Whiskey, Licorice and the Evolution of the Road Trip

I wrote this a year ago, before hitting the road full-time. It’s a piece about finding one’s dirtbagging ethos while retaining a job and a home, maybe a dog and some meaningful relationships. This spring, I challenged my dirtbag ethos to a bet and the dirtbag ethos won, sending me on the road again, little money, many injuries and happy as a pig in slop. I will return to “regular” life. That can be assured. And I’ll go back to climbing vacations, without a doubt. This piece is about that. That thing I’ll go back to, but not quite yet…

Original artwork by Lynn Suyeko Mandziuk.

Original artwork by Lynn Suyeko Mandziuk.

Let’s begin with a colloquial fact. Young climbers call trips to climbing destinations, for a quick day to several years, “road trips.” These jaunts also fall into the “climbing trip” category. Road trips and climbing trips, simple as that. For these puerile crushers, there is nothing left to say on travel, be it interstate, international, whatever.

I used to call everything I did outside an airplane a road trip. In addition, for better or worse, everything has always been a climbing trip. I only travel for or because of climbing. This fact proves two important points. One, I have very poor luck in romantic relationships and urban social functions. Two, I too was once a puerile crusher.

Alas, we all fall into our decrepitude at the pace the Great Down-Grader In The Sky deems. We graduate or drop out of school. We dirtbag, some of us. This, of course, extends the road trip into things called “van life” and “vagabonding” and “being the dreadlocked fellow in the converted and rusted-out ice cream truck who skeezes up and down the campsite while also, kind of, hoping to find a trad partner.” Sometimes dirtbagging does not really end with one’s wizening into adulthood, as happens to be the case with me. I am now a gross old dirtbag with a “job.” I smell better but eat the same, climb a touch fewer days a year, and I still skeeze when I can.

A curious thing occurs when one grows older. Entering one’s thirties, for example. One begins referring to their road trips and climbing trips as…vacations. Spring breaks are now a hazy and distant memory, a joyous thing to remember like that one time when I almost had a six pack stomach. Now there is no university to run from, not counting student loan payments, which may or may not be an excellent reason to hit the road without, you know, an address and stuff. There is also no one to ask for money anymore. Try asking your parents for money when you’ve reached roughly 32 years of age. You’ve never seen such a show of knee slapping and calling relatives on the kitchen phone to relay the hilarity of it all.

And so, one must procure a job. Ergo, when one of a certain age vacations they must leave this job behind, the absent hours ticking off like water spattering into a dry well. Can you see how this aging thing can grow rather troublesome?

Yet, dirtbags must continue to escape, chasing the road to its logical end; that being a big old granite blob or sandstone cliff or some endless defilade choked with volcanic juggernauts. But now, being older and obviously incredibly wise, I find myself referring to these escapes from responsibility and the accumulation of money as vacations. Indeed, that is exactly what they are. I don’t have the liberty of road trips or climbing trips of a week or more, not at the drop of a hat. I must now put into motion the scrupulous machinery of calculation and planning. This is the meaning of the mid-life climbing vacation.

One condition will always persist, however, especially if you’re a devoted lifetime dirtbag. Strange shit happens on the road. That never changes. Although the oddity of one’s experiences seem to wane and the manic blips become stretched a bit thinner when one ticks closer to 40, they nevertheless remain. Perhaps all the more pungent for the rarity. Young at heart, and all that. In the following particularity, spotted of liver, and all that.

*

I went on a climbing vacation recently, ostensibly to boulder in Bishop, California for three weeks. Here is an arresting statistic for you. My climbing crew, consisting of a nucleus three which occasionally fluctuated a bit higher, polished off five bottles of Jameson whiskey, one bottle of Maker’s Mark whiskey, a rowdy bottle of tequila and an unfathomable number of beers of differing varieties and flavors. This is one of those manic blips I was talking about.

We drank when the sun reached a certain height on rest days, we nipped from silver and scratched and dented flasks among the boulders, we drank at night, around a campfire, in a Eurovan, while playing cards, while competing in Climbing Olympics, while playing hacky sack, while playing guitar. We drank under clouds and tucked from the wind. Once early in the morning, which I will get to momentarily. What I’m trying to get at is that nothing impeded our drinking. We were on vacation, after all.

Two of the nucleic crew were not young men. One of those was me and the other my good friend Kyler. I am more not young than Kyler but he is still old-ish. I note age to demonstrate that old people have nothing to prove and therefor there is no great joy in getting shit-canned to “party” or “rage” or whatever puerile crushers in tight jeans and funny moustaches call drinking to belligerence nowadays. No, that was not the point at all. Slow, steady. Even keeled. I left Bishop after my vacation all the better for suffering but one hangover. Take note the startling sagacity of the spring chicken gumming gravel in the autumn of his life.

Trevor very quickly, and irritatingly, sending Toxic Avenger.

Trevor very quickly, and irritatingly, sending Toxic Avenger (V10) at the Happys.

The third fellow, another good friend named Trevor, is fresh out of the papoose compared to Kyler and myself. Mid-twenties. Uncommonly strong on the rock, which coupled with his youth makes him very difficult to like indeed. But that’s not my point. My point is that, for whatever reason, Trevor really didn’t chase the dragon, either. I believe during the entirety of our three week vacation, each of us had one hangover a piece, despite the impressive amount of brown and green bottles left bobbing in our wake.

I distinctly remember Trevor’s one moment of massive ingestion. The night in question, a rest day to follow, saw him sucking from a bottle of Jameson like a baby wolf at its mother’s raw teat. Violent, almost, and shameful in its great lust. Trevor, I have come to learn after many vacations together, is dreadfully fond of whiskey.

*

One of the fine wonders of Bishop vacation bouldering is the great stretches of free time one must traverse between sessions at the Buttermilks, the Pollen Grains or, say, the Sads. Skin must heal. Climbing videos must be watched at coffee shops. Books to read, firewood to chop, libations to ingest around the campfire.

Somewhere in the third week of our vacation Kyler, a new friend Tim, and I found ourselves ensconced in Kyler’s white Eurovan – lovingly named Tortuga Blanca – the dinner table erected and topped with camera equipment, a wax topped bottle of Makers and a half bottle of tequila. The wind blustered outside, snapping Tortuga’s extended fabric top, zippers clanging like cymbals. We sat there in the van, spectacularly unindustrious, tinkering with thoughts, staring into the middle distance. Open mouthed. It was early morning and the coffee hadn’t affected its magic just yet.

I jumped when another friend, Shawn from just outside New York City, slooshed open the side door and leapt into a free seat. Bla bla bla, he said. We nodded and smiled politely.

Shawn threw down a pack of grape vines, which are like red vine licorice but purple. Shawn always had grape vines and we always greedily dove in. I hadn’t even known such a thing existed before this…vacation.

Shawn sat there in Kyler’s driver’s seat, which was spun around to face the table, wobbling a grape vine at his palm. Smack, smack, smack, it went. I sensed something gestating in that ginger head of his.

Now, because I don’t remember how this conversation precisely went, what with my age and all, I would like to present a neo-fictional retelling, based on true events. Not inspired by true events, which is a way to say, “This one thing happened once that made me think of an entirely different thing but really has nothing to do with that original thing, the inspiring one.” Based, mind you.

“Where’s that tequila?” asked Shawn, quickly spotting and nabbing it from the corner of the table. “Let’s take a shot.”

“Dude,” I said.

“Wait, let’s each take a shot through these grape vines.” He tapped the cellophane packet, insistently, with his pointer finger.

From left, Tim, Shawn and Kyler (adorably matching) descend into the abyss.

From left, Tim, Shawn and Kyler (adorably matching) descend into the abyss.

“That’s disgusting,” retorted I.

“I think I’ll take the whiskey,” said Kyler, reaching for the shot glasses.

“Me, too,” said Tim, quietly masticating a grape vine. I distinctly recall raising my eyebrows.

“Old man?” Shawn asked.

“That’s disgusting,” I said, again, assuming the question had been meant for me.

“Wussy.” That’s what Shawn said.

“Probably,” I responded, shrugging my shoulders.

And that’s how I remember it. Shawn passing grape vine straws to Tim and Kyler. Shawn daring any of us to shoot the tequila. Kyler pouring two Maker’s and one Cuervo 1800. Sliding drinks across the table. Me grabbing my camera. Shawn calling me a wussy again.

There was some sort of countdown, if I remember correctly. And then, as if possessed by some Bukowskian wraith, the three lunatics brought the drinks to their chins, inserted the grape vines to their puckered lips, and sucked. Honestly, I almost puked. I lurched a bit, saliva storming into my mouth, and I moan-chuckled to drown out the slurping. It was 10 am in the morning.

The moment the tainted spirits exited the grape vines and splashed upon tongue and throat Kyler and Shawn’s faces folded upon themselves like broken lawn chairs. Wrinkles I did not know existed creased from forehead to chin, making a tortured graph paper out of their noses, cheeks, and brows. Heads were thrown before hunched shoulders. Necks strung taut, muscles equipped solely for dismay and tribulation screwed into instant aggravation. Vowel sounds were uttered. Guttural. Awful.

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Except, curiously, for our new friend Tim. Although he slammed his Maker’s through its grape escape chute the same as Kyler or Shawn, he remained entirely composed. As a matter of fact, in those split seconds as I took in the ugly mess, I sneaked a peak at him, this noiseless champion. And do you know what Tim did? He raised his eyebrows and shrugged, the vaguest curl of his lips into a smile, the grape vine lodged right there in the middle. As if to say, “This really is surprisingly fantastic!” I shuddered to glimpse this strange fellow’s peculiar powers.

Kyler and Shawn drained their elixirs with synchronized exhalations of EGH! and UGH! and SHIT! and FUCKING SHIT! Their heads wagged back and forth as if to rid their hair of water, eyes squeezed tight and their mouths a duo of holes through which tongues tried to escape. I cringed at the very thought of what was happening from tip of tongue to bottom of gut, the saliva cresting and breaking in great tsunami waves in my mouth. I stemmed a pre-vomit belch. It was so early in the morning. Too early.

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Tim gently set his shot glass down and began munching on his grape vine straw. He gazed out the windows, an early morning breeze shuffling about.

“Not too bad,” he said, his voice the whisper of the Buddha.

*

In “Lethal Weapon,” Homicide Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) famously mutters, time and time again, “I’m too old for this shit,” before slipping into the fracases created by his partner, Narcotics Sergeant Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson). Death defying hilarity ensues, not without great physical and emotional trauma to Sgt. Murtaugh.

I, like our poor Homicide Sergeant, am also too old for this shit. At least that’s what I think before leaping into each new vacation, usually alongside younger, fitter and crazier climbers. I end up breaking legs while they doff off a hangover by sending V11. I take afternoon naps and worry over my finances in a windy tent while they download the sickest new vids at the coffee shop. I am the cranky old fogey snapping photos of the kids drinking their whiskey through licorice straws.

All of us, however, babes and geezers alike, weave a common thread through our vacations and road trips. We all love climbing. You know, we also love licorice. We all love whiskey and some freak shows love tequila. And you see, on vacation, you braid all your loves together and enjoy them as one, squeezing them adoringly and sometimes forcefully into the tightest frame of time and enjoyment you can muster. It’s the vacation mash up, and that never, ever changes. And occasionally, if you’re too old for this shit, it’s better to watch from the sidelines.

But not usually.

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