Words by C August Elliott
It is spring which means that winter is over and the ice is all gone. So you leave your settled life on the East Coast of Canada because even though you are comfortable and well-fed and happy enough I suppose (all things considered), you head west on the Great American Road Trip to live out of a van and go climbing and not eat as much as you did before, because travel is good for you and travel is about pushing beyond the frontiers with which you are familiar.
You don’t really know much about “the American West” other than what you know from people’s general soliloquizing and from the idea that America was born on its western frontier. So, because of its unknownness, you want to go discover what the West is all about. And someone told you that “the Wild West was only a construct anyway” which may be true but isn’t the same true of all ideas – including the names we give to the clusters of houses we call “cities” and the labels we give to the ultra-high points on the orogenic zones called “mountain ranges”. So you pay no attention to this “it’s only a construct” argument and you start driving – off in search of the Old West.
The big motorways running along the underside of the Great Lakes are four-lanes wide and pockmarked with the fast-food restaurants with which everybody is familiar and you stop for gas and then walk over to Dunkin’ Donuts™ because a two-donut and hot chocolate combo is only three dollars ninety-nine and because “America runs on Dunkin’™”.
You reach the end of New York state and look at Niagara Falls and look at the town surrounding Niagara Falls which is also called Niagara Falls and you look at the last of the remaining snow from winter, banked next to the footpath covered in the dirt kicked up from the wheels of a passing car. It is a grey, windy day and you stand on the footpath behind two barriers – because they erect a second barrier for the winter to keep people away from the dangers of Nature, because Nature is too dangerous to get too close to. And you look at the water falling off the edge of the cliff and you wonder what this place must have looked like when Jack London saw it and stared at it all night. And inside it makes you feel a little sad to be imagining what the thing used to looked like when you have the real thing in front of you.
So, with your hour-long visit complete, you walk away from the falls and walk back to your car and you can’t help but notice that the photos on the billboards next to the visitor’s center don’t show the buildings around the falls because nature photographers sometimes use deception when selecting the photo’s angle.
Then you drive through Ohio and Pennsylvania. And then you drive through Indiana where you learn from the billboards over the motorway that “Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior”. And then you pass through lower Illinois and it is still early spring so there is not much to look at as you drive down the motorway next to the stubbly wheatfields. And finally you reach St Louis and you cross the Mississippi and even though you marvel at the amazing bridge-like sculpture that they’ve constructed on the west side of the river, you wonder where are the steam boats that you think of when you think of Mark Twain and the Mississippi and the state of Missouri.
But then when you turn off towards Jefferson City, you are in Mark Twain country because there are rolling green hills and trees with pink flowers and there are towns with “Population 409” on the signposts which even though you know comes from the town’s last census, you can’t help but think that with a number so small and so specific someone must have gone and changed the sign from “Population 408” when such-and-such’s daughter had a baby. And there is the sound of a light drizzle on the tin roofs of the houses when you stop to sleep.
And the next day, you drive through Kansas and it is springtime so there is no corn to look at and you don’t see any tornadoes either which makes it seem like there is no such thing as Dorothy. But there is a Wendy’s. And as you drive between corn towns, the road is dead straight and on the left side in the distance you see a curtain – an actual curtain of falling rain – fluttering and shimmering and behind that there are darker clouds riven by intermittent lightning and on the right side of the road the sun is setting and rays of yellow-white light are piercing through a layer of clouds and resting on the roofs of the red farm houses. And you are driving between the storm on one side and the sunset on the other, toward the water tower in the distance.
And soon you will not be in Kansas anymore because you’ll be in Colorado. And then you cross the Colorado stateline and you’re in what you always thought was the “real” American West. But there is still McDonald’s and Steak ‘n’ Shake and Dunkin’ Donuts like in the other places. But you’re driving away from all that because you’re in search of the Old West and you’re quite sure that such a place still exists, just as the Old Elsewhere probably exists too if you’d bothered to stop and have a look, which you hadn’t because you were in a hurry like everybody else.
And the best thing about driving west is that at the end of every day you’re driving into the setting sun and you’ve seen the sun set over the Great Lakes, and the sun set over the Mississippi, and the sun set over Kansas, and the sun set over the Rockies and then finally when you arrive in the deserts of the New West, the sun setting over Utah.
And you head straight for the Canyonlands and you pass through country that looks like it’s been transposed from a John Wayne movie or a Cormac McCarthy novel and your destination is Indian Creek where thousands of crack climbs split sandstone mesas for miles and miles either side of a lush belt of desert grasses and cottonwood trees where an old rancher herds cattle sometimes on horseback and sometimes in her four wheel drive.
And you climb there for weeks and weeks, jamming your hands into the cracks and placing cams above your head and taking big lunging whippers on the ropes you’ve bought with you. And at the end of every day you watch the sun setting over the North Six Shooter and the South Six Shooter and you can’t help but think how lucky you are that you – you of all people – are finally in the American West, climbing in the desert as one of the desert crack climbers which has been your dream for so long.
And last of all, you head into the Castle Valley to climb one of the classic desert towers and you follow a cracked, dry creekbed for many hours passing by wild desert flowers still blooming pink in the last few weeks of spring. And you ascend a steep moraine wall and reach the base of the tower you have come to climb and you begin climbing it. And you struggle up it – grunting, groaning, falling, resting, but climbing nonetheless. And then you reach the top and you can see all the other desert towers all around you – an impossible number of future objectives. And the Colorado River, winds its way, cold and brown and fast in the valley below. And you descend back to your car by the river and head back to town for an ice cream and a beer.
And you arrive back in Moab and you step out of your van and smell the desert air and you feel it hot against your skin and you feel like a cowboy getting off his horse next to the saloon and pulling his neckerchief from his mouth even though you’re not really a cowboy and you know it.
And you see across the street from you a police officer who is looking at you and your van. And you feel a little bit like an outlaw – because you’re a climber and he’s the Law and you’ve heard that the Law don’t much like the climbers because the climbers are a bit like Jack London’s “hoboes” or Jack Kerouac’s “beatniks” – poor and unemployed and free. But there’s nothing wrong with being an “outlaw” because being an outlaw is a bit different to being a criminal because criminals are nasty crime-doers and outlaws are just “outside of the law” and whose to say that the Law is always right? And the police officer (or the sheriff as you might call him) – he’s got a bag of food in his hand which says Dunkin’ Donuts™ on it.
And then you open the back doors of your van and look inside at your cams and karabiners and they are gleaming like stolen gold in the dying sunlight. And if the Utah desert was a veritable goldmine for a climber then you’ve cleaned the place out. And then you realize that the Old West still exists for anybody who might want it to.