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  • 5/22, 23/1999
    Stone Mountain, North Carolina, with Drew.

    Be Here Now.

    This is one of those moments of perfect balance that shine like pigeon’s-egg diamonds against the grey porridge of ordinary life. My path to this very spot as uncertain, through all the vagaries of circumstance and desire, as the path taken by a dime, from the U.S. Mint, through uncounted hands, to a tiny level spot halfway up the Great Arch, where Drew found it lying the previous evening as we raced simulclimbing to top out and get back down before nightfall. I am standing on a ledge about seventy feet above the base of the North Face of Stone; I am clipped into the first bolt of the first pitch of a climb named Teardrop, 5.9-; I had three or four good pieces in a grungy layback crack to protect me to this point. None of the bolts on this pitch are visible from the base; we had to take it on faith, trusting the book and our routefinding instincts; the route had to be here because it couldn’t plausibly be anywhere else on this big sweeping sail of smooth, sloping granite. I stepped up onto the rounded ledge, turned to look at a buzzard sailing by, and put my hand down against the rock and onto the first bolt before I had even seen it. It was twenty years old, quarter-inch, and heavily rusted. I clipped in and looked up at the remaining eighty feet of the pitch, which contain only one bolt, and no cracks whatsoever, before the belay ledge.

    So here I am, right here, right now. Several buzzards soar by and land on a large pine tree not far west; I notice that the tree holds at least a dozen of them. The day is neither cool nor warm, and the sky neither cloudy nor clear. My attention narrows, irresistibly drawn by the problem presented to me. I cannot see the next bolt or the belay, although I intuit their location by elimination; they must be in certain hollows above me, or beyond certain bulges. There are no footholds, and no handholds whatsoever, for much farther than I can imagine climbing. The rock bulges gently just above me, offering a vague promise of purchase where the angle is slightly less; but then it turns concave again, and just barely steep enough to bar the way. To my left and rising rightwards is a vague series of imperfections; melted lumps in a line that certainly might be climbable if they were not beyond the various zones of barrier steepness. To my right and rising farther right is a vague, melted line in the granite, too smooth to be called a dike; again, climbable, but inaccessible, and not going my way in any case.

    This is a moment of emptiness. There is no fear, but I am keenly aware of the texture of the rock. Smooth though it seems, it is far rougher than the roughest sandpaper; to slide down it is to rip holes in canvas, to file the soles off shoes and then off feet, to convert one’s palms in a few moments to wire-brushed meat. A lengthy fall here will probably not deal out death or even broken bones; it will simply deal agony and blood. I have no idea which way to climb, and I wait a while, scanning, not thinking, waiting for the dinky little computer to spit out the best bet, as it always has in the past. But here it labors in a vacuum of variables, an emptiness. I feel a bit of impatience, but I wait. Oddly, perhaps, it never occurs to me to simply go down. Too many climbs, recorded back in that reptile brain, impel me to go on. Finally the signal comes, and I begin to step up onto nothing at all, slowly and suspiciously. I’d like the little lizard in the back of my head to reconfirm this course of action, but he never answers any direct question; he just says, eat this, run away, screw this, kill that. And climb this.

    I have seen that I can not climb straight up, and I can not traverse left to the pathetic line of melted ice-cream lumps; but if I go up and slightly left, and edge my feet up as the angle so gently and so cruelly curves steeper, I will be almost within reach of one or two of the higher lumps. I absolutely cannot reach out far to grasp them, though, because they are just sad, smooth little lumps, offering very little support, and such a move would destroy the tenuous purchase my shoes are desperately trying to maintain on the granite. At each tiny step I go through a little ritual: ever so gently I place the ball of the foot, paw at the granite, push against it to loosen the tiny crystals that want to come off, then paw several more times to make them roll off that spot, and then place the foot again, and ever so gradually transfer my weight. In the meantime my hands are suffering a schizoid breakdown: they are constantly searching for a hold, a crystal, a fingernail edge that just isn’t there; they can’t turn palm down, as the angle is just slightly too steep; to transfer weight onto the palms would lift weight, and holding power, off the feet, and I’d be sliding. So for the most part they rest lightly against the rock, giving a tiny, nervous trickle of support from the simple friction of the skin against the granite. I edge, I calculate, I attend to my feet above all; I reach, first with the left, and then with the right, a stronghold, a sloping but sharp little set of crystal edges an inch wide and a quarter of an inch deep; standing on this with the right, the left foot is freed to range a bit more freely; and finally I can reach the lumps and fully appreciate their inadequacy, the hostile, treacherous nature of their allure. Ordinarily in such a situation one would expect that slipping a palm over such a lump, on such a gentle slope, with such good friction, would be decisive and secure; but such is not the case. Nevertheless, I make my shaky, and now sweating and fearful, way up the lumps to the bolt (rusty, ancient, backstabbing), where there is a very nice, casual stance.

    And so I came through the emptiness and back to a stronghold of consciousness. It is silly to talk about the emptiness afterwards; and it is ridiculous to seek it out, to think that you can possess it in some way. You are given a blank canvas and told to imagine your life into existence; impoverished, lacking the elements of a rich experience, you nevertheless claw your way into a kind of story: I came this way, knowing only that humans had once come this way before; I walked an invisible road, and as I concentrated all of me into a single point of effort, all my scattered selves converged, until I was seemingly unified in my body. There was nothing but my body and the granite; with sky and forest for a sort of assumed frame.

    Then, instantly, upon touching the true and solid hold that led to the stance, Drew, the buzzards, the rest of the world, the car, the people in the world, all reappeared and clamored for my attention. I counted the buzzards: about ten in the tree, and, I now noticed, another twenty or so, down a ways on another tree that they had just about killed by their fondness for it. They sat and peered about; occasionally they’d hop sideways on a branch, forcing a neighbor of lower status to jump down a bit or launch into space. At one point four birds simultaneously launched from one side of the tree, and a moment later four more launched from the other side; the flashing unconscious choreography that brilliantly marbles the world, like lightning, opening the vision. The grace of their flight and their wings seems forever linked to the grace of the granite face itself; all its curves, large and small, making together a suite of geometric beauties. While the South Face of Stone resembles nothing so much as a gigantic egg, lying sideways and half-buried in forest and meadow, from which the fabulous bird of Chuang Tzu will someday hatch and ascend ninety thousand li before heading north, the North Face has a more varied character, with a feeling of vast muscularity, an integrated being already complete, with the dikes showing veins almost pulsing just under the surface.

    - from Chuang Tzu, Cook Ting attempts to explain his use of the Way in butchering an ox, to his employer, Lord Wen-hui:

    “However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until - flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
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