My next 10 months were lain out before me, just waiting to be lived. Who knew that digging my fingers into unyielding rock would turn out to be one of my most grounding experiences?
My initiation to rock climbing was on the second of January. I remember, because I was scheduled for the morning climb on the first. But when I showed up 15 minutes early (somewhat heroically, I thought, as I had celebrated the New Year by downing vodka and Red Bull, and dancing on the beach) the Thai climbing instructors were too hung over to move. Lazing red-eyed in the hammocks drooping from the wooden beams on the porch, they told me to come back the next day.
As in my last clear memory of him from the night before, Wee had an enormous spliff dangling from his lip, and a bottle of Jack Daniels in each hand. Perhaps I would be better off not being 80 feet above the ground with him.
Nowhere to Go But Up
Until I’d landed in Tonsai, Thailand, I didn’t realize it was an international climbing center. I came on a friend’s recommendation. I’d planned to stop there for a couple of days, then move on, possibly to train for my diving certification.
The next day I took a top-roping course with an instructor named Sol, and a few other climbing hopefuls. Inwardly I was bitterly cursing my flip-flop, which had broken the day before as we hiked over the razor-sharp rocks.
We arrived at a tiny jewel of a beach, which we crossed to enter dense jungle. The crag itself was easily accessible from here, with the aid of a rope, thoughtfully placed, though of dubious reliability.
We had two climbs. I remember that one was graded a 5, and that to its right was a long and beautiful 6A, called Spiderman. My feet were clad in borrowed and uncomfortably restrictive footwear.
But most of what I remember about that day was the first contact with mesmerizing limestone.
There’s that first injection of adrenaline-releasing high, where you are clinging to a rock face high above the ground, without a map to trace your tentative steps.
You are trusting your body weight on a foothold the size of a non-genetically modified peanut, and you are willing the moisture forming on your palms to evaporate (you’ve forgotten the little drawstring bag of chalk hanging at your waist, meant to treat this problem). Your muscles are strained to capacity, and a little rivulet of blood is making its way down your left shin.
There is no other place to go but up. In the words of the Flaming Lips: suddenly everything has changed.
Before I came here, I’d been on a bit of a wander.
I had left the United States in November 2006, to live on the small and absurdly picturesque Greek island of Mykonos, based on the sort of wispy reasoning that can, if lassoed and combined with the proper timing, catalyze change. I feared I’d miss out on something, whiling away my not-unpleasant days in the lovely beachfront community of Narragansett, Rhode Island.
And I had an intense desire for adventure, to open some mysterious box containing sparkling newness.
But after eight months on Mykonos, the novelty had eroded, and had given way to the sometimes-empty, alcohol-saturated reality.
I returned to the United States to reevaluate, and recharge my finances.
Three months in Narragansett, shaking martinis and batting my eyelashes for the 20% tips so crucial to my travel funds, left me as perplexed as ever. I had some money (thank you, eyelashes) and I knew precisely where I did not want to be — but not where I did want to be, or what I wanted to do once there.
The idea of spending another bitter white winter in New England slipping into one of the existential crises into which I tend to submerge after too much idle time in America was unappealing. So was the prospect of another soul-crushing, red wine-drenched winter in Greece.
I found myself online for hours, my hands almost of their own avail typing in cheap-flight search engines. Eventually all the accumulated daydreams and ticket prices solidified into a perfect puzzle piece configuration: I had in my possession a ticket that would take me back to Greece for two months, Spain for two weeks, New Zealand for two weeks, Australia for one month, three months in southeast Asia, and back to Greece that spring.
Some entrance of credit card details, an exhilarating click on the “submit” button, and my next 10 months or so were lain out before me, just waiting to be lived.
By the time I arrived in Thailand, I had been to some pretty spectacular places. In four months I’d accumulated what felt like four years of experience.
Spain was my time of rampant indulgence, filled with endless pitchers of sangria and tapas in Valencia (though I left with a slightly sour taste after being robbed in Barcelona). I had the time of my life hitchhiking through the jaw-dropping austerity of the south island of New Zealand, and then about half the east coast of Australia, in a rapid-fire montage of pale rainbowed waterfalls, aquamarine lakes and snow-peaked scenery. I slept under the stars in Castle Hill in New Zealand bundled like a mummy in my sleeping bag, catching a 13-hour lift from Byron Bay to Nararra with a truck driver named Shane and then bodysurfing on Terregal Beach in Australia on Christmas Day.
I was utterly untethered, and floating somewhere new and joyous every day. What had I lost but monotony? What had I gained but the world?
It was in that same spirit of enchantment that I climbed my first rock in Tonsai.
Again there were many choices in the crevices and intricate indentations of the limestone I gripped — only this time the destination was a set point, a tangible ring-shaped goal that begged to be tapped in triumph.
Here was a turning point, a solid threshold. It demanded not only my attention, but physical and psychological determination.
Sports cliches gained relevance: wanting something so desperately you could taste it; adrenaline junkie; the word “addiction” assuming new and oddly positive associations.
At breakfast during the interminable wait for a bowl of porridge, my mind would go over a climb I’d done. Was there a handhold further to the right I had overlooked, in the crux of my route? I would wake in the middle of the night to find my fists sweatily clenched, my feet pressing soft craters in the sheets.
I was struggling, even in my dream state, to reach that elusive pinnacle.
Six weeks passed that way.
At last, with a few new muscles, a close-knit and varied group of friends, and a road atlas of multicolored bruises and scrapes scrawled across my body, I reluctantly departed.
The local climbers presented me with a goodbye cake. What with the lack of ovens and the absence of cake in Thai cuisine, it was actually a large, American-style pancake with “good luck” painted on it in chocolate frosting, garnished with a rose carved out of a tomato, lettuce forming its leaves.
Ah, Thailand, how I miss you and your quirky menu items, aimed at comforting homesick farangs.
Hitting a Wall
Back in Mykonos, I hit another impasse. I was in an island paradise, but with nothing to climb, nowhere to go, and no one in whom to confide my seemingly self-indulgent melancholy. And I was nearly broke.
I found a decent job at a taverna on the beach and proceeded to work every day for the next three months, without a break to climb, write, or even think, functioning on the automatic pilot level that allows us to accomplish what we need but don’t necessarily want to do. In the end I was fired, following an incident in which I’d informed a male associate that wiping glasses was not, in fact, women’s work. When the initial flood of upset and self-righteous indignation subsided, I weighed my options yet again.
What kept coming back was the idea of being somewhere where I would be treated as a human being, where I had contacts with good people, and where I could, once again, dig my fingers into an unyielding, strength-affirming rock surface — not to vent my frustrations, but, in the pure balance of mind and body this created — to render them obsolete.
I stuffed my backpack, and bought another ticket. The climbing shoes and chalk bag were still clipped to the outside of my rucksack, though my carabiner had grown sticky with moisture and the sad dust of disuse.
Since arriving in England three weeks ago, I’ve formulated and discarded several plans.
But here in the pretty rolling hillsides of the English Midlands, I’m learning the delicate art of trad climbing.
I feel that old sense of renewal, and a startling ripple of inspiration. I have finally picked up my long-discarded notebook and pen.
Both climbing and writing seem to open a release valve. Both challenge me, and both occasionally cause my hands to cramp. Even as I continue my gypsy-tinged vagrancy, I have grasped something even more solid than the intriguing English gritstone, and that something is self. It is what keeps us grounded, however high we may ascend.
Writer Julia Reynolds travels the world, waitressing, bartending, and painting houses to refuel her bank account as necessary.
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