Cowboys ain’t easy to love and they are harder to hold. A number of years ago I gave a small presentation at the International Climber’s Festival about the similarities between climbers and cowboys. I didn’t know as much about cowboys then as I do now, but the stubborn, supposedly independent streak in me fits me right into all the social stereotypes pervasive about those who ranch, ride horses, and love wide open spaces.
A lot has changed during the intervening years from presenting Cowboys and Climbers and contemplating this piece. I have taken an office job. I have purchased a home. I have done more expeditions to Patagonia. I have started the process of learning about horses. I have climbed more mountains. I have stepped outside of my comfort zone.
Some things are the same however. Notably I have been in and out of intimate relationships. I have struggled with fear and doubt. I have continued to write. I have continued to work for NOLS.
There is no doubt that I am torn between things, people, and ways of being. I sit on horseback and stare at the mountains and think of routes unclimbed and summits untrodden. I go climbing and think of pressure and release and mountain mornings with horses. I hold one woman and think of all the things she isn’t. I hold another who is all the things the last one wasn’t and isn’t some of the things she was. I wonder if this is the correct universe. I don’t know what I want until I don’t have it anymore. Much like the horse knows, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. It is never perfect, but I always dream it will be…
In the beginning I ran from attachment. Now it is what I think I crave. In the beginning, I wanted experiences. Three different schools in four years; no two years in a row at the same one. Varying summer jobs. Post college graduation seasonal employment with wilderness therapy companies, summer camps, NOLS and the like provided the transient nature I desired. I had developed a relationship with my dad. He had died. It hurt like hell. I wouldn’t have that happen again. Don’t get attached. Consistency and routine are the path to attachment. Attachment is the path to sorrow. Be transient. Keep people at arms-length. And it worked. I built an identity around it.
In the beginning, I pushed her away because she was different than I. We didn’t share an essential common interest of climbing. In the beginning, and in the end, we would sit and talk. Listen and talk for hours. It wasn’t always easy, but it felt real. We would share drinks. Then I was scared. I got too close. It would change my identity. All I wanted to do was climb. She was a threat to my identity. The purchase of a house was a threat to my identity. Dirtbags live in trucks, they don’t own houses. Horses were just a side project. Patagonia, mountains, ropes, and deserts were my identity. I grasped tightly to the wrong things. Horses and houses pulled more out of me in their short period of time than almost anyone or anything had in as short of time, maybe except her. In the end none were threats to my identity, they just served to make It more robust, more complex, and ultimately, better. And in the end, that is what she did too.
Today I sit and write. In my own house, in my own space, one I have created, both physically and metaphorically. In classic fashion, it is in the predawn light, in the My Time part of the day, a time when reflection and appreciation run rampant. There is a cup of chai masala on my left and list of “to dos” on my right. The office beckons in less than twenty minutes, but there is no threat, no dread. There will be hard times in the future, I will feel sad, things will feel challenging and the more complex my identity, the more resources I have to fall back upon. I am what I create.
In the end, I will be who I was in those moments of being.