Monday, April 12, 2010

(Dis)Shelved: Part III

(Photo: Clarita @

What about little microphones? What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls? When you skateboarded down the street at night you could hear everyone’s heartbeat, and they could hear yours, sort of like sonar. One weird thing is, I wonder if everyone’s heart would start to beat at the same time, like how women who live together have their menstrual periods at the same time, which I know about, but don’t really want to know about. That would be so weird, except that the place in the hospital where babies are born would sound like a crystal chandelier in a houseboat, because the babies wouldn’t have had time to match up their heartbeats yet. And at the finish line of the New York City Marathon it would sound like war. – Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

As I marched up the trail to Cactus Cliffs, as my heart pushed blood through my body, I heard my mortal drum line. The beat of me, the thump, thump, thump of all the years and broken promises, of victories and defeats, of heartbreak and expansion – all of it melding and mangling a crescendo of unspeakable beauty.

I struggled to ascend the approach routes to the climbing areas. It was difficult going at times, particularly because I was alone. In the morning, I had missed the other noobs’ departure, and tagged along with a very enthusiastic group of people I didn’t know. I could have followed dear friends to their climbing spot, but I decided that for my first outdoor trip I needed some time to deal with myself, with my heart.

As I hiked to the rhythm of my own heartbeat, I thought of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself":

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume, 

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you

I could hear my friends’ laughter echoing, bouncing against the canyon walls. This comforted me as I plodded a beaten path and pondered the lives that had pounded down the dirt before my feet followed. I wondered what their hearts sounded like, what they thought about while making their way. When I stopped to rest, I simply listened. Breezes stirred my thoughts. The sun warmed my face. Life pulsed through me, the lightheaded journey girl, as I negotiated altitude and my physicality.

At the cliffs, I met a group of “old timers” who were climbing and hiking together as part of a yoga trip. They were celebrating retirement, and they offered me coffee from a Thermos. We talked about getting older and how life on rock seems bigger, more, and far more grounded than anyone outside of the climbing community would guess.

(PHOTO: The view from Cactus Cliffs where I sat and pondered life for awhile)

After that encouraging conversation, I stopped at a spot to take a photo of our campsite across the canyon. I couldn’t believe that I had made it that far, that I was ensconced within a pocket of rocks, looking over a gorge with a red dirt road slicing through it. Six months ago, I would never have tried to venture out this way, to see where my feet would or could carry me if I just followed the sound of my own drum. I took a moment to let my tears fall. It was a good, restorative cry.

Following the path back down the canyon, I encountered a woman sitting with two small children. Her husband was setting up a climbing route, and we talked of getting older, of writing, and her first year of college at UNL. We marveled at how small the world really was, and how Karma brought two strangers to an intersection of familiarity. She had seen my friends as they had passed through, and mentioned seeing one with a baby.

“I saw her and thought I had wasted my early year as a mother,” she said. “I saw that hot climbing momma and thought, man, I need to live my life differently.”

We exchanged contact information and talked about writing. We said we’d start a writing group for climbing women. I hope we do. I waved goodbye and pressed on, hoping to find my friends whose voices I could hear louder now, but whose bodies I couldn’t locate on the cliffs. Tired and wondering where to go next, I decided it was time to return to the campsite.

I hiked the road back to camp, unable to recognize my own song, but still thinking of Whitman:

Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the 
earth much? 

Have you practis'd so long to learn to read? 

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

I reckon’d the path, the earth, the meaning of my life. I took time to stop and look up, to listen and to feel. The breeze that caressed my skin seemed familiar, loving and kind. Pine memories of trips with my father came back to me as I looked at limestone cliffs, pondered all they contained, from geodes to history, and the stories of his gem hunts he would have told me had he been there.

As I walked, I heard the first line of a new poem. I stopped to write it down in my Moleskin book. I then stooped to put a rock in my pocket and wished my dad could see me then, standing outdoors, hiking on my own, while conjuring Whitman's poetry.

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of 
all poems, 

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions 
of suns left,) 

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look 
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in 
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, 

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

As I hiked, I thought of the chasm that once separated my father and I. When I was a kid he didn’t understand that when my head filled with new thoughts and the silence roosted in my bones, it didn’t mean I was absent or pouting. He often misinterpreted my quiet way as a withdrawal from him, a separation. Dad was always delivering new ideas, new experiences, to me out of love. He never understood, then, that my silence was reverence for the very things he offered. I think he understands that now, or at least sees the fingerprints he left in my memories. I think he finds comfort in that now as he watches me grow.

(PHOTO: Dad, in his workshop, explaining his latest invention to me)

Hiking up the road, I wondered if there were others in my life unable to read the poetry that is my silence, the reaching in and loving that is my quietude. Sometimes I am closest to a heart when I stand furthest from it, when I seem withdrawn I’m actually cleaving to the fiercest earthbound love there is. I used to think of this as a failure on my part, some sort of fear of intimacy. What I know now, after a long cry among Cactus Cliffs, is that it’s a love unbreakable, the true north of my compass.

I encountered two of my dearest friends as I approached camp, and decided to follow them to the others among the North Bank. We waited for others to join us then started on our way. Sometimes, the only way to find your up is to go back down again.

After a full day of hiking and climbing, after feasting on a glorious buffet of visions, we returned to camp. We cooked. We ate. We laughed. Gathered around a fire, we sat together, our heartbeats pulsing in synchronized joy. I looked upon them for a very long time, trying to memorize their faces warm and the color of fire. Beneath a chandelier sky, stars burning through the black, I wasn't the only one seeping into silence. Bright eyes cast to the fire, they sat like dingledodies, fists worn from rock, and became poetry.

And I loved them for it, in my own quiet way, sitting off in my own mind.

I woke early my last day at Shelf, long before the sun tore from the ridge and warmed us. I packed up, and marveled the spiders that had sought warmth beneath my tent. I bagged up, loaded the car, and took one last walk to campsite 5 where most of my Boulder friends were just waking. We exchanged morning greetings and farewell hugs. They have become family to me, and after I turned to walk away, as I plodded down a red dirt path, I choked back the bitterness of goodbye. Every time I leave them, I feel wrenched away from love. Only the love awaiting me at home makes me strong enough to endure the separation from those fine people making their lives near the Flat Irons. Only the faintest promise of seeing them again makes it possible to go, and that is just one reason to love them even more.


  1. Love you woman. Great reflections on your trip. You have the power! I'm so glad you were there to help me celebrate my birthday!

  2. I think you'll find this next decade to be more than awesome, Lizz. Thanks for reading the blog too ... there's a lot on my mind.

  3. I've enjoyed the Shelf series. It's an amazing place. Every time I go on the annual trip I know less of the Nebraska flock. I particularly enjoyed your story of the encounter with the mother and her two kids. Shelf is definitely a "family friendly" environment. Maybe a year ago I was there and saw a mom with her daughter, maybe 7 years old. The daughter had a harness on and I thought that was cute. Then she fired up a 5.12 and I realized that I had just stereotyped a 7-year-old girl. It turns out she competes in national climbing competitions. Never underestimate the power of 7-year-old girls.

    I'm glad you had an invigorating time at Shelf and that you found your pants. Searching for pants in the dark is like searching for your soul in the light...or some such nonsense.

  4. Thanks, Adam. Shelf was great, and I look forward to the next trip. And yes, searching for your pants is nearly spiritual, there in the dark, stuck in some sort of metaphor that's coming undone, unraveling like a poem you wish you had not written. As I once saw painted on an overpass: "I ♥ PANTS." I think the vandal meant God, really.


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