Reaching through the veils of time

This is my story of a day I spent drawing some ruins in the Bears Ears National Monument near Moab, Utah. Climbers call it Indian Creek.

November 18, 2022

My climbing buddy Dave and I had discovered this place a week before during a snowy rest day. He had seen the ruins from afar, but had never visited. What better time to find them than during a blizzard in November? So this was my second visit.

Scene of the Vision, look at the upper window

I’d hiked up in the sunny morning with Samantha, Gus and David. But they had descended, leaving me alone knowing I would be painting for hours. After an hour of work I was deep into the creative zone that only artists know. All of my India Ink lines were steady and true as I traced the edges of the stones protruding from the 900 year old mud based mortar. Drawing with ink forces me into the zone faster than any other medium because you can’t erase. You must draw perfectly, so you do.

Drawing this well is mesmerizing. Many activities, if you reach excellence, can have a flow state. But with art, you are creating something you can look at later and treasure. I feel fortunate to have the gift.

As I drew each stone on the paper I could almost feel the ancient artisan working with me, one stone at a time, building a structure that would keep his family safe from intruders and the howling wind.

Somewhere in here it happened

It can feel like a higher power has taken over my hand and I’m just along for the ride. Now, obviously I know that neither God, Buddha nor Vishnu is directing my art…but it does seems as though I reach a higher or purer state of consciousness. I’ll be like, whoa! This is amazing work, who is this person?

While blowing on my fingers to keep them warm, I wondered how life was back then, trying to reach back through the 900 years that separated our parallel lives. What fluke of circumstance had placed me and these ancient people on this narrow ledge above the 60 foot tall cliff below the overhanging roof of orange sandstone. My mind wondered through all the old tales of mysticism concerning ghosts, spirits and afterlives. I was miles from another soul, and the bitter wind tugged at my clothes as I drew.

I kept feeling a presence and wondered if it was something dangerous, perhaps a mountain lion? Isolated cowboys ranch on the basin below and surely they had long ago pushed all the cougars out. There were three stories to the tower ruins. I’d peeked my head in the two lower rooms, being careful not to touch anything. It was all just bare dirt and small stones, with a ceiling of thin woven sticks over ancient timbers, as thick as my arm and covered by mortar.

But the upper third story was inaccessible. You would have to climb up the wall and stand on the protruding rafters…definitely not OSHA approved. It was pitch dark in the window of that upper story. As I shaded it in I was careful to leave it a little less dark on the right, as there was a tiny bit of reflected light getting in there.

At about 2 hours in I was freezing despite my thick down jacket. Temps were in the upper 30’s and the wind was light but bitterly cold. I was dehydrated, my water was still partially frozen from the 16 degree temps of the night before. A hot thermos would have been lovely. I realized this would just be a pen drawing, there wouldn’t be time to add color until I got home.

The Vision

I was shading the back wall and the window there in the growing gloaming when my sense of a presence electrified. I looked up at the upper window and saw an ancient Anasazi Indian step outside onto the rafters.

Because I was in that higher state of consciousness, the appearance of an ancient Indian seemed plausible. I was like, well, he might be real, or he might be a figment of my imagination.

He had ragged dirty black hair down to his shoulders and looked about 40. He wore a brown leather tunic that fell to his knees. It was unadorned and dirty from long use. He was barefoot and simply stood there looking at me. His gaze was very direct, not threatening, but not friendly either.

His black eyes appeared bottomless. I could sense that he understood what I was doing. His peoples pictographs and petroglyphs are all over those canyons, so at some level he could see I was also a maker of marks. For a few wary moments we simply stared at each other across the 40 feet and the 900 years. There was no possibility of running away, the ledge on which I had placed my easel was far too narrow. Slowly I drew another stone…and when I looked back at the window he was gone.

I remember having a moment of: “What the hell just happened?” But I didn’t take a lot of time to think about whether he had really been there or not. I had a drawing to complete before my hands turned to blocks of ice. As I packed up my stuff though, I considered the possibility that he might have been real.

I know it sounds crazy, but maybe, just maybe, my intense hours long focus on rendering the precise edges of his stonework had caused a ripple, or rip in time that resonated back through the eons. He, or his soul, spirit, ghost, avatar, whatever…felt my focus on his life’s work and was pulled however briefly into my presence and that moment. Maybe he was thanking me for honoring his work.

Or was he just a homeless guy who is living up there right now..or the last living member of the ancient peoples? But there was no sound at all, only the sussing of the wind amongst the ancient stones. The dress and the overall vibe suggested he was not from this time. Plus, there was no sign of anyone living there currently. Everything was ancient… dirt and stone. Even the park service knew it was ancient. They had plastic signs on the ledge and in each room telling people not to steal artifacts and to leave no trace.

I packed up and skedaddled out of there, shivering as I stepped delicately over a few of the yawning gaps in the eroding path along the cliff towards the safety of the trail down. I saw my Tundra waiting patiently on the flat ground far below. I was very glad to get out of there. That was some trippy shit!

Later I told a few climber friends around the campfire about the experience. And on the way home I called a few more friends and got a number of different reactions. One guy said I might have had a mini stroke, with a resulting hallucination. Brett, a PHD scientist, said that it may not have been real, but it was real for me, and that’s all that matters. Several of my more open minded friends, Landon, Cass, said that my artistic mindset opened my ‘chakra’ to a much fuller state of awareness than is normal and this higher consciousness allowed me to see things that aren’t normally seen.

Others said it might have been an acid flashback, dating back to my last trip in the 1970’s. But why now when I’ve never had one before? Plus, I was stone cold sober. All I’d had was a cup of coffee in the morning. It’s true that I’d stood around a couple campfires the night before and inhaled some second hand wacky tabacky, but not nearly enough to get high. I may have simply had a daydream too, I mean who knows?

I had intentionally gone up there to have an experience. I knew that it was, in some respects, a holy place. There is much mystery surrounding these ancient abandoned dwellings. No one knows why they left their homes so suddenly though there are many theories. At the end of the day though, I have a drawing and a few photos to remind me of a remarkable day.

22 days at Indian Creek November 2022

As far as the climbing goes, I’m putting the visual stuff first, with the more narrative story last. It’s taken me more than two weeks of part time work to write this trip report.

I left t-town at 4pm Saturday and got to Immigrant Springs campground at 10pm. With a 6am start I rolled into the Rest Area past Price at 11pm and Indian Creek the next day (Halloween Monday) at noon. Handsome Dave from Wenatchee was already there, and well warmed up from a week of climbing.

He had unknowingly grabbed the unofficial party site. When we pulled in there were costumed people setting up 3 foot tall speakers on the picnic table, connected to car batteries. More party ready people were drifting towards the site from all over the campground. The guy in the bright red crowned king style top hat said we were welcome to stay, but that we wouldn’t get much sleep. We bailed out to Beef Basin.

Tuesday Dave and I went to Nuclear wall AKA Sin Bad. You park at the wide spot on the right just beyond Donnelly, then hike up and way around back climbers right toward Donnelly to the sunny side.

Dave took me to a cool route called Hot Sex which was 5.9 reds and yellows. It has a double crack so you can choose whether to climbs reds in the corner or yellows on the right. I was very glad to have a nice hand crack option. This was my first day of climbing and I was rusty.

Wednesday we went to The Fin, which can be found by looking for the Broken Tooth, a 100 foot tower leaning on the buttress in back and to the right of The Fin.

Dave led : Nagasaki & an Undercling 8. I tried to lead the 8, but the slippery undercling stumped me. I’d like to go back when I’m more warmed up. The upper section was nice hands. Nagasaki is an 11. For me to get up an 11 on day two required some serious effort. It has a long section of greens (rattly fingers) that would be impossible except there is a 6 inch protrusion on the left. It runs up the cliff about 2 feet away from the main crack during the green section. So, if you get that high, you can set your back on it and chimney. But it’s so narrow that you never get a solid hip jam, your feet constantly feel like they are going to skate off…and the fingers are rattly nonsense. It’s solid 5.11.

Nagasaki 5.11 Chimney section is right above Dave

Thursday we had two days of snow so did some exploring over by Jupiter crack on Sparks wall. Look for the black streaks. The rock was wet so I spent the next day painting and riding my unicycle. As I was painting I saw a couple other climbers painting nearby. He walked up the hill to look at my painting, and later I walked over to see her canvas and to compare our work. I couldn’t believe that they also had unicycles! I’ve never seen another unicycle in the wild.

My painting of the Creek Pasture campground view

Saturday Crystal from Durango joined us for 3 days. She had a little crag dog with a big personality. Between her and Dave they seemed to know everyone of consequence at the creek. She pointed out the well known developer named Devin who was walking around in blue jeans.

Crystal, the double headed woman, super strong Creek climber!

After scarfing up Climber Coffee they guided me out to Cat wall. It’s named for a little promontory on top of the wall to climbers right shaped like a cat holding it’s little paws up in the air. The road wasn’t too bad though I had to pull Dave’s sedan out of a hole.

On the way up we saw the Access Fund crew building the trail with a crew of native Americans. We later learned that Kyle and Lauryn work for the Access Fund 10 months a year building trails. Their work crew is on shorter rotations and is paid through the government America Works program…or Peace Corps…something along those lines. We’d look down at them as we were climbing and they seemed to spend a lot of time leaning on their pick axes…like a city works crew. But I don’t mean to sound critical. Moving heavy boulders and swinging sledgehammers is really hard work.

Despite the leisurely pace, they got stuff done. On the way up, the trail was clearly under construction, very rough. But as we came down after climbing all day the trail was amazing! They had moved and carved a lot of huge boulders, turning the trail into cleanly carved switchbacks.

Then I noticed their Access Fund van was parked at our campground in a government paid site. They were basically working a 9 to 5 job, every day. A week later when Sam arrived it turned out that her friend Gus was also a master trail builder for the government. As Gus said: “The community of federal trail builders is extremely small. We all know each other.” Kyle, Lauryn, Gus, Sam and Landon all hung around our small campfire talking trail building and some fascinating stories about the ancient peoples of the area.

Dave leading the badly named route: Child Abuse 5.10, PC: Crystal

Sunday Dave and Crystal took me to Fist Fight wall, it’s across from Donnelly. It’s in the book but not on Mountain Project…which is kind of cool. Neither had been there and the trail is still in it’s infancy. I love going to new crags. As long time creek climbers like to say: “Every crag is a Donnelly. There are Super Cracks and Incredible Hand Cracks all over, you just have to explore.” Beside avoiding crowds, going to lesser known crags means the climbs will be crisper. They won’t have those rounded off edges from thousands of boots. In the photo below, note how crisp the crack is.

Electric Glide

Crystal did a beautiful job leading this, though I have to say her hands fit in the reds at the bottom. I was able to follow it cleanly by stemming across to the high boulder to avoid the reds and jump right into the yellows. There is a roof up high (bring a 70 meter) that would benefit from a couple #4’s. And it’s big down below as well, so having…dare I say four fours?…might be wise. I was able to jam my big mitts nicely in the roof and might be able to lead it next trip. There is a nice looking fist crack off to climbers right that we never got to.

Electric Glide Fist Fight wall

Monday (also went again with Sam, Zac, william and Landon later) we went to Selfish wall up a long dirt road, very rough. My Tundra bottomed out going in and coming out. We had to get out and scout the holes for a safe passage. There was a Subaru up there but they have a shorter wheelbase so maybe it’s easier? It is beyond a gate towards the campground from beef meat basin. The gate is across from the large metal barn with just a roof, no walls. There is a lovely 5.9 up there that I called Mini Generic for obvious reasons. It’s actual name is Hand Solo. Crystal led a purple finger flake called Tag Team. There is a 5.9 off to climbers left I led called Instagram Sex Worker. It has a huge chopper flake at the top that did not look or feel safe as I pulled on it to reach the anchors. There are good Fist cracks off to climbers right that I have yet to check out.

— second trip did 5.8 Bromance with umbrella #6 top out

Selfish Wall purple fingers

Tuesday was a rest day before a storm. I’d misjudged the weather in November. I thought it would be warm and only had my summer bag. I called Sue and had her put my 1979 Stevenson winter bag in the mail addressed to me, general delivery, the Moab Post Office. Handsome Dave (also known as Wenatchee Dave) left after two weeks at the creek. He didn’t like the looks of the bad weather approaching and I can’t blame him. I’m lucky to have hobbies like my guitar, unicycle and painting to keep me entertained when the weather shuts down the climbing.

Wednesday a huge 40 mph windstorm Tuesday PM through Wednesday AM, no precipitation at Creek Pasture CG but the place emptied out. Everyone must have been in town re-supplying.

Thursday the 10th Samantha rolled in at 8pm. We were communicating via my inReach so I managed to get my brand new stove top oven working on the first try. She arrived to hot pizza at the picnic table in 35 degrees weather! Her friends Zack and William also rolled in that night. Zack is the ukulele guy featured in the video above.

Outdoor stovetop Pizza oven worked like a charm!

November 11 to 13, Friday through Sunday, Sam, Zack, William, Landon and I climbed at Cat wall, Selfish wall and the inner wall out to to climbers right of Chocolate corner…which Sam led cleanly. I led a 5.10 route called The Thing. It looked easy but I hung all over it. Still, it was fun and had some cool moves through barn door hand jams and chimneys. The anchor was glued in angle pitons. We did some other stuff but I didn’t keep good records. With a crowd that large it’s a party night and day, we had a blast. They left Sunday night.

Monday, Sam and I drove in for showers, shopping and I picked up my winter Stevenson bag. We got back in time to hike out to a new wall in back of Donelly called Habitado wall. In the parking lot Sam met some other seasonal friends from the valley: David, Annalisa and several others. There is some excellent climbing at Habitado wall. It’s so good that we went back the next day. There are eights and nines, and even two over hanging sport routes sort of similar to 9 gallon buckets at Smith. Gus showed up that night and we had more hot pizzas ready when he arrived.

Tuesday November 15

Went back to Havitado to climb the lightning bolt 5.9 yellow crack shown below. This thing is sooo good! It was also a nice little alcove out of the wind.

Lighting Bolt Crack yellows and blues Habitado Wall

Wednesday Nov 17 Cat wall

Led Child Abuse 10b? I needed 8 blues 8 yellows. Hung when I ran out of gear. Easy jamming the whole way. There is one awkward move into a pod, but it’s very safe. It is an endurance fest. Sam, Gus, David & Annalise  were all up there doing various things.

I led Bromance, a 5.8 off width with a tipped out 6 protecting a 40 footer

Bromance with black widow at bottom

Thursday was a rest day from pushing hard on tens. We decided to climb the desert tower called South Six Shooter with Sam, Gus, Annalise, Boris, David and Katie. See video above. Thanks to Gus for offering to lead every pitch and carry the rack. Also thanks to Sam for carrying the rope and the beer. I carried…a harmonica? No, wait, Sam carried that too. With my super light mostly empty Hyperlight pack I was able to keep up with the young people. These guys can really move!

Super fun crew on the summit!

 

Friday was a true rest day…meaning no climbing. I hiked up to paint the ruins. See story at the top of the page. Later I hung out at our propane campfire with Kyle, Lauryn, Gus, Sam and Landon.

During a long period of good climbing weather I’ve noticed that most people run out of firewood. Because re-supply is an hour away in Moab, the campground goes dark, unless you have a propane campfire. My 5 gallon tank lasts at least 9 nights. We met some very nice people when they stopped by to warm their hands.

We met our neighbor Landon from site 7 a week earlier when he saw my campfire and walked over with a six pack. I also heard from Crystal that the best way to get a campsite in a crowded climber campground is to walk up to the fire with a six pack. “Y’all need any more beer?”

Cass was overdue but showed up later that night. She’d had a bunch of problems with her Sprinter, including a broken interior heater. I was standing around a campfire at the Squamish neighbors when a woman reached out to give me a hug. I was startled because I thought she had bailed. But it was super nice to have one of my homies from t-town show up. I’ve known her for about a year and we’ve been on a few trips and had some fun adventures. She is also a gym regular here when she is visiting her mom.

Earlier we’d seen the sign (below), and could hear the music and shouting from the unofficial ‘party site’. A couple Canadians had been over and said there were people getting naked. I didn’t think they would really do that in the 25 degree temps but Cass and I decided to check it out.

When we got there we saw a roaring bonfire with both men and women stripping naked…at least on the top half. They also had a set of large speakers pumping out rock and roll for the costumed booty shakers. Later I heard that the Halloween party was even wilder, and that there is a strong culture of skinny dipping in Yosemite, where many of these folks were from. Clearly I’m out of touch.

They were playing a drinking game that involved whiskey poured into the natural ‘cup’ formed by the clavicle bone. There are other cups on the body also…as you can imagine. Anyway, they poured it in, drank it out, and then other shenanigans ensued. It’s definitely a young persons game. I have distant 60 year old memories of my carefree hippy days when parties like these were the norm. But in my retirement, getting wasted is just not my thing. We enjoyed the show for half an hour and then left them to their fun.

Naked campfire party sign on the outhouse

11-19

Cass drove us in her Sprinter up to Pistol Whipped wall. The road was rough and her house on wheels was rocking and rattling like a ship at sea. We should have taken my Tundra. It’s the road that goes right at the fork past the Willows campground out at Beef Basin. We climbed Spaghetti Western and Short Dumb, which I ended up hang dogging to the second anchor.

This little red #1 crack is only rated 5.8. IMHO this rating is completely bogus if you have big hands like mine. I pulled on 4 reds to get above the chains where it turned into a very nice yellow and blue hand crack. The last 6 feet involved pulling on a loosely seated refrigerator sized block. As I pulled on the top, it creaked out away from the wall. I quickly let go and it thumped back in place like a dinosaur awakening. That block could kill someone some day.

Short dumb 5.8 with a 5.10 extension

11-20

I followed Landon up Super Crack. He flew up that thing so fast it was hard to believe. He was cruising towards the anchor when I suddenly felt a big fall. The guy who was racking nearby saw the 30 foot whip and called it correctly: “Victory whip!!!”

When I followed it to clean the anchors I fell out of the boulder move at the start. The secret seems to be to get your right hand fingers cammed into the crack on the left above the bulge. Once past that move I hiked up the rest like it was a long 5.8. Cass also TR’d Supercrack. She made some progress on hand-fist jamming. It was fun to see her smile.

Next I led The Incredible Hand Crack with one hang. I could have led TIHC clean but there was a crowd on it and we did Supercrack first…which made my arms tired. At my age, it takes weeks to build up the power for the creek. There was a crowd of young people top roping TIHC all morning. When I walked over and led it with one hang they were impressed and offered me a shot from their flask of whiskey.

At my side is Landon, my trusty belayer and neighbor in site 7. Landon is a really cool guy. He is an Air Force veteran and one of my only partners down there who would actually slow down to my hiking pace on the approaches. Most of my partners would leave me in the dust. And I get that, they are young and fit and loved to move. But Landon was a real gentleman and would hike along at my old man pace so we could talk about life and stuff.

Landon and I, happy after leading The Incredible Hand Crack at 68 years old. My last lead of the trip.

I left Creek Pasture campground yesterday at dawn and drove up through Price and Salt Lake City to the open but deserted Farewell Bend State Park at 10PM.

At Salt Lake City google said I needed to drive 636 miles before turning right. Geez!

From Farewell Bend State park, Google Maps said I had a 7 hour drive home. Despite a 6 AM start I didn’t get home until 4PM thanks to a snowstorm on Snoqualmie Pass. Cars and trucks were stuck and flipped over everywhere. It doesn’t take a genius to know that there can be snow on the mountain passes. Why don’t people carry chains? My 4WD Tundra was a rock with Hakkapelita studless snow tires. But I think my windows blew a fuse. They froze in place and only the drivers side moves.

Since I’ve been home we’ve fallen back into our routine of ping pong twice a week plus skiing at Rainier and the occasional trip to the climbing gym. I set up my easel in the kitchen and tried to talk myself into being a studio artist. It was fun adding color to the rocks. I went a little crazy only because bright colors make me smile. I’m not trying to make something real. It is after all the story of a vision…or was it? I’ll probably never know what really happened up there.

Finished the ruins in my studio (kitchen)

January in Joshua Tree

Dave and I headed south mid January towards St. George.  I’m putting the photos gallery first,  while the more narrative storytelling is below the gallery.

Along the way we met Fletch, Sam, Garret, Anni and Brian. I’m of the ‘more is merrier’ way of thinking. As long as everyone can lead and is vaccinated, it usually works out. It’ll be funny to read this in ten years when we’ve all forgotten about Covid.

Our first stop after the 26 hour drive was a 10 minute walk to a cliff in downtown St. George, right above a soccer field. We were so close we could hear the children kicking the balls. Dave led Wide Boy  and Deface Crack. The rock quality was surprisingly close to Indian Creek. We felt lucky to have nailed the warm weather after that long drive. I struggled from jet lag, but it would be fun to go back when I’m warmed up.

Fresh off the drive from Seattle in St. George, Utah

We crashed on BLM land near Prophesy Wall for the next few nights. It was deserted up there with only a herd of cows wandering around. I was woken at dawn by an odd rhythmic sound, realizing later it was cows grazing next to our truck. We only saw one other van and Dave left his tent up with no problem.

Snow Canyon is shady in the morning so we climbed a 5.8 crack on the sunny side then at noon followed the sun to the three pitch 5.8  Just Deserts and a couple other harder lines. Pictured below is me rapping off Dave’s sketchy 5.10a. The route went up the left arete above the huge cave. The moves felt like stepping on air. By the third morning the sun was gone and the weather was overcast. We woke up, looked around and bailed for Vegas.

Me rapping off Daves 5.10 at St. George, Snow Canyon, Photo by Dave

When we got to Vegas we had enough of an afternoon left to climb Physical Graffiti and the first pitch of the 5.9 sport route Big Bad Wolf. Someday I want to lead the top two pitches on that one, they look great.

We slept at Skid Row and rose at dawn to climb the 5.8 six pitch Purblind Pillar. Dave really stepped up to the plate to cover my weak leading skills. I only led two of the six pitches this time.  For some weird reason I was ‘off my feed’ for the first week of this almost 3 week trip. With a few exceptions, I was climbing so badly I didn’t even recognize myself. I knew there was a real climber inside my head somewhere…but I couldn’t  make him come out to play. It was only after we got to Jtree that I started to climb normally.

Dave saw Elvis!
Dave pitch 5 Purblind Pillar, Vegas

After finishing Purblind in the dark we decided I was too slow for long alpine routes in winter. Dave had wanted to do another long one the next day…but after thinking it over we decided to bail for Joshua Tree. It was a good excuse to do some night driving instead of sitting around the propane campfire. Simultaneously I had heard that our Indian Creek friend Sam was in Red Rocks. I regretted not calling her because she told me later that she had been climbing with boulderers and would have enjoyed some multipitch trad. If you don’t know bouldering…it’s rock climbing, but without ropes. And yes, it’s as dangerous as it sounds.

We crashed in the desert on the way to Josh. There is  a ton of BLM land coming into 29 Bombs from the North. In the early morning we parked at Intersection Rock and did “the walk” around the full campground, making friends and admiring all the fancy rigs. Not finding a campspot, we decided to cook breakfast.

Dave (hereafter called Chef) appointed me sous-chef and began teaching me how to prepare Egg McMuffins. He denies ever working at McDonalds.

  • Chef starts by toasting the English muffins
  • Once brown, set those aside in a warming pan
  • Crack 4 eggs and drop them separately in the skillet
  • Break open the yokes so the yellow spreads a bit for flavor
  • Peel off 4 double slices of salami and put them in the pan on the sides
  • Slice half an onion and put the onion rings next to the salami
  • Once the eggs are ready to flip, cut them apart into four separate eggs
  • Flip the eggs (this was my job…as sous-chef)
  • Put the pre-sliced cheese on the eggs, cover pan
  • While all this is going on, keep flipping the muffin halves
  • When cheese is almost soft, lift eggs onto muffin bottom – sous chef assists
  • Add fried salami and onions to egg, which melts the cheese to perfection
  • Add the top muffin and…Bob’s Your Uncle!

By the end of the trip…I was almost ready to cook these alone. Chef kept promising a promotion…but the budget was tight…I’m still hoping. With full bellys we climbed a few easy things like Toe Jam, Double Cross and Mikes Books. Dave top roped the crux on Watershute and got it third try.

After Dave led Sexy Grandma we noticed a guy having trouble on Double Cross. He froze on the upper half after running out of big gear. I quietly asked his belayer if he would be able to finish the route, and when he said no, we hung around, watching in case he needed help. Either Dave or I could have easily led it to get his gear off.

Finally we left, knowing there would likely be people around if they really needed a rescue. While we were hanging out he mentioned that they were leaving site 27 in the morning…and we said we’d stop by since we were staying in BLM and needed a campsite.

Fletch showed up that night around 8 from Santa Barbara with a guitar and some Mikes and we played our usual set under the desert stars. We’ve been jamming together for 14 years, he is one of my oldest friends. In the morning we drove up and checked in on our friends in 27. Sure enough they were packing up and seemed thankful that we had offered to help the previous night when things were going south. Dave asked if he could put his tent up while they were getting ready to leave. They concurred and we became the lucky owner of a rare campsite.

In case you don’t know, getting a site at this first come first served campground can seem impossible. Each site gets two parking spots and there are often two or more cars in. every. single. site. The rangers never take down the FULL sign. Oddly though, if you know how to play the game, getting a site only takes a couple days.

I love Joshua Tree for many reasons, but the most important thing is the quantity of easy climbs on good rock. Doesn’t matter how rusty you are, you can find climbs to lead comfortably. Many people prefer to top rope until they warm up. This is actually the norm. But I’ve observed over the decades that this TR practice leads to overcrowding on popular routes.

I’m in the minority on this opinion, but I feel that if a climb is too hard to lead, I’ll hike farther until I find something easier that I *can* lead. This frustrates some of my stronger partners, but, we’ve all got our little quirks. I like to say: “I’ve never met an easy climb I didn’t like.”

My first good lead of the trip was the 5.8 Hands Off. It’s a lovely stem box problem that eats gear the whole way up. Any time there is a crux you can place a cam above you. It’s basically top roping…but without the top rope. Because of the stem you get lots of rests to reflect on your poor life choices. There is also a great belay stance at the top that allows you to photograph your followers. Dave scrambled up to the top to get this photo:

Me leading Hands Off
Me leading Hands Off – Photo by Dave

We roamed far and wide over the next two weeks, climbing all the classics plus a few new ones. We were in true hidden valley for Fisticuffs, Tumbling Rainbow and Illusion Dweller; at Echo for Tim’s Valentine, F8, Popes Crack, Penny Lane and Touch & Go; up Steve Canyon for Deflowered, Grand Theft Avacado; up in the Wonderland for High Strung and Hex Marks the Poot; plus all the standard campground climbs like Toe Jam, Overhang Bypass, Damper and Dandelion.

Our hardest climbs were Illusion Dweller, Loose Lady, Bird on a Wire, Dandelion and Fistifuffs. I was surprised how hard Loose Lady seemed. It’s a mix of face and slab on thin edges. Sue and I used to love it, but pulling hard on those crimpers seems to aggravate my 68 year old hands. Even my feet were complaining. Maybe it was just near the end of the trip and I was getting tired? I hope it isn’t one of those climbs that I have to cross off the list ’cause I got too old. While we were packing up a young couple came up and sent it effortlessly…just like we used to do in our twenties. We all get our chance to be young, strong and pretty.

Chilean girl on Loose Lady
Chilean girl cruising up Loose Lady 10a

Nights at Joshua Tree in the winter are long and cold. Once the sun goes down you have three choices: (1.) Go to bed early, (2.) shiver around a campfire, or (3.) go night hiking. For those in the know, there is a classic series of night hikes around Hidden Valley. I met the legendary aid climber Ammon McNeely thru a mutual friend in 2011. He taught me how to navigate through the park using landmarks that are visible even without moonlight. One of his guiding principles is that you can’t do it sober…simply not allowed. This led to some interesting shenanigans the first night he took us out, but that is another story.

Ammon McNeely at Iron Door cave in 2011

No one at our site had done the night tour so I volunteered to lead. We visited the Iron Door cave and the Hobbit Hole, a grand time was had by all. It’s fun to bring a good camera out there for night exposures. I had my full frame Canon 6D.

Iron Door cave
Friends in the Iron Door cave, lit by headlamps

Eventually all our friends left and it was just me and Dave breaking into the third week of steady climbing. I had done a good painting and led Fistifcuffs, while he had led Illusion Dweller. Those are both proud sends so we’d kind of accomplished everything we’d come down for. I followed him up Overhang Bypass, which has a scary traverse for both the leader and follower. It’s only 5.7 but it’s one of those climbs that seems to never feel easy or safe. On the summit, I broached the subject of heading for home. Sue was getting lonely…and I sort of needed another rest day…maybe we should head North? Dave concurred and we packed up.

He taught me a cool trick on the road trip home. I was ready to crash in my usual noisy rest area or truck stop. He suggested taking an exit where there was a long stretch of blackness…as in, no houses or towns. His working theory is to take the exit, then look at a map. Look for roads that fork out like the roots of a tree…getting smaller and smaller…with no houses at the ends. Typically this may mean an open farm field, or old logging road. It worked great, and was far quieter than a parking lot full of rumbling diesel trucks.

BLM sunrise
Stealth camping sunrise on the drive home

I love going on these climbing trips, but it’s equally fun to come home and see my family. Absence doth makes the heart grow fonder.

Sue and Rose, our grandchild.

Playing guitar

My Martin and I in 1979

I learned to read music in seventh grade band class: fourth chair trumpet. My brother played the clarinet and my sister the flute. Carrying instruments to school was the norm. Around that time dad bought me a Hohner 64 reed chromatic harmonica…which I still have. He played a little and taught me a few songs.

With the harmonica I was able to join the holiday sing alongs where we’d often have a crowd of aunts and uncles singing Christmas carols around the piano. My grandma and my sister-in-law were both piano teachers, and mom was a decent player as well. Dad was the choir director at our church, and his siblings: my aunts and uncles, had great voices.

No one cared if you were a little out of tune, or forgot the song halfway through and had to restart from the beginning. It was all part of the fun. Though my family was very religious, they were never pushy and  tolerated us non-believers with a quiet confidence that eventually we’d see the light.

One memorable afternoon mom had the piano tuner in. Grandma was there, along with the normal relatives that gathered for holidays. The tuner guy was a blind man of color from somewhere way down South in the Bible Belt. Think Stevie Wonder.  Olympia at that time was very white…but everyone in town knew this guy was the best piano tuner in the county. The way he manipulated the insides of our piano, you would never know he was blind. He had an “aw shucks” humbleness I remember to this day.

After he finished tuning the piano he said he needed to play a song to be sure it was right. To our families’ astonishment he began playing some of the best boogie woogie blues I’d ever heard. The man could play and he was rocking our tight laced Presbyterian world. It was just nuts watching the room go from shock to foot tapping appreciation.

In my own small way I’ve tried to carry on the tradition of amateur musicianship. Not just because it’s a family tradition but because making music is fun.  I have a collection of sheet music going back to the 1960’s. But I always keep my eye out for new songs, or old songs I’ve forgotten about.  My latest is  Take My Breath Away, made popular by a group called Berlin.

If I know the melody and I have some clean chords in my vocal range I can often play a song right from the website on the first try. Finding a new song is like having a new toy…super fun and exciting.

Many times I’ll find chords online but they are presented in a way that won’t fit on one sheet of paper. When you are playing around a campfire there’s very little room. Typically I’ll adjust the key to fit my low voice, copy the pre-formated text from the website and paste it into Word. Or, since I’m retired and don’t like their prices I use the free Libre Office. Then I work the song over for a couple days, fixing the typical flaws that come down with free stuff on the internet.

This is the first time I’ve been home for Christmas in 10 years. I’m surprised how much I’m enjoying playing the old Christmas carols. Those are some mighty fine melodies. I used to just play them with mom. She’d play the piano, with me on the harmonica, but this year I’m learning them on guitar. They have some challenging jazzy style chords…but my oh my they sound nice.

Here are some of my recent favorites songs in PDF form:

The root folder is here, if you want to see everything I’ve got up there:

All my uploaded songs.

At some point I wouldn’t mind putting these all on a big iPad…but for now I print them out and keep them in a ring binder. I keep 4 copies of each song for handing out at jam sessions.

Tutorial on how to fingerpick Shallow:

 

Take my breath away

Mt Shasta wedding

Pam got married last weekend, which was a year after starting her practice. He seems like a great guy, we are very happy for her.

We climbed a lot during her breaks from college and training. For a few months she lived in Tacoma, which made for a bunch of gym and Index trips.

She is the only one of my nieces and nephews with whom I ever spent any serious time. Though I’ve also been on a few 3 day trips with her brother, who is a great climber as well.

David and Beth moved too far away for me to really get to know. We used to see all 7 of the cousins every Thanksgiving back when Grandma was alive. But then we all got older and people spread across the country. I feel lucky to have climbed with Lisa, Clint, Pam and John as much as we could given our busy lives.

Pam asked me to play guitar as she walked down the aisle. I was supposed to start singing when her grandma walked. Because I had to keep looking up at the walkers, I lost my place for a few agonizing seconds, and had one of those awful stage fright moments where nothing made sense. My harp and guitar which had been  flowing so well fell into a discordant mess of broken sounds.  I saw the two people in the front row looking at me in surprise. I panicked and made a snap decision to switch from instrumental to voice, regardless of who was walking.

I was fine after that, and none of my relatives noticed…or said they didn’t…but it made me frustrated. I’d practiced so hard to nail it down. And to make a major flub like that was…well, at the end of the day…I’m just an average Joe, not a professional wedding performer. I have to cut myself some slack.

We left after the ‘ball and chain’ event and drove out to the Oregon coast where I did too bad paintings. My pen and ink is not practical for fast plein air. I mean, duh. Everyone knows pen is super slow. I need to practice loosening up and drawing more frequently in a sketchy style. Or just go back to pastel. Pastel is so quick on color paper. It’s pretty as soon as you put in the high lights. How did I get sucked down this urban sketcher dead end?

Facebook and Instagram had a 6 hour outage yesterday. I was painting all day and didn’t even notice. That’s how it should be. I have no need to ‘build my brand’ anymore. I’m retired. I should close all my accounts. My new friends from Idaho aren’t on social media at all. Many people aren’t anymore…like Sue, Clint, Pam, Paul and Chad. The entire concept of Social Media is flawed from the get go. I would be wise to let it all go.

Hag Crag – Free sheet music

Climbed z  corner at hag crag. It’s a tough 5.7 on which I should bring many more hand sizes from #5 to green.

Got up Toxic Shock cleanly and Battered Sandwich. Super fun climbing with Ben, Kena and D. Wood.

I’ve nailed down Perfect by Ed Sheeran. It does need a capo (up 1) if you wan to play along with Ed.

I keep all my sheet music guitar chords up on my server. If you search online, you can find chords that are quite close, but they always have problems. It’s a crowd sourced website, meaning people like you and me upload what they think are the correct chords. Consequently, there are usually errors, and almost always the chords don’t fit on one sheet of paper.

I fix all the problems. Anything up on my website has been tested multiple times around climbing campfires.

Here is the link to my sheet music folder:

https://websterart.com/songs-pdf/

Steel Grill

I’ve not written in a month. My interest in keeping this journal goes in cycles. I guess the main reason is that I enjoy reading older entries. So much of life races by and gets forgotten. Only the big events stick in memory. Having this journal is a way to check in 10 years later and have something concrete to read. I read these old entries and say, oh yeah, I remember that. Otherwise they’d be lost forever.

Starting with the most recent things:

Sue and I camped at Vantage in our new rig and hooked up with Fletch, Lisa G. and Vitaly. I jumped on Steel Grill since it was the only thing open in my price range. The place was packed, biggest crowds I’ve ever seen. It was a Saturday, and the only dry crag in the state, still, those crowds were not sustainable.

I did OK on the lower section of Steel Grill. It’s just reachy crack climbing. But the crux stopped me cold for at least 20 minutes. I finally was able to jam in a good #1 red above me. It requires a lot of up and down to get comfortable in a spot where you can place the high red. After that I had to hang, and slowly put a layback together with Fletch giving me tension. I totally cheated…but at least I got past the crux.

I need to trust that layback early. It’s only two steps with a great edge to pull on and then you rocker in on your feet and Bob’s your uncle. I would benefit from three number fours, 4 #2’s and 3 blues. The five would be heavy but useful on the move above the crux out of the last pod.

After our day of climbing we had a jam session around our propane firepit. Must have been 15 people from the gym. It was so nice to just hangout normally like the old pre-covid days. We all felt safe around the fire because the wind was blowing hard and not much chance of disease in the air. About half the people there were nurses or doctors. It’s crazy how this sport attracts medical people. I had to drive home in the dark afterward in the new rig, so I abstained from imbibing. Sue said Fletch and I performed our campfire songs better than usual…perhaps being totally sober was the reason.

In other news, Chad talked me into a Track saw. Much more convenient than a table saw. I love the way it’s just like cutting matts for framing paintings. We also just today bought a Mr. Buddy propane heater to keep the canopy warm while winter camping. Craig and Ken D. both have one in their rigs. The canopy is water tight, even at highway speeds. I think we made a good decision. And at only 100 pounds while being high enough for us both to walk around in, plus Toyota reliability…gotta love it.

I painted at Paradise a couple weeks ago. It’s unfinished, I’ll post pictures later. I also bought some German cobbler glue. I used it to fix a de-laminating problem on my new custom rock shoes. I sanded and scraped off (razor blade) the old glue with lacquer thinner and lighter fluid.  I brushed on a single coat, let it dry 30 minutes then heated it up for a minute with a hair dryer. This activates the glue…making it sticky again. I put the shoe on , then stepped into a block of that kayak brace foam until the glue cooled down…about 5 minutes. I took the shoe off and used finger pressure to smoosh it down even more. This guy explains it well:

Do dreams have pixels?

My mind clicked awake at 2AM last night.  I thought I might be able to get back to sleep by creating a calming scenario…like sheep jumping over a fence. Who’s in charge here anyway? I went into the menu and chose: file > new. The sleepy part of my mind thought I could create a dream with me successfully singing my latest project: “Love Yourself”, by Justin Beiber and Ed Sheeran.

But I got stuck on the file > new  menu. What resolution should the file be? Should it be 1080p? Maybe 4K? So many questions…

We’ve been doing some really complicated projects in class recently. Our project this quarter is to build a portfolio website. It needs to be so good that it can help my students get a job. But the process is sooo complicated that I wrote a book about it,  you can buy it on Amazon.

But back to my dream. I worked on the song after class today…for hours. I must have been driving Sue crazy…obsessively finger picking the chords. Eventually I gave up when Lisa asked us if we wanted to run the stairs at our local stadium. Sue surprised me by challenging me to run them with her. She normally walks up. But there she went, running up, and I followed. We both reached the top…still alive. I couldn’t  believe how strong my 66 year old wife is. I struggled to keep up with her…and the stairs seemed endless.

There were a  dozen people in their teens and twenties running the stairs. Those kids are like electric motors. Definitely wired for 220 Volts on a 20 Amp circuit. They don’t even know the meaning of load.

Annnnd I’m back to the dream.

I discovered this song a couple weeks ago. I think it’s the hardest song I’ve ever learned. I’ve figured out how to play the lead part in the key of C, without a kapo. I still can’t sing and play lead at the same time, but I’ve got the chords and words down.

Here is the tutorial I’m following on how to finger pick the main verses:

I spent many hours studying the song before coming up with these chords. I love the way the words rush along, out of time to the music. It’s the kind of song that gets into your head. I don’t even like the words, they are a bit juvenile. But the melody and rhythm is very compelling, it just works.

F. and I climbed one day over Memorial day weekend. I was so rusty I had to cheat on South Face of Jello. My lack of gym power is making a difference. I got up Midway direct, but barely. I was terrified on the Midway step across move. I’ve had that wired for 30 years.

In other news, I was standing at the sink today and noticed that the soap dispenser bottle was looking particularly fetching. It’s your standard yellow liquid soap for washing dishes…but my artists eye saw it as a painting. I imagined mixing the colors with my palette knife and laying them down thick and juicy on the canvas, gradually building up the shape in thick layers of colored mayonnaise like oil paint.

I didn’t actually paint…but the fact that I thought…even hungered for painting, is in itself promising. I’ve been blocked since November. Doesn’t help that all the parks are closed…though that doesn’t stop my friends who are real working artists. Summer is coming in a month.

I wrote this post a couple weeks ago but have delayed posting it. Since then I’ve been climbing with F. three weekends in a row. Last weekend (yesterday) we went to Private Idaho at Index. I led Senior Citizens and Wild Turkey. He led Battered Sandwich and Istanbul. I might have been able to lead them, but was glad he stepped up to the plate. Battered would have freaked me out at the upper slab. I would have had to hang. I almost fell out on follow. It’s partly my new shoes. I don’t trust them yet. They are very aggressive and seem to have a stiffer than normal insole. I love them for crack…but don’t trust them yet on friction.

SpaceX just put two astronauts in orbit. Those guys are so brave! First US built astronaut launch in 9 years. The technology is much improved over the old space shuttle. I still remember where I was when the first one blew up. I was at JL Darling, working day shift in the bindery where they had a radio reporting on the tragedy.

Sunset concert at Vantage

Fletch and I drove to Vantage Wednesday night and stayed through Saturday morning. I had just been there on Tuesday with Christine and Emily where I led Steel Grill cleanly and followed Bob’s Your Uncle, with one fall.

Fletch and I climbed Pony Keg, Air Guitar, George & Martha, Seven Virgins and Ride Em’ Cowboy. It got so hot we almost fell asleep resting in the chimney after the Virgins route. I walked out into the broiling sun to switch out my climbing shoes for boots but quickly retreated back to the cool shade of the chimney where Fletch and his dog Winston were zoning off.

I brought my second 40 oz water bottle back to the shade. As I took a sip of the almost empty bottle Fletch asked if he could have some,  that he was out of water. He’d brought one quart for both him and the dog.

“Dude, I depend on you to be organized and have extra water!” I joked. Later we hiked out dry through the sage scented air, enjoying the endless views of the mesas and cliffs surrounding Vantage. The weekenders had begun to show up, it being Friday night and our neighbor was running her minivan to power an electric pump for her 10 inch queen sized air mattress.

She had 3 kids who were climbing at the Feathers with her brother, plus a little girl who was still wearing her homemade swami harness made from 1 inch tubular. The full size standing room tent and air mattress made it clear she wasn’t a regular climber. We don’t bother with all those luxuries. Still it’s always great to see people enjoying the outdoors though the droning of the air mattress pump was annoying.

We were surprised to see her suddenly in our campsite holding out two cold beers.

“Hey guys, sorry about my dog and the dumb air pump. Here’s a couple beers for your trouble.”

“Oh, jeez, you didn’t have to do that, but thanks a lot, we forgot to bring beer, this will help a lot!” we said.

She was super friendly and a very fit young mom.  She hung out with us for a while, talking climbing and where we were all from.

“Don’t worry too much about the noise,” I said, pointing at our two guitars, “We’ll be making some noise of our own after dinner. But don’t worry, we won’t play late.”

“Oh, no worries, we’re not going to bed early, we’ve got teenagers.”

Fletch and I had forgot to pack a can opener so I had to jab my can of beans with a bendy knife and saw it open. By the time I’d done that to my tuna and black beans I was so hungry I decided to eat them cold. As Fletch said “Why heat them up? They don’t taste any better and it’s more dishes to wash.”

As we sat there in the fading light, eating dinner out of our cans I got out a small brick of greasy sun warmed goat cheese. Every couple bites of tuna and beans I took a bite off the cheese. Fletch noticed my eating process and commented that we were really living the dirt bag life. We didn’t  have camp chairs, just sitting on boulders strewn around the fire pit.

Fletch the (fire whisperer) soon had a nice fire crackling and we broke out our guitars. We started with a couple songs on which I could add harmonica: “To make you feel my love” (Adele & Dylan) and “Sweet Carolina” (Ryan Adams).

As we finished Carolina, we heard applause and saw 5 of our neighbors lined up nearby, watching us play and soaking in the vivid red sunset over the distant hills above the Columbia River. We’ve worked hard over the last 12 years refining and polishing our sound. We’re far from great musicians, but for a couple of old climbers we have a decent sound.

The brother walked over with his teenage son: “That was awesome guys, I love that song! We really hit the jackpot with this camp spot. Spectacular sunset and live music!”

We thanked him and continued through our usual routine, playing all our favorites as the evening light faded into darkness lit only by our little fire and headlamps. Fletch had seen Elton John at the Tacoma Dome two nights before so of course we played Your Song & Goodbye Norma Jean. We knocked off when the whiskey ran out around 8. I’d only brought a little hip flask…just enough to warm the belly.

We talked quietly for a while after that, discussing all the usual topics climbers yarn about: the meaning of life, hard climbing moves, future trips, etc. Soon the stars were out in all their glory, lighting the way for a half moon.

I crawled into my old Bibler mountaineering tent feeling  thankful for good friends and amazing hobbies. At 65, I know I can’t keep climbing forever. There is an end game coming where my body will start objecting to pulling hard on 5.10 crack climbs. It seems to take a little longer each year to warm up.

I’ve spent 5 days drawing cows with pen and ink. I’ll post them later. It’s more fun to show my drawings in person. When my friends see them online first, their reactions are  muted on seeing them live.  They’ll say: “Oh, yeah, I saw that online, very nice.”

I love that expression of wonder in peoples faces when they see my artwork for the first time live and in person…especially the good stuff. I’ll never sell a cow drawing, but the experience of watching it come to life under my hands is worth all the trouble. There are moments with a great drawing or painting where I can step outside myself and simply stare in wonder. This latest pen drawing might be my best work yet.

 

Harmonica Holder review

HarpArm EZ-Rack Pro Magnetic Harmonica Holder – Review

I play guitar and harmonica together, Bob Dylan style. I’ve had harp holders since 1972. Up until yesterday my best one was a $50 Hohner harp holder, but the screws kept falling out of it, rendering it useless.

I did a search online discovered the new magnetic harp holders. But it was $50. I went to Guitar Center and decided it was so close to my broken Hohner holder that I could do some modifications and save money. Because it was only $24, I bought the Harp Arm Magnetic Mic Stand Harmonica Holder.

I removed the broken missing screw parts from my Hohner, cobbled together some wood and aluminum and built a Frankenstein holder that seems quite good.

MacGyver’d Magnetic cell phone mount

I have wizgear cell phone mounts on my dashboard, but they depend on a plastic ball joint on a plastic neck. My recent vacation driving bumpy dirt roads broke the plastic neck. My solution? Remake the ball joint and neck from 9/16″ aluminum rod.

Painting a violin

Kristi loaned me her violin after our last jam session. When she plays that violin it brings magic into the room. Don’t know how such a small instrument can add so much beauty.

On the painting side, it’s a nightmare to draw. There are countless complex curves that have to be rendered perfectly. And the wood…did I ever mention how hard it is to paint wood? Not to mention the strings, this was the first time I’ve tried to paint ultra thin lines.

I also neglected to think about composition and started with the violin floating on white. All of my stumbling trial and error approach to painting is shown in these photos.

I’m 4 hours into another angle. This time I’m drawing it bigger than life size. And I’m looking down the length of it. The tuning knobs are bigger and the neck is foreshortened. This makes it really, really hard…so hard I had to grid out the canvas, and look at the violin thru my little dental floss grid viewer….pictures to follow.

For hour after hour I stood there trying, and failing, to draw it accurately. If something is life size, I can measure much more easily. I look, measure and draw it to size. But when it’s bigger, there is some mental transposing that goes on after I look. I can’t just draw what I see. I have to draw it larger.

I know this doesn’t make sense. I draw stuff smaller than life all the time. That seems to be easier. Perhaps it’s that when you are drawing something so close you can touch it, it’s natural to want to make it life size?

Alex and his son dropped by for a little ping pong today and I showed them the painting of the family violin. They were impressed.