When you’re from the Northeast, life is about the Northeast. Vermonters want to be their own country, Mainers won’t eat seafood outside of their state, and Massachusettsians, well, will shoot you if you’re not a Red Sox fan. So when you’re a climber, you take pride in the cliffs of shist that make up the Green Mountains, you burry yourself in the granite of the Adirondacks (or “‘Dacks” if you’re a true climbing bum), and you practically live on the routes of Rumney and Cannon in New Hampshire.
And, as a true Northeastern climber myself, our snobbery is completely justified. Our mountains are beautiful. Stoic. We have lakes surrounded by cliffs and rivers that divide mountain ranges. We have temperate summers where the sky glows orange and purple behind the tall peaks at sunset. Our winters bring with them feet of snow and walls of ice for the ski-lovers and ice climbers. We even take pride in “mud season” by getting our mountain bikes out of winter storage and hitting the trails.
But if there’s one place Northeastern climbers always plan on going it’s Joshua Tree National Park in the desert of California. University wilderness programs take annual trips to J-Tree, posters of J-Tree have a permanent spot on climbing gym walls, and you always hear “aw, man, I wanna go” when someone mentions an upcoming trip. So when my partner Jeremy suggested a spontaneous trip to J-Tree last Christmas, I grabbed my tent and gear, and we booked tickets to leave on Christmas day (cheap flights on Christmas) and to return two weeks later, just in time for me to begin writing my graduate thesis.
I knew little about what to expect, except that J-Tree had countless numbers of quartzite routes and that coyotes howl in packs at night. When we pulled into the park at 4am, after our 5-hour flight from Boston and 4-hour drive from Vegas, all we could see were stars unimpeded by pollution and lighting up everything they touched. We set up the tent and crawled in just in time to hear the musical stylings of the coyote symphony.
I’d be lying if I said I was comfortable this first night. Or, the first few nights. I made Jeremy stand watch for coyotes while I used the bathroom (when he, of course, would just roll his eyes), and I flailed excessively in my sleeping bag to stay warm when the temperatures dipped below freezing. Miserably cold on the third night, I woke Jeremy up, threw him into our rental car, and drove 30 minutes to the Wal-Mart to buy a $20 sleeping bag to line the inside of mine. Once finally warm with a good night of sleep, I focused on our endless days of climbing. And with every handhold, finger jam, and step I became a stronger and stronger climber.
There is something magical that happens to a climber, at least to me, when I’m outside of the comfort of my home turf. Even though there are always new routes to climb in the Northeast, routes that will challenge my technique and strength, climbing at J-Tree challenged more than that. Traveling away from the place where you work and study, away from the life that you know, and entering a territory where everything is new—from the sights to sounds to rock to people—allows you to surpass your obstacles and make fresh choices.
In terms of ratings, by the end of our J-Tree trip I was climbing 5.10b’s with ease, routes that I struggled with back at home. But most importantly, I gained a certain type of confidence that no matter how hard I tried to gain at home I always fell short. I took falls (into yucca plants), I split open knuckles on sharp quartz crystals, and I bruised knees and elbows. But, I had no tears or fears, and for the first time in my life I felt strong and, well, pretty kick-ass. (And if you grew up as a scrawny bookworm like me, you know that this feeling is long-awaited).
I chose to reflect on my trip now, almost 1 year later, because I have recently moved to the mountains of Western North Carolina where everything is again new. And while I’ll never get those two weeks back in a tent with just Jeremy, my climbing shoes, and a new boost of confidence, I do get to fight new climbing challenges and new challenges of the mind and body. It is a new place where I’ve started trad leading and even started new sports like trail running. And even though I know I’ll start to get the itch to try somewhere else new soon, every day adds something new to learn from and something new that will only make my mind and body stronger.