“You boys are twenty-one, right?”
Fifteen year-old me snuck a sideways grin my buddies and flexed my upper lip, praying that the dusting of reddish-blond baby hairs up there would grow a bit thicker.
“Yes ma’am,” I offered, in what was supposed to be my manliest tenor. It came out sounding more like my father grunting from the can when he asked me to pass him an extra roll of toilet paper.
“Have fun now,” the wrinkled woman working the admissions booth smiled and wrapped the coveted yellow plastic band around my wrist.
21+! We were in! I slapped fives with Spencer and the boys, then gave an exaggerated fist pump once the lady’s back was turned. We grabbed chili and beer from the keg and posted up at a rickety wooden table in the corner of the pavilion, wary of anyone who might call us out for the underage punks we were.
Horse Pens 40 was heaven for me in high school, a safe haven where my friends and I could escape the watchful eye of our parents to drink a few beers and crush a few boulders. Boulderween was the penultimate event of the year for us, the annual Horse Pens Halloween party, right in middle of the perfectly crisp autumn climbing season. This was our first year getting 21+ wristbands, and we felt like kings.
At that age, I could count on one hand the number of times I’d had enough beers to get drunk, and I’d never been around a keg before. The stench of pot, which conjured up images of Scarface and El Chapo, hung in the air. Thirty-somethings danced to Beck around the dimly lit pavilion. We sat at the table and drank beers until keg ran dry, and then Spence pulled out a handle of whiskey he’d nicked from his dad’s liquor cabinet and we drank some more. Each of us tried our hardest to pull off a nonchalant, James Bond face as we swigged the whiskey, but we grimaced like we were swigging castor oil.
After some length of this nonsense, I jolted up from the table, quite drunk, declared that I was going climbing, and stumbled off into the dark. Spencer and Will slung a couple crashpads across their backs and padded after me, carrying our lanterns.
I cruised a couple V1s before Spence and Will caught up with me, then fumbled a downclimb and came crashing down into a small shrub.
“Ya boy is killin out here!” I chortled from the bush.
Spence attempted to spread out the crash pad below the boulder I’d been on.
“Climb on,” he muttered, before tripping over something (his foot?) and face-planting into the pad.
A long-haired, shirtless guy that looked like a cross between Jim Bridwell and Ronnie Van Zandt stumbled through the underbrush.
“You guys want any DMT?” he hissed.
We all blanched. I extracted myself from the bush, plucking a handful of twigs and thorns from my canvas pants.
“I don’t do drugs,” I said coolly, attempting to straddle that vague line of meaning between not partaking in drugs because I was too mature while simultaneous acting like I knew something firsthand about drugs (I didn’t). Ronnie Van Zandt scratched a finger across a hairless chest so vigorously I was sure he had drawn blood. He staggered off in the direction of the pavilion. Spencer set up on the V1 slab I’d been on, and Will sat against a tree and smoked a cigarette that looked like it had been rolled by a man having an epileptic fit (or a teenager who learned how to roll cigarettes from a Youtube video).
The next few hours became a haze. I vaguely remembered the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire”, and a strange image of Will curled up like a squirrel underneath an overhanging boulder, sucking on his thumb.
The youth climbing culture I became familiar with when I moved to California after high school had not yet pervaded into much of the Deep South. Climbing wasn’t cool. Being a climber wasn’t cool. But I climbed because it made me feel cool. I was a skinny, beanpole of a kid, never suited to the southern king sport of football. The solace I got was that I climbed walls. The meaty football jocks at my high school might have been able to bench press three hundred pounds in the gym, or beat my friends and I to a pulp behind the baseball fields, but their bulging biceps would choke and crumple if somebody put them fifty feet up on a wall (nobody ever did, but I frequently imagined it). So I climbed, and fancied I was holding onto something greater than everyone else.
I was a decent sport climber, but I never could find the power to be a great boulderer. I was a solid V3 guy at the time, a V4 or 5 boulderer at best. Thus, when I woke up from my drunken stupor in the morning to find a sweaty guy looming over me, asking me if I had climbed Skywalker (V8/9), I knew I hadn’t. There was no way in hell I had climbed V8, no matter how drunk I had been.
“I saw you on Skywalker, right? Man you were fuckin killing it. Could you give me the beta?”
The guy wagged his big, hairy hands back and forth as he spoke, like some sort of large simian.
I looked up at him. “You saw me on Skywalker?”
“Yeah man, that was you, wasn’t it? Last night?”
I paused for a moment. Had I been on Skywalker? I figured there wasn’t any reason to tell this guy that I hadn’t.
“Yeah man, here, let me show you how I did it.” I walked over to the problem with my new friend, my head pounding. “I’m way too fried to do the moves right now, but this is how it’s done.” I mimed out a brief set of moves with my hands, guessing as best I could.
The guy tried it a few times before bailing, wringing his chalked hands. “My tips are busted. That’s brutal, man. I don’t know how you did it.”
I shrugged. “Practice.”
I haven’t really improved as a boulderer since high school. Today, when people ask me what I boulder, I tell them. But if there are any cute girls around, I add: “…and sometimes V8, when I’m drunk.”
Steele, Alabama 10/31/12