Thursday, May 29, 2008

Foolish Pleasure

The worst four letter word ends with a K: “W-O-R-K.” For three months, I stared at a computer, analyzed money supply and interest rate curves, studied horizontal integration in corporate mergers, and wrote papers on economic regressions. Grim business. Four minutes after I finished my last econometrics final at UC Santa Cruz I sat in a cloud of smoke, having just blown a quarter’s worth of work with a few deep bong hits.

My thoughts were transitioning from economics to my upcoming climbing trip when a hippie parted the cloud of smoke at my friend’s house. He worked as a deliveryman, carrying a backpack full of hippie lettuce, hash, DMT, acid, ecstasy, and mushrooms. He’d stopped by to sell his wares to us stoners. While he gave his sales pitch on the psychedelic crack-rush of DMT, I considered the winter climbing destinations: Bishop, Hueco, Portero Chico, Vegas, and Indian Creek. When he popped open a pill bottle and poured out five yellow postage stamps of high grade acid, I sat up attentively. Vegas could be a trip. After the hippie enticed us with his wares he left to Silicon Valley where there was a free lunch at the Google office and a client with an appetite for psychedelics. Influenced by the drug pitch, I began preparations for a trip to the city of sin. My tattered backpack was filled with twelve quick draws, a skinny rope, harness, sport shoes, a pound of chalk, a pair of oversized aviator sun-glasses, a bottle of booze, an ounce of sticky, an ounce of green, an ounce of sticky green, a quarter of mushrooms, a baker’s dozen of eight balls, a couple pills of ecstasy, a blotter of acid, and a rainbow of smilers, and frowners. After three months of economics and school, I wanted to climb. I wanted the foolish pleasures in life.

And then the trip: alarm clock, breakfast, train ride, metal detectors and x-rays, a 747 airbus, gripping arm rests, sweating, acceleration, the pilot’s announcement “In case of emergency bags of oxygen will fall from overhead,” (in first class the oxygen is replaced with ether), turbulence, gripping arm rests, sweating, asking the stewardess for an ether sample from the emergency bag, dropping ten thousand feet, hitting pavement. Vegas.

Five years ago, I was evicted from Red Rock’s campground by the local Gestapo for abusing the discount for seniors and the disabled. My next trip to Vegas, my climbing partner and I camped in the nearby desert with the wild burrows, parking my truck and sleeping in the dirt. The camping was free but littered with evidence of the nearby city. Gun shells lined the dirt road and a ten inch black dildo, chewed up by coyotes, lay flacidly by the truck’s tires. We didn’t sleep much and left early. For my latest trip, I’d lined up a couch in a climber’s flop house. 2829 Foolish Pleasure Drive featured a steep indoor climbing wall, a fold out bed tucked inside a plush couch, ample garage space, and a constant rotation of nine climbers in a three bedroom house. The house epitomized a climber hang from the inside out to the driveway where the dirt bags, the bohemians, the weekend warriors and the ballers, all had their rigs parked outside. There was an’82 Toyota Corona with a busted transmission and flat tire, a tan version of the A-team’s huge van, a boxy Honda Element, a brand new Toyota Tundra, and four other rigs cycling through the parking lot. Every night, Chad, the owner of a Toyota Echo and reserved parking space, dealt for a no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em tournament. The monkeys would swarm the table after climbing at Red Rocks and compete, hoarding their chips, staring each other down, and spending hours trying to win the $1.38 pot. The first one knocked out went to the woodie in the garage and threw himself at the small climbing wall with a loser’s masochism. I got strong on the plastic. The couch, the poker games and the woodie made the house ideal. Not only was Foolish Pleasure Drive the perfect place for a partner-less dirt bag rock climber but an easily panhandled five bucks granted all access to a five pound bucket of low fat low lactose biologically complete protein supplement. Snap!

One night, after a massive dinner of burritos but before the Hold ‘Em tournament, Chad announced that anyone not paying rent (six of us) had to hide in the garage; the landlord was stopping by in half an hour to collect his mail and Chad didn’t want him to know the house was temporarily a half-way home for derelicts. After ten minutes of slandering and hiding, we left our garage stake-out, settling down on the couch to watch the fight. The previous night, The Mandalay Bay and Mikey’s Malt Liquor had sponsored TapOut, a series of UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) fights, and the six of us monkeys piled onto a three man couch, crowding around a fifteen inch laptop to watch the newly downloaded brawls. Initially labeled as “human cock fights”, the UFC had cleaned up, entering its fourteenth year in direct competition with the prize fighting of the World Boxing Organization as the main sporting attraction in Vegas. The fighter’s struggle in the ring is a close cousin of sport climbing. Trying at one’s physical limit, using a combination of technique and power, for a short duration inside the ring parallel a climber’s path up the stone.

As the pit-bull pugilist Wanderlei Silva strode to the octagon ring, the landlord walked through the door. Chad’s eyes glared at the half dozen dirt bags conspicuously parked on the couch worrying about the landlord disapproval of the house being a homeless shelter, but Spencer, one of the monkeys sleeping in the garage, quickly cracked a beer, shoved it in the landlord hands and said, “Liddell and Silva are about to fight three five minute rounds for Tapout’s Light Heavyweight bout. Here’s a chair.” The landlord protested just long enough to examine the beer’s label; it wasn’t quite moonshine so he settled down to watch as the fighters entered the octagon.

Liddell’s knuckles dragged as he entered the ring; he had the caved chest and long arms of an orangutan. The men knocked gloves, and began to dance, bursting into short skirmishes. Through the first round Liddell telegraphed his slow punches while Silva, stepped into his opponent, countering with violent blasts of fists. By the second round, both men were clearly fatigued, but Liddell worked Silva’s eye, making the puffed eyebrows of Silva’s flat face bleed. The former bare-knuckle Brazilian boxer’s strikes became erratic; he couldn’t see from his left eye. Liddell bowed his head, showing off his short Mohawk, and charged. Silva fought through the bell and continued into the next round, stubbornly fighting back as blood streamed down his face. He refused to be defeated. At the end of the third, the judges declared Liddell a winner by unanimous decision.

“Too bad Silva didn’t win. He’s a fighter for sure,” the land lord grabbed his mail and headed for the door, appreciative that he got to watch a good fight, hang with the boys, and escape his responsibilities for a moment. “Thanks for the beer guys. Have fun at the crag tomorrow.”

Red Rocks features a kaleidoscope of colors: pink-red, brown-red, brick-red, burnt red, orange red, light red and dark red. There were days when the climbing on the red sandstone went smoothly. These were days when Alex Honnold or Spencer Macroesky came out with all their power and technique. But the best days were when the Gallery or Trophy or Stratocaster or Sunny & Steep became our octagon ring. We would throw our packs down and storm the cliff, jabbing and throwing our mitts at the overhanging crimps, screaming for the anchors to move just a little closer. These were days when we fought the sandstone bulges.

At Sunny & Steep, John Starr’s mouth sputtered as he tied in for a round with the cliff’s namesake route. With the body of a fourteen year old computer geek, John was out of his weight class with the overhanging thuggery and tiny crimps.

“Looks steep. Maybe hard. No. I can do it. What’s it like up there?” He finished his knot, starting up the rock. At birth, the connection between John Starr’s brain and mouth fused too well; there was no regulation and his mouth flowed out a steady stream of consciousness. “Where’s the bolt? It’s so steep. This little crimp? Match? Wait. No, that’s not it. I’m coming off.”

John’s elbows ran parallel with the beam from the Luxor; they both pointed straight up in a classic Red Rocks pose. He looked like a chicken ready to take flight. I watched closely as John talked himself through the crux, then the next move, and the next. Everyone at the crag turned as John fought.

“I’m pumped. I’m gonna fall. I can’t,” his hand shot again, “keep going.”
The folks at the crag shouted their encouragement. The essence of sport climbing resides in battling past your physical limits, redlining and pushing more. Sport climbing’s the foolish pleasure of the fight. John should’ve fallen fifteen feet lower.

John’s body came out from the wall, arcing into a fall. Looked like air time. John’s hand swung towards the rock and stuck on a smooth jug. His body jerked from the impact of landing the hold and he screamed, “I love Red Rocks!”

Too soon, I buckled into my seat at Las Vegas airport. My forearms ached from the climbing, and my wallet was sore. I’d gambled and lost. A drunk at the Goldcoast’s no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em tournament stole a month’s worth of gas money for the commute to Yosemite by hitting a king on the river. Lamenting the lost funds, I’d partied hard, wearing my aviator sun glasses with friends at the crag, and into the early dawn at the bars. I’d enjoyed the fights: Liddell and Silva, John Starr and Sunny and Steep. Vegas had been good but marginal products of capital, labor force participation rates, and hours of work called. Back to school. The plane accelerated on the runway. I gripped the arm rests, wondering about the ether in the oxygen bags. Climbing, gambling, parties, and fights. I couldn’t resist the foolish pleasures. I’d return to the Las Vegas house as soon as I could. But first, where was the stewardess? I needed some ether.

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