War- What is it Good For?

(Excerpted from The Desert, due out later this year, or next year)


I scribbled that on the back of my car, shortly after 9-11, and George W and our government started sounding the war drums in Iraq. There was little chance I’d go to war, a much bigger chance that I’d go to the desert. I wouldn’t go to war, and this isn’t a war book it’s a climbing book, but I wanted war stories.


I wanted a real American life, and more accurately I wanted a Western American life. In those times I was immediately and passionately against the war, yet I attended no demonstrations. In Gunnison we were hours away from any major city. I wrote my little editorials in the college newspaper, which were probably preaching to the choir, again I wasn’t making any converts, never been very good at that, I’m better at reinforcing I think. A college student in Gunny asked me recently if I would recommend climbing to them if they’d never tried it. I answered recommending climbing was sort of like recommending psychedelic mushrooms. I wouldn’t recommend it, but in the same breath I wouldn’t be the same without it. Doors of perception opened.


In America there are only two types of men: those who have been to war and those who have not. It seems there is always one for every generation. At the very least it is every Americans obligation to learn about war. World War 2 seems like the logical place to start, especially for my generation because our grandparents were all directly affected by it. Most of our grandfathers went, and most didn’t talk about it. Mine didn’t. He received a purple heart after getting wounded by a bullet. According to my Grandma he didn’t feel like he deserved it, when many of his fellow soldiers suffered a much worse fate. He was sent back to the States because he was a good typist, and the military needed someone to write discharges. So I guess its in my blood to write and not fight. Then again, we don’t all go to war like we used to. And I didn’t go to war, so I won’t be writing about war anymore in this book. Thankfully I didn’t have to fight in no war, and while I know of the atrocities of it, I never felt it.


My love affair with the desert began in the times of the Iraq war, and also the Afghanistan war, one that still unfolds to this day with American involvement, and my activities in the desert largely were self indulgent, for the betterment of self. Something like that, again, I’m just stretching out here, just warming up, we’ve got miles to go.


Basically my goal was just not to die on any given day. My deep depression that I had survived made me think about death, a lot. I liked to think that I thought a lot. I did. I thought a lot about death, and not dying, and how since I easily could have died several times in the last couple years every additional day I could live was a gift.


I took full advantage of the American right to choose my own religion. I was raised Catholic, and I’m grateful for that. My parents were good people who raised me to value friendships and respect my fellow human beings. There was a major blowup when at 19 I declared that I didn’t believe in Christianity anymore, but the dust settled like it often does, and it was never a major barrier in our relationship.

My religious decision was to reject religion. I still believed in a higher power, after all how can you believe in your own existence if you don’t believe in a higher plane? Religion seemed so deceptive though, and so much of it seemed ridiculous. So was Jesus white, or was he more likely dark skinned? And King James, he rewrote the Bible right? And heaven and hell? Santa Claus? The Easter Bunny? A pregnant virgin?


If psychedelics did one thing for me it made me form this belief that I’d just wait until death to see what was really true. It seemed like everyone was wrong, no one really knows what happens to us after we die. The world seemed to be organized on speculation. Like most of my peers, I was spiritual, but not religious. I had to respect religion though, at least Catholicism because it helped form who I was, and if I believed one thing, I believed I was a good person, or at least trying to be.


The great outdoors, the great desert, that was my church. Mother Nature was God. I had absolutely nothing “figured out.” But, I’d seen the face of death several times, and I had no fear of Jesus judging me for what I’d done, or not done. In fact, the whole concept seemed ridiculous. In the same breath though I felt guilty for expressing that, because in the beginning, I was raised Catholic, and Catholic guilt would stick with me a lot longer than any of the beliefs, which is why I probably became a writer; a conversation back and forth in your head is one thing, and it can turn you into a crazy person. Put that conversation down on paper, and you can become a writer, and when people agree with you then you find your readers. Hopefully your writing is good enough that even those who don’t agree with you will read, and that’s what America is all about at its bestright? A bunch of people who think differently but find common ground in the fact that we are all Americans, and we unite in our differences. Ah, still reaching…




Different, but privileged.


In my younger twenties I felt like a freak a lot of the time. I felt lonely. I felt like the only times I really had answers to my questions was when I was out in nature climbing, and when I had someone to share that with. Books provided so much too. To know that I wasn’t the only one looking for answers, and to know I wasn’t the only one critical of religions and institutions. The most influential two authors I read were Jack Kerouac and Martin Luther King Jr.


Kerouac provided the beatnik platform for adventure and the great American road, while King reinforced all the best aspects of Christianity, and showed how much could be accomplished with strict adherence to one’s moral compass. King was my hero and Kerouac was my cautionary tale. Kerouac would lead you to the road, and you were on your own once you got there. King could lead you to the proverbial mountaintop. Their books were my buddies. I loved to read and write, and write based on the inspiration of what I’d read.


What I didn’t realize then, perhaps because of my deep affection for the “dirtbag” life, although we always used the term climbing bum then, was that this lifestyle, at least in the United States, was an extension of white privilege. Ignorance is bliss and knowledge is power, right?


As a climbing bum I accepted that nature was my home, and even if a rock was my pillow I was where I belonged. But, could I have lived this lifestyle—if I was not white?


It was a difficult question to pose because most of all the other climbing bums were white. And, at that time, male. Climbing had always seemed like an open-minded community, but it was also the whitest sport in the damn country. And, why was that?

Well, we gloss it over when we learn history, shit, we don’t even gloss it over we flat out lie. We are a nation built upon slavery and genocide. America committed genocide against the Native Americans, and enslaved Africans. Any and every history lesson should begin right there. Not with Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492, or the pilgrims landing on Plymouth rock, but with the truth.


My generation grew up with Martin Luther King Jr. as a hero. The context of why he was a hero was vague, at least when you’re in seventh grade, as its difficult to understand for a young white child who was given a certain narrative about the country. But he was placed there on that pedestal, and the more you learn about King the more you learn about our country. And the more you admire King, the more you want truth. And, the truth shall set you free.


I grew up with kids of all races, and not much was made of race in my family. I never heard my parents say anything racist, ever, and thus I was not encouraged to be racist. Our neighborhood looked like a lot of middle class American neighborhoods, with proof that this country could function as the melting pot that we are—whatever melting pot means. That’s the word in my brain for America, I guess.


And, I think my upbringing in this diverse environment made me believe in the virtue that we are all created equal. However the more you live life, and the more one studies America, the playing field is not fair. White privilege is murky, it can be hard to see, but it is real, and it certainly played in my favor when I was just tramping around American and in the desert, roaming as free as I wanted to be.


Looking honestly at America is the only way to move forward. The more I learned of the truth, and the more I learned of the problems of the world, the more I dropped out from it, content to be a climbing bum. That’s white privilege. I had the option to do that, and so I did. For years in my writing I romanticized this climbing bum life, and I think I always will. And why is that?


Well, I suppose first and foremost its because I love the life. But what does living that life do to enhance the world? I don’t think anything, really. Then why did the urge to live the climbing bum lifestyle feel like everything? Like the thing I had to do above everything else?


It was freedom, and that American love for it, but its really a human thing, and not an American thing. Just American branding of freedom. Like stupid country songs. And it was the magic of nature. Land that Native Americans cared for, and lived off of in a free society before the first amendment ever came along. And a country that was built largely by African Americans whose descendants have yet to see reparations for.


Fun. The movement that created the dirtbag was largely motivated by fun. At least in all my research that’s how I have come to see it. For all intents and purposes Kerouac and his buddy Neal Cassady were the grandfathers and godfathers of this lifestyle. On The Roadwould get you on the road, but it was Dharma Bumswhere Kerouac seemed to be comfortable in his own skin.


Kerouac killed himself with alcohol. I’d like to think that if he’d found something like rock climbing he could have saved himself from himself. Ah, still reaching. You’re out there still aren’t you Kerouac? I’m still a loyal student, learning from your lessons, thinking that the answer is out there somewhere, in America.



Writing about The Desert should be simple, but in America a simple narrative tells lies, and I don’t want to tell no lies, not for romanticism, not for beatnikism, not for dirtbagism.


Every American’s life is shaped by religion, war, race, gender, and circumstance. By circumstance I never went to war, I did not find a religion to embrace, and my race and gender never hindered me. And it was under these conditions that I became an American climber, and discovered the magic of the desert.


Perhaps the greatest appeal to the adventurous soul of the desert is the fact that the climbing has only really been relatively safe since the invention of the cam. That bad boy came into the world in 1978, the same year I did, so the modern desert climbing experience was born when I was.


Thus, we have another barrier to writing about the simple life in the desert, and that is gear, which is not simple, or inexpensive, at all.


The dirtbag life had its requirements, and to adequately meet those requirements you needed something. Dollar, dollar, bills, y’all. Dead presidents.

This so-called simple life required expensive materials. Sure you could do without them, but no one in the climbing world liked a mooch, or a freeloader. Bringing something to the table in climbing is essential. It wasn’t like being a dirty hippie—having nothing was not prized for climbers. If anything the more you brought to the table, the

more you were valued, as we’d see quickly down the line as the Sprinter van infiltrated the climbing world, and it became Instagramized.


We needed gasoline; absolutely essential to get from point A to point B. Thankfully our government subsidizes petroleum. We thought about climate change, and discussed it, but we hadn’t been given much of an option for alternative fuels that don’t release as much carbon dioxide (or any at all). Something about the government being in bed with the oil industry, I guess. As long as gas was cheap the dirtbags would hardly think twice about multiple fill ups to traverse the country just to climb rocks.


Gear. We need it, gotta have it, like a heroin addict needs a needle. Ropes, oh nylon ropes, the best damn technological breakthrough for climbing that came out of World War 2, they are like bombproof spider webs, ensuring we’ll stay glued to the wall, and not break and plummet to our deaths like the twine and hemp versions that proceeded it. Gotta have that nylon, baby!


Aluminum, hmmmm….gotta have that too for our carabiners. Steel, as well, for those anchors. Magnesium carbonate for those sweaty palms. Rain jackets with Gore-Tex. Synthetic clothes made from polypropylene. Specific shoes made with rubber. Tents, sleeping bags, stoves, headlamps, helmets, , coolers, iPhones, iPods, iCrashPads….


iNeed it all.

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