I'm not very old, nor am I all that experienced. I am not a wise old woman with the grand perspective of age. However, I am waist-deep in one of the most slap-in-the-face, learn-it-the-hard-way, and transformational stages in growing up (since let’s face it, nobody's ever done with “growing up”). Being 20 years old for me means trying to figure out what I want to do for a living, deciding that I never actually want to work ever, realizing that I have no money and actually want to work a lot, balancing this work with school and play, deciding that I need to drop out of college, realizing that I love learning and actually want to stay in college forever, having weekly identity crises, thinking that I somehow need to prove myself, feeling like I have nothing to offer the world (and then feeling like I am the best later that same day), and trying to single-handedly take on the world’s environmental and social issues.
Sometimes, I feel like a mess, with all of this bouncing around in my brain-piece. I often feel overwhelmed with all of the tasks I need to complete, and all of the wonderful things the world has to offer. My brain says, “Why can’t I fix everything RIGHT NOW? Why don’t I have the time to climb EVERYTHING and visit EVERY SINGLE COUNTRY and master EVERY skill EVER?!” Well, it simply cannot be done-- not all at once, at least. As time goes on and my experience grows, I am becoming more and more aware of an omnipresent aspect of life and nearly all challenges that we face as humans: the need to break it down. We are not sharks that can eat our meal whole; we take bites, and then chew those bites into even smaller pieces until they are so small that they can be swallowed. The answer is simple, yet difficult to implement: I need to take on life in chunks.
A few weeks ago, I truly realized how present this concept is, regardless of the situation. My good friend and climbing partner Laura and I climbed a route called “Cloud Tower” in Red Rocks, Nevada. Red Rocks is a rock climbing mecca of sorts, with towering cliffs covered with climbs as high as 2,000 feet. Cloud Tower was a 6-pitch, 800-foot climb of a difficult grade. I knew before we even left camp that morning that I was going to be climbing at my mental and physical limit, but the “Laura and Jacky” team is a competent, excited duo, even on scary multi-pitch. We love that stuff. We drove to the trailhead, and hiked to the base of the climb.
We spent the entire day climbing. Each pitch was a challenge in its own way, a chunk to overcome. . As the day progressed, we were pushed in many different ways. Each of us ended up crying at some point during the climb; whether it was related to the runout sections, the exposure, the janky fixed piece, or some other deeply rooted issue, there came a point when we simply had to break down, if even for a half minute. The climb was definitely within our abilities, but it was a journey to get through it.
Finally, we reached the top of the last pitch-- and I was beat. Totally wrecked. This is when I realized the importance of breaking it down in this particular situation. Hours of the day were spent waiting at belay stations for the parties ahead of us to finish climbing-- a delay that cost us the privilege of descending in daylight. As we rigged up for the first rappel to descend the climb, dusk was approaching.
Thus began the next chunk. We put on our headlamps and began the rappel. Kicking myself, I realized that I had forgotten to change the batteries in my headlamp, and was forced to rely heavily on Laura’s beam to supplement my weak glow. I then realized that I had also forgotten my prusik loop used to back up my rappel, forcing me to makeshift one with a cordelette. I was frustrated. We had 6 rappels ahead (6 more than I would have liked considering it was dark). As we came to the end of our ropes on the 3rd rappel, we landed on a ledge where there was supposed to be anchors, but none were to be found.
Thus began the next chunk. While Laura pulled the rope, I desperately looked for any sign of anchor. With no luck, we were forced to makeshift our own… on a small bush-like “tree.” Leaving a sling and carabiner behind, we tentatively rappelled from the vegetation onto the next ledge.
Thus began the next chunk. Not knowing (still) where the next anchors were, we explored the new ledge. After this short detour, Laura managed to discover that on the far side of the bushy ledge where we stood was the pitch 3 belay station. We scrambled over, and continued the descent. As we pulled the rope for the penultimate rappel, we looked at each other in disbelief as the rope would not budge; the rope was stuck.
Thus began the next chunk. Laura volunteered to ascend the rope (with a prusik and grigri...not easy or fun when ascending an entire pitch of climbing when it is past your bedtime). I felt useless at the anchor below. We were cold, and so hungry that we had no appetite. We were exhausted and, while staying positive, ready to be done with this climb. With the rope unstuck, laura made her way back down to the anchor where I waited. We finished the last rappel, and were finally at our packs at 9:30 pm. We packed up, and shared the food we had left: a handful each of sunflower seeds (mmmm dinner!). Relieved to be down, we thought nothing of what lied ahead.
Thus began the next chunk. We navigated steep, rocky downhill “trails.” We hiked for… one hour? Two? We walked and walked, towards the parking lot. Climbers trail to side trail to main trail, we finally arrived at the parking lot. All that was left now was the drive back to camp.
We arrived at camp at 11:00 PM. I would have went to bed without eating, if not for my campmates staying up to save us dinner.
There is no denying that the climb was simply phenomenal. Splitter crack climbing, incredible views, Little Mermaid songs, and heartfelt conversations. I would even argue that the scary, “type II fun” aspects were just as amazing as the more aesthetic parts. However, the challenge required baby steps. Without really knowing it, my brain forced each part of the day into said chunks. If I were to, in those moments of fear and challenge, fully wrap my brain around the entirety of the day and what I was asking of my body and mind, I would have been instantly overwhelmed. I would have panicked. We took on each task individually; one at a time. Complete this, move on. Begin next task. Repeat. That is how you accomplish great things.
I have found that this is how I must move through life, not just climbing. Challenging runs, long essays, and works of art all require the person’s attention to focus in on one single task at a time until the overall feat is completed.
In my studies, I like to look at the big picture with environmental issues. They are all connected and tangled and rooted in society; it is beautifully intertwined and mind-blowing, but overwhelming. I am constantly being bombarded with the “doom and gloom” of what humans have done to Earth and each other, and the relative compounded consequences. With so many problems, it is hard to focus on the small actions that make small, valuable change. Thus, quitting looks like an appealing option when one wants to take on everything at once. The issues all seem so big that ignoring them becomes the easy route, apathy the escape.
Many people tend to feel as though they are worthless if they are not saving the world. My blog isn’t transforming the lives of everyone?! Ah, It is not good enough. In reality, no one can save the world, and no one can fix everything. There is a passage in a book titled “Mutant Message Down Under” that speaks to this issue: “If you can only help one person, good job. Can only help one at a time anyway.” This simple but profound statement is a reminder to the granular nature of change and accomplishment. It is not a matter of flipping a switch-- it is a process, a journey, that must be broken down into smaller and smaller parts until it is a matter of taking one simple action, helping one single person.
It was mid-semester, mid-spring break, and I was in the middle of what I call a “funk.” There was some sort of unidentified uneasiness and discontentment in my mind that was slowly building over time, and choosing to hang around. So, after spending most of my break rock climbing, Amanda and I took off and decided to put the ropes away for a few days in exchange for big backpacks and a little soul-searching. What we didn’t expect, however, was that in our search for peace of mind and time in the wild, we would find something very different...but perhaps equally as important and healing.
What we found was trash. Garbage, waste and unsanitary horrors abound.
Sounds healing, doesn't it?
Amanda and I packed our bags, applied sunscreen, ate a quick snack and took off optimistically down the trail towards our chosen hot spring location, a three mile hike down a narrow canyon right on the border of Arizona and Nevada, by the Hoover Dam. The plan was to hike to the hot springs where we could set up our bivy camp, soak all evening, think about life (or not think at all), and enjoy the company of each other and the sounds of the trickling water. From the beginning, however, it became apparent that we had chosen the wrong location to do such things. The Edward Abbey in me started to come out: sporting an endless commentary on the overuse of the trail, the closeness to the freeway, and the views of the massive bridge from the trail (I won't deny having fantasized about blowing it up along with the nearby dam...).
We stayed the course, and found that the further we hiked, the more litter we saw. And I am not talking just plastic water bottles (though abundantly present). I am talking tons of wrappers of all sorts shoved into huecos and pockets in the rock, countless pairs of panties and boxers abandoned in the rocks and draped over the foliage, used condoms, tampons, sanitary napkins, and the not-so-LNT human feces and accompanied toilet paper seemingly flung all over the canyon (Okay, the feces were not sprayed on the walls or anything, but you get what I mean). It seemed that the closer people got to the springs and the most beautiful parts of the canyon, the less they packed out with them. Amanda and I were appalled, but continued in hopes of escaping to a cleaner oasis.
We eventually made it to the end of the canyon, where the trickling warm water flows into the cold, clear Colorado River (though it was not so clear before dams like these were built-- a notable disturbance to the river ecosystem!). We saw a family playing on a small rocky protrusion at the confluence, and waded out to join them and sit in the sun. Shortly after we arrived, they began hiking back before we had a chance to notice that they left all their garbage behind. We picked up after them, and also retreated to the canyon.
There were many people hiking this canyon, more than we expected. Most were not soaking in the springs, but many were romping around with speakers blasting music, while others preferred eating oranges and depositing the peels throughout the canyon. At this point, we had to let go of our grief over the way people were behaving at the springs and enjoy our time. As dinnertime approached, the majority of people trickled out towards their cars. Embracing the semi-solitude, we walked over to one pool and prepared to soak for the evening. Before getting in, however, nature suddenly called and I was in desperate need of the wag bag in my pack! In such a canyon, there were few cat-hole options, so we opted for these nifty (really, they don't even smell!) bags to deal with our waste. I grabbed the packable poop bag and went on to do my business. Next thing I know, I am mid-movement and making eye contact with some poor soul who had scrambled up over a boulder nearby. He had obviously not spent much time in the outdoors where you inevitably witness such an act. He did not know how to react, and looked pretty horrified to see a girl pooping in a bag. The fun didn't end there, as Amanda also had to take care of her business. When the time came, her bathroom break was also interrupted by an all-angle approach of several groups of people, all inexperienced, confused, and mortified. Amanda screamed (drawing more attention to herself, poor girl) and the innocent bystanders panicked. I laughed.
This situation was humorous, but the two of us figured that at least this was a great learning experience for those people... maybe they would stop pooping all over the canyon and consider the bag option? After all, human feces contamination it is a surprisingly major issue for many watersheds, especially near my home in Northern Arizona. For instance, Slide Rock State Park, a creek swimming and recreational area in Sedona, Arizona, has a recurring issue of E. Coli outbreaks. Fossil Creek, another special place known for its clear waters and falls, has similar issues related to too many people, and not enough LNT ethic. As they say, everyone poops. That does not mean, however, that everyone can poop wherever they want. Being a daily act (hopefully) for all humans, defecation is a major wilderness issue-- an issue that can be avoided with proper disposal techniques.
Enough of that crap (haha), let's move on to the more refreshing aspects of this trip.
The sun was setting, and everyone left. We had the place to ourselves, and we were finally able to relax in the spring. After the exodus of self-unaware mobs of people, we settled into what we had set out to find in the first place: solitude. Sure, we were still surrounded by what they had left behind, but nature spoke through it all and we were soothed. In this time, we were able to contemplate our personal struggles, and also the place-- and what we can learn from it. The spring is an incredibly special place. It is full of beauty, and a source of comfort. The high canyon walls allowed for a slot of starry sky to peek down at us. The hot water trickled until it cooled, and created a singing frog habitat that most who explored the canyon that day didn't hear. Yes, there was trash everywhere. Yes, the dam upstream had altered the ecosystem there. Yes, people come in hoards to pluck up the flowers, trample the plants, and spray paint on the rocks. But that place is special. It deserves to be clean.
To an extent, I can't blame those who trashed this place. It is a product of society, values and education. Most of the waste down there is a result of those who have been taught to have these habits. They don't know better, because that is all they have ever known. However, it is still not justified, nor is it right. The people that Amanda and I saw had no clue that they were impacting the area. They do not know the monumental significance of every single action that they make. They do not understand that something thrown away never actually goes away. How is someone to know that they should defecate in a bag or bury it if they have never been taught Leave No trace principles? Why should I expect so much of someone who is not even conscious of any of this?
After sleeping under the stars, we woke up and enjoyed the quiet morning. When the new day brought new crowds, we packed up our gear and prepared to leave--but we could not leave this place in the condition it was in. Amanda, always being prepared, had a 50 gallon trash bag with her (intended for waterproofing, but also great for trail clean-ups!) as well as medical gloves in her first aid kit. We each took a glove, and went to work. We crawled into nooks and retrieved many pounds of trash. We grabbed ungodly items and gathered smelly, awful things (thank you gloves!). We loaded the trash bag and hauled it with us up and out of the canyon, gathering what we could along the way. It was a laborious task, passing the 30-pound bag up 4th class scrambling sections in addition to our overnight packs. The bag reeked, but it felt good to be getting the junk out of the canyon. As we were hiking out, we passed many people heading to the springs. We kindly reminded everyone we passed to pack out their trash, and while some laughed or ignored us, many people took interest and appreciated the comment. By the end of it, we were pretty tired for such a short hike. But we did what we could, and it felt good to know that while we were cleaning the place up, we were also being proactive by setting an example and showing the hikers how trash accumulates.