Old Gray: A Wistful Ode to Broke Down Old Gear

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IMG_6743We are a covetous tribe. Like a sushi chef wanders the early morning fish markets in search of the perfect halibut and Japanese amberjack, so adventurous souls salivate over racks of cams, shelves of trail runners and the season’s latest puffy design at our local gear shops. Patagonia catalogues rest atop our toilets. We can afford new backcountry skis with our yearly REI dividends alone, maybe a new set of Fritschis if we’re lucky. God help us, we meticulously dissect the fiber mash-up on synthetic thermal sock packaging.

Our closets and sheds and garages become a revolving door of gear, old and broken items discarded to the Land of Unwanted Toys and replaced with the latest in carbon fiber angles, extendable options and bevies of variable settings. Halogen to LED, parabolic to twin-tip, Friends to Aliens. Indeed, so ravenous is our lust for the newest and best that storage spaces are rented for the old, peg boards erected for the new and stickers promoting the companies we “support” slathered about every piece of real estate we can get our grubby hands on. Especially windows. Especially Subaru windows.

I’m the first to cop to it. I like things. I especially like dismantling boxes and parcels and rolling about in my hands shiny new things. This, it cannot be overstated, is electrifying stuff. I adore putting new batteries in things for the first time. The sound of a new zipper sliding chin-ward? Elation. My feet dyed an extraterrestrial color from a fresh pair of climbing shoes? As though Picasso himself had painted my little toes.

Yet, despite the yawning gear chasm we spend our lives dumping hard earned dollars into, there remain those totems of perfection by which each new trinket must be judged against. Ever so occasionally we strike oil and need drill no deeper. Whether by strapping our chipped, 16 year old avalanche shovel to our new packs, sending the perfectly stained and carefully patched and much adored puffy back to the manufacturer for yet another refilling of down, or resoling our trusty old Mythos for the sixth time, most of us eventually find that there are bonds which cannot be broken. To this I wish to speak.

In 2001, a 20-something me, at what seemed a monumental financial burden, emptied his paltry bank account and became the proud owner of a new Misty Mountain Magnum crash pad. 1680 denier nylon ballistics shell, scratchy automotive carpeting on which to wipe debris from climbing shoes, a beefy harness system and inside the whole works a two layer polyurethane/polyethylene foam coupling designed specifically to soften the violent homecomings we boulderers are forced to endure, many times over, before mantling over the tops of our wee summits.

You remember how you slept with your new Tonka Truck and Cabbage Patch Kid and Optimus Prime Transformer when you were a kid, the holidays maddeningly over and the winter sunlight far too brief to squeeze all the enjoyment you needed out of your new toys? Well, I slept with Old Gray, too. Literally, Old Gray doubled as my mattress when on extended road trips, unfurled and luxurious in the back of two different vehicles I burned through along the way.

Old Gray, stoic and steady and springy, has caught thousands of my explosions from rocks all across North America. Hundreds of boulderers from countries I can’t even pronounce have pounded the dust out of my Misty. My dog, as crag dogs do, spent what I consider a disproportionate width of his life napping across Old Gray, nuzzling into the fuzzy automotive carpeting. He’s been a fort roof for kids, a chair around countless noisy campfires and an umbrella when caught in alpine thunderstorms, a long way from the car. I’ve broken my leg three times bouldering. Each time Old Gray, probably confused and worried and all a fluster, remained at home, a stranger’s crash pad below me instead and, I reckon now, not quite enough to do the job. He’s saved me so many times and so I’ve saved him.

For all the violence and injury Old Gray has diminished, however, I still secretly fawn over the newest pad technologies. Like I said, covetous. Air mats, tri-folds, American-made Organics, the charming and stout and glorious Black Diamond Mondo. I’ve even thought about those pads while laying atop Old Gray, the penultimate adultery.

Yet, I have not replaced Old Gray. Indeed, I haven’t dropped dollar one into a new pad since paralyzing my funds back in the early part of the last decade. Now, in full disclosure, I received some pads for free, but let’s get down to brass tacks. Those little freebies are simple yearlings compared to my old work horse.

I choose not to replace him, to toss Old Gray to the wolves of the Fall Gear Swap or the unloving, heavily calloused hands of an unknown climber in need, or, worst of all, to the curbside for Thursday morning garbage removal. It’s because some pieces of gear become coffers into which we gently deposit our goals and dreams and aspirations. It’s because some hunks of fabric and plastic we forge into extensions of ourselves, so dear and worthy that we name them and speak to them and, yes, even sleep with them. It’s because some slabs of foam become much more than their sum, and that just can’t be improved upon.

Originally published in Adventure Journal in 2014.

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