with John Ely and Todd Bradley. Weather: virtually perfect every single day.
From The Odyssey, trans. E.V. Rieu, rev. D.C.H. Rieu 1991 Ed., Penguin Classics:
Book 5, line 269:
It was with a happy heart that the noble Odysseus spread his sail to catch the wind and skilfully kept the raft on course with the rudder. There he sat and never closed his eyes in sleep, but kept them on the Pleiades, or watched the late-setting Boötes slowly fade, or the Great Bear, sometimes called the Wain, which always wheels round in the same place and looks across at Orion the Hunter with a wary eye. It was this constellation, the only one which never sinks below the horizon to bathe in Ocean's stream, that the wise goddess Calypso had told him to keep on his left hand as he sailed across the sea. So for seventeen days he sailed on his course, and on the eighteenth there came into view the shadowy mountains of the Phaeacians' country, which jutted out to meet him. The land looked like a shield laid on the misty sea.
So everything was going right for once. Odysseus had lost all his companions and all his ships, and been to the land of the dead and came back alive, and was now sailing his raft on a true course for home. Incidentally, another translation specifies Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Boötes, rather than the constellation itself; I don't know why. The original apparently specifies the Ox-Driver, or Plowman. But anyway, you really can't relax on these epics until you've actually taken your horribly filthy boots off by the fireside in your own home, and sometimes not even then. The tale continues:
But now Poseidon, Lord of the Earthquake, who was on his way back from his visit to the Ethiopians, observed him from the distant mountains of the Solymi. The sight of Odysseus sailing over the sea enraged him. He shook his head and said to himself, “Damnation! I had only to go to Ethiopia for the gods to change their minds about Odysseus! And there he is, close to the Phaeacians' land, where he is destined to bring his long ordeal to an end. Nevertheless I mean to let him have a bellyful of trouble yet.”
I must go down to the rocks again,
to the lonely rocks and sky
and all I ask is a stout rope
and a star to steer her by.
And all because Odysseus had made the perfectly reasonable mistake of defending his life against the cannibal giant Polyphemus, one of Poseidon's numerous unpleasant progeny. I see Odysseus muttering to himself, “You can't win for losing,” as he saw the wind begin to howl, and the giant waves rise up. The gods knew he'd make it home, but would they tip him off? No. He cursed his fate many times as the epic dragged on, but he never quite lay down and declared he'd had enough. He always crawled naked off the beach, looking for a stick, a stone, a pretty girl – anything he could use to keep going.
There it is - the Crack of Weirdness that runs through Reality, from here to the bitter end.
So: here I stand again in Hidden Valley campground, looking up at Orion and his companions through the crystal midnight of the desert. It has been a long two years since my last visit, with terrible events chronicled elsewhere. I went briefly to the land of the dead, though not long enough to talk to Achilles, and I came back and walked again on this earth. The mountains and the rivers look the same, but they are not. My eyes are different. But I came back to the desert to tell myself that I am still a climber, changed though I may be; and the granite still flows under my fingertips. If poetic language offends your ear, I am sorry, but there is no other language that can do this job.
I got your Tabula Rasa right here, baby.
From my notes:
Orientation – walked to bathroom by starlight; returning, I knew the position of the stub of iron post sticking out of the ground an inch and a quarter, having hit my bad foot on it last night.
Galaxy overhead – to the east, one stream, but overhead it is apparently bifurcated by interstellar dust clouds – as if an illustration for primitive cosmogony: life begins as one unified stream of infinite force, then splits into yin and yang, consciousness and non-consciousness.
Returning to Joshua Tree is, for me, returning home, to a place where I know my orientation, from the micro- to the macrocosmos. At the very center is the Eye of the Cyclops, from whence spews the electrifying, all-embracing torrent of consciousness itself. Looking outward at sunset one may see great mazes of granite ridges in the west, and the bowl of desert surrounding in the other three directions; the walls of of the bowl are a pale pink, often. Above is the Galaxy, around whose center we revolve, out near the rim. Providentially we are able to see far in all directions, not buried in monstrous dust clouds, nor blinded by infinite brilliance near the galactic center. We can see far back in time – not to the instant of Beginning, but near enough to imagine it, to see it in the mind's eye, which is an infinite field, looking inward.
The Cyclops Dihedral, looking almost straight up. The Eye is at the top, of course.
Of course, my home – house, family, books – is also home and an orientation equally valid and potent; the interface to the human world. But that interface can swamp all else – the people we know, the work we must do, the potent stream of culture, the rich stew of friendship, love, pleasure and pain - they blot out the silence and the stars, the slow breeze drifting through sagebrush, the expressionless eye of the raven.
A nice spot to shelter from the glare. Or is it?
Memorable incident from this trip: the almost obligatory Dave Almost Steps on a Rattlesnake trope. This would have been completely unmemorable, given how remarkably common this type of incident has been in my life, except that, for the first time, I exhibited a 'normal' autonomic survival reaction. Ordinarily when I walk obliviously past a rattlesnake, and have it pointed out to me by a companion, or see one in the trail nearby, I observe it with pleasure and take the appropriate action to avoid it, perhaps snap a picture, and pass by. Once at Old Rag I was walking through dense ground cover and cautiously parting the vegetation with a stick as I went, and I saw a black timber rattler about two feet away, awake and moving slowly, and I calmly let the foliage fall back into place and walked smoothly backwards in my tracks, feeling no special excitement. On this occasion, however, as I was walking through some brush between large boulders out behind the Headstone, I heard and briefly saw a rattlesnake immediately at my feet. The snake warned me, and the reptile annex deep in my medulla oblongata instantly exerted total control over my body, like a savage dictator suddenly seizing control over a country in times of extreme danger. My body lunged away from the snake far faster than the sluggish conscious brain, overloaded with useless garbage like Shakespeare, algebra and Oingo-Boingo tunes, could have made it go. Still tracking, but unable to influence the body, the cerebrum got taken for a ride as the body slammed over a low boulder and dashed the big-brained head into a low-hanging Joshua tree arm, whose ends resemble the medieval mace with more spikes. A gash on my left shin proved to be not the work of the snake; he just wanted to express the quintessentially American sentiment which is in fact the motto of all rattlesnakes: “Don't tread on me, motherfucker.”
It is oddly reassuring to know that our little old reptile brain is still back there, never sleeping, always alert for reptiles and loaded for T-Rex. The millions of years of ancient programming endure, and the Dude abides.
Not long after my Rattlesnake Depantsing, John led this small unnamed climb; after placing the first piece, he somehow left the ground without the rest of the rack, so we tossed it up to him. Somewhat funnier because his personal style of leading requires that he take at least twice as much gear as I would, on any one climb.
Pinhead Boulder and Crack at sunset. No snakes nearby, probably.
Just for posterity I should set down The Terrifying Incident of the Rattlesnake Under the Pigpen Boulder, as told by Drew Frye. We visited Jtree some ten or twelve years ago for a couple of weeks or so, and one afternoon we were pursuing separate avenues of leisure or indolence, and Drew went bouldering by himself, looking up some of the well-known problems. He found the hand crack in the ceiling of the cave-like space under the Pigpen boulder and decided to jam it as far as his strength might hold out; very difficult though it is, even an unexpected fall will only result in one's ass getting dusty as one drops to the gritty granite sand. A worse danger is pulling a shoulder or tweaking an elbow. You can guess the rest: halfway through as he was getting tired and about to let his legs drop to the ground, he heard the warning rattle immediately under his ass. His body filled instantly with high-octane adrenalin, but instead of panicking and spasmodically thrashing out of the cave, which would have certainly resulted in an unpleasant fanging, he experienced the best of what his body and mind could do: he jammed with rock-crushing, atomic force in his hands and finished the problem, his brain still in control as his body climbed into overdrive, beyond all normal limits. One can almost never summon up motivation on that order of magnitude at will, but under real pressure it sometimes does appear.
On the Horns of the Minotaur
Q.: is “existence” a worthy philosophical topic? Or just take it for granite. Is “consciousness” a more interesting question, or equally tautological? John: universe has inherent moral dimension. Me: why? Or is it just a property or aspect or component of consciousness, just an emotion, essentially?
Me: consciousness could have arisen as a purely mechanical consequence of life/evolution. Morality just one expression, not an objective law [like law of gravity] - no evidence.
As we had the great luxury of free time, we sometimes took to arguing for the sheer pleasure of it, while at the Saloon or just sitting around the concrete picnic table. I can no longer reconstruct in any detail the discussion indicated by these brief notes; nor is there any point in doing so; the iterations and arabesques of thought intertwine and then fade away like breath-mist on a cold morning. I think I maintained that the “problem” of “existence” is not worth pursuing. Why is there something rather than nothing? The question is a massive red herring, given that any philosopher worth his stones can question whether there is in fact anything. Without our accepting as givens the basic ground conditions to our argumentation, we cannot meaningfully assert anything at all; we are just waggling our jaws and causing the air to vibrate a bit, just as it does when the proverbial Joshua Tree gently falls to the sand. John of course pointed out that people have been considering our “existence” a problem for all of recorded history, or thereabouts. (I must put words in his mouth, and I am quite sure that he would dispute every one of them; but this is “now” and that was Zen, as the saying goes.)
He asked me what I thought would be an important problem to consider, and I said I was interested in consciousness itself. At least it has apparent qualities that one can examine, however tautologically, and in considering it one might, or might not, be able to pin down a tiny portion of “existence” to our experience as self-regarding beings. Naturally, nothing of it can be proven in the same sense that a scientific proposition can be examined, tested and proven to a certain standard of likelihood; but we can elaborate a framework of hypotheses that gives the appearance of plausibility, and that is not obviously lacking in internal consistency. The moment one demands a more solid and dependable structure of explanation, one is thrown against conflicting but equally solid conjectures-masquerading-as-certainties.
We dance on a ridiculous, invisible knife-edge, every second of every day. The odds against us assure us that we simply aren't here at all. So: dance!
Somehow we segued to the idea of morality; John asserted that the universe possesses a moral dimension or structure, one that would exist independent of human consciousness; I demanded actual evidence of some sort. I made an loose analogy to the existence of gravitational force: although we do not know how gravity actually exerts force across space (or even if that is a correct way to express what it does), we have powerful physical evidence that allows us to measure it with extreme precision, and the mysteriously opaque nature of it leads inevitably to the inarguable T-shirt slogan, GRAVITY DON'T HAVE NO MERCY (see Delaware Water Gap, the climb Death Don't Have no Mercy). Morality, by contrast, seems to vary immensely depending on who you ask, or what you want, or whose ox is being gored, and so forth. To me it seems like merely one of many dimensions or characteristics of consciousness, and hence of little larger interest. But John was quick to dismiss my purely mechanical view of the universe, as starting at the wrong viewpoint altogether, and thus depressingly limited. And I probably shouted au contraire, mon ami! in my riposte, wherein I asserted that there is no proven obstacle to the possibility that life and then consciousness have arisen purely as a statistically necessary consequence of basic physics, and the mathematical probabilities inherent in a universe of this size and age, with this many elemental particles whizzing around in it and sticking together in gravity wells of various sizes. If you break a rack of balls on a pool table, using your cosmic cue and your special magical tip-chalk, over and over andoverandoverandoverandoverandoverandoverandoverandoverandoverandoverandoverandover andoverandoverandoverandoverandoverandoverandoverandoverandoverandoverandoverandover-----
...until even your Godlike arm is tired and all the beer is gone, a time will come when all the balls go into the pockets on the break, and you're in business. Anders Osbourne, the bluesman, has a nice line, from another context: “Never is a real long time.” And in that real long time the universe did emerge (I think) and after another real long time the Promethean fire of consciousness ignited, and here we are (apparently), thinking long thoughts and climbing tall rocks, to equal (that is, unknown) purpose. I have no complaint!
From the Wikipedia page on cosmogony:
Another issue facing the field of particle physics is a need for more expensive and technologically advanced particle accelerators to test proposed theories (for example, that the universe was caused by colliding membranes).
Developing a complete theoretical model has implications in both the philosophy of science and epistemology. For example, it would clarify the meaningful ways in which people can ask the question "why do we exist?".
Needless to say, I did not take this photo. Galileo took it, and everyone who came after him; it took our whole civilization to realize this image.
This brings up more questions – in fact an endless string or loop of vibrating questions. Just the fact that we, like the children we are, can continue to ask a series of questions indefinitely, seems to indicate that no final answer can exist. But, more specifically: What would an explanation of the earliest moments of the universe's existence look like? In what terms would it have meaning? If we have to invent a theoretical model full of infinitely complex and arcane involutions, will the result have meaning in a way comparable, for example, to the current scientific explanation of the formation of the earth, and the evolution of life upon it? All explanations build upon some foundation of assumed existing elements which combine to produce the new thing that needs the explanation. We are here instead searching for the foundation cause of existence itself – the very definition of a tautology, ain't it? Only a particle accelerator big and strong enough to spark the creation of a new universe would really satisfy this scientific quest, but we'd have no time to enjoy our triumph, would we?
Shadow-dancing with the Weird Interior Spirit.
In this one extreme case I recommend that we adopt the wisdom of one T. Geisel, whose brilliant fable regarding the mysterious generation of 500 hats, each a little more splendid than the last, ends with no pat explanation, simple or arcane: it just “happened to happen”, and that was enough. In all post-Bang investigations, however, I am in favor of untrammeled reason rampant, and science unchained (tempered, one devoutly hopes, with wisdom, humanity, compassion and so forth as might be feasible).
The Aguille de Josh - an excellent soap-box from which to hurl your abuse at the gods.
I mean, really – if the universe began because of a collision between some membranes – then where did those 'membranes' come from? What were they made of? Why did it set off a Bang? And so forth. No matter what explanation is given, I can always ask another question about it. And to give an arbitrary Name for the First Cause is just a cowardly flinch, turning a blind mind's eye on it.
Hey - we're here. We exist. And not only that: don't tread on us, motherfucker.
The Joshua Tree Saloon is a friendly dive on the corner with ten beers on tap, one pool table, three or four moderately sized screens generally tuned to football and baseball, a long bar and a few tables and booths, and a tiny little stage at the end of the bar, nothing more than a small raised section, for the karaoke club to wail from. And of course there is a jukebox. The standard burger lineup was well done and generous in portion size, and between that and Santana's, the all-night Mexican drive-through, we failed to lose any weight on this trip. Todd of course is already as lean as a stick from mountaineering all over the West, and cannot eat gluten in any case; but John and I are at risk for the predictable middle-aged spread, and must run very fast just to stay where we are.
The gear manager, constantly struggling to tame the chaos of John's rack.
Todd leads a nice hand crack somewhere way out back of beyond.
One night we went to the Saloon to watch the Nationals in the final game of their season, losing a heartbreaker in the last inning to a more experienced team; one could see their beaten body language as they took their last three at-bats, flailing at phantoms and staring at strikes. The beautiful dream had ended early, and waking, we all grimaced and stretched, trying to recall, just for a few more moments, the glorious story line, the girl just now turning toward us with a rising smile, the last few feet of the wonderful rocky trail in the hills... evaporating into the null state between stories. Though I love the beauty of the game, I am no fan; I shift my shallow allegiances shamelessly, and have only sketchy knowledge of the characters and teams and history.
John leads the right edge of Headstone.
And Todd leads the left edge. The Headstone floats magically just above a coarse pile of large rubble.
On another night it happened to be karaoke night. We watched, mesmerized, as four or five wildly mismatched individuals took turns crooning, belting and mumbling various random country-western standards, to near-complete indifference from the room; the performers were not a bit discouraged, any more than they were ever even in the same state as being on key. A sort of wispy wannabe cowpoke in his late eighties mumbled happily through every verse of “I am my own Grampaw”; the others were females, difficult to describe and even harder to watch, trying hard to summon up a tiny spark of Patsy Cline's ghost, and failing. I would describe this far more vividly, but I had to drink ever more Fat Tire to endure it at all, and so much grandeur is lost forever. But you could go there; you could wander in on some fateful Thursday night (or was it a Wednesday? Only the ghosts can say...) and see them all still there, trying their best to sing, summoning the courage to stand up in front of God and his lowly Bar Patrons, and gently waving their arms to the music. Todd did his best to get John and me to put together a song for the next week, but we were too old and crafty to fall for that. It would have taken superhuman efforts by the superb blond waitress to convince me that I am like unto a young Elvis, a demigod who can mesmerize with his gaze and his perfect voice – that and so much beer that I would fall down after the first chorus of “Hurried Romance, Low-Rent Rendezvous”.
The leader dwindles into an illusion of distance. The climb is a very easy 5.8 called "Parental Guidance Suggested", located not too far from the edges of... the Twilight Zone.
Finishing "Fun Stuff", another easy 5.8.
My three leads:
Poodlsby is a pretty nice 5.6 a little right of White Lightning; it is a fairly long pitch with a lot of variety, reasonable protection and not much strain. It was my first lead since my fall almost 18 months before. I felt ready in a purely physical sense, but I was completely unwilling to fall, and therefore my protocol for the climb was very much like a soloing protocol: test everything, trust nothing, overprotect, think all moves through in advance; plan and execute with total deliberation. And doing that, I finished out with very little fear and much satisfaction.
Right up the center is the well-known 5.7 called White Lightning, which offers a rather stiff offwidth start, to electrify your day. Poodlsby is to the right, starting in the large shallow chimney.
Spaghetti and Chili is a fine 5.7 of perhaps 80 or a hundred feet, that I have led before and recommend as a fine practice lead, with a genuine, though straightforward, lead move – the type of thing that you must force yourself to initiate, because while your reason tells you it is simple and safe, and well within your proven ability, your hindbrain, the one that (usually) prevents babies from crawling off tables, is telling you in no uncertain terms that, no, it ain't. The name refers to the two very different, mismatched cruxes. The first is a classic traversing, then rising layback on friction footholds, right at the true start about 20 feet off the ground; you have all the time you want to place as much pro as you want in the undercling crack, and when you're finally unable to pretend any longer that the placements there could be improved by further dithering, you have to launch out and up, on your arms. Weak as my left arm is, I still felt that this move should not intimidate me, and yet I did hesitate longer, and protect more, than I had done two years ago. The other crux is right at the top, a short, somewhat overhanging crack that requires nothing more than a couple of simple hand jams and a pinch of determination; the entire middle section is trivial. But it felt really good to pull it off.
First, the spaghetti...
and later, the chili.
Ranger Danger is a short 5.8 slab climb, on the joint formed with a vertical dihedral wall. Short as it is (maybe 30 feet of actual climbing), it presents a real problem. The start is tricky friction; about 12 or 15 feet up one finds a narrow, short crack next to the wall which can take a little pink tri-cam and a .25 black one as well, which Todd lent to me for this purpose. And that's all you get. Two years ago Chris led this and we all followed, and I thought it remarkably easy, which just illustrates the great mental gulf between leading and following. Here on lead, frictioning above my two little pieces and missing an obvious bucket on the left wall, I had a moment or two of real leader tension, but, regardless of my physical ailments, I knew that a slab like this must yield to me, as they always do, when met with the proper mixture of patience and intensity. As the slab ended I put a nice big blue tri-cam into a hand crack on the left and went on up to the belay with ease. And I felt good belaying on a magnificent 3-piece equalized anchor, idly watching the endless mare's tails spin out across the sky, west to east.
If Aeolus lends you the West Wind, be careful, don't let some numbskull in the crew fool with it.
Book 21, line 404:
While they were talking Odysseus, master of stratagems, had picked up the great bow and checked it all over. As a minstrel skilled at the lyre and in song easily stretches a string round a new leather strap, fixing the twisted sheep-gut at both ends, so he strung the great bow without effort or haste. Then with his right hand he tested the string, and it sang as he plucked it with a sound like a swallow's note. The suitors were utterly mortified; the color faded from their cheeks; and to mark the moment there came a thunderclap from Zeus, and Odysseus' long-suffering heart leapt up for joy at this sign of favor from the Son of Chronos of the devious ways.
One arrow lay loose on the table beside him; the rest, which the Achaean lords were soon to experience, were still inside their hollow quiver. He picked up this shaft, set it against the bridge of the bow, drew back the grooved end and the string together, all without rising from his stool, and, with a straight aim, shot. Not a single axe did he miss. From the first handle-ring, right through them all and out at the last the arrow sped with its burden of bronze.
There is order in the universe. Some, anyway. One draw is missing, I think.
That's when he finally knew he was home and safe. All that remained was to take out the trash and mop the bloody floor, and get straight with the wife for being out so late. One of those stories that never really ends.