I gasped audibly at the gritty Texas sunset when I turned west onto the road to the climber’s ranch.
No one heard me, though, and that fact heightened my ecstasy over the dusty desert rose. It felt as though I was the only soul having that experience at that moment, and therefore it was mine alone.
Alone isn’t something I’ve done a lot of. But after going solo this trip, even briefly, that could change.
The sun set as I returned from dropping Megan at the airport in El Paso. For the rest of my trip to Hueco Tanks, it would be just me, a stack of three crash pads blocking my view out the back and way more food than even a ravenous five-foot-three human could eat in a couple of days.
I didn’t plan to be alone at Hueco, a bouldering Mecca I’ve long had an eye on but hadn’t visited since alas, I wasn’t a boulderer. But acquiring a few crash pads alters your identity; so does the temptation of winter warmth. I planned a trip.
Meg drove to Hueco with me and caught a flight out for a conference. Cheryl planned to fly in, go bouldering and then drive back to Colorado with me. But in last week’s snow, Cheryl slid off the road on her way to DIA, wrecking her car and missing her flight. She escaped unharmed but wouldn’t make it to Hueco.
After I learned she was OK, my first (selfish) thought was: “Ugh, I’m driving home for 12 hours alone.” Then I skipped to neurotic thoughts of being stranded on the interstate in a cell-phone deadzone with a hopelessly undrivable car.
Having three crash pads to sleep on if stranded was no comfort. Perhaps I could build a fort out of them, like a kid with couch cushions, and pretend the serial killers couldn’t see me?
I’ve always had companions on road trips, and I didn’t realize how much comfort they brought me until I didn’t have one … even though I’ve been stranded before on a Texas highway with four guys who shrugged at our flat tire and retired to the van to sleep.
Though they were useless, I didn’t see the potential power of being alone and taking control of the situation. Even on this trip, I just saw the cell-phone deadzone. And possibly hiding from a serial killer. Not the freedom.
Long drive alone aside, climbing alone is relatively new. This past year, I’ve done it more, first out of convenience, then out of enjoyment, which has been surprising for this social animal. It’s revealing: Seeing how hard you try when no one’s looking gives you a clear picture of your motivation that day.
So does taking a nap on your pad.
But bouldering alone near home is different than being unexpectedly alone on a trip. I called a friend to confess my anxiety about being lonely in Hueco.
“You’ll meet so many people, it will be great!” he said. “The day you don’t have a partner could be the best day of your trip. And the drive home will be fun — you’ll rule your world.”
“Yeah, you can listen to whatever you want, stop when you want, it’s great.”
He completely shifted my perspective, and he was right. The morning after I dropped Meg off, I found myself double-booked with partners — one crew from the South, and one from Canada.
I followed the Southerners into the Martini Cave and felt what one of them meant when he exclaimed, “This is Hueco history!”
Slipping my foot and knee into one of the many huecos, I let go of an arm, hung upside down and marveled at the smooth, wavy holes pocking the expansive roof that climbers have pulled on for years. Later I followed the Canadians out to Ghetto Simulator, so named by the first ascentionists as a counterpart to the Hueco Simluator, a problem in the Ghetto in the Flatirons.
There was no time to be lonely. I was too busy climbing and chatting. Being alone was completely social.
I can’t say it was the best day of my trip. But it was the best day for self-realization, because it turned my anxiety inside-out.
On the drive back to Boulder, I reveled in car dancing like no one was watching. I never worried about serial killers or building a fort of crash pads. And though I had a wonderful solo experience, I thought of my climbing companions here with more gratitude than ever. They make solace sweeter, because I know they’ll be here when I return home.
But I still might nap alone on my crash pad.