The Burly Scouts
Thanks to Thom Allen and Kouver Bingham for the lovely photos.
I drove into a strange and adventurous mystery with no idea what to expect. Whenever I feel unsure of myself, I tell myself that I’ve traveled the world alone. Whatever is making me nervous, I think to myself, I can handle it.
I parked and slammed the car door shut. My Avalon always got me where I needed to go. God, I love that car. A dog was prancing in a front yard I had never seen before. Scout A, who I’ve spoken to once before for about 15 minutes, was standing outside. He had extended the camping invitation to me and was very much the reason I was on that front lawn that morning. He had these bright eyes and moved so calmly with his body that one would think he had learned the trick to time traveling and knew he had all the time in the world to get to where he wanted to be. Honestly, I still suspect he has a time machine stashed somewhere that he hasn't told anyone about. I met Scout B at the house. He had dark hair and a smile that was just about as happy as his dog who jumps five feet into the air when he sees a stick. Scout B gave me an extra pack, a water bottle, a mosquito net (I immediately thought of Punta Banco, Costa Rica), and a sleeping pad. Then we picked up Scout C, a burly man with sunny blonde hair and a contagious laugh.
We stopped to get gas, to get liquor, to get food. Every stop made me feel like a rookie. How much gas did we need and how far were we going? How much beer and whiskey did we need? How much food and what kind should we get? I liked to be in control, but I had no choice but to step back so I could watch and learn from these men. I felt that a humbling experience like this was overdue. Too many times I’ve gotten away with laughing at passengers on a plane who have never flown before and were reading the safety manual front to back and back to front over and over again. It was finally my turn to wonder what the hell was going on. I wished I had had a safety manual on camping to read one too many times in case of emergencies. Ah yes, a book in my nerdy hands would have made me a little less anxious.
We escaped the city on a speedy retreat to the mountains. Soon roads and cars and buildings and concrete and metal things were taken over by trees and mountains and wildflowers and large and small bodies of water. It seemed to take only minutes to reach the Uintas. I listened to Scout A, Scout B, and Scout C talk in their Utah lingo about different kinds of rocks, different hikes, different climbs, and different camping sites. Words like “Crags” and “Belay” and “Bouldering” were all foreign words to me, and as my level of comfort around these new friends grew, the more I asked them to explain what they were talking about.
Sometimes there were too many words and the three men seemed too excited for me to want to interrupt them and their mountain-men talk, so I just listened. It made me happy listening to them discuss limestone in detail or how Mountain House actually tasted “Pretty damn good.” (In case you city slickers didn’t know, Mountain House is a brand of dehydrated food a lot of campers use to fill their stomachs after adding a couple of cups of water to the mix.)
Once we reached our climbing destination, we set our bags down. Scout A had brought an extra harness and gear for me. Scout B had brought a hammock for anyone not climbing the cliff or belaying. Scout C brought the beers. I brought next to nothing, only carrying the chips I had been given to take up to the crag. Scout B lead the climb. I watched just as I had watched the few rock climbing videos I had seen on quick snippets on ESPN or outdoor retailer commercials. He looked just the part, moving with ease, pausing only for a moment here or there. Scout A and Scout B taught Scout C how to properly belay a climber. I watched quietly trying not to get lost in knots and hooks and ropes, but failing. Scout C then took his turn to climb. He was the newest to climbing out of the three men, and was very vocal about his way up. He took us through each crevice, let us know when he was growing tired, and even talked happily of the beers he would drink in the near future. I sat on a sun-filled rock, watching him ascend steadily up the cliff with awe.
Watching these men climb was interesting enough for me. It never occurred to me that my turn was coming up until Scout A handed me a harness. Put it on like pants, they told me. The harness felt awkward around my hips. Scout A gave the belt around my hips a tug. That was the most important part that needed to be secure, he told me. I told him, I didn’t think I could climb up. Scout A said, You can. And he checked my knots, and he told me to check his ropes, but I didn’t know really what to check for so I just smiled like an idiot who was about to do something very stupid. He gave me a reassuring nod, and so I turned my back to him and faced the entire height of the crag—which was quite the opposite of the slow reassuring nod Scout A had just given me.
I suddenly felt like my bluff had been called. I wanted to pull off the harness, just like pants, and raise my hands up into the air and say, "Alright, Big Fucking Rock, you're right. I am no climber. I'm just some mountain groupie who wanted to pretend to be all outdoorsy and adventurous. You win. I'll go home and let some real Utans climb you. I promise I'll never bother you again."
I looked at the wall, realizing that the this face of rock and I were too close to stop what was about to happen. We had to dance. I lifted a hand to the solid wall, and everything in the world fell away. All I saw was this giant mass of rugged textures and secret shelves. I placed my second hand against the massive rock, and my fingers kindly asked the cool stone to show me where to go: “Where do you want me to touch you?” My hands asked it.
Time didn’t exist on nature’s wall. (Was this Scout A's time machine?) It could have been a half hour or thirty seconds, but suddenly I found myself high enough off the ground to begin to fear a potential fall. I heard Scout A’s voice constantly feeding me encouragement along with more slack on the rope as I climbed—his verbal support seemed to be just as important as support from the rope. I found myself letting his voice in more and more as I kept climbing higher and higher.
Suddenly, I took a fall and spun around. My knee scraped the wall, and it took me a few seconds to press my feet against the face of the mountain and get my bearings. I looked down and saw Scout A looking up at me. He had the same expression an adult has when they see an infant fall onto the ground, that look that doesn’t want to look concerned lest it should cause the child who fell to think it deserves a small crying tantrum of pain and attention. I didn’t want that kind of attention and I didn't feel any pain, so I took a breath and up I climbed.
I reached a point on the mountain where I had to pause, I think it was called a "crux." I leaned back taking a break. I realized the ledge I needed to reach was quite beyond a long stretch of my arm. It was also on my left side, meaning I would have to use my left arm, which was quite possibly the weakest limb of my body, to pull myself up. I could maybe do it, I thought. I could maybe jump and kick myself up to the ledge, but then I would have to manage pulling myself up with my left arm in order for my legs to reach the next resting ledge. I could do it, but I would most likely fall. And after the last fall that was taken at a much lower height, I didn’t want to experience that up near the top of the cliff.
I simply did not want to fall and with the desire of not wanting something to happen, fear began to fill my chest. In a few minutes of being "stuck," I knew I would begin to panic.
“I can’t do it,” I called down to Scout A who was holding onto the other end of the rope, looking as calm as ever. “I can’t reach the next ledge. I just can’t reach it.”
“That’s just an excuse,” he said looking up. “You can reach it. There, just on your left. About a foot up. You can do it.” I was surprised at how closely he watched the climbers he belayed, always knowing exactly where we were and what was just above us.
“I can’t.” And then involuntarily I admitted my fear instead of make up an excuse. “I don’t want to fall.”
“Jade,” he called up to me. I turned and looked down slowly to meet his gaze. My body was hugging the wall, my hips were pressed into the stone with the tips of my toes balancing on the little ledge that the mountain was licking my climbing shoes with.
“Yeah?” I breathed. I was already tired and out of breath. My fingers were shaking with shock and fatigue.
“I’ve got you. Okay? I’ve got you.”
And the words echoed off the cliffside, and I realized I was hearing something I had been needing to hear for a while. It had been a wild ride, moving to a new city. I had chosen to stay somewhere for a long time. I had taken up a new job and been trying different things, trying to be a normal day-to-day adult. I had been doing a lot of “regular” things on my own, and I was more afraid of “falling” in an attempt to live a more ordinary life than I would have liked to admit. I felt like I had been carrying the world on my shoulders, climbing up to a new summit with more weight than I could bear with cracks that seemed too far to reach. I had felt unsure if I was going to make it in little "Small Lake City" after moving away from big boys like San Francisco and New York. I hadn't realized how afraid I had been about it all until that very moment.
And there I was, climbing up an actual mountain with my arms completely pumped and out of gas. I had reached the most difficult part of the climb, and most of all, I did not want to fall. I was getting slammed with a giant-ass metaphor of my life, and felt like I had no choice but to fall...And yet this time, I had someone on the other end of the line holding onto the rope. I finally had an anchor.
Maybe all I needed was someone with knowing eyes and slow and sure movements, not to tell me that I wouldn’t fall, but to tell me if I did…He would catch me.
With that and a new strange power burning in my core, I lunged upwards. Once, Twice, three times I slipped and fell…And he caught me every time. The fourth time, I made it up and pulled myself up to the ledge of insanity (or at least that’s what I called it by that fourth attempt) and made it up to the top chains with some assistance from Scout A. I think this might have been the moment I earned my title as a Maggot Scout, just one step away from becoming a Cockroach Scout, apparently. But that was my title for the rest of the trip, and oddly enough, I didn't mind it one bit.
Once at the top, I was lowered down the cliff. I spun around and looked at the Uintas as I dangled from the rope. The trees, the mountains, the air, I wanted to take it all in. Before I could, I was lowered to the ground left wanting more. I had a feeling I would always feel that way after reaching the top of a climb.
I watched out of breath as Scout A crawled vertically up the same climb with ease. I wanted so much to go up again, but my fingers were screaming with pain. I hadn’t realized until after I had finished that I had ripped and torn a few patches of skin off of my hands on my way up. The sting made me feel alive, and the soreness that followed only too soon after the climb was something a newly acclaimed Maggot Scout like myself took pride in.
I could hardly understand how excited I felt when we backpacked out to one of the lakes and started to pitch a tent. From making a fire with flint and steel to roasting hotdogs on sticks, I forced myself to try not to look like a kid playing with a puppy for the first time. Scout B’s dog seemed to be just as excited as I was at least. Every now and then, we would find a stick to throw out for a fetch, and the half Australian Shepherd would retrieve it with a type of delight that put dog food commercial enthusiasm to shame. The time out in the mountains had melted away everything artificial from the world that had seemed to be building up around me. Everything from a can of beer, to talking about electric and fossil fueled rockets, to tossing hot coals from hand to hand was authentic, and real, and needed to be nothing more than what it was.
I must have failed in hiding my enthusiasm because all three men commented on my excitement at one time or another. Every now and then one of them would look at me with a strange look and say more than ask, “You’ve never done this before, have you?” I would shake my head sheepishly, waiting for them to continue with what they were doing whether that was using dragon’s breath to revive a fire or setting beers in a cool running creek. That would usually get a good-hearted laugh out of them before continuing whatever camping trick they were attending to. I was fascinated by every little thing, and I couldn't help but hover and stare like a hawk at times.
I sat on a log near the fire listening to the Burly Scouts talk about their travels around the world, their bodies and ambitions, their love of dogs, and previous camping adventures. We got caught up in talking about history, wars, books, and the (lack of) yoga culture in the U.S. The dog visited us each for a few minutes for scratches behind the ear or belly rubs. The structure of a broken penis was described in great detail because...science. Scout B talked to me about his concern for places like the Uintas when Scout A and Scout C went to go take photos of the lake under the moon and stars. Scout B told me it was great that people stayed in and lived more sedentary lives because the mountains were less crowded, but he also added quietly that if no one loves and cares for the outdoors, there's no one to protect the outdoors. The fire crackled in agreement and before I could understand the truth or feel sad, the rest of the Burly Scouts returned to the campsite. Silly talk of good times came again in another wave. Our faces glowed red about the fire, and I got drunk in the warmth of flames and the comfort of new friends.
It was strange to be called a City Slicker. I had never considered myself a City Girl, but my apparent absence of knowledge about the outdoors couldn’t be ignored. Thinking back, I realized the last year was spent in big cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. And with the exception of my off-the-grid month in Costa Rica, I had learned survival skills that ranged from “How to survive Bart strikes in San Francisco,” to “How to time a drive in L.A. without getting stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic,” and also to “Learning the subway routes in New York City and when and when not to use the buses in the winter.”
Yet the time I had spent in the cities seemed to take more from me than it gave back. They were exhausting. Laying down in a tent under the stars with the sound of rushing winds and crackling coals already showed me that yes, the mountains took a lot from you…but it always gave back. After a cool night in sleeping bags (Scout A had brought a warm spare for me), I woke up to the calm breathing of our sleepy guardian dog and the crisp air calling me out to the lake. I had been quite cold all night, and yet I walked out to the water with the dog in only my cotton tank top and bare feet. If I hadn't been so shy, I would have walked out to the water naked. I wanted to feel everything the mountains would let me feel. I wanted it all.
The men joined me one by one. Scout A captured Scout B tossing sticks into the water for the dog to fetch on camera. I sat on the rocks, shivering in the wind and bathing in the sun. Scout C woke up with a groan in his tent and a screaming headache from beer, whiskey, and one too many talks on literature and, or The Thong Song (who knows?).
We packed our bags. In all honesty, I was quite afraid to leave the mountains. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t feel ready for the city despite Salt Lake’s charming size. I wanted to stay. I wanted another campfire. I wanted the ashes in my hair. I wanted to be just where I was.
The lake. The trees. The mountains. I looked back before we packed ourselves into Scout A’s vehicle. I liked being the Maggot Scout, a title hard earned within the Burly Scouts of America. I decided I couldn't make it without the mountains, that I couldn't leave... And then the wind blew once more. I could be wrong, but it told me it was okay. “I’ve got you,” I heard the breeze cut against my sun-reddened cheeks, “I’ve got you.”