Muir Dispatch #1
This article was written by Jacob Bretz.
“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” -John Muir
In some ways, walking through Chicago isn’t much different than hiking through the mountains. In thick enough boots, concrete and granite feel the same. The wind whips and burns your face the same on either peak or lake front. Exposure on a summit ridge or in an unfamiliar neighborhood late at night both excite and terrify.
But in more significant ways, the city and the wilderness are polar opposites. The Yellowstone River smells like fresh air and rushing, clear water and cleanliness and goodness. The North Branch of the Chicago River smells like death. The highest point you can reach in Chicago is a heated, secure, glass-enclosed box. But every other summit is exposed, soaring, and deadly. To reach the Sky Deck, you step in an elevator and wait. To summit Gannet Peak, Mount Whitney, or even Charles’s Mound you have to use your own two feet. You have to work for things in the elements you wouldn’t normally think aboutYou appreciate and notice things in Yosemite .
“Why are you still here?” I’m not even sure if Ethan asked that or I did anymore. Chicago feels like a straightjacket I’m choosing to wear. I have the key out, but I’d rather suffer through another year for whatever reason. It’s a tad melodramatic sure, but it’s honest. These are things I my parents can’t get, most of my friends can't understand. I can’t understand that.
Being in the mountains is the only time I can quiet my busy mind. Steel and concrete buildings magnify my incoherent mental ramblings. Why can’t I stop thinking about life after North Park or career goals or that girl I’m into or how I hurt someone that I love? Finding exposure and pace outside the city doesn’t put those issues into , it obliterates them. Sometimes that isn’t the best thing, but it’s necessary.
A few weekends ago two friends and I ran away to the woods up near Baraboo. Out there is a refuge for climbers, hidden to most others scraping by in Chi-town. We slept in a Walmart parking lot and ran through damp forest and ate chili from converted beer cans and climbed beautiful cliffs to better views. My phone died the first night out. We used the dawn as an alarm clock and called each other with guttural hoots. Over those three days we thrashed up slick faces and hashed out philosophical issues. Things were finally right.
Gearing up for my first lead of the weekend my pulse skyrocketed. I sorted through my cams and quick draws, stretched out stiff muscles, and tried not to think about my fall climbing this past summer. This here was going to be the real deal; if I made a mistake at the wrong time I'd ruin the rest of the trip. A broken ankle is a surefire way to bum out a climb. I of all people know that. I looked up at the imposing, overhanging cliff. It looked mellow enough.
The higher I climbed the narrower I focused. I plugged in my first cam and forgot about my assignment due on Tuesday. I worked my way left and up through a greasy chimney and left her behind. I pushed my feet against the wall, pushing out the memory of granite flying past my face. Reaching the top of the pillar I took stock of the world around me. I was thirty feet in the air, with two pieces in, and little to no protection available above—but I couldn’t climb back down. Stepping across the chimney I pulled down hard on two tiny holds and swung my body onto the final wall. I worked up the face, fixated on the rock in front of me. I moved over the quartzite like a whip, air rushing around my body, dangling on fingertips fifty-feet above the deck. If I fell here, I would bounce off the cliff all the way down.
“Safe!” I screamed down to the others. I risked more than I should have for this inconsequential and nameless route. Boldness here wouldn’t get sponsorships or recognition. But sitting on top of that cliff looking over the crystal-blue lake and steel cliff bands, I remembered why I need this. When the rest of our bohemian band made it up to the top I looked at them and cracked a smile, “That was fucking stupid, don’t ever do what I just did.”
I’m leaving this spring. Studying abroad in Norway seems like a great excuse to move through the mountains again. It’s the second semester of my senior year and I don’t know who will be around when I get back. Shit, I don’t know if I will be back. But the granite of Lofoten will still be there when the weather turns and the days brighten and I’m sure El Capitan still stands guard over Yosemite Valley. In some sense, rock is more reliable than flesh. And the rock is pulling me towards it.
“The mountains are calling, and I must go.”- John Muir