With vaccination numbers rising and coronavirus case numbers falling and spring around the corner, there are whispers heard at outdoor coffee shops and beer gardens: Will this summer be something close to normal? Camping and traveling with friends, that sounds good. Pulling into a new town, siding up to a counter for breakfast. Maybe it’s still just a dream. Either way, essays like this, from a world before the pandemic, are sweeter now than ever. Enjoy. -Ed.
The wind whips outside across the deserted eastern Utah landscape and sideways into my passenger side. The setting sun is pulling me forward and west. I lean into the gas pedal of Ole Blue, my 1995 GMC Safari, and ease back into the right lane in front of a lumbering semi, hitting the cruise control to stay at 85 miles per hour. My podcast keeps the pace while the orange Honda Fit disappears over the horizon in the distance. I’m having a hard time keeping up.
We’re on our way to Zion National Park, a caravan of women in our respective vehicles. That is, if three makes a caravan. We fled Black Canyon National Park in Colorado this morning, thunder and lightening pulling us away and snow covering our climbing objectives. At least two of us plan to return to The Black in a few days, once the weather clears, yet not one of us is willing to leave our “home” behind to carpool. So, in the age of climate change and the oil crisis, here we are: three girls driving three vehicles across Utah’s I-70, headed to the same rock and different ends of the same rope.
I’ve been living in Ole Blue on and off for three years now, driven by a passion for climbing and living simply. If I gave you an off-the-cuff answer, I would say this living situation is a means to an end; as a rock climber it’s almost essential to be mobile throughout the seasons, able to chase clear skies and dry rock. However, if I actually stop to think, I might end up confessing that I love the lifestyle of living in my van almost as much as I love climbing. I have the freedom to wake up where I choose, to take my home with me, to meet up with friends and climbing partners across the country and to continuously explore new areas. There’s a sense of independence and self-efficacy that living alone in my van brings, one that makes my heart come alive and sing.
We wake up in a dirt parking lot in Springdale, Utah, just outside the entrance to Zion National Park. The sound of someone sorting their recycling in the bins a few meters away served as my alarm clock, but now as a small skid steer rambles up to the pile of rocks across the way, I’m roused from my bed and into the driver’s seat. I look outside and see the two cars that I traveled with from Colorado plus a new one, a friend who has driven from California to climb with us.
Hannah is standing outside her car, squinting at her reflection in the window as she braids her long, unruly hair. One time Hannah found me at a random rest area in eastern Nevada, the kind of place where you could bet your life on not seeing anyone you know. It was dawn, and I was just waking up and starting in on a morning crossword puzzle. Hannah was driving through the night on her way to climb in Indian Creek, and I was on a more leisurely route from climbing the Eastern Sierra to a film festival in Colorado. Hannah saw my van from the freeway, thought, “That’s gotta be Jenny,” and pulled a u-turn. I saw a silver Subaru pull in with a Thule on top, and I thought, “That can’t be Hannah,” and we looked at each other through her windshield with jaw-dropped smiles. Hannah just moved into her car after filling her savings account with waitressing tips and wages from ski patrolling all winter; when asked where she’s headed, a huge grin crosses her face and a twinkle enters her eyes as she lists off climbing objectives from the Sierra in California to British Colombia’s Bugaboos.
Jane’s up and putting bins back into her Honda Fit, a compact car that barely seats four yet sleeps her small stature comfortably. Jane excels at organization like most of us who live out of small places and everything has its place in her little orange home. She alternates between the road and school in St. George, Utah, where she is an encyclopedia on free places to sleep, shower, and get wifi. Jane and I first met in Zion, and have crossed paths in various climbing areas in the years since, now for the first time making those paths intentionally come together. Our connection mirrors that of many in the climbing world: acquaintances growing into strong bonds over shared campsites, belays, mutual friends, stories, and lifestyles.
I glance over to see Whitney crouched in front of her stove and the espresso maker perched on top. Whitney drinks coffee more routinely than anyone I know, and I’ve never seen her buy a cup. She and I used to live together in a cute house in Leavenworth, Washington, a house that serendipitously had a bouldering wall in the basement and a large space for working out and hangboarding in the garage. We spent an entire summer together as roommates, coworkers at a restaurant, and dedicated climbing partners. Now we’re both back in our respective vehicles, as we were before we lived together. Whitney has been living on and off in her car for six years, supported mostly by a seasonal nannying gig and more recently by climbing grants that send her to remote areas across the world for alpine exploration. Whitney has this lifestyle on lock down. She eats healthier than most manage to do with a full kitchen, preparing the most incredible salads full of fresh vegetables?a masterful feat and art in the land of rice and beans and energy bars.
Recently, I’ve begun to feel something shifting, the tides changingthreads of monotony lacing my driving, working their way into my thoughts, into my once fully-contented van sleep, into this climb-eat-sleep-repeat lifestyle. Maybe we all have. We don’t want to be on the road forever; in fact, much of our conversation throughout the week surrounds questions of where to settle down and how to make a more sustainable income while keeping our schedules open enough to wander. The Eastern Sierra, Colorado, Wyoming?
Hannah and Jane are going back to nursing school; Whitney and I are becoming climbing guides. We’re piecing it together for now, for the love of climbing and the freedom of the road, but it comes with sacrifices. Hannah and I are currently trying to make a buck or two rigging for a shoot here in Zion. Every meal we share is cooked on our Coleman stoves, $4 showers are deemed too expensive, and paying for camping is not an option. Hannah’s pants have a hole in the butt that grows larger and larger every day, Jane’s car routinely doesn’t start, Whitney is constantly asking to borrow our national parks passes so she doesn’t have to buy one, and I am living off of a consistent diet of rice and beans. We’re not destitute though, we just have our priorities.
Maybe I’ll never fully settle down, but I can’t imagine living in Ole Blue forever. Perhaps I’m growing up. At times I fear I’m missing out on a normal life, on Tuesday night volleyball and the biweekly book club. I fear that I’m training myself to never be able to settle down, to feel discontent with a life not rife with adventure and constant movement through beautiful places. Mostly I fear that I’m missing out on the depth of consistent relationships, on being a supportive friend, on weddings and births and the joy of steady community.
Yet there’s a freshness about life on the road, one that I worry I’ll miss in more stable chapters of my future life. Driving out of Zion, with an ice cream cone in my hand and new tunes coming through my van’s speakers, I have a distinct voice in my mind, saying, Jenny, cherish this. Cherish what you have, now.
Honestly, I was dreading the drive, and feeling aimless with three days of bad weather in the forecast. I was missing my boyfriend, and dreaming of having a shared home. I was feeling all of my 31 years and more. But the voice was clear, and one to heed. Cherish the freedom and independence you have now, don’t let the grass be greener. Cherish the simplicity of meals cooked over a Coleman stove and once-a-week showers, the ability to wake up and decide how and where you want to spend your day. Cherish the chance to climb as much as your body can possibly handle, cherish the sore muscles and scraped hands. Cherish being able to travel and experience some of the most beautiful places in the world intimately and fully. Steep red sandstone walls gradually changing to rounded white rock and desert scrub brush, I begin to feel content. I will never regret these years, jumping with both feet into my desires and longings.
So for now, I’m on the road, returning to the Black Canyon with Whitney and her Subaru following behind. A week of climbing awaits us; days on long, challenging routes for which The Black is known, followed by evenings of simple meals and the reading, writing, and fireside chatter that result when No Service reads in the upper left of our cell phones. As we roll across a dirt road to the campground, the setting sun blasts through my windshield, bringing detail to every bug splatter and water streak on the glass.?The stopper hanging from my rearview mirror bats against the glass and I head down the bumpy road, towards the light.
Down a bumpy road, towards the light. Sounds like a life well-lived to me.
Photos: Jenny Abegg