I never apologized to my dad before he passed away in August 1997. To say we didn’t get along during my teenage years would be putting it lightly. Before our troubles began, I recall working together on a project. Clumsily, I positioned a nut at the end of a bolt and started torqueing it down with a wrench. He noticed my shaking arms and stern face.
“Luis, stop! Don’t force it. Never force anything.” Reversing the nut with his fingers, he seated it correctly and signaled for me to try again. It tightened with ease.
This past June a weekend family trip to the City of Rocks was whittled down to my stepdaughter and me when my wife and stepson, Fynn, stayed home for an impromptu soccer tournament. On a Friday afternoon Josie and I left Salt Lake City. Barely across the Idaho border we stopped on Strevell Road beneath the Raft River Mountains. I snapped photographs of abandoned ranch buildings while Josie darted back and forth screaming, trying to avoid swarming mosquitoes. Down the road I spied an eagle perched on a telephone pole. Pulling over I grabbed the camera.
“Do you think we can make it fly?” As we walked toward the pole it spread its wings and swooped down between the wires. A few flaps and it soared through the evening air.
“Whoa… That’s huge!” Josie blurted. I had to agree.
I was eleven the first time I climbed. A rope, anchored to a tree 50 feet up a very low angle bluff, served as the route. Thinking back to that climb it wouldn’t even be considered fourth class terrain. Regardless of its difficulty, the hook was set. From then on my free time was spent on the rock. Since I didn’t have any real equipment the majority of my climbing was soloing at fourth and easy fifth class crags in the Wasatch Mountains. Only on occasion was I lucky enough to hook up with a friend’s older brother and actually climb with a rope.
During those rope free days I found a new identity. The uncertainty of being on the rock without any protection cut through all the teenage crap on the surface. In moments of doubt, when the outcome seemed dire and fear paralyzed me, I discovered I was the only solution. Left or right, up or down, my fate was in my hands. Each outing increased my confidence as I found strength from within. At home things were different.
“Do not speak to me like that. Have your mother cut your hair. Boys do not wear earrings. Sunday is for worship. You will obey.” Questions were not tolerated when my dad laid out his directives. Step outside his line and you were forced back in.
When I was twelve he let it slip that he was listening in on my telephone calls. He explained it was his right to do so. Seeking privacy I spent hours outside, away with friends, refusing to come in. Numerous times he dragged me back to the house in order to spend time with him, which led to more time away. Once, while he demanded that I cut my hair, he snapped and wrestled me to the ground.
“And take that thing out of your ear!” He screamed while tearing at my earring. My older brother intervened and afterward, I added two more piercings to spite him. This cycle continued into high school. He would demand, then I would refuse by taking steps in the opposite direction. Each exchange with him made it easier to stay away and hang with the kids he didn’t want me to be with.
With these friends I discovered yet another identity. Booze, speed, weed, hash, ‘shrooms, LSD, ex; we dabbled with it all and it all blew my mind. At first, I got high occasionally, then weekly and, eventually, daily. Faster than you’d think, the substances took over. I found myself searching the canyons near Salt Lake for places to get high instead of places to climb. There were speed and LSD binges so intense I would smoke pot or drink just to keep the edge off. Drifting from one friend’s house to another I’d stay away from home for days never contacting my parents. Nights were spent among granite or quartzite boulders in the nearby canyons. We partied until it wasn’t fun any more. These long highs always ended with severe lows, where the guilt and shame of what I was becoming pushed me to stay away even longer. Usually it led to getting high again in order not to face reality. Several arrests and court appearances along with slipping academics labeled me a delinquent. I wanted to stop, but didn’t know how. Feeling trapped in a cycle of hormones and mind-altering chemicals, I began to lash out at everything and everyone.
Saturday I rose before dawn in the City of Rocks to the song of birds. In the cool air I ran quietly past the patina covered formations. Swifts darted along the walls of Flaming Rock then Morning Glory and others. This was my first weekend alone with Josie and I needed to strategize, get things properly threaded.
Josie wants to go to the hot springs today; it’s closed on Sunday’s… I want to explore Castle Rocks State Park… She wants to climb… I have to figure out what routes those would be… She should have fun… I should do everything I can to make that happen.
I decided on Castle Rock. Lower in elevation than the other crags the iris blooms were out in force. Snowfields on Cache Peak stood out against the green fields below. We hiked by lonely rocks and through pines until we found a crag near a stream with aspens that provided shade. I draped a rope over its steeper side and rappelled slowly, inspecting possible holds. Josie hopped from one side of the stream to the other. The air smelled musky and the grass near the rock was pressed flat.
“Looks like deer have slept here, Jos.” I pointed at droppings and waved to the grass. “Can you smell that?”
The worst of my adolescent angst still haunts me. It occurred one autumn day after holiday shopping with my dad at the request of my mom. I was venomous the entire time. Back home, consumed with the desire to get high, I demanded he drive me to a friend’s house. Reluctantly, he started for the car then, reconsidering, pointedly asked what I was up to. He knew my intention. The unspoken accusation took me by surprise. I was unable to respond. As he turned back to the house something inside me snapped. In a flash I was swinging. He recoiled, trying to retreat, but I caught him inside the door. I was a flurry of fists and feet, a barrage that only stopped after he lay beaten on the steps with a look of horror on his face. I’d just lashed out because I couldn’t face the truth and disappointment of what I’d become. I ran as fast and far as possible. I was fifteen years old.
Saturday afternoon returning to the City of Rocks, after a stop at the hot springs, I suggested to Josie we climb Bath Rock. She belayed me attentively then followed, all while speaking to herself. I couldn’t make out the words. At the top she claimed it was the hardest thing she had ever done and I was taken back to my first routes and the fear of the unknown. Josie had no idea what she was capable of and it wasn’t up to me to force her too far. I could only offer love and support; the rest she’d discover on her own.
That evening, while Josie slurped hot chocolate, we devised a plan to climb to the top of other formations in the City. Sunday we would attempt Flaming Rock, Bread Loaves, Morning Glory and Elephant Rock. It would be cool to see how many we could climb together in a day.
In their final attempt to turn me around my parents committed me to an institution. After putting on a compliant face and letting a few days pass, I escaped by hopping over the cafeteria counter and running through two secure exit doors that were propped open by a custodian taking out the trash. Wearing a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, I ran onto a snow-covered field. I didn’t look back, certain that if I did someone would catch and return me to that prison. Once again I ran as far as I could.
I’m fifteen… have no warm clothing… No money… My friends can’t help… I’ve escaped to nowhere.
Stopped for a brief moment, somewhere in the Salt Lake Valley, I saw the peaks of the Wasatch. Their snowy summits hovered in the night sky. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d climbed. Considering all the money wasted on partying I could’ve amassed a huge stash of gear and traveled anywhere. Instead I was there, at the bottom of a very deep hole, which had just gotten deeper.
That night on a pay phone I promised my mom that things would be different. I would go to therapy, communicate more, do anything not to be locked up. I planned to straighten up and return to climbing. For less than one hour I was warm at home. When three large men showed up to take me back to the institution I felt completely betrayed.
Days later my dad came to visit. He explained how the insurance would be void if I didn’t finish the prescribed rehabilitation. Outpatient therapy was not an option. Either I stayed, however long it took, or my parents would have to pay over $5,000 dollars, money that they didn’t have. Their hands were tied.
The room spun as I fractured and fell to pieces. Dressed in only a hospital gown, I shook uncontrollably and bawled like a baby. It felt as if I’d lost everything.
That winter night a father wrapped his arms around a trembling son. That night a son felt undeserved love from his father.
Sunday morning, with the smell of juniper and sage in the air, Josie and I ran to Flaming Rock. Last year she had backed off Raindance, the two-pitch route to its summit. This year she cruised up it only hesitating at an overlap on the second pitch. Getting her down the backside was a bit touchier. She crawled to the edge of the face then wrapped her arms around my neck. I gently set her below the anchor and told her it would be fine. Releasing her arms from my neck her lips quivered for a moment then relaxed as I let out rope.
To the Bread Loaves, we chose Twist and Crawl. As she jammed her tiny hands into the finishing crack her face pinched into a scowl.
“Jos, you look like a crack climber!” She responded by sticking out her tongue.
No one was on Skyline at 11 am Sunday morning so I made my way up. Only wanting to take her to the edge of comfort I had some doubt on this one. Steep and precarious, it might’ve been enough to unnerve her. As I neared the top a group of climbers appeared and asked Josie when we would be done. Feeling awkward she asked not to climb it. I felt relieved.
The last formation of our trip was Elephant Rock. We arrived to an empty parking area and saw no climbers. To have the place to ourselves was a gift.
“It won’t come out!” Josie had trouble removing the first cam.
“Take it easy. Squeeze the trigger then ease it out.” She got it and moved on to the next one. It was no problem.
“This is… scary!”
“You’re almost here. It’s the last climb of the trip.”
“I can’t get it!” 30 feet below me and 80 above the ground she was fussing with the final tcu. I had finessed it into a pod and now it’d require some guidance to retrieve. I took up the slack and had her sit on the rope. Her arms jerked up and down as she tried to pry the cam from the crack.
“Stop! Take a breath, Jos. It’s not a big deal.” Tears were falling; I could hear it. “Okay, now nice and easy, move it bit by bit.” It was my father’s voice. “Don’t force it. Never force anything, Jos.” She was trembling when she arrived to the belay. I hugged her tightly and told her she’d done awesome.
I’d like to say the institution was a silver bullet, but it wasn’t. While I never returned to partying like I’d done in the past, time was needed in order to clean up. Rehab did, however, have an effect on the relationship with my dad. Unable to speak about the past, we developed a distant respect for one another, but never worked through our differences. After his death depression grabbed hold, suffocating me as I tried to rectify the issues. At first there were only nightmares revisiting our altercations and then, after years, came the dreams of his love.
As a young asthmatic I recalled several trips to the ER. My dad would sit next to me speaking softly. He would calmly walk me through relaxations exercises while my mom, near hysterical, would try to get the doctors to make me “breath like a normal child”. Throughout my childhood whatever positive endeavor I embarked upon, he had always been my biggest supporter. His actions may not have been the best, but I did realize they came from love.
The last memory I have of my dad is being in his room. I’m 20 years old. Afternoon light crept through drapes covering the windows. I sat next to his emaciated body. My weight was the only impression on the mattress. His eyes rolled in their sockets when I touched his hand.
“Dad…” they half opened. “How do you know you’re ready to have kids?” His lolling head snapped straight and the clouds vanished from his eyes. Blinking in astonishment he feigned a smile. “How do you know?” I repeated.
“No one is ever ready for children, Luis.”
On a Sunday afternoon in June I sat with Josie on the top of a granite formation in the City of Rocks. Other rocks rolled away from us, down into Circle Creek Basin. Smokey Mountain sat quietly, covered in dark pine. Turkey vultures floated in a blue sky with the sun beating down.
The fear I’ve known through climbing, embracing uncharted rock, getting buzzed by lightning or being rolled over by a boulder, pales in comparison to the knowledge that I’m capable of despicable behavior. I worried about cross-threading my relationship with Fynn and Josie.
This was only climbing. How would I handle the kids when it became serious?
The thought of parenthood paralyzed me. Josie, no longer trembling, looked at me and smiled. My father was right. Considering my past I would never be prepared, but right or left, up or down, the next move was up to me.