In the last few weeks there has been a recurring theme. I have been led by events to several people and places from my past that have shaped me profoundly. It would seem they are not finished with their work on me. This has been true for both my personal and professional life. Honestly, the two are hard to distinguish from each other.
I’ve been Blessed to make my lifelong passion into a career. When that first started to happen, I was warned by friends that intermingling the two ran the very real risk of robbing me of the joy of either. “Don’t make climbing feel like work,” they said. Wise and well-intentioned as this advice was, twenty-six years later I am happy to report that not only has that not happened, but the two have enriched each other tremendously, and I am now more interested in climbing – and in life – than I ever have been.
Detour. A Retrospective
Shortly after September 11, 2001 I left the climbing industry for awhile. Almost a decade, in fact. I didn’t stop climbing – or training for it intensely. I just wasn’t able to work in it. I built training walls for myself and my Team, on scrounged materials, all over the world – some of them in very unlikely places. My friends and sponsors shipped me climbing handholds to put on these walls – holds I dragged around in two (often non-wheeled!) tuff boxes every time I had to move and start all over again. During that time, I found it difficult to even pick up a climbing or National Geographic magazine, filled as they were with friends doing all the things I wished I still had the luxury of doing. But I knew I was in the right place for the right time, so I dealt with it. A part of me during that time gave voice to my personal worries – that climbing was passing me by somehow. I wondered if ten-year-olds were now doing all the things that I considered my greatest climbing accomplishments. Fortunately, I had – an embarrassingly short time before – learned to avoid attaching my personal validation to such things.
I will never forget the day I came back to it all … when Miguel, at The Red River Gorge, hailed me by name from across his crowded dining room as I walked in again. Here’s a man who sees a thousand climbers a week from all over the world – to include all the world class sport climbers. His warm welcome showed me that I had not been forgotten despite all the time away. And as I looked around that room, I saw other long-familiar faces. The friends I had learned to climb with were still climbing just as often as they ever had, it seemed. And harder! The scene had not passed me by! And climbing 5.13 was – I was happy to see – still considered rarified air. When I look back upon that day now, it possesses all the drama of Gandalf entering the Prancing Pony tavern again.
Fast forward five more years, to now, where my wife and I operate a climbing gym in a great community, with a close-knit Crew and a Tribe of climbers around us. We have benefitted from the way climbing has grown into a more mainstream sport, and I find myself now more in the middle of things than ever. The opportunities are twice as good as I could have pie-in-the-sky hoped they would be when I was in my twenties with a truck camper for my climbing basecamp. I am climbing almost as hard today – at age 49 – as I was when I was a competitive climber. What’s more, I fully believe that I can still yet surpass my past top-of-my-game exploits … if I can make more time to train between business dealings. I am grateful to God for all these things, and I see all of that – more than anything else – as a Gift. A platform, the proper use of which is important. I relish the fact that a couple of hard-working climbers in Our Gym have now become better than I will ever be. That is what’s supposed to happen.
It’s not about me, or even about our gym. I see climbing as a part of a larger Voyage, and Treadstone is the tall sailing ship that I try to navigate in The Right Direction. I didn’t create the sea it’s on, and I don’t direct the winds – but I can adjust the sails. I can be proficient in my skills, and pass them on to our Crew. I can be a Captain, or maybe even an Admiral. But accomplishing all of that can keep you humble, because the waters we are Blessed to be on seem to be always inhabited by my betters, and I am expected – by the requirements of every opportunity – to make good amongst such people. Through it all, the main people who need to benefit are the Crew and Customers of The Ship. If they don’t know that they are why you’re there in the first place, then the Captain’s hat is just a decorative plume.
Within the last month, I have for some reason found myself back high above Chattanooga, climbing cliffs that I haven’t hiked up to for some fifteen years. Two weeks ago I re-climbed my first route from twenty-six years ago, “More Fun with Dick and Jane.” Six times this past year I have found myself standing next to The Wingo Stone back at Winshape, on the same Holy Ground that I and so many others started on, consulting now for new programs run by some of the same people from years past. I have also found myself standing in the Church gymnasium where I built my first climbing walls and ropes courses, talking with the minister who has my old job – a man whom I hired myself sixteen years ago, before he went to seminary and took the program even further. Higher, if you will. He graciously invited me back there not too long ago for the twentieth anniversary of the summer camp for which I had made him our Programs Manager way back then. Parents and kids – now adults – from that camp program still call me on occasion, and I randomly run into several of them in climbing areas. Three weeks ago, I found myself walking into the Atlanta Rocks Intown location, where so many memories were made, and where my climbing endurance was primarily forged, doing endless laps on their fantastic ceiling – a ceiling that continues to inspire my designs to this day, because I know how well it works. I found myself just a few days ago back atop the one thousand foot tall, very serious, Yosemite-like “Whitesides,” in North Carolina, where I almost died … twice!
What Does It All Mean?
I don’t know fully. And the meanings could yet change with continuing events. I don’t need to know the last chapter. It’s far from written, but standing in all these places, talking with the old friends who have helped shape who I am, and the fact that they are still in the same places for which I remember them, is nothing less than soul-food. The continuity of all of that is something for which I am grateful. It is grounding, and … well, validating – but in the healthy way. It adds significance to my existence. That’s something very different from mere recognition, which is fleeting anyway.
Climbing has been so much more to me than “grabbing small things and pulling myself up.” It has taught me so many lessons. It has, in fact, pulled me up.
“Climbing is a metaphor for life.” – Jerry Dodgen