I imagine squeezing, left hand splayed like Mickey Mouse’s white mitt, a barely convex lump of stone beneath my palm, irritated and trying to grease me off yet I stick, such is my Herculean compression. My right hand, cupped about the starting side pull, exerts a mysterious force that straightens that same arm, lifts my sizable ass further from the greedy earth and allows me to match right heel to hand. The next five moves are all cheese. Slap, crimp, deadpoint to rail, match hands, dyno to easy mantle lip. I see Lynn punching the sky and confirming her adoration as I blush, standing – no, towering – atop the boulder, saying, “Hand me a tuna-fish sandwich, babe. I’m hungry for a snack.” And we dine, triumphantly, on tuna and whole-wheat bread.
This line is called Battletoads, a name for which the first ascensionist has gained my everlasting admiration. It’s a fine name for a boulder problem. This name in the guidebook led me to Google, which in turn urged me to a number of videos featuring very strong men ascending the problem, with notable ease. Rewatching each video confirmed that Battletoads would go down in one glorious burst of quasi-effort, just like the videos showed, and the tuna-fish on whole-wheat would be broken from Ziplocs and we would all feast.
I scribbled Battletoads on my list of projects for Joe’s Valley. Some made the list because of their names, some because of the movement, and some because those very strong men all completed the line in one try. Climbing vids highlight sends and not failure, after all, but this fairly obvious fact I either didn’t register at the time or actively squelched in an act of bouldering psychosis. Either way, Battletoads is now on the list and I am committed.
I am an active list maker. There is a word for this, I’m sure, having to do with psychic distress, compulsion and certain needs to basically be on top of one’s shit before it’s too late. This is the terrifying keyhole through which a life spent worrying must be threaded. Living life as a chronic list maker is kind of a Seinfeld existence, as you find yourself becoming a caricature of yourself, an entity enlivened when jotting down lists and altogether electrified when ticking items off those lists. My Seinfeld episode, in which I infuriate George and amuse Jerry and Elaine and Cosmo becomes my jubilant confederate, would be titled, “The List Maker.”
Mostly, besides shopping lists and bucket lists and best band mash-up lists, I make climbing lists. I survey my memory of a particular area, plow through guidebooks and finally dive into Google. I see or remember something I like, it goes on the list. These lists ordinarily grow long and ambitious and, by the estimation of my climbing partners, cretinous in their breadth. But, I’ll leave nothing to chance. The list must grow. It is called the Project List.
The Project List for my current bouldering trip to Joe’s Valley is long indeed, reminiscent of Kerouac’s initial, open-scroll, paragraph-free “On the Road” explosion. Had I an editor like Mr. Kerouac did, a list editor in this case, she would surely advise a merciless decimation. I do not employ any editor at all, however, so tough titty.
Lynn and I live in a broke-down old pull-behind camper here in Joe’s, a mile and a half up the Right Fork. “Pull-behind camper.” We can be so judicious when horrified by our living situations. This old cur is in reality a highly abused and dented slide-in wedged into the back of a pickup truck frame. Maybe whatever the Ford F-150 was before it was the Ford F-150. The front end of the poor truck had somewhere along the way been sawed off, cleaved as if by a magician with a gleaming silver blade. To this monstrosity some inventive soul welded a trailer frame, as though to carry a boat or perhaps a purple Ski-Doo. Instead, this thing, which we call the Gravy Train because it is brown and white and gravy looking, houses Lynn and me. Yes, we bought it on Craigslist.
When not bouldering in Joe’s and editing the Project List, I spend an inordinate amount of time drafting a Gravy Train Improvement List. This includes improving our lighting situation (we have no electricity here on the Right Fork), building bookcases, caulking cracks in Gravy’s joints and crevices, and figuring out the sink and water situation, a task for which I am particularly unfit.
In the most unfortunate circumstance possible, the Gravy Train Improvement List has recently grown. About a week ago, writing on the floor of Gravy while Lynn slept on the bed above the desk (made by me, ticked off the list), I spied a pair of beady eyes, tittering whiskers, and wee bloated body puttering about below my bench. A mouse had somehow made its way through the labyrinthine patchwork and what I assume to be a million holes penetrating Gravy’s battered frame and, knowing only mouse things, floundered into view of a human. I flipped on my headlamp, haloed the dirty little vermin and shrieked, in a voice I scarcely knew I harbored, “I just saw a mouse!” Lynn sprang to attention, our dog Yuki went insane, and I made a mental note to add yet another item to this most bothersome list – mouse traps.
The Mouse Wars lasted roughly a week. The first portion of the week Lynn and I stared at the bench throughout the evening hours, after long days of bouldering, waiting for a mouse to arrive. Like lighthouse beacons, our headlamps strafed Gravy, the two of us biting lips in concentration, seldom speaking, feeling the odd fear a small, innocuous creature engenders in two mammals at the top of the food chain. We were never disappointed. Luckily, by waking Yuki from her nightly slumber and shoving her nose into the crack beneath the padded bench seat, we awakened a murderous, machine-like instinct buried deep within this otherwise sweet little pooch.
So, Yuki on the case, our only allied combatant in the Mouse Wars, Lynn and I crawled into bed each night, bracing ourselves for what we may hear below. Harrumphing, yelping, clawing. How Gravy shook as Yuki chased the wild rodent around the floor, onto the bench, her nose jammed into any number of nooks and her paws scrabbling. We eventually nodded off, Gravy creaking, Yuki a berserker, the mouse idiotically failing to retreat.
The initial morning of the Mouse Wars gave us our first casualty, a sad little carcass torn asunder below the seat. Yuki became a hero. The second dawn gave us yet another victim, its gore staining Lynn’s puffy. But still we rejoiced. Yuki, in morbid transcendence, grew into legend. We awarded her with doggie treats and great admiration.
On the third day of the Mouse Wars, I made my way to Battletoads, and much as our savage beagle mix had spent the previous evening caving in mouse skulls, Battletoads smote me to terra firma with considerable force. The videos had lied. I pissed and moaned and wondered where the Herculean compression had gone or indeed if it had ever existed at all. There was certainly no tuna on whole-wheat.
That night Yuki tallied her third kill and The Gravy Train Improvement List grew by one more action item – Mouseproof Gravy.
I mean, it’s too bad that any animal has to die. It really is. And it’s pitiable when stupid animals die because they don’t know any better than to squirm their malleable little bodies into the den of a berserker. Although Yuki’s dark, glassy, terrifying eyes betray no remorse whatsoever, I feel it and I think Lynn feels it, too. Have you ever seen a mouse die, no matter the circumstances? Their delicate pink feet clutching the sky, maybe pleading to mousie heaven in their final moments, their chins tilted, teardrop-shaped mouths agape, revealing tiny white buck teeth. I feel for the vermin, I tell you. But I also cheer on the berserker and reward her most chilling canine perversions with Dentabones and Pup-Peronis.
One can only lift so many lifeless mice by the tails, spirit them outdoors at arm’s length, and underhand heave them into the wilderness.
Peering into the deepest recesses of Gravy – wood, saw, screws, and rope caulk in hand – I spent a morning meant for climbing covering voids, patching gapes, and filling cracks. Next, I swept a disquieting number of tiny brown mouse turds into a bin and chucked them into the junipers. Pride swelling, I stepped outside and placed hands on hips, exclaiming, “There!”
Yuki, shark eyes seeing all, slowly laid her chin on her paws and I felt a mortifying chill roll through my very soul.
For now, the Gravy Train remains vermin free, allowing a return to what stands as normality for a dirtbag trio living in a rolling shack in the mice-infested heart of Mormon country.
Battletoads crouches atop its hillside, stoic and stubborn, unclimbed by me and for all I know anyone else except for those very strong men in the videos. But, again, tough titty. I’ve ticked fewer items off the Project List than I have the Gravy Train Improvement List, but that’s okay, too. When you’re living on the road, building lists of improvement of any kind, I think you’re on the right track. Ticking articles off in a great flourish of the pen feels great, I’m not going to lie, but just having the list there, folded in the creases of my mind and heart, is comfort enough. I reckon the only moment I’ll ever experience the true lamentation of ineptitude and incompletion is when the lists stagnate, acquire thin veils of dust, and gain no more items. Because these lists are more than carefully detailed household chores. They are my dreams and aspirations.
As long as the lists continue to grow, fed by equal doses neuroses and desire, then we’re going to be just fine.
Originally published in Rock and Ice.
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