The chandelier wires swung. The lights fell off months ago. I concentrated hard. My stomach growled. I was afraid to fart; I’d shit myself. I stared at the dome light wires in my Saturn station wagon. It was never a chandelier. I wondered how long I had lied to myself. In a few hours, the Ward Gulch Fire would consume my car, my problems, and me.
What was I doing with my life?
Four years ago, I drove my station wagon 17 hours to Colorado only to turn around a day before I was due to start an internship at Climbing magazine. What was I doing with my life? I took up residence in my twin brother’s laundry room. Matt got me a job running food at a bar and restaurant in Berkeley. I ran fast around the restaurant, dropping off pizza at the wrong tables and pouring beer down customer’s backs. After a few months, the manager sat me down. I expected a raise or a promotion.
"James," he crossed his legs. "Why are you here?"
I wanted to springboard myself into a corporate environment. That was what post college grads did. That’s what I told myself I was doing. I was spring boarding. Honestly, I just wanted to write and go climbing.
I paused long enough for him to add. "James, you walk without a sense of purpose."
I did not become a waiter. I got fired from that job and then a few more. What was I doing with my life?
Eventually, I picked up work writing a blog for some Bay area climbing gyms. I liked the work. It kept me writing and it let me climb. It kept me afloat. I wrote more. Climbing, Rock and Ice, and Alpinist published a few of my stories. Through some inventive hustling (read trimming hippie lettuce in Northern California), I put new tires on my station wagon and drove to crags across the US.
I anchored my life to free climbing long routes in Yosemite Valley. I met an awesome girl. I got more work. I climbed better.
I obsessed this spring. Kim and I ended our 3-year relationship. I invested all my energy into a 900-foot granite buttress, freeing a new route with my friend. I thought only of climbing. Then I finished the route. I felt aimless. Rather than wait for an existential crisis to hit me, I started driving.
I pointed my station wagon east. The Carbondale Mountain Fair held an annual pie-baking contest at the end of July. I had direction in my life. I would climb around Colorado and win the pie-baking contest. I left Yosemite and drove towards the sunrise.
In Tonopah, I took a wrong turn. I pulled over at the Area 51 gas station where the nearby Alien Brothel served Budweiser and gave free tours. The map showed Vegas an hour south. American adventure. I drove towards the bright lights, spent the night with friends, and proceeded to Maple Canyon the next day. I hiked straight to the Pipedream Cave.
I pulled the rope towards the carabiner. As the cord neared the second bolt, I slipped on the polished cobble. I fell. My belayer tried to take in rope and then tried to spot me. I fell anyway. The rope burned my right thigh and upper arm. I landed on my back, hitting a wood post on the tiered landing.
I climbed the route my second try but I felt like a horse had kicked me in the back. I drove to a friend’s house in the middle of Utah and sat on his couch for a day. A pair of Mormon boys came to the porch. I politely asked told them to come back later. Then I rudely told them to come back later. I barely slept that night; the burn on my leg woke me every hour. When the weekend came, I drove to Salt Lake City and baked a few pies. I couldn’t climb but I could train for the pie-baking contest. My back started to healed a little. I started to sleep through the night. With a few pies under my belt, I headed towards Rifle, closer to the pie-baking contest.
I struggled up the walls. My back still hurt. I ate dinner and tried to sleep but felt restless that night. When my eggs finished cooking on my camp stove, I puked. The diarrhea started a few hours later.
Lightning struck in the Ward Gulch. The fire ignited thousands of junipers and sage. The fire ravaged Colorado. The flames spread towards Rifle Mountain Park, where I had been climbing and camping. City officials evacuated the park. Rumors circulated that there was a 99% chance of the fire burning one of America’s premier sport climbing destinations.
I settled into the back of my station wagon and stared at the wires that had once held my dome light. My stomach quaked. I almost farted. The burns itched. My back hurt. I could feel the fire coming closer. Everything was burning. What was I doing with my life?
I pictured flickering lights shooting through glass and dancing across the ceiling. I pictured a thousand lights at the end of the wires. I focused. I created a chandelier in my station wagon.