We woke up in La Habana. It felt surreal, dreamlike; the way Latin American authors write about magical realism, that which is true, but cannot be. Breakfast was Cuban coffee (distilled and black and delicious even to a heavy tea-drinker like me), a bowl of fresh fruit (bananas and papayas and pineapple, and something else I never quite figured out), and eggs with a slice of cheese, a slice of ham and a slice of tomato.
We chatted with the other travelers at the table, and Adele, a British lady was nice enough to give me a stash of PG Tips tea bags. I had not brought any with me (I typically do), as my experience in South America the previous year had taught me to just suck it up and drink coffee. But tea…I could wax poetic about some tea. She gave me one bag for every morning I would be in Cuba.
Liz and Kate stopped by to let us know they were running late on their end. We agreed to a time and place to meet up for lunch. It was novel now, without the use of cell phones, to go back to the days when you had to just agree to a meeting point, believing the other party would honor it and show on time. It was pleasant, really. Somehow less stressful than constantly checking text messages and re-evaluating set plans.
San Jose Market
Heading down to the water to spend our morning at the San Jose Market, we spotted a boxer training. They were under a massive tree, and she shadow boxed in a circle as the man who leaned against the wrought iron railing shouted at her in Spanish. We passed a crumbling but beautiful church, seemingly out of place, across the street from the San Jose Market–a huge concrete building the size of two Super Wal-Marts squished together. This is not a place that does much business in glass windows, so the large archways along the side had a few bars for structural integrity, and open airways to let the breeze glide through.
Walking in, we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of paintings. Good paintings. There were rows upon rows of canvases hung by binder clips, each aisle guarded by a shopkeeper, ready to chat you up with as much English as they had. (Typically not much). The work was clearly better than any tourist trap I’ve seen in America. These artists had studied the classics, and created their own Cuban rift on the styles of Monet, Dali, Renoir, and even Mary Cassatt.
I’m sure our mouths were hanging open, and we spent our hours just wandering through, not buying anything, just looking, until it was time to meet up at the restaurant. It was hot enough by then that meeting up at Carlos’ restaurant, a cold beer seemed like a great idea. Vacation is vacation, right?
The afternoon ahead of us, we took the ferry across the harbor to Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, or Castle Morro. But first! You must use the ferry, walk up multi-colored stairs, wind around to the big giant Jesus. If we hadn’t been with Art Majors, I never would have realized that this particular statue had the wrong sized head on him. Sure enough, when I looked at the head, it did seem a bit small.
Across the street was Che Guevara’s house. The tell-tale sign was the neon red signature “Che” splashed across the building. For 6 CUCs, we could explore the empty house and grounds. We opted not to, despite the fact that we heard a goat nearby.
It wasn’t too hot, so we walked along the road towards Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña,or La Cabana. Outside the full-on moated castle, Soviet missiles, old Spanish cannons, and other assorted weaponry were on display. This castle was originally built after a British overland invasion of the OTHER castle, Castle Morro, in 1762. Then they were like, oh crap, we need another castle.
So La Cabana was born! Fun fact: La Cabana has been used as a torture prison under the Castros. Che ran the place for the first five months after the revolution, using the space as a location for political prisoners, the tribunals, and ultimately, the executions afterwards.
But every evening at 9 pm, they shoot off a cannon. We were told it is the only thing in Cuba that is done on time.
We left La Cabana, and during our walk to Castle Morro, we encountered a four man painting crew. They had scaffolding, and the task was to paint the lampposts that lined the roadway a shiny black color. The scaffolding was needed for the height of the posts, but it was cumbersome and took time to set up and take down. Walking next to the already painted lampposts, we thought it was interesting that despite the crumbling of Old Havana, these lampposts were given priority. And then we came upon a lamppost that had fallen over. It was freshly painted, with a small piece of cardboard keeping it off the grass, so as not to get grass stuck against the fresh paint. I guess when the government says Paint the Lampposts, you better paint ALL the lampposts.
The guardian of the port was huge! We played on the fortifications, stopped for a refreshing drink nearby, and then walked around the castle that guards La Habana bay. I even found a little lizard.
The shadows were starting to lengthen, so we walked back to the big giant Jesus statue with the tiny head, and headed back to the ferry. Crossing back over was even better because we got a good view of the water and the city this time.
Dinner was at a very small, single-table place called “The Machine.” The shingle hung above the door was in the shape of a Singer sewing machine. They had one table, and while we had some miscommunications, I ended up with a meal that I loved. When we had thrown a Cuban party a year ago, I had learned how to make tostones, so I was happy to have some in Cuba.
Tostones are plantains that are sliced, mashed into either a cup shape or flat, then fried with a little salt. My tostones rellenos were cup-shaped plantains filled with melted cheese and ham. It was served with a sweet red sauce.
Evening with Papa
We split off from the group and checked out some local music. First on the list was La Floridita, a tourist trap and one of Hemingway’s favorite bars. They’ve even erected a bronze drinking buddy to keep you company while you have a daiquiri. Supposedly, this was also where it was invented. I samba-ed with the bouncer on the way out.
La Floridita was so crowded, we moved to a smaller, open air bar that had been recommended. The music was great, the mojitos were cold, the atmosphere was exactly as I had hoped to find in La Habana.
I wish I could tell you all about Cuba. But I don’t know enough.
I wish I could tell you all about the history of Cuba, but I am unqualified.
I wish I could tell you all about Cuba today, but there are too many things I didn’t even see.
Cuba seems to change on a daily basis, a world shifting and changing to suit its own needs. I say that only as a tourist. I don’t know what it is like to be Cuban, or to live on an island nation governed by a unique set of principles. There seems to be a purposeful divide between the local daily life and the tourist tableau on display. Perhaps this is not all that different from the way other countries allow tourists to see their world, but it is the most apparent divide I have seen.
Even so, the Havana I saw in a measly five days was full of magic, where around every corner I thought, “I did not expect to see that.”
Restaurants that were open and thriving three days ago, recommended by our Cuban hosts, were closed for renovation, or gone completely when we tried to visit them.
Three dogs ran by on the street, all wearing t-shirts, two wearing hats, and one with a nametag.
The only salsa dancing I did was a doorman to a bar, egged on by a drunk American tourist (that I did not know).
I’ll go into depth about our trip, my usual, day by day, but I have to tell you that visiting La Habana was surreal. More so for me than other Latin American countries. There is something unique to Habana, maybe the communism hosting capitalist tourists, maybe a crumbling city that is nearing its 500th birthday, or perhaps being in a country where knowledge is open and free to any citizen who shows interest. The art on every street corner surpassed anything I’d seen in American tourist galleries. The bands in almost every bar starting at 4 o’clock in the afternoon were better than most thrown-together bar bands in tourist districts I’ve been in. And that was just them playing covers.
But to all of these there is a caveat, a wondering what the real Cuba is like, because we saw the Instagram profile of the country: beautiful cars, intriguing sunsets, and even the crumbling and disarray of the old town fell apart in an elegant manner.
Despite my suspicions, make no mistake, there is magic in Cuba. It isn’t big magic, the hit you over the head kind, but rather the shrugging, of-course-it-is type of magic that citizens accept and visitors marvel over.
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is a historical novel set in 1066 “Angland.” Most history buffs recognize this year as the Norman Invasion of England by William the Conqueror, or rather, Duc Guillame of Normandy or “the bastard,” as the readers will encounter him in the pages of The Wake.
The story follows one Buccmaster of Holland, an egotistical man who repeatedly reminds us that he is a “socman with three oxgangs.” This notable achievement may seem obscure to the modern reader, but thankfully, Kingsnorth has provided a glossary and some historical notes at the back of the book. (Hint: an oxgang is a measure of land.)
Buccmaster is of the old ways, worshipping Wodan and Ing and Frigg, working his land, beating his wife, and disparaging his sons and laborers. He is the tough kind of man one would imagine encountering in 1066, a grandson of the Danes who invaded Angland themselves. But what makes Buccmaster an interesting narrator is his relationship with the disembodied voice of Weland Smith, a mythic blacksmith whose kidnapping and subsequent brutal retribution and escape gives Buccmaster courage to fight back against the French invaders. Weland Smith gives advice, insults him, and goads him into action on more than one occasion–the inner voice we all have, minus the graphic backstory.
But the triumph and originality of this novel is not the characters, rather the language itself. This books is not written in modern English, but rather a modified version of Old English, which the author calls “a shadow tongue.” This renders the book as slow reading for those of us who likely devour words at too quick of a pace. In some ways, these speedbumps frustrated me, but in the end, luxuriating in this brutal, no-win world with the Buccmaster was a delight. Due to the presence of the “shadow tongue,” there was no need of the typical tricks of historical fiction: no lengthy descriptions of ox-carts or how to make leather shoes. The simplicity of the relationships between people, hierarchies and land are laid bare. Returning to my own world with computers, cars, and trans-continental family structures seemed complicated and almost confusing in comparison.
One of the reasons I found this shadow tongue to be so effective is that it shapes not only the narrative, but requires the mind to read in an accent. As an American, I have only vague notions of the various accents that live in England. To read a book written like this conjures up a very specific accent, not just in the shape of which words being used, but in the rhythm of the line.
When we had seen this man before he had been proud he had been strong in his raedels and tales. an old man yes but he had the strength what all men moste haf if they is to hold others to them.
Kingsnorth notes that he uses only letters of the alphabet that would be used at that time (for instance, there is no “k” to be found in the text), but he also eschews capitalization and punctuation.
This brings up another aspect of this unique style that echoes the dark mythic quality lurking in the book. If this was written in modern English, I doubt it would have allowed the e.e. cummings-esque use of whitespace when Buccmaster argues with the disembodied voice of Weland Smith:
now does thu see
where has thu been I has been callan
it is not for thu to call
who is thu
thu named me
but I cannot see
Angland before England
As the story continues, loping along as Buccmaster collects a band of mostly well-intentioned men to fight the French invaders, Buccmaster drops more hints of his past, bathed in the brine of his bravado. The plot of this story isn’t complex, nor particularly important. For no matter what Buccmaster does, this was a tragic tale before it started. We all know what happened after the Norman invasion of 1066. The ruling class spoke French, while the lower classes spoke English. The Buccmaster’s version of “Angland” and what it meant to be an Englishman was a myth in of itself, as some of his comrades point out in the novel. Buccmaster was descended from Danish invaders who settled there, pushing out the Iceni natives, who had already fought and then intermarried with the Romans centuries before that. Buccmaster has created an “Englishness” that is unique only to his village, and, because of his distaste for Christianity, unique only to those that cling to the old ways. The parallels to modern nationalism are striking.
But in Buccmaster’s world of swords and fire, women have no place. His only love, his sister, is dead, but it isn’t until the end of the book that we find out what happened to her. His father is evil, and again, at the end of the book why Buccmaster refuses to speak of him. His wife, Odelyn, receives some lip service, but it is clear that while Buccmaster claims to love her, she is a responsibility and a dependent, not unlike his sons.
The world is against him, and in the early days of the book, before the invasion, when his farm is in need of harvesting, Buccmaster’s bravado is funny, almost endearing. We’ve all known a person or two who is puffed up on his own importance, and they are harmless. But after the invaders come, and Buccmaster becomes a leader of the resistance, his bravado and faith in the old ways come to darker and darker turns. Like the men of his camp, you wonder where he is going, if he is sane, and if you can trust anything he says.
Buccmaster bears witness to the destruction and occupation of his home, playing out the very fear that plagues us still. This phobia is what drives the Zombie Apocalypse entertainment of the last few years, all of the post-nuclear war fiction. As a larger community, we understand how interconnected we are, and how that makes us inter-dependent. To shut off the ability to build together means we no longer get technology like cars, space shuttles, or iPhones. One person can no longer “know” how to do his or her job when so much of the work relies on technology built on the shoulders of our ancestors. Ripping away that rug is terrifying, because we don’t really know where our water comes from. Are we really that much more informed about our lives than Buccmaster, who relies on stories from nearby villages for news?
How much bravado is required to get out of bed every day, to know that you are a “great man,” able to do good in the world after your world has been burnt to the ground? We all need a trick sometimes, and Buccmaster needs someone to think he is not “weac” like a “wifman.” (Though he did seem to appreciate his wifman when none of the men could figure out how to smoke and salt pork, as that was women’s work.)
But what Buccmaster lacks in humility, he makes up for with dark eloquence:
the wilde will be tacan from these fenns and the wilde will be tacan from in me for in efry man there is the wind and the water and his worc until he is tacan is to cepe the wild lands from the tamers
Ultimately, this is a tale not far off from our current Apocalyptic fiction craze. But, in some ways this is very different from the other books in the genre, because this war did happen, unsettling not just the people of England, but later shaping the conquest of the world. Kingsnorth appends the book with a note that 70% of the land in England is still owned by less than 1%, many of them descendants of those same Norman invaders. Hundreds of years later, the monarchy/government who conquered lands across the ocean, so the sun never set on the British Empire, was also run by the descendants of those same invaders. From the perspective of the Normans, this is a success story. From Buccmaster’s, it is the ultimate tragedy, an event that wiped out his way of life.
The Wake won a number of awards, and can be found in local libraries and bookstores. I strongly recommend seeking it out.
Maybe 2016 was an all-out Dumpster Fire for you. Maybe it wasn’t. Either way, you probably missed some great books as the months sped by. I have compiled a resource list to help you choose your next book (a best book) before 2017 takes over and you have to keep up with those.
I have broken them into some categories to make it easier to peruse. Perhaps you like Award winners. Committees form, discuss, celebrate a winner. Man Booker Award winners are usually great books for me because they are often quirky. However, they do not allow Americans to enter, so if you want an American experience, go instead with the PEN or the National Book Award winners. Of course, if you want to give someone new a chance, the Hemingway award is only for debut novelists.
But maybe prizes are meaningless. There are deadlines and politics involved. No problem! I have also compiled a list of “Best of…” from a number of different resources. The typical news outlets that have book reviews like the New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, but also a little less literary, like Harper’s Bazaar. But, if you want to get insider knowledge, there is also Publisher’s Weekly.
Of course, there are a few books that are on every list or almost every list. One is Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. If you haven’t read it, put it on the list. In non-fiction, Evicted by Matthew Desmond.
But read on, friends. It is the best way to understand the miles of someone else’s shoes.
I had some big goals for 2016. Most of the goals were reasonable, but still some entirely unreasonable ones snuck in. These were the goals I wasn’t going to hold myself to because I had no control over other people’s actions, but I couldn’t help but keep these outlandish expectations as a yardstick.
Maybe I watched too much Parks & Rec because I made a binder for my Writing Year, made quarterly goals, and decorated it with stickers. Some of my goals I now see as unrealistic (like blog 4 times a week. Who has time for that?), and some of them I forgot to write down, because I didn’t realize that those could be worthy goals (read your genre).
In my first quarter, I knocked it out of the park. In fact, I finished early. But by the time the third quarter came around, I lost focus on my goal sheet. I should have looked at it more often, reminding myself of what I set out to accomplish. But I didn’t, and I’m at peace with the fact that I didn’t. Because the story I’m most proud of was written then. It took only one round of submissions before it was published in a magazine I’m proud to be associated with. If I had stayed on track with the binder, I would have never taken the time to write something new that was under 80,000 words.
One of my goals was to submit my manuscript THE SQUARE GRAND to 30 agents this year. Check. I submitted to 34 of them, in fact. I have 27 No Thank Yous, but it is still being reviewed by 6 agents, and one of them has requested a full manuscript.
Another goal was to submit my short story set in the Galapagos until it was published. Apparently, I submitted it 18 times to no avail. I’m in the middle of yet another massive rewrite, and I doubt it will be ready for submission before the New Year hits. This one I can chalk up to unforeseen circumstances–the circumstance being that it wasn’t as good as I thought it was. But that’s okay. Another draft, another direction. Head down, keep working.
But my big failure this year was found in my “Year Long Writing Goals” list. I wanted to finish a draft of a novel called THE BITTER KIND. I know the story, mostly. But I don’t know how to tell it. I know the characters, but I don’t know how to frame it. Above all, this story feels like the work I have to do, but I’m terrified of it. I’ve been writing this novel for so long that my first scenes of it got me into graduate school back in 2003. I’ve written drafts and drafts of it–some upward of 200 pages. I reread it, keeping only a few paragraphs. This was 2016’s White Whale.
But you can’t plan a year in its entirety. I wrote two other manuscripts, of which I’m proud. I’ve submitted those to 22 agents, with five still pending, one of which has a full manuscript.
Snowstorm of No
Earlier in the year, I wrote about how everyone says No. It was a blog post about struggling with repetitive failure, something I think artists experience more acutely than the rest of the population. This is like fighting snow. A few snowflakes are no big deal. A rejection here, a rejection there, it isn’t a big deal. The agent is correct, it isn’t a good fit. Better to know ahead of time than trying to force a working relationship. But the aggregate of the No is what suffocates a person, like the snowflakes that make up the blizzard. Keeping your head down, working, sending out manuscripts seems easy, until one day you look up, smothered in No.
The few, glimmering Yes give you light to see the path again, but the No keeps coming, relentless. It is much harder to focus on the Yes than let the No smother you into a cold, dreamless void sleep.
I also wrote in that blog that setting a goal for publication was idiotic–you can’t control what an editor will take, or what an agent will accept. Better to shoot for rejections. 100 rejections a year seemed reasonable. So did I make it? Almost. I submitted 92 items–some short stories, some novels, a couple of short non-fiction essays.
Pretty darn close. Enough for rounding error.
I know 2016 has been a shit year for a lot of people, and in the wider world, I agree. But just like I’ve been down on my luck when everyone else is riding high, I took chances that paid off this year. I’ve had MORE than my fair share of adventures in 2016. Cheers to past Katie for having the guts to try having a Dream Year. I’d recommend it, even if you can’t accomplish all of your goals. Here’s some images from this past year, a bit of an adventure review.
December can feel like the movie Groundhog’s Day at times, donning the same clothes, going to the same parties every year. But you know what can change all of that? Fancy Boozes, that’s what. Here are two more recipes to freshen up your Holiday Spirit.
The Oatmeal Cookie
Some may know this as a shot, others appreciate the sophisticated shape of the martini glass it is served in. Either way, be careful with the amount of alcohol in this one. They go down fast and easy.
1.5 oz Bailey’s (Irish Cream)
3/4 oz Buttershots
1/4 oz Goldschlager
1/2-1 oz cream
cinnamon & sugar
Option: rim the glass with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar. Not necessary, but it sure takes a fancy drink up a notch.
Combine liquid ingredients over ice in shaker, shake, strain into chilled martini glass.
While the ingredients may make this drink sound heavy, if you go light on the cream, or use milk instead of cream, it isn’t the kind of cocktail to bog you down. It is sweet, obviously, but not cloying.
The Butter Martini
I know. Let me stop you and the Paula Deen jokes right there. This is an unexpected cocktail–it doesn’t taste like its ingredient list. Sometimes I think it might be better to make the drink before telling anyone its name.
2 oz vanilla vodka
1 1/2 oz Buttershots
1/2 oz Pineapple juice
Combine ingredients over ice in shaker, shake, strain into chilled martini glass.
Two things about this drink.
Number one, don’t worry about the pineapple juice. You cannot taste it. This martini tastes like a Werther’s Original candy without any of the syrupy quality.
Number two, taking the time to shake for 15 seconds or more will give you the tiny bits of ice in the glass which can help push the drink over the top.
So Cheers and Happy Holidays. My gift to you: a relaxing picture of the mantle in the dining room of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, where the Rockefellers, Pulitzers, and Vanderbilts used to hang.
Oh, motion pictures, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
A Top Ten List
10. Every year SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) holds a film festival. For many, this event is the highlight of the year: a week to drop everything in the real world and sit in theatres, watching animation, documentaries, short films, and yes, even the big blockbusters that will hit theatres in the coming weeks. I’m lucky to have gone–not just because the occasional celebrity sighting, or even spending a week seeing films–but because the discussion at so many tables and street corners are thoughtful opinions about the multitude of work even a short film can entail. It isn’t just grab a camera and film some pretty people. Discussions about acting abounded, sure, but also about lighting, cinematography, directing, storyline, dialogue, film quality, and camera specs.
As a writer, I control all of these pieces in my work. Often, I don’t think about these different aspects separately. But when October rolls around and I’m enmeshed in these conversations, listening to those whose lives revolve around it, I am reminded about the cumulative effect of each department, how films, like symphony orchestras, are made up of pieces to contribute to the whole.
9. I saw 24 works and attended 2 writing discussions from the screenwriters for two of the feature films. The theme of the week was Bring Tissues. I cried in almost every single film, often for very different reasons. Whether in joy after watching the feature-length documentary “The Freedom to Marry,” or in anguish during another feature-length documentary “Indivisible” (you try watching mothers kiss and touch their children through a fence and not cry), each film found an emotional touchstone. Once again, these films were a reminder to connect with an audience, to strive to share the experience of the narrative.
8. Conversations started with, “Hi, I wrote/directed/starred in _____. What is your project here?” Everyone sparkled with excitement for their work, and others’ work as well. I met lovely people from all around the country, and few lovely people from out of the country (hellooo, Ireland!). There is a joy in following them on social media, seeing them succeed with their work–and then of course, bragging to my friends and family that I know them.
7. There were many films I didn’t have a chance to see. Between scheduling conflicts, exhaustion, and panels running overtime, it was no wonder. But in some ways, I was glad of this. It kept us hungry, wanting more, scheduling an intricate dance of everyone’s time, asking to hold a seat nearby for a last-minute slip in when a Q&A ran overtime.
6. Brain Fatigue. Remember how it felt the last time you went running? Or a big workout, when you woke up the next day sore and aching? Your brain can feel like that. By the end of the week, I was both happy for the marathon to be over, and sad that every day of my life wasn’t this jam-packed. These films weren’t passive viewing; no playing video games on an iPad while watching these. They gripped, made you think, and yes, made you cry.
5. They weren’t all perfect. Some of the feature-lengths weren’t great. Same with some of the shorts. But that’s fine–wonderful, in fact. Finding the loose thread allowed an opening for discussion of how to improve it. Analyzing to see if it was editing, narrative, visuals, kept me on my toes.
4. I let myself just listen. You may not know that I am opinionated. Really opinionated. Sometimes I’m kind of a jerk about my opinion (sorry about that). But at the film fest, while I of course had my opinions, I gave my ego permission to take the week off. Listening to the people around me give viewpoints that I don’t have the expertise to even realize exist was such a treat. I loved hearing the breakdown and vocabulary of analysis that exists in film.
3. Despite the open bar, I didn’t drink that much. I went to the receptions every night, staying out late talking to new people. The cool part? I never had more than two drinks, despite the hours I spent there. I simply couldn’t drink faster while I was meeting the new people.
2. This was an excuse to hang out downtown ALL. DAY. I was able to sneak treats that I never otherwise allow myself: once the line was actually short in front of Leopold’s Ice Cream. The Coffee Fox wasn’t terribly crowded. I accidentally attended a sales meeting at Marche de Macarons. (true story)
1. Movies are magical. Going to a film festival gave me a week of magic. A WEEK. From opening my eyes about the athletes of color during the 1936 Olympics, to showing me the love of adoptive parents in “Lion,” or listening to the always colorful Vinny Paz after the biopic of his life, “Bleed for This,” it showed me a world outside of my own existence. The heartbreaking stillness of “Moonlight” sat me squarely in a life I cannot imagine on my own.
This is why art is important. Why art is Grand. Art is a tool in which we can see an existence beyond our own, and if we are going to survive, we need a way to exercise our compassion.
There are many sports metaphors that equate to struggle. Marathons, extra innings, overtime: all of these immediately conjure up the physical struggle of a human being. But perhaps we need a sports metaphor for the less demanding endurance trail. Romanian Rib could be just such a metaphor for patience.
Romanian Rib is a specific route near Red Rocks National Park. The climb itself is about 1000 feet of vertical. There is a parking lot on the side of the road, and a marked, maintained trail for about half of the 1.5 mile hike-in to the base of Romanian Rib.
That morning we got started a little later than usual, despite our promises to be out the door early. While inconvenient, in hindsight, an extra hour of daylight would have made little difference.
We sorted gear in the back of the car, loaded up packs and ropes, and hiked in, hoping we didn’t forget anything. The base of Romanian Rib is not marked, nor on a trail, so we bushwhacked through the prickly manzanita bushes to get to a place where we could set ropes.
The vertical was 1000 feet. Our rope was 180 feet. Quick math: if we need to climb 1000 feet, we would need to do at least 6 pitches. But! The rope was tied to both of us, needed to have enough slack to thread through protection easily. As the Mountain Project predicts, 8 pitches seemed to be a good theory for how long it would take.
Romanian Rib is rated as a 5.5 using the Yosemite Decimal System. The first number 5 in this is meant to discuss the class level of hike/climb, which is the kind that requires the use of a rope. A Class 1 hike is easy, hiking boots likely required, each higher level getting more difficult until Class 5, which requires a rope. I’ve seen grocery store parking lots more treacherous than a Class 1.
After Class 5 is reached, the decimal point describes the rating system for the actual climb. The higher the number, the more difficult it is. 5.0 is a treacherous parking lot, while the peak of 5.15 seem to require not just a rope, but superpowers.
Climbing a multi-pitch 5.5 seemed like a good fit for our quartet. Wendy and I are not fast climbers, but at 5.5, we would be well in our comfort zone, so even with the fatigue of a day-long excursion, there would be no problems. For Will and Andy, they needed to be able to free-climb without fear of injury, and a 5.5 would be very doable.
Crack of ten a.m., we were climbing. While Red Rocks is a sandstone formation, our particular route also had iron deposits. As the wind eroded the sandstone over time, shaping the formations, the iron deposits did not erode. So the face was covered in these reddish warts, which provided easy and abundant handholds and footholds. Climbing through those wart-fields went fast, and even I felt like Spiderman, scrambling up as fast as I could clean protection out of the fissures.
There were snags, of course. Because the shape of the rock meant we were often out of visual and audio range, I had to rely only on the patience of knowing I had literally no place to go. Clipped into a rock 600 feet off the ground, patience is not so much a virtue as a hobby.
Along the way, we anchored at some large ledges, and then some places that weren’t ledges at all. Those were the stations that made my feet hurt, “standing” in an uncomfortable way so as to competently belay my partner.
We also discovered that our rope was about ten feet shorter than Will’s rope, meaning that on two occasions, Andy had to downclimb from where Wendy was set up to make a new anchor for us.
After eight pitches, I stopped counting. We did a few really short stints in order to reach those monster resting ledges. Despite what Mountain Project recommended, we did at least ten pitches (if not more).
By the time we reached the top of the climb (not the top of the rock), it was almost four o’clock in the afternoon. We’d been in shadows most of the day, and it was definitely beginning to look like dark would fall quickly.
Must Come Down
We hiked across the rock to get to the rappel stations. These are where metal bolts have been anchored into the rock permanently. To speed the process, Will tied the two ropes together. Andy set the rope and headed down first. After him, I went, then Wendy, then Will, then we pulled the rope and started again, descending 180 feet at a time.
I felt comfortable repelling, as we had repelled 300 feet into the Natural Well earlier that year. Down we went, moving fast, trying to be efficient. Sometimes it was easy, walking down the rock backwards, moving my prusik (small knot type used as a safety back-up) until both that rope and my metal ATC (rappel device) were hot to the touch.
By the time we had made it down 3 pitches, it was dark. The Las Vegas Strip was visible, the floodlight at the Luxor pyramid beamed into the sky directly behind where our car was parked. I mentally marked the location because it was already clear we would hike out in the dark. To the right was the small, twinkling town of Blue Diamond.
Here, I admit that Will tied me into the rope. My knots are slower, my fingers clumsier. He would tie, I would double-check, Wendy would give me a big smile, and I would slide down to meet my husband at the bottom of the rope. When it got dark, it was still the same process, just with heightened senses.
The moon hadn’t risen yet, and the starlight was barely enough to see what we were doing. Fortunately, the white rock reflected what little light we had. Only Andy had remembered to bring along a headlamp. Wendy’s cellphone battery was near dead. Andy and Will’s were about at half, and I had about three-quarters. It would be enough once we were on the ground, but there was no way to use the cell phone lights while rappelling.
We had gone down ravines, around trees, each of us had scratches from the ubiquitous manzanita leaves. Finally, Andy said he thought we were near a walk-off. This rappel would be the last one. We set the rope around the trunk of a large tree miraculously growing in this outcropping of boulders. Unlike other sections, this one had plenty of room to sit together comfortably. Andy headed down, and the three of us huddled against the rock, enjoying the last bit of heat the rock retained from the desert sun. Directly in front of the tree was a large boulder. After Andy had been gone a few minutes, the rope slid around the surface of the boulder, straightening out due to the tension below.
Wendy asked what we should eat for dinner. I had seen a Mexican restaurant on the way into the park the other day (I have a radar for this sort of thing). We waited for Andy to call back up to say he was safe and for me to tie in. But we heard nothing.
Then came the fantasizing about burritos the size of footballs, the discussion on what makes a good guacamole great. Finally, we heard Andy’s voice yell up from the rock. We looked at each other, all of us asking, “What did he say?”
One of the least effective things to do in this situation is to stand on the edge of something and yell “WHAT?” as loud as you can.
I’m not saying we did or did not do that. But finally, when we understood an “OK” from Andy, I tied in.
I started down the rope, picking my way through the vegetation that had started to dominate our landscape. Much of it was safe to downclimb, but in the dark, we didn’t want to risk it. Instead, I slid the rope through my equipment as I walked backwards, until I got to this strange plateau with a small manzanita tree and a cave opening roughly 18 inches tall.
Out of nowhere, I heard Andy’s voice loud and clear: “I’ve got you.”
I looked around me, not seeing where he could be, then finally realizing his voice was coming from the small hole in front of me. “Where are you?”
He explained that there would be a free-rappel after this plateau. He said to follow the sound of his voice.
“Into the cave?” I asked, because that did not make any sense whatsoever.
“Just follow the rope,” he said.
What else is there to do at this point? There’s no light, I’m tied to a rope, and I have a massive craving for a burrito football.
Peering over the ledge near the small manzanita bush near the ledge, I saw how the rock dropped away into nothingness. Andy turned on the red light of his head lamp to show me how close I was, maybe another 30-40 feet. Going over the ledge seemed like the hardest part, so I took the plunge, holding my feet straight out as I sat myself into thin air, as if sinking into a dining room chair.
I held my prusik still, giving myself a second to collect myself.
“I’ve got you,” Andy reminded me. “I can control the rope down here.” By pulling tension at his end, he could give a safety stop.
I nodded, but before I could move the prusik and finish my descent, the rope dropped, and my body jerked downward.
My heart stopped. Above me, the rope had rolled over the first boulder, just as I had seen it do while Andy descended. Shaking, I moved the prusik to end the rappel. I slid down the remainder, the scaly sound of the rope shushing through my equipment the only background to this activity.
My feet touched the ground and I untied quickly. Both of us screamed “OK” back up at Wendy and Will.
“I hope the rope doesn’t get stuck,” Andy said.
I stopped him. “Let’s get them down first.”
Then I did what I do best: I got out of the way. I clambered over to a rock outcropping to look at the valley below us. When I looked up, I began whooping.
“The moon is rising!” I yelled. “It’s big and orange and perfect!” We were only one day past a full moon. The extra light was almost immediate. By the time Wendy reached us, the moon was fully risen.
Will came down next, and after he detached himself, Andy pulled on the rope like ringing a bell in a belltower. Nothing happened. Will grabbed the rope and they pulled again. Nothing. I tied into the back of the rope, Andy climbed up a few feet, and the three of us put all of our weight against it. Nothing.
“Well,” Andy said, hands on his hips.
“Yup,” Will said, same stance.
I returned to my pack to eat some trail mix and a honey packet since I was getting to the point of shaking from lack of calories. By the time I got called back to the rope, Will had attempted an ascension system, then Andy tried, and I got tied into the rope that was supposed to be pulled up, around the tree and then back down again. That way, when Will climbed up again, he wouldn’t fall on the ground from a sudden rope-slip.
There is probably not a way that I can both accurately describe the ascension system as well as convey how much physical exertion it took for Will to climb up the rope that hung away from any wall. Watching Will roll himself up over the ledge alone was exhausting.
None of us were talking, so it was easy to hear the animal noises near the overlook. Andy was controlling one end of the rope, I was tied into the other, and Will was ascending, which meant Wendy was left to investigate the strange noises near our packs.
She disappeared over to the ledge where our backpacks were, and then we heard the sound of small rocks hitting the outcropping. There was some more shuffling, and then Wendy returned.
“Sorry Andy, I think a fox peed on your pack. But he’s gone now,” she said.
It’s funny now, but at the time, it was difficult to even register. I was thinking about how we might just sleep there, huddled in a big puppy pile and wait for morning when we could find a way to retrieve the rope in daylight.
Once Will had accomplished the ascent, however, he went back up to the tree, freed the rope and downclimbed to the ledge where he re-set the rope and descended again. This time, when we pulled, the rope came down.
During all of this, Wendy and I had investigated whether or not this was our walk-off point. We both thought so, but it had not been borne out. There was still a possibility that we might encounter another rappelling situation. Still, we changed out of our climbing shoes into hiking boots and our quartet set off in the moonlight.
There were a few points where we had to turn back on our bushwhacking trail to the car, but for the most part, the 1.5 mile return trip was pleasant. We sang childhood camp songs, I belted out a few choruses of Pocahontas (“Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon?”), and we fantasized about crispy tortilla chips, hot with grease.
We were giddy with relief: relieved that we wouldn’t be spending the night in a manzanita bush tangle, relieved that we would eat hot food that day, relieved that everyone was safe and unscathed.
By the time we got back to the car, it was after 10:30 pm. Andy and I split a hot, stale vanilla zinger stashed that morning in the driver’s console. The sugar had crystallized and melted on our tongues.
Once again, Las Vegas came through: despite being 11 pm on a Tuesday night, the Mexican restaurant was open because it had video poker, and was technically a gaming establishment. 24 hour chips and salsa. Our waiter literally ran across the restaurant to get us our hot, crispy chips, and bowls of red salsa, green salsa, and bean dip. I ordered a cervezerita for the first time in my life.
We ate like animals, though none of us could finish. All of us were tired, endorphin-flooded, and ready for few more days of climbing (and a good night’s sleep).
Our first major multi-pitch climb was a good adventure–and as Andy likes to say, “It’s only a good story if something goes wrong.”
In a few weeks, we are going to Red Rocks outside Las Vegas to climb. Not much for gambling, we will be subsidized by all the people do: cheap flights, cheap places to stay, easy food.
I have to admit something too–I am not a great climber. Nor particularly good. Aaaaand I don’t really climb very often. (There is a sincere dearth of elevation near Savannah).
For the past week or so we’ve been practicing for my benefit. I have my own rope length to practice my knots, and while I watch TV or listen to podcasts, I tie and untie my handful of knots.
I keep all of my practice lengths handy so I can go through what I’ve learned a few times a day. My goal is to make those knots second nature so I can tie them while suspended 1000 feet in the air. When I think I have mastered one, Andy makes me tie it while my hands are in a paper bag.
We took a walk around the neighborhood so I could practice placing and taking out cams and stoppers.
We even set up a faux-system on our stairs at home to get used to cleaning a route as I climb.
I know it isn’t perfect, but it helps.
The route we are looking at is an easy route: Romanian Rib. At only a 5.6, 5.7, I should have no problems with the climb, but it is multi-pitched, which I have never done.
The most exciting news out of all of this is that I got my first ever, personal, belongs-to-me climbing helmet.
My first ever, actual correct-size climbing shoes. Terrible, right? I’ve always used Andy’s hand-me-downs, which are typically worn out and a little too big. The last pair was cambered and worn enough that the rubber on the bottom of the shoe had cracked into two. But now I have my very own! After trying on nearly every pair, I settled on these as the most comfortable for a full day of climbing. They are the same style as the very first of Andy’s hand-me-downs (big enough I had to wear socks while climbing). I like the lacing because even if my feet get swollen after a day of hiking, I can adjust the fit accordingly.
The countdown is ticking away. I am trying to get all of my writing projects done so I can go without the weight of work remaining unfinished.
Of course, during all of this, Carl remains unimpressed.
I had not slept well. The first few nights of sleeping on the ground were great, straightening out my back in ways I didn’t know it was crooked, but the last night was painful. My side of the tent was on a gentle slope, so I tended to slide to the edge of the tent, waking every few hours, pressed against the canvas. My right shoulder hurt from my fall, so I couldn’t put my arm over my head if I laid on my stomach, and I certainly couldn’t lay on my right side.
Andy got out of his bag first that day. The next water wasn’t for another two and a half miles, and we had another pass to get through beforehand, so I forewent my morning tea. My feet still hurt from the day before, the toll of fifteen miles on tender soles. Had we more trail time, I would have been able to accustom myself to that much mileage and more, but at the time, my body faced the consequences. Given how swollen my feet were, I tied my boots looser than usual. We ate our granola and folded up camp.
I took a last look around, the tall pines waving in the breeze of the early morning. This was our last camp. We had nine more miles until the Lava Lake Trailhead, so barring any unforeseen issues, we would literally be out of the woods that day. The packs were again lighter as we suited up for our last big day.
But first, the pass: The Opie Dilldock Pass.
Yeah, you heard me.
As we had done on our third morning, the bulk of our elevation would happen first thing in the morning. We had camped less than a mile from where the topographical lines started to get close together on our map. And once again, we had patted ourselves on the back for our cleverness.
“At Mile 41.2 (6900′) is Opie Dilldock Pass. Very Alpine Area. Great Views.
This did not at all prepare us for what was in store. We kept our pace intentionally slow, winding our way through the trees and around the mountain, when we came out of the forest. Perhaps, indeed, the Alpine area the author of our guidepost had mentioned.
But the pass itself was far more like Mordor in Lord of the Rings than any alpine area I’ve ever been in. The ground was dry and barren, the volcanic rock gray now, crunching beneath our feet. We climbed up and up and up, me falling behind because I could not manage Andy’s pace. When we came around a corner, a fierce wind waited for us, blowing us both off-balance. My eyes teared up against the wind, my hat catching each gust, despite my ponytail threaded through the back. We had to lean forward into the wind to keep moving up the trail.
The ascent kept going and going…until it didn’t. Like any struggle, once we discovered the plateau, it didn’t seem so hard. The wind skirted past us, barely ruffling the rat’s nest in my ponytail.
Minnie Scott Spring
“At mile 41.7 (6700′) is Minnie Scott Spring. First drinking water since Sisters Spring and Glacier Creek. It’s easy to miss the spring late in summer. It appears about 100′ East of the trail and forms a stream that may peter out before it even reaches the trail. You have to engineer a dam to form a pool, then let the mud settle before getting water. Seems to be reliable year round. Nice campsites down a trail to the West. Next drinking water is at South Mattieu Lake.”
This description was why I had no tea this morning, and the thought had occurred to me that Opie Dilldock Pass (really? really?!) had challenged me even more because of the lack of tea in my system.
But Minnie Scott Spring appeared like an oasis of “Alpine” in an otherwise Balrog-infested area. We filtered our water here, despite our belief that the spring didn’t require it. We were too close to a successful trip to be stricken mere miles from the car. I eased off my feet, reclining on a rock. They ached still. In fact, I also had patches of skin on each hip that were being rubbed raw by the pack’s belt. After five days, I had managed to figure out a specific way to set the pack on my hips that made carrying it possible in the long-term. The margins of success were very narrow. My right shoulder ached.
We did not have to engineer a dam to filter the water, thankfully. Now that we had plenty of drinking water on board, we both relaxed some. No matter what happened, we would be fine. Shouldering the packs again, we set off down the trail, now only seven miles from the car.
The volcanic landscape overtook again, now red basalt as far as we could see. The wind kicked up and threatened to take my hat–once ripping it right off and I had to chase it down, afraid my Big 5 Dive trucker hat was gone forever. We traversed through the Yapoah Crater, but it looked a lot like the rest of basalt formations.
There was more hills and valleys than we anticipated, the wind constant until we crossed into the trees. Eventually, we returned to the alpine areas again, where we rejoined the Scott Trail, and then the Mattieu Lake Trail.
I was slowing, getting quieter, focused now on the discomfort in my shoulder and my feet. We stopped to eat, despite my protestations, at South Mattieu Lake. I ate not only a Clif bar but also high-graded both the banana chips and cashews out of the gorp.
I did the math and realized I had eaten at maximum, 1500 calories the day before. Not enough for a fifteen mile day. My exhaustion made sense. I ate until I pictured my stomach overflowing with layers of banana chips, stacked unevenly, like a slate retaining wall.
Groups of retirees trickled down to the lake. The silver hair was the first giveaway. They had picnics in their daypacks. We were three miles from the trailhead.
It made me smile–they were clearly a very successful outdoor club for seniors. They wore technical hiking gear, many had trekking poles. But they were all enjoying themselves (well, except this one guy, but he looked like the type that had only recently quit his job, and only under protest. He was the kind that didn’t know how to not be in charge and was unhappy about the whole thing.).
Sitting had improved the discomfort in my shoulder and my feet. We had covered a fair amount of tough ground already, and we were close now. We hefted our packs and set out for our last leg. The trail was back to my favorite kind: soft, but well-packed, with good tree cover so as to provide ample shade. We wore sunscreen everyday. I wear sunscreen every day of my life, regardless, but reapplying can really be a hassle.
My feet had stopped aching, finally, and a snack always improved my mood. But then, just like after Opie Dilldock Pass: there we were. In front of us, a parking lot. Behind us, wilderness. It seemed so strange to stand on the cusp, covered in red dust.
I had been content in our world of two. We were well provisioned, mildly comfortable, and completely out of range of any electronic world. But taking steps forward brought the rest of the world crashing at our feet (or in my case, crashing at my blisters). I had never been in the woods that long before, had never gotten accustomed to that kind of walking. It would have been easy to step back in, melt into the trees, a way to say “forget it,” and cocoon away, just ourselves.
But I hadn’t brushed my hair in five days, nor showered. My hips were rubbed raw, my feet swollen and blistered, the ache in my shoulder was intensifying, even as light as my pack felt now compared to the beginning of the trip. The world beckoned, bright and candy-like. It had video games and restaurants. It had my family, my friends, more books, and hot tea. We stepped past the trailhead signpost. We were back.
There were two gentleman with their covered truckbeds open, clearly returned from their morning excursion. It was noon, and they were having post-trail beers. We asked them to take a picture of us. We were one week shy of our seventh wedding anniversary, and we had never felt closer.
Our photographer told us a funny story about a newly married couple going into the woods for a week-long honeymoon, only to come out a day later, with implications for the rest of their marriage.
We laughed, declined his offer of a beer, and picked around until we found our car in the dusty lot. Easing the packs off, Andy hunted for the car keys. He pushed the fob, and the truck popped open. We pulled out our waters and more gorp, as well as the charging equipment for our phones. The packs slid into the trunk. Andy flipped his pack the bird.
I sat down in the passenger seat and laughed. I hadn’t sat in a chair in almost a week. It was a Kia, and it was SO COMFORTABLE. The revelation came fast and harsh: how overly comfortable we are in so many respects. How easy our lives are, and how we wallow in it only to declare it unsatisfying.
We resolved to never complain again.
So we drove to Bend to eat. We took turns washing up in the bathroom, I washed up to my elbows three times before the water ran clear. There was a Buddha on the wall watching as I performed my ablutions. We were in a small fusion restaurant called Spork, which I cannot recommend enough. Dee-licious. Also: we had been in the woods for six days, so grain of salt.
We drove to Crater Lake, but by then I had taken my boots off. My loose-tying approach that morning had left me with a large blister on my toe. The bottoms of feet still tingled, and with the boots off, unweighted in the car, once again, my feet swelled to a shape nearly round. My right hip was near bleeding from the belt of my pack, but not quite. My left hip felt bruised, but it wasn’t discolored.
It was the National Parks’ 100th birthday weekend, so we cruised in for free. Due to my injured status, we did not do a hike, but drove half of the perimeter. We saw a deer, which felt like vindication for the fact we had not seen anything larger than a squirrel during our week in the woods.
We got a hotel that night. I hadn’t brushed my hair in a week. My calves were stills stained with ash from before The Burn. I knew I smelled, even if I was having a hard time recognizing it. When I took my shirt off, my right arm was decidedly swollen compared to the left. The bruising would be slow, and indeed, when it came, it covered an area from my bicep down past my elbow. I couldn’t sleep on my right side for two weeks after.
The waistband of my pants chafed the raw skin on my hips, but that went away after a few days. Andy was, of course, completely unscathed.
This was one of our best trips together. Maybe even better than when we spent three weeks in Honduras scuba diving. Definitely better than when we tried to motorcycle the Blue Ridge Parkway and got washed out by a Nor’easter.
The reason why it was so much better was because we walked out of the woods being a better team than when we entered it. It wasn’t a hardship, our hiking and camping adventure, but it was a shared experience where we both carried our weight (not just figuratively).We had set daily goals and frequently exceeded them; we communicated, taking the time to really look at each other. We had lain next to each other listening to elk calls at dawn.
There’s magic in the in between times, and we’d seen it together.