When I was in middle school, my bus driver was a cool guy with long, brown hair and a smooth attitude. He played guitar in a rock band called Green Ice.
I can't recall what possessed me one rainy day, but as I stepped off the bus I looked him in the eye and asked contemptuously, "Do you really want to be a bus driver? I mean, you've worked all your life ... for this?"
As Boulder Valley's children head back to school this week, so do their drivers: a ragtag crew of retirees, loners ... and climbers.
For decades, Boulder's standard dirtbag climber worked as a carpenter, what with the flexible schedule, seasonal employment and workplace camaraderie. One problem, though: Carpenters work their butts off. Pulling on two-by-fours leaves you too exhausted to pull on rock. Led by the late Charlie Fowler, one of America's greatest all-around climbers, many committed Boulder climbers shifted to a new line of work, which now has a colorful 30-year history.
We renounced the once-necessary evil of manual labor by planting our lazy duffs in the driver's seats of school buses.
This gig has attracted climbers since at least 1980, when Fowler and prolific Front Range first ascentionist and guidebook author Richard Rossiter earned their commercial driver's licenses. One reason is the split-shift schedule. Drivers work for two to three hours in the morning, have time off from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then work another two to three hours in the afternoon.
Translation: School-bus drivers can climb any day of the week. They also earn decent money, health insurance and all the school vacations.
Jim Michael, a long-time Boulder hardman (then 33), carried the bus-driving torch through the mid-1980s. One afternoon, he pulled the bus roadside and waited for 65 rowdy middle-schoolers to calm down before finishing the drive home. The last girl off accused him of being the worst bus driver she'd ever had. Michael smiled cruelly, flipped her the bird and sped off, leaving her and her cohorts agape in a puff of black diesel smoke. He quit that very day.
In the early 1990s, avid climber Jeff Cloud, then in his mid-30s, took the job and kept it for six years, with a two-year hiatus in the middle. "It's the best climbing job ... as long as you're an early riser," Cloud said, referring to the pre-sunrise wake-up call for most drivers. Cloud's tenure and enthusiasm set the wheels in motion for the next generation of climber-drivers.
In 1999, Luna Kyly, then 25, moved to Colorado from Seattle. On Kyly's first day in town, he met Cloud while bouldering at Flagstaff Mountain. Cloud made such a smooth sell for bus driving that the very next day Kyly filled out an application. What Kyly assumed as a short-term job turned into his metier long enough to watch the fifth-graders on his first bus graduate from Boulder High.
Kyly convinced me to join the clan in 2003 -- a peak for climbing drivers. At one point, there were 10 of us. Between shifts we'd climb multi-pitch Eldorado scare-fests, BoCan sport routes, and classic scrambles and boulders in the Flatirons. We'd race back to the terminal, often several minutes late, and rev up our buses with sweaty brows and chalked hands.
Still, we sometimes pushed our luck too far. Like when Kyly got a ticket in a district vehicle for going 10 mph over the speed limit -- in a school zone. Or when I was caught red-handed by a superior allowing Charlie, my last student of the day, to emulate Superman by sprawling horizontally on top of the seats and "flying" the last mile home.
In spring 2006, at the age of 31, my own school-bus karma spanned 19 years to slap me in the face. A motormouthed, first-grade girl sat behind me. Out of nowhere she probed, "Hey, bus driver -- are you married?"
Laughing, I said no.
"Oh!" she said. "So, you're like the '40-Year-Old Virgin!'"
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org.