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New Vessel, New Journey

About a week after my birthday, in the beginning of April this year, I headed out to do something I had been looking forward to for a long time. After spending the better part of a year and more money than I had ever spent on anything in my life on a new project, I turned the keys on it and headed west from Massachusetts after a fairly long hiatus from life on the road. As with most of my friends who live nomadic and non-traditional lifestyles, there comes a time periodically for bouts of existential doubt, moments for going back to the drawing board and questioning some of the basic premises of how one can and should lead a rewarding life in the world that doesn’t revolve centrally around participation in the economy. This year had featured a good one, valuable as they are, and, as it were, my conclusions coming out of some hard thinking about my life didn’t have me don a suit and tie and head for the cubicles, thank goodness!

Certain things were in need of change or improvement, however, and it appeared that if a life on the road and the rock were to continue, it would have to be in a new and more intentional manner. Some time on the road had come with trials and discomforts, some valuable to have weathered and some I could’ve happily done without. Getting your car broken into isn’t something that lends a sense of security and comfort to the whole venture, and relying on wide open space for pitching a tent and camping under the sky led to some logistical difficulties or less-than-restful nights when traveling from place to place, especially when climbing can take such a toll on your energy from time to time. The solitude of traveling alone didn’t much bother me for the most part, especially with the community that often comes with climbing, but solitude by choice stands wholly apart from not having room in your life for another.

Personally repulsed by the fad and privilege that seemed inherent in the “#vanlife” trend among some of my peers, it took a fair amount of time to let practical concerns dismantle my prejudices against not only fancy camper-vans in general but specifically the oft-ridiculed champion of the lot, the German-built Sprinter van that signaled to many including myself the yuppie excess that contrasted so starkly from the minimalism that should underpin a nomadic lifestyle.

I won’t retrace all of the reasoning that led me to buy a relatively enormous white 2003 Sprinter, a high-roof, long-wheelbase beauty that sips fuel and whose Mercedes turbo-diesel whistles charmingly as she purrs up long mountain passes fully loaded with supplies and gear (ask me in person and I’ll talk your ear off!) But suffice to say, with space for a kitchen and a bedroom, standing headroom and plenty of un-break-in-able storage space, many of the hurdles that came with traveling in a car simply went away. And, it just so happened that I would find myself with enough space to invite along for the ride a companion whose itinerant inclinations (though formerly academic) and compact stature (not to mention good humor!) made her the perfect candidate to share the cabin of my newly launched vessel, my land-boat that I had poured so many hours building out to the design that had been evolving in my head over the previous year.

Having spent most of three seasons in New England, enjoying the rain, the trees, the ocean and the company of family, (although climbing on plastic in a wildly inappropriate proportion to real rocks) the unintentional but well-established habit of making an annual and seasonal visit to wild desert landscapes had begun to exert its pull on me, a draw I felt no choice in heeding and whose timing seemed the perfect opportunity for setting out on a long awaited road trip. And so we went, rushing hastily through obligations and goodbyes so we could find ourselves among the deep and sprawling sandstone canyons and mesas that had been the backdrop of untellable learning and growth in previous journeys for ourselves and so many others before us.

*This post would likely have been appropriate months ago but let that speak to the ways that time back on the road quickly filled itself with time well spent with friends old and new, climbing projects and new adventures the type of which I had been longing for for many a month.

Entering Utah through the southwestern corner of Colorado, we found ourselves in those familiar sandstone landscapes but in an area new to us. Adopting an old habit of following the smallest roads that would appear on the map, we found ourselves on dirt roads that got progressively rougher and steeper, muddy and rutted from late season snow. Eventually we began backtracking, opting not to test the off-road performance of our new home miles away from cell service.

Finally back among the distinctive landscape of Indian Creek, a favorite climbing area outside Moab, our vessel felt right at home among sagebrush and desert towers and we did our best to overcome the very practical urge to test her clearance and traction, opting sometimes to add a few minutes of walking to our approach instead.

It being Coral's first time to the area and this particular type of landscape, we did our best to make her learning of desert crack climbing and the associated skills intentional and forgiving, although I'm sure she'll admit that she encountered her requisite serving of discomfort and humbling experiences.

Having kept up with the adventures of friends who had beat us to this particular desert wonderland, it was a pleasure to finally meet up with them and trade encouragement as we pushed ourselves on our respective projects. Here, Alysse gets on an old favorite and improves on her past performance putting a rope up on "Tofu Crack" in good style.

Along with the old, we also were fortunate enough to make some wonderful new friends too, through chance and coincidence, and with them found new climbing areas in which to test our skills. Here, Toby makes a good show of a Moab classic with the charming name of "Brush Painted Datsun".

Along with the climbing, we did our best to see the sights a bit as well, making visits to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks outside Moab, enjoying dramatic sunsets over the otherworldly landscape.

Despite having spend entire months in the area previously, it was especially fun to break from the favorite routines and explore fun new places to climb and play. Here, Looking Glass Rock was a formation down a road I'd driven by dozens of times but never thought to check out. With the encouragement of friends, Alysse here pictured on lead, we found a fun easy climb that finished with a dramatic rappel and even a fun rope-swing.

After a 35 meter free-hanging rappel, we each took turns (Coral pictured) climbing up on to a ledge and turning our rappel into an awesome rope swing.

A notorious local climbing spot hidden out in the desert, famed for its perfect hand-sized crack lacing a dead-horizontal roof, the 'crack-house' was the perfect venue for a climbing workout on a drizzly day with our friend Mac who we met behind the counter of one of the local gear shops.

Although campgrounds often feel a little bit suburban for my taste, being in the popular spot was a great way to be able to catch some time with friends especially when spring rains left the soft and porous sandstone too wet to climb. Admittedly, with a dry and cozy van at our disposal, we probably spent a little more time drinking hot tea and watching movies inside than huddled outside in our layers cursing the weather, likely to the judgement of our rugged and outdoorsy climber-friends. We were quite OK with our decisions.

One day, while out climbing at a lesser-known cliff, my friend Leif and I took a walk at a friend's encouragement and ended up with our eyes caught by an unclimbed line. Leif, after two attempts, climbed it clean for its first ascent, a proud accomplishment for any climber and a pleasure to witness.

Being there to witness and photograph what felt like a historic moment for both our friendship and a small piece of Indian Creek history, Leif made it official, drilling the anchor bolts and naming his route "Future Starts Slow", a nod to a catchy tune that had been in his head and a chuckle about our climbing careers, as well as giving it a grade of 5.12-.

Exploring the area a little more, just past his new line we found another unclimbed crack that seemed to have a certain calling in its aesthetic meandering up the wall. With a little encouragement and no shortage of trepidation, I geared up and threw down the fight of my life on a crack that would've been happy to remain unclimbed from the effort it required to get to the top without falling. (photo by Coral)

Insisting stubbornly on climbing it with traditional style and without taped hands, the flaring crack tried mercilessly to spit me out and I lost considerable skin on the backs of my hands in the process of the first true first ascent of my own. Riding a cloud of endorphins (and unable to climb for days afterward), I named my climb "Bareknuckle Dirt Tango" and gave it a grade of 5.9++/5.11+, the latter iteration of which Leif kindly insists is a sandbag (an understatement, in climber lingo). (photo by Coral)

As the weather deteriorated further, Coral and I continued our journey across the Martian landscape of Southern Utah, visiting more national parks like Capital Reef, Bryce and Zion along the way, often leaving the ropes behind and venturing out into canyons for our own exploratory scrambles.

Having only climbed outside a small handful of times, Coral's education in the unforgiving discipline of crack climbing progressed with impressive ease. Looking back, I have a hard time saying why I thought that taking someone with so little experience out on a long-term trip based around nothing besides the often brutally challenging sport that I've come to love was a good idea, but I'm beyond happy to say that Coral can and should count her self among those with a solid background in exactly those disciplines of climbing that drive many back to the gym or on to another sport altogether and, better yet, she didn't even come to hate me during her learning process!

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