By Chris Kalman
Chris Kalman has been climbing, writing, and chasing sunshine for most of his life. He is a sponsored climber, has established first ascents locally and abroad, and has been published in Climbing, Rock and Ice, and Alpinist magazines. You can follow his work at his popular climbing blog, www.fringesfolly.com.
One of the fundamental tenants of the Great American Climbing Road Trip is to abide delays, waylays, and forays with a certain amount of optimism, and enthusiasm – as these things are to be expected. So when I signed up to take a climbing road trip with my good friend, Paul Winkler, I knew where my duties lay. Paul had just taken a job in Tucson, AZ, and we would be leaving Washington D.C . ASAP. As his faithful copilot, my job was more than just to take the wheel from time to time – it was more to maintain the stoke and enthusiasm for the trip itself. To this end, I devoted my unwavering attention.
We couldn’t have left at a better time. Blizzard-pocalypse had just dumped another load of frigid air and frozen precipitation upon miffed Eastern Seaboarders, and the forecast for the coming week was equally gloomy. Not so in Tucson, AZ. I packed tank tops, shorts, sandals – and little else. Like all good plans, this one failed precipitously. The bitter cold followed us all the way down to Louisiana. Our stops along the 14 hour Day 1 epic consisted mostly of shivering exchanges with gas station card machines whose touchscreens were so cold they lagged along slower than molasses in January. We spent the night somewhere obscure in Alabama, and headed out in the morning among still freezing temps. It was the only night we “splurged” for a hotel room, $39.99 at Motel 6.
The next day we were still cold as we made our way through Mississippi. Louisiana finally brought some t-shirt weather, and we took our opportunity for lavish sunbathing, and frisbee tossing with views of the scenic Lake Pontchartrain. We stopped for authentic Po Boys from a local roadside shack, which turned out to score higher on the ambiance scale than the culinary. Undeterred, we made our way intrepidly onwards to the great nation of Texas, and our first real destination of the trip – San Antonio.
While San Antonio was a blast, I’d like to devote the following portion of this article to a brief discussion of Texas. Now, having not spent much time there, I wondered if all the rumors were true. It turns out, they are. It’s really really really big. The speed limits are really, really, really fast. And the trucks are both really, really, really big, and ubiquitous. The hospitality, to be certain, was excellent; including but not limited to our gracious hosts (thank you Trevor and Melissa), store clerks, gas station cashiers, rest-stop stragglers, and a gaggle of very memorable señoras – viejas, all of them – each holding a cuckoo clock inside a gas station convenience store whose walls were lined with the contraptions. One of their rank and file had a store clerk assemble a particularly ornate looking bird-clock (presumably to make sure it worked) while we bought bananas and beer. Oh, and last thing about Texas, El Paso is awesome – and more Mexico than United States of red-blooded America.
Did I mention that this was a ROCK CLIMBING road trip? For various reasons (most of them weather-related) we did not get in that much climbing. Our first attempt at a climb in New Mexico got rained out. Our next climb in Arizona’s Cochise Stronghold was a success, but only if you consider 5 hours of tenuous and delicate face-climbing in sustained 25+ mph winds a success (which I guess Paul and I do). Our third day of climbing at Tucson’s Mount Lemmon was marked by snow, hail, and rain. Things were looking bleak, and Paul and I both wondered if we hadn’t perhaps been misinformed about typical southern winter weather. Finally though, the sun did come out and we got in some excellent routes. Mount Lemmon is chock full of excellent climbs on high quality stone, and for two days of perfect weather we sampled some of the finest.
In the end, Paul was delivered safely to his new home in Tucson (and his awesome new roommates, Paul and Todd), and the road trip was an inarguable success. I don’t know if I’d call it a ‘Rock Climbing Road Trip’ so much as a ‘road trip followed by some rock climbing’, but I don’t know in retrospect if that matters or not. What memories remain of the monochrome landscape of pastoral grasslands, desert, and strip mall insulated cityscapes are snapshots of an America that knows and cares little about a thing called rock climbing. The backwater bayou boudin patrons fresh off their fan boats ordering catfish Po Boys in a tongue I could only barely comprehend. Clucking old ladies of an indistinct origin buying cuckoo clocks at gas stations. Downtown El Paso storefronts lined with mannequin-butt-clad-stretch-jeans, and advertisements for celulares y notarios publicos. The pecan farm in Las Cruces. The hacienda with ornately carved roof beams, Alhambric opulence, and shy wiemereiners around the Japanese style fish pool. These are the unique flavors and textures that give the great American road trip its depth and subtlety. Like a fine wine, you can taste the place that the fruits come from – these fruits we call Americans.