game…the nerve of those guys! Don’t they know I need that lot empty?!? So I drove to the tennis courts where I first learned to ride. It was a Sunday morning, in late September and no annoying tennis players were in evidence. Sweet!
I suited up with my knee, elbow and wrist pads and launched off the fence inside the 3 court enclosure. I nailed the launch and was quickly heading for the first narrow opening between the end of the far net and the outside fence. I sailed through the gap with only a slight wobble and accelerated out into the open court headed West.
As I ride I often try to focus on what I can do better in the moment. Like:
put more weight on the seat, and less on the pedals;
lighten the pressure on the pedal coming up in the back
lean forward just enough to keep the wheel turning…it wants to turn, give it permission
keep my back straight in that slight lean
focus my eyes forward, not too far, not too close
breath evenly and deeply
keep my arms low, they don’t need to be flailing around
look where I want to turn, don’t force the turn, let it flow
And to my great surprise, I was able to do all those things at once! I finished a loop from West to East and back to West. I was closely monitoring my wind and remaining power. All systems were in the green and I decided to go for another lap…something I’ve only done once before. I finished that lap, checked my wind and thought, hell, let’s set a record, a personal best. I kept going…and going…and going. I did so many laps I lost count. I was in the zone and the damn, hateful, horrible excuse for a bicycle felt (almost) like a normal “I can ride this forever” kind of two wheeled bicycle. Except it was a unicycle.
Damn. I felt like I could have gotten on a real bike trail and put in some distance. Which has been something I’ve been wishing for ever since I got my first Good Will unicycle 6 months ago.
One wheeled bicycle:
Rather than start a new post, I’m going to tack onto this one. And by the way, I rode my uni 2.25 miles yesterday, and 3.3 miles today. I’m really liking the views down on the waterfront. It’s better than either the stadium or the tennis court. My wind has kind of broken through a ‘glass ceiling’ of sorts.
I spend far too much time on a climbing website called mountain project. It’s more entertaining than netflix when I don’t feel like drawing the evening away. And real conversations happen there…along with the usual angry rants from keyboard warriors.
I replied to a rant about dogs off leash at the climbing crags. It’s a problem that is not easily solved. Anyway, I wanted to preserve my words in case mountain project goes down. Here is my reply:
I’m late to the party. 15 pages about dogs, and people will still bring their unleashed dogs to the crags. It’s a thing.
Sue and I didn’t feel the need for a dog during the nine years we climbed together before our first kid. We were happy with each other, no fur needed.
We used to see all these hard core climbing women in their late twenties, mid thirties who had chosen not to have kids. But they often had a dog, and would treat it like a human baby. I’m no shrink, but it made me wonder.
When my son was six months old, we went to a huge palette fire in Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree, New Years eve. All of those women (and men) were there with their dogs. They were super strong climbers, crazy devoted to their fur babies. When they saw we had brought a real *human* baby to the bonfire, they all wanted to hold him. Sue walked around with Clint, letting all the women coo over him.
I stood there watching the scene. When they were holding Clint, they completely and totally forgot about their dog. What, I have a dog? They seemed, in the moment, like they’d make great human parents, but they had chosen the climbing life and a dog. The longing on their faces as they held my son is still a vivid memory 37 years later.
Oddly enough, both of my kids got dogs in their twenties, and then had their human babies. Nobody listens to old dad
For our 43rd wedding anniversary Sue and I spent 5 days up at Mt Baker. We left Tuesday around 10 AM and drove up to Artist Point, arriving at 2 PM. We loaded our backpacks and hiked the 4 miles out to Ptarmigan Ridge. There had been a lightning strike the previous day and a huge mushroom cloud was looming on the ridge beyond Shuksan. Though we were walking away from it some smoke was wafting our way. Over the last 6 years fall seems to have become fire season. At least it looked like Artist Point and our hike would’t burn…so we soldiered on. After our epic last summer I now carry an inReach Explorer. In a worst case scenario we can always reach out to communicate.
The trail has a series of long side slope ridge traverses that are like false summits. We’d pop out of a patch of trees and see another long open slope with the trail cutting across it, sometimes for a mile or more. It was not steep, but that trail went on and on. The footing was often rocky and sometimes exposed. It was not a place for daydreaming.
We first learned about false summits while climbing Mt. Adams in the seventies. Hiking is about patience and suffering. Probably less of the suffering when you are young. But at our age, there is definitely some suffering as the old worn out joints plod along the dusty miles carrying 40 pound packs.
We’ve put a lot of thought into carrying lite loads. But combining plein air with backpacking makes for undeniably heavy loads. We could probly shave some weight here and there. Sue won’t share a quilt, insists on her own bag. I bivy in our tarp tent in down pants and a down vest, supplemented with a foil space blanket. It works, but it’s not ideal. I should have brought my expedition down coat, but it’s heavier. It’s scary to be 4 miles from the car and almost shivering in the middle of the night. We used to call it a *suffer bivy* back in my mountaineering days. A shoe for a pillow and all that. I could add a ultra light weight bag, and skip the down pants and puffy vest, since it was hot during the day. But my thinking is that the down pants will allow me to plein air paint in colder weather.
I also refuse to give up my easel. It’s an ultra light carbon fiber camera tripod that allows me to stand up and paint…but it does weigh 4 pounds including the shelf. I could sit on a rock and paint on my lap, but I hate that experience of holding the painting up while I paint. It’s so awkward. I like being able to walk away from the painting and see it from a distance. Van Gogh made it work and so can I.
The stars were so bright that it never got truly dark. I was able to look out from the bottom of the windy tarp tent through the mosquito netting and survey the ridge we were camped on…as I shivered. Hmm, no cougars or bears trying to eat us yet. Yeah, it has been a while since we backpacked…maybe a year or two? It was a little warmer the second night. Sue slept on the windy side since she had a real sleeping bag. It might be cool to get a BD Firstlight, or one of the new Dyneema tents since they are under 2 pounds and totally sealed from wind. But it seems silly to spend those kind of dollars when we backpack so little.
Smoke wasn’t bad Wednesday morning. We woke up to a fantastic sunrise with amazing light on both Shuksan and Baker. Alpenglow at 6200 feet is very special light. You have to earn it in our state because there are no highways that high. We found we had forgot our coffee. I had some shot blocks but it’s not the same experience as sitting with a warm cup and watching the sun rise.
The alpenglow faded quickly and the mountain settled down to a pretty morning light. I set up my easel and painted while Sue wandered around texting photos to the kids. It was odd to have service that high in the mountains. We assumed it was from the Mt Baker ski area. There was a massive cell tower installation just 4 miles away where we’d left the truck.
The painting was ok, but I was frustrated by a couple things. Grey clouds were on one side, but when I started painting them they promptly morphed into something else and I was left painting from memory. The lit up top edges of the crevasses were brighter than the glacier surface…which was a sort of light peach. Once I’d painted the peach, I had no easy way to add in the white crevasse hi light. I didn’t think of using a white pen.
Later in the day I tried to paint the afternoon light but it was all washed out from haze and being on the North side. It’s the reason I can’t paint Rainier at Sunrise: North light on glaciated volcanoes is very low contrast. That painting bombed. We slept a second night there to rest our old bones and hiked 4 dusty miles back to Artist Point in the morning.
Sue took a nap in the truck while I hiked up to be the designated Artist at Artist Point. Last time I was there a tourist asked me if I was on the payroll of the Mt Baker National Forest. I had a couple people make drive by jokes: “Hey, whatcha painting?” & “You know it’s cheating to use Paint by Numbers!”…to which I replied: “I know, but it’s the only thing I could find at the drug store.” That painting was ok also, though I wished I’d been brave enough to paint the trees under the mountain. I may still do that as I took photos with my little pocket Canon.
When I walked back at 7, Sue still hadn’t moved from the truck.That girl knows how to relax. How come I can’t be like normal people? Do a nice hike, take a few photos and call it good. What drives me to work so hard at being an artist? It’s not like we need the money. Well, I guess extra money is always nice. But unless we want to travel to Europe or something, we’ve got enough to get by.
In the evening, Thursday, we drove downhill away from all the No Camping signs and turned off on the first dirt road. It was completely deserted, zero traffic or people and found a nice wide pull out to park the Tundra for the night. Sue ran into and shared beta with some people the next day who asked if we had found any crash spots. When we went back the next night, Friday, they were in “our” spot. Funny how that works. But we drove down the main road further to Silver Firs campground which has an overflow lot and joined the tribe there.
It’s always nice when you are looking for boondocking spots to see other trucks, vans and trailers. We are all just trying to enjoy the great outdoors. And campgrounds are always, always booked up with the new online reservation systems. We spur of the moment campers have no option but to boondock. One oddity was a single guy with a little Ford Ranger pickup. He had a huge Walmart tent, an equally huge gazebo, 5 bundles of wood and a full size picnic table for cooking. He lit a monstrous bonfire under the gazebo, despite the 80 degree temperatures. We were glad he was parked on gravel so he couldn’t start a forest fire. Sue speculated he was recently divorced and used to camping with a family.
Backing up to Thursday morning…we got up late and set up our 12 volt DC and propane powered outdoor shower. I’ve finally got all the bugs worked out of my DIY hot shower and it’s pretty cool.
Around noon we drove up to the ski area again and parked in the lot for the Heather Meadows hike. I headed downhill for the afternoon shift at the salt mine while Sue went hiking on Baggly Lake Loop trail. It was blazing hot on the wooden deck at the lake but I had my mister (hillbilly air conditioner) and a sun hat/hood. The bugs weren’t bad and my painting turned out ok again. Not brilliant…but interesting.
I’ve been studying drawing online and this guy says you have to draw a lot of bad paintings before the good ones come along. I’m doing great at making bad paintings…it’s kind of a gift.
I’m thinking of doing Shuksan again…but this time planning it better. I had planned to have the water reflections in the lower half. But I screwed up the pen and ink drawing. Once you make a mistake with pen, the goose is cooked, there is no erasing. I may do it in oils at home where I have time to draw it right using my plein air painting as a reference. This is what the pros do. Plein air is not meant to be finished and sellable. Oils would give me a ton more control. There are no compromises with oils.
I was recently at my gallery by Mt. Rainier and he has one of my oil paintings. It’s one that was started plein air and finished in the studio. It’s a really lovely oil painting. I was staring at it and thinking “Damn, I used to be really good at oils!” Pen and wash is full of compromises and mistakes…but its lightweight makes it attractive for hiking.
After a 3 year absence I finally got back to Squish. Though crossing the border was not without its drama. We had complied with all the arriveCAN headaches, which included uploading your vaccine proof via a photo, and scheduling your arrival time…basically making an appointment to cross the border. We also had to give them an address where we would be staying.
A Canadian address is problematic because we were dirt bagging it and in reality had no idea where we would end up finding room to camp. But I told them we were staying at the Chief, since it has a street address for the arriveCAN form and does not allow reservations…which simplified the paperwork.
We sailed through the border with no problems until the very last moment when the border guard said:
“You have been randomly selected to take a Covid Test. Here is your kit.”
“How is that going to work?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s super easy, you just follow the instructions and schedule a FedEx pickup. You have 24 hours to do it.”
We drove north with a growing sense of un-ease. Our first priority was to get a camp spot. It was Friday morning at a world famous climbing area in a perfect weather window with rain to either side of our 5 day stretch. Both the Chief and Mamquam were fully packed with climbers in all manner of vehicles from $200,000 Sprinters to beater rusted out Chevy vans, not to mention a few packed to the brim Subarus.
Squamish in good weather is the place to be and any climber worth his salt within walking, driving or flying distance was already there…many for several month stretches. But I’ve been climbing there since 1978 and I know a few of the secret camping spots. Privacy concerns prevent me from sharing online…but I will say that we headed up towards Whistler and got lucky.
After putting up a tent, we headed for the Smoke Bluffs and the Black Zawn. I’d planned to deal with the Covid test in the evening…but of course we were far too tired after the long drive and a day of climbing. On the next day, we did a dawn start to get a parking spot at the Bluffs.
James cooked while I battled through the long process of navigating a very badly designed website to set up a Microsoft Teams meeting at 11 AM for the remote home Covid Self administered test. They want a nurse watching while you swab.
We climbed a few fun routes at Neat and Cool before I logged into Microsoft Teams. I wasn’t sure which log in to use. I have a backup account with another email address, but not the one I used for arriveCAN. I wasn’t sure how tightly the databases were integrated. Plus, I haven’t used Teams in 4 years. It sucked back then even on a computer. It was even worse on a smartphone. It’s the kind of thing that is supposed to be easy, even for a beginner…but it’s not.
By some miracle of the computing gods the nurse and I were able to see and hear each other. But it immediately became apparent that my extended Verizon Canada coverage plan was throttling my data. That would have been survivable, but her accent was very strong. They had clearly offshored the work to a place where people work for pennies and can barely speak English.
I had assumed that she would walk me though the whole process, starting with opening the sealed serial numbered box. But due to her strong Pakistani accent and the bad ‘FaceTime’ connection, she had to repeat every instruction several times. I was sitting on a ledge in climbing gear and didn’t know I needed a pen to write with. James had to hike over with my pen…which was fortunately on my key ring. I got a few lines penned in and she had to move on to her next appointment. They only schedule 15 minutes!
We went climbing after that up at Ronin’s corner…which, by the way, is still in the sun at 3! It was too hot to lead without incurring rivers of sweat. Our plan to escape the inland heat by climbing on the seashore at Squish had backfired. Not that I’m complaining. It was so lovely to be back on the exquisite Canadian granite.
We knocked off at 4, drove into town and I once again waded through the awful website to schedule another appointment for a home test. Despite a 4 bar signal the FaceTime experience was even worse. And his accent was abominable. I even asked him if there was anyone there who could speak English more clearly…because even when he slowed down and repeated his words multiple times, it was as if he was speaking gibberish. By that time James was in the car. Even with both of us guessing at his meaning we were getting zip.
Prior to this latest meeting I’d done some research and discovered that there is a $5000 fine if you don’t complete the test within 24 hours of crossing. Or maybe it’s by end of day the day after you arrive…I read conflicting reports. Either way, with our facetime crashing repeatedly, Verizon throttling my data, my RoboCall software intercepting his phone calls when FaceTime crashed, we were having a first class sh$tshow. I was looking at a $5000 fine with a deadline…plus he was running way over his 15 minutes of allowed time for our ‘appointment’. I think he even mentioned that we were out of time…but that he was going to make it work, even if he couldn’t see me.
I was like, you mean we can do this by phone…really? You don’t have to watch me on video?
So that’s how it ended. Despite all the communication nightmares, we managed to get a swab into the packaging and I dropped it off at Shoppers Drug Mart in Squamish. They were familiar with the border sh$tshow and had a form to accept my test kit.
My 24 hours of stress were finally over and we spent the rest of the trip enjoying ourselves. We spent a day at Octopus Garden, a day at and above Klahanie Crack, a day up at Chek and maybe somewhere else? My favorite lead was Edible Panties. And no, I don’t name these things. Climbers have a long history of ribald route names. It probably stems from the fact that these routes were put up back when women climbers were thin on the ground.
Sue and I would be out climbing with a bunch of sausages and she would literally be the only women in a crag filled with 20 guys. This used to happen all the time. It worked in my favor when I’d call my buddies to ask if they wanted to go climbing, they wanted to know if Sue was coming.
A couple weeks ago Sue and I hiked up the skyline trail to my favorite view of Rainier. I did a strong pen and ink underdrawing feeling dialed in. I put my pens away and started in on the Gouache. Normally, the India Ink is dry and I can paint over the top of the ink as if it wasn’t there. This time a disaster ensued.
I need to back up a little. Back in March, my Twisbi pen had clogged up. I was too ignorant to realize I was using the wrong ink. I’d gotten away with using India Ink because it does work for a while…just not in hot weather.
India Ink, also known as *dip pen* ink is designed to be used on pens from the 1860’s. Those pens were a wood body with a thin split metal tip (nib). You dip the nib in the ink bottle and draw until the nib runs dry, then you dip again. Think calligraphy from 1975. I’m not big on reading directions, and having come from dip pens back in the seventies, I put that same ink in my modern $60 Twisbi fountain pen. As long as I drew every few days, the ink, which has shellac and large pigment particles would work fine. But if I stopped drawing for a couple weeks, or tried to draw in a heat wave the ink would dry up and ruin a $25 Twisbi nib.
Fast forward to last March when my nib died. I purchased a new Lamy pen in Vegas, thinking it was using the same waterproof India ink as my Twisbi. I would have bought another fountain pen, but the Lamy was all they had at Blicks.
The Lamy ink, which comes in disposable cartridges, is designed for just the Lamy fountain pen. It will not dry out in the pen. Part of the reason it stays wet when the pen is capped is that it doesn’t have shellac.
My Twisbi pen would literally dry out while I was drawing if it was hot and the sun was shining. But back to that day on Rainier a month ago…I start to paint over the Lamy pen and ink drawing and the black ink melted and ran. Every color I painted had black added to it as the line dissolved. My yellow gouache brush strokes turned brown, my reds turned muddy. It was a wasted hike and a bad painting.
Wednesday Sue and I hiked up to the same viewpoint. This time I had my Twisbi fountain pen loaded with a new ink. I’d done my research after the Lamy disaster. I’d found a new waterproof and permanent ink called de Atramentis Archive. I also had my Lamy loaded with this new ink, plus a technical pen from my Uncle Dan (thanks Marcus) along with a new pen called a Noodlers Safety pen loaded with true India Ink. Beyond that I had a few Pigma disposable pens. I was loaded for bear.
I did a fine pen underdrawing and started in on the color. Big surprise: it worked flawlessly. No bleeding, no melting, a perfect ink. With that problem out of the way I could focus on what I do best: staring at the subtle colors on the mountain and interpreting them into something I could mix on my palette. As a famous painter once said: “The hue doesn’t matter if the value is right”. This means if you view a crazy colored painting in black and white it will look correct.
Painting the Nisqually glacier is always the heart of the matter. If I can nail those blues and greens down the rest of the painting is easy breezy. Those go down without a pen underdrawing. The values are so light pen can’t be used. I can usually capture it with about 7 barely there colors. Almost all the same value…just variations on emerald as the waining afternoon light builds into alpenglow.
I usually have about 90 minutes of stable light. It’s a mad dash of mixing and throwing color around. I love that part of the process. I’m like a kid in a candy store. Every little stroke of color makes me smile. I’ve had small crowds of hikers stand behind me while I’m laying down those brushstrokes, murmuring amongst themselves like I’m some kind of magician.
On the last trip, I was listening to some calming music on my headphones when a hiker suddenly appeared at my elbow. He startled me as it had been a fairly quiet day. But suddenly he was there, lips moving. I had to pull my ear buds out to hear him. I don’t mind talking to folks, but it does stop my painting process until they leave.
I thought of dropping by my gallery on the way through Ashford. But if he had wanted them, I wouldn’t even have high resolution photo for my records. Plus I like to fondle my latest creations for a few weeks. If it’s a boring day and I’m feeling uninspired, I can get them out and bask in their illumination.
In 1981 there was a famous commercial where a window rolls down in a limousine and some rich guy asks another rich guy if he has any Grey Poupon mustard. It’s become legendary as a friendly gesture for handing something off to a stranger in unusual circumstances.
We were up at Index waiting to lead a difficult 5.9 off width called Battered Sandwich. There was a party of three on it, and two of them had already climbed it with little trouble. But as I watched the third guy rack up I sensed some alarm bells going off. You can tell a lot from how a climber presents themselves on the ground. Little things like how they talk about the route, how new and shiny the gear is, and most importantly: do they have enough of the right gear.
Battered has 60 feet of four to eight inch crack climbing. If you don’t have at least three #4’s, four #3’s and a #5, you’d better have the skill to power through with long run outs. This guy had half of that gear and I was not getting a good feeling about his plans. I was in the queue, having asked my standard question on arrival at the crowded crag: “Who’s doing what?”
I usually walk up to the route and hangout until there is a break in the conversation. When they glance my way, they know why I’m there. It’s pretty obvious on a crowded weekend why a new climber would suddenly crash the party. But I try to be courteous and friendly. They said that they only had one guy remaining, and he was going to lead and clean the route. That sounded great, and would normally be a short, maybe half hour wait. I had gear to rack, shoes and kneepads to put on…no problem…except for the alarm bells.
40 minutes later he was frozen in place at the six inch flare. He was out of big gear as expected, but fortunately had the good sense to not climb further into danger. By that time I’d already told James that we should lead the open 5.7 next to him, for something to do. At least we’d be climbing, instead of watching another sh&tshow, and maybe we could do a good deed by handing the poor guy some of the big cams he so desperately needed. The Wild Turkey route we were planning to do was just 10 feet to the left. James took up an extra #3 and #4 to hand off to the guy in a “Grey Poupon” moment.
I was focused on belaying when it happened, but I heard a murmur of quiet laughter go through the dozen or so people milling around the base of the route. I looked up and saw the second cam being handed off between the two routes. It was a beautiful moment. With all the violence and chaos in the news these days…war in Ukraine, mass shootings, homeless people sleeping on sidewalks, raging wildfires…it was a very warm and fuzzy moment to see the mustard exchanging hands. This guy’s battered sandwich would at least have good condiments.
Later I led the route cleanly, though I almost fell out of it when I got my moves scrambled in the off hands section. The feet were bomb bay flaring, and the hands were between fists and hands. Meaning, I had no feet or no hands that were worth a damn. My pro was good, I was safe enough…but jeez, it was so insecure! And that wasn’t even the crux!
I forgot to mention that Jame had gone off to belay Ethan when my turn came up on Battered. I asked one of the friendly 5.8 leaders if they could give me a catch. The girl who belayed me was very experienced. I’d seen her float up seniors and Wild Turkey. I knew I was in good hands.
At the top she was very impressed with my lead. She asked if I had any advice to offer so she could up her lead game for climbs like Battered. It’s very flattering for an old white haired has been to have a twenty something woman ask for advice. It’s true that I have paid my dues on Index nines so I was able to offer up a few words of wisdom.
Later on the ground people were commenting that they had looked up, worried, hearing all my frantic grunting. I hate it when I do that. Some of us are just noisy leaders. James led it later, breaking a trigger wire in the same spot and having his own little epic. I had to sit on a tipped out #3 to get his broken #4 out of the crack. On a top rope I was able to find a very tight but good fist jam and power through. I need to remember that key jam next lead.
At the true crux, I found (on top rope of course) that if you do just 6 inches of upward heel toe wiggling with your left foot, you can lean out into space and get your right toe on the two by six inch ledge. With this foot hold you can step up into chicken wing territory and most of the difficulties are over.
Sue joined me for my second ‘over 50’ rendezvous in Idaho. It was organized by Helen again, and about 8 of the same people came, plus as many as 10 new people. Simultaneously the super topo group was there at the Sisters. Jim has been going to that group for at least 5 years that I know of, maybe longer.
Because of the two groups there were a lot of gray and white haired climbers around. When we got there some of my friends from last year were camped down below, waiting for the group site to open up. Only Helen was up top, she was camped in 58, a walk in down by Carols Crack.
We had done the drive in two 6 hour days. For our midpoint we camped just past the crowded Emmigrant Springs at a campground called Hilgard Junction State Park. It was empty, $25 cheaper than Immigrant, and just a short 20 minute drive further South East.
On the second day Sue was on a quest to find an old school campfire percolating coffee pot. REI in Boise didn’t have it, nor did Cabellas. While in Boise I rode my Unicycle in a deserted parking lot. I also rode it every couple days in the gravel lot at the group camp. Gravel is really hard compared to pavement. It requires an aggressive forward lean that is very energy intensive.
Sue and I did Windance and Da Boyz on the first day after helping Helen set up her gazebo. Folks started rolling in over the next couple days. Cindy, Jill and I did Easy Corner on the back side of Breadloaves. On the rap down I saw a nice line of new bolts through a roof. It looked like a one move wonder at the roof.
It was just one move alright but it was a whopper. You clipped a few bolts and cams until you were standing under a 4 to 5 foot roof. Perfectly horizontal with a bolt out at the lip. The clip meant leaning way out behind your head, coming perilously close to falling over backwards. Once clipped I walked down the slab and reached up to the lip. Great jug at the lip, and with just a little stretch I could reach a super good left hand jug.
My chin was even with the lip jug. The move was to do a pull up on the left jug and put your foot by your chin. I was pulling so hard on that ultra sharp waco that I still have a painful scab two weeks later. Nothing like getting to bad bleeders on the first day. And no running water to keep the wounds clean. Plus they are right on the flexing joints of my first and third fingers.
After 8 falls and and two bleeding flappers I put a sling on the bolt and aided the move. Cindy followed it cleanly. The rest of the climb was barely 5.7. Cass showed up for a couple days. I climbed with her and a bunch of other friends old and new for the next 10 days. We checked out a new crag on the weekend called Geowatt. It’s out toward Stripe Rock on the right on the Geology trail. There was only one other party there so our crowd plan worked. I led a two sevens an eight and a nice sport nine with a couple falls. It was fun, but not worth the hike.
Midway through the trip we were all invited to have Pizza at Kim’s house. He has a lovely log vacation home overlooking the City of Rocks. I don’t know him personally but I’ve heard he is a long time climber who simply likes giving back to the community. He was very gracious and welcoming to all of us unwashed climbers showing up to eat many, many boxes of pizza. My friend Jim knows him from way back due to his association with the super topo group.
Sue, Jim, Keith, Jay and I hiked out to Lost World and climbed a bunch of the chill sevens and eights. They were also at Geowatt, along with Mark and family.
After Dara left, I followed Cory up Skyline, Scream Cheese and Swiss Cheese. I led Private Idaho 5.9 but the sun was baking Cory by the time he had to clean. We zombied out in the shade at camp for a few hours before Mark and I led one of the two new bolted Pogue routes on Bath Rock.
That’s our trip in a nutshell. Since returning I’ve been to Index with Christine and have returned to regularly scheduled programming on the unicycle. Riding tennis courts is problematic due to the annoying appearance of tennis players. Who knew that was a thing?
I just recently discovered a skate park in a huge abandoned parking lot by a stadium. It’s all asphalt, much larger than any tennis court and weirdos with helmets and kneepads are expected. I’ve found my unicycle Shangri-La!
Ping pong started up again at the community center. Sue and I have been having a lot of fun there. We know many of them going back 3 years now. Most of them are our age, not because it’s for seniors, but because it’s in the mornings on a weekday. It’s doubles ping pong so not only do you play the game, but you also have to avoid your partner as you dance in and out of play.
I’ve also been to the climbing gym about once a week with Chris and or Alex. It’s good to keep up some gym power for pulling on plastic. The skills do transfer over to outdoor climbing a bit. But my main sport, and the most exciting one is still the unicycle. I practice about 2 hours a day.
It must seem odd to an outsider why a bicycle with only one wheel would catch my fancy. They took a perfectly good, stable transportation device and cut it in half. What were they thinking? And why would anyone want to learn to ride something so difficult? These are questions that I ponder.
Maybe it’s just for the challenge? Initially I thought it would be a cool and compact way to bring a bike in the car. It’s so small it doesn’t have to ride on top. And the guy I saw riding around the campground at Joshua Tree looked really cool. He made it look so fun and easy.
The price of entry was very low. We found one second hand locally for $60. But it almost put me in the hospital. I did a backwards fall onto concrete landing on my elbow and tailbone. This was before I learned to armor up. My elbow hurt for a month, and Sue gave the sport up on the spot.
But bone headed me…that just upped the ante. I kept at it. For some bizarre reason I thought the sport was worth the risk. Anyway I’m almost 6 weeks in and it’s finally getting easier. My old 1980 broken ankle is not happy with the sport. It’s not liking all the jumping off that occurs when I crash. So far it’s just stiff, and loosens up with time. Hopefully I’m not damaging it.
I’m on my 6th day of riding my new 29 inch unicycle. I had my 19 inch dialed in to where I could reliably ride 120 feet. But this new bigger wheel is very different. I’m only 10 inches higher in the air, but it feels so much more dangerous. Surprisingly, the falls feel about the same. I’m not hitting any harder. In uni jargon falls are called UPD’s. (Un Planned Dismounts). As one gets more graceful, the UPD becomes a simple stop where you gently step off, like stepping down off the last stair on the porch.
There is a certain ponderous momentum that has to follow through before I get spit off onto the tarmac. So even though I’m falling from higher up, I don’t seem be hitting harder. It’s still just a light jump down onto the pavement / tennis court. I’ve learned to tighten the top lacing hole on my high top loggers to give me more ankle support.
But today the space aliens had stolen my brain. I spent at least an hour falling off repeatedly and immediately. Thoughts of selling the damn thing passed through my mind. Like, what happened to all my skill and knowledge? How could I be so terrible when just two days before I’d been pedaling 60 feet? Over and over I’d pull myself upright on the tennis court fence, only to fall off after pedaling a yard. To the neighbors around the park I must have looked like a madman: getting on, falling off, over and over.
I could picture them looking out into the drizzle at this crazy person beating themselves up at a sport in which they clearly have zero talent…so pathetic. I found myself falling into that loop of self doubt…the one where you know you’re going to be bad, so of course, you’re bad, as expected, and repeat.
But after an hour of being a total sap, and as the June rain started to soak the court, I made a little discovery. Well, several actually.
The fence is not your friend. Everything you need to learn happens away from the fence.
You must be in perfect balance before you launch away from the fence. DO NOT push off the fence…because that push ruins your balance.
Once you find that still moment of perfect 360 degree balance, cock your hips and shoulders forward and start to fall to the front. As you fall, pedal out of the fall, steadily. Not too fast or too slow, but plan on at least a few rotations.
That momentum will give you a gyroscopic stability side to side. And that stability is maintained as long as you keep pedaling.
Today, of all days, considering the bad first hour…today I pedaled the new 29er all the way across the tennis court: 3 courts, from fence to fence.
That was yesterday: Saturday. Today I did it again. I started at Jefferson park and got 30 feet on my second launch. I made it across a few times before tennis players showed up and I diverted to Whittier park. I did full transits at least 5 times in a row. It started to feel much more natural. I had more weight on the seat.
With more seated weight, it takes less effort to pedal and you can get into a rhythm that feels very stable. Falling off is less of a concern and you can start to think about the process of steering, which is also new. In general it was less thinking, more solid launches with error free stability. Almost like I knew what I was doing.
In other news, today I completed 4 repair projects on my sewing machines, i have the industrial Juki, and an old 1950’s home machine: (1.) added new leather lacing strips to my worn out red rock shoes; (2.) re-sewed the detaching neoprene wear panels on my black and green rock pack; (3.) repaired a rip in my ultra light 3 oz climbing wind shirt; (4.) Fixed my skate boarding wrist guard gloves. I opened the glove side seam and replaced the ripped one mm leather with full grain 3 mm leather.
And two days later (today) I ended up at Ruston point on the bike path overpass. My first launch was a 60 footer…that has never happened. Ruston is a fun place to ride because there are no tennis players to compete with. On a weekday it’s pretty quiet, just the occasional joggers and walkers. Often there is a long line of cars waiting to board the ferry. I wonder what they think about the wacky guy on the unicycle.
I was doing quite well, riding halfway along the bridge…about 100 feet. I still find this sport exhausting. It reminds me of skiing early in the season when I get that thigh burning sensation. It’s also extremely aerobic. I literally have to stop and lean on the railing to catch my breath.
As I was waiting for my heart to slow down, two gray haired bicyclists pedaled up and stopped. They were fascinated by my unicycle. Never mind that they were riding $4000 top of the line carbon fiber road bikes. They wanted to know all about my uni. One of them had ridden a uni in grade school but not far and not since. They knew how hard it was and we talked about the challenges of one wheel. I joked that I “should have spent more and got one with two wheels!”
They kept egging me on to ride it, they wanted to watch…like I was a tight rope walker or something. Talk about pressure! But I manned up and wobbled off, riding my usual 100 feet. As I was rolling away I heard him holler: “Good on ya, mate!”
I kept at it and finally managed to ride the entire span, or at least the first span to the turn. Which looks to be 60 meters…200 feet. My longest ride yet. Still a lot of arm flinging and wobble…but by golly I’m riding.
For 15 hours of the 30 hour learning curve I could not pedal farther than 3 feet. Some days I’d barely go 10 inches. But after doing it for at least half an hour for two weeks I made some progress. Four days of that two weeks I wasn’t riding. I’d broken our cheap second hand uni and was waiting for a new one to arrive from Unicycle.com. In hour 16 I suddenly started putting a lot of things together.
You can watch all the youtube tutorials you want, and you can fill your mind with do’s and dont’s, but at a certain point you have to turn off all the noise and just pedal. It’s called launching in uni world. It means to leave the fence you’ve been leaning on and head out into the open, pedaling this impossible contraption called a unicycle.
Due to a disease I got in my ear in 1999, I only have one working ear…which of course contains the balance organ. Normal people have two, I’ve only got one. I thought that might impact my riding…but it hasn’t. From 3 feet at hour 15, I progressed over 4 days to 120 feet. I look like I’m really riding. In reality, I’m barely hanging on and have zero steerage. But I’ve learned to not fear the launch. There is safety and grace out there pedaling into the wind. I can stay up just fine. Not every time…but maybe 70 percent of my launches go at least 40 feet now.
Looking back, I’m amazed I stuck with it. I was so bad and so hopeless for so long! It’s really true that you just have to keep trying. I’ve heard people say that your body needs time to get used to the process. You have to strengthen critical muscles. Learning to fall safely and reliably is extremely important. No one wants to break bones. I’ve almost mastered the simple “step off” maneuver…from every possible angle. Forward, backward, to the side, at speed. I’ve done them all soooo many times, it’s automatic. I’ll be pedaling along, feel a crash coming and simply step onto the ground, easy peasy.
I did a big run today across three tennis courts in a row…about 120 feet. Never, ever thought I’d get there. I’m too old to remember how excited I was to learn to ride a bicycle….but it must be comparable. Maybe even better since the uni is much harder. I mean, a bike pretty much rides itself once it’s going. It’s totally stable. A uni must be ridden every inch. I was dripping sweat today after a couple hours of riding.
And just yesterday I nailed my first free start. This means I wasn’t holding onto a wall for balance as I started pedaling. My friends are laughing at me for entering this bizarre sport. I seem to have a knack for picking activities that are completely out there on the fringes of normality. Ping pong, climbing, painting, blues harmonica, inventing, metal working, and now Uni. One wonders what will be next?
I’ve been sort of down in the dumps lately. I’ve been cranky around the house…just generally off my feed a bit. I think it might have started back in March when we got shut down by weather at Indian Creek. When I’m not painting (or working) I guess I rely on climbing as a source of…what is the right word…satisfaction? But life is what happens when you’re making other plans.
Anyway, I’ve also been fighting off a bad case of artist block going way back to last fall. I don’t feel at all like painting. Not even a flicker of interest for sketching around the house. Which is weird because I’ve got sketchbooks going back to my teens in 1971 where I’m drawing something every other day. It might just be a sketch of my hand, or a car in a parking lot. Point is, there was something driving me to make art.
And I know it is totally normal for that to come and go. Grandma saw this in me back in 1989. I was driving her home from a family dinner at dad’s house. I had shown the family some recent paintings and I’d also mentioned that I was blocked again…didn’t feel inspired.
She looked at me with those 94 year old eyes and said: “Mark, promise me you’ll never stop painting.”
“Okay”, I said, not really meaning it.
Grandma had an aunt who was a famous painter. She took grandma on a tour through Europe when grandma was a teenager…which would have been 1910?. She is listed in a book entitled American Women Artists of the 19 century. I checked it out once from the local library and there she was. I have one of her paintings, as does my sister.
A few days ago I had to repair a painting a collector had broken. I was really surprised that I was able to get inspired standing on a strangers back deck, painting a mountain that wasn’t there. I didn’t even have a photo, just a few other similar paintings from my “unsold” box. And yet, there I was, living in the moment, happy as a clam. I had my tunes on, she was coming and going but it was just like painting at the mountain. Nothing mattered but the magic flowing from my hands. I was happy. Go figure.
So with that recent history I finally followed through on my promise to Grandma. TBH it was also on my todo list. I brought a few monotone paintings of Josh out to the garage, set up my easel and painted Chimney Rock in full, glowing color. Just stood there and created from thin air. It was so good I was busting some moves to my iPhone playlist. Even more impressive is that I’ve been afraid of using full color in Josh. I could never color rock with oil. Always did it in monotone. Like, twenty in a row. Now that I’ve popped that cherry, I’m going to do one of Rainier. Watch out Grandma, Unky Mark is back.