Life here shows itself in far-gone gestures and traces, always one step ahead of me. I have never seen the mountain lion I decided was male and affectionately named Igor, but often find his fresh tracks. In the evening, what I believe must be a dignified owl – its hoot so deep and melancholic – makes itself known, but never seen. The bounding antelope undulate and meld with the distant heat-waves. Even the fighter-jet pilots frequently fly over this area are visibly untraceable as they send a shivering whistle that can be heard for miles.
The presence of field mice, though, has been confirmed, as they unfortunately found a way into my van. I dubbed them (all four of them) Henry, after the affable husband of the protagonist in one of my favorite books, Olive Kitteridge, who dies. I have been reading a lot, lately.
After briefly considering them as pets, I ultimately provided four suppers for the local owl. His hoot seemed to liven up a bit and I felt better about Henry the third, who set the trap but did not actually die. I found him next to it, hyperventilating and only slowly responsive.
I took him outside and laid him like bait on the gravel. My heart filled with lead and sank as he looked up at me, perhaps confused as to why it was suddenly so much colder. I closed the door of my van and went to bed.
In the morning, Henry the third had disappeared.
We arrived three weeks ago. The drive was long and dusty, two hours on a state highway and then 35 miles on a dirt-road that carved through the Nevadan high-desert. I felt like Moses, parting a sea of monochromatic and mute dirt and sage, peppered occasionally by a flame-red desert paintbrush.
The plants are different; they live obviously, but silently. A complex network of roots form an underground city, millions of water molecules leave millions of pores along a humming cycle of transpiration, light crackles against leaves. It is a surging, thumping heartbeat.
Though the sun was strong, the air was crisp and smelled distinctly of sage and juniper. I thought how much I missed pine-trees languidly but strongly grasping the landscape, ambling up to pierce the cloudy skies. I miss the comfortable site of Douglas Fir cones littering the earth, the familiar sound I hear as they crunch underneath my shoes.
“You can tell identify their cones easily because they look like mice” – my botany professor, a jovial tall man with a thick beard and a cunning wit, told us. He would eventually join my Ph. D. committee. I still see a mouse poking its head from the mahogany scales. Now, perhaps, I will see one of the four Henrys.
I have always admired desert locals for their resourcefulness. Although sunlight is abundant, water and nutrients are limited. The vegetation almost seems polite and shy, every plant in its own place, social distancing from every other plant – a stark juxtaposition from the verdant temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, where everyone is toppling on top of one another, stretching for sun.
We were careful not to rush – a flat tire out here would be a major headache. I could hear the sloshing of water, the swift churning of a propane tank. Days before, my partner and I had emptied out what I did not need in the back of my van and put essential supplies there – water, extra fuel, tools, extra propane.
As we moved, I pushed aside feelings of longing and I tried to think like the plants – conserving what I have. Still, I felt a little bit like Igor, can’t catch me even if you try.
We were on, what I dubbed, “the Rona run.”
A seeming misnomer, as most people are not running from the virus, but rather staying put. We, though, were fleeing from everything that suggested to us that we could not do what we always did – go rock climbing.
I realize how selfish, privileged and obnoxious this sounds. But, rock-climbing, for better or for worse, is a major part of my life. It is integral to my happiness. So, when calls to stop climbing emerged, I felt conflicted and confused, simultaneously vulnerable and threatened to lose something I value, and selfish and petulant for even questioning calls to stop climbing.
As the topic evolved, I also felt afraid, disillusioned and shocked at the way the virus was splintering the climbing community. It seems that in the debate about whether climbing is ethical right now, we lost one of the things that, I once thought, made the community so special – our unity in our passion and shared understanding of the force with which climbing can move through and shape a life. While the rest of the world is lauding how we are coming together as an expression of support and a human need for interaction – poets are offering free classes, musicians are live-streaming events, companies everywhere are giving free trials – the climbing community has fractured deeply along the lines of those who are climbing and those who are not.
So, we ran to the most remote place we could think of not only to protect ourselves from transmission – as well as protect others in case we are asymptomatic carriers – but also so we could climb in peace.
Continuing climbers – including professional rock-climbers – are going incognito, deliberately being coy about their activities, neither denying nor confirming that they are getting out. I do not blame them. I feel like I am tiptoeing around shards of glass, delicately trying to avoid a cut. The dance can feel absurd, however, because I do not think I am doing anything wrong.
There are two major arguments as to why we should stop climbing: to avoid overflowing an already taxed health-care system and to prevent disease transmission. In my opinion, these arguments are shaky at best and have nothing to do with climbing as a sport, but with how we choose to climb.
I have been climbing for nearly a decade. Although most of the time I go sport climbing, it is not all I do. I have topped out boulders by myself with one pad beneath me. I have gone and done ten pitch climbs in the backcountry without a SAT phone or proper rope-rescue skills. I have felt my carabiners buzz as I descended off a ridge during a lightning storm I knew might happen. I have pulled gigantic blocks off of walls that just nearly missed my partner. I have run things out over marginal gear. I have free-soloed. Some of these activities were inherently risky and stupid, some were calculated, planned risks that I took out thoughtfully. Some were random. Would I do any of those activities right now? – absolutely not.
Currently, I am sport-climbing, arguably safer than some of the day to day activities we do without thinking– driving, for example. Of course, you could argue that I could flip upside down somehow and hit my head, or something in the system could fail and I could deck. Or, I could be trapped in a very bizarre heel-hook and tear my ACL.
You could also argue that I will go mentally insane if I force myself not to climb just because of a very small chance that I might hurt myself badly enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room. I have bashed my knees against the wall, I have flipped upside down, I’ve sustained finger injuries and sprained my ankle after a bad fall- yet I’ve never, ever gone to the ER due to a climbing related accident. The risks I am considering taking right now are risks I can handle alone, that won’t threaten a coronavirus patient’s bed. The others, that might land me in a hospital, are so far-fetched and unlikely that they have nothing to do with the sport of climbing but rather with luck and circumstance. Telling me all of the bolts on a route will fail and I will deck or my experienced partner may somehow just forget how to belay is like saying that you shouldn’t go on a walk right now because some drunk-driver will veer off course and hit you. This is no way to live, even now.
Some climbers are suggesting running, weight-lifting or cycling as a substitute, similar to advice we’re given when we are injured. However, this is not an injury – my body doesn’t need a break. I am told to stop for others, but, if climbing is not okay, then why are cycling and running or working out or even doing side-home projects – or driving – acceptable alternatives?
I’ve been a runner longer than I’ve been a climber. I run a lot. I’ve gotten badly dehydrated on runs, and several times I’ve sprained my ankle- more than once I’ve needed to hitch a ride home with a stranger. There is a reason that races have medical stations alongside the trail. Cycling seems even more illogical as a “safer” substitute to climbing. I used to commute exclusively by bike. I have been hit by cars before and had some frightening near misses, like most if not all regular cyclists. It seems like the at-height aspect of climbing makes it seem more dangerous. I can understand why the general public might think this, but I do not understand why experienced climbers would.
In fact, I can see experienced climbers becoming hyper-energetic yet ill-experienced runners, cyclists, weight-lifters or power-tool users – a combination that in my opinion is not any less risky than just doing what you know in the way you deem to be the safest given the present circumstances.
If I can go run and bike – while mitigating risk– I can climb, while mitigating risk.
We have all been to a crowded crag. People and dogs are piled on top of each other. A single route gets dozens of attempts in a day. Still, we bite our ropes , grab draws, dump our hands in chalk bags, and touch the rock.
You do not have to be a viral disease specialist to realize that this is obviously not a good idea and will facilitate the transmission of the coronavirus.
However, I can change how I climb and I can temper my expectations. Pulling the plug on climbing altogether because of a fear that every crag in America is going to suddenly turn into the Wicked Cave on a summer weekend lacks logic.
Find remote crags, go there with the same partner, and try to sanitize the holds if you think others are around. Don’t be picky about where you go – be picky about how many people are there, and, as described above, how risky the style of climbing you are trying to do is.
Hence, the Rona-run. Hence relocating to the middle of nowhere to climb somewhere I probably would no have gone to otherwise. Hence driving hours just to get service to do my work. Hence stocking up as much as I can to minimize trips to the store. I have dramatically shifted my climbing behavior to respond responsibly to the pandemic.
I am here, alone with my partner. I am clipping bomber bolts. I am interacting with no one else.
Occasionally I see a rancher or two. One even helped me get my van pulled out of the mud when I got it stuck on a rainy day. There is a derelict “camp” that I know people occupy, but I only ever see them from my rearview mirror. We all get lost in the sagebrush sea.
In fact, I’m so sure I won’t see anyone here that one day, after a hot run, I decided to go for a drive and scope some areas for plants. It felt oppressively hot, and as I turned the engine over my van’s thermometer told me it was a brisk 91 degrees.
I took off my sweaty garments and started to drive, binoculars in hand, seeing if I could spot some plants of interest from afar in the cool van to note for a return trip. My window was down, my music on, and all I had- literally- was a hat on.
As I leaned out of the window to get a better look at something, I heard a sudden, earth-shattering clap. A fighter-jet appeared 50 feet above me, swooping down and away into the cliffs.
Well, I did not have a mask on, but we were definitely more than six feet apart.
I can’t climb, so you can’t climb either
Climbers living in New York city should not travel to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. Climbers in Colorado should not go to Indian Creek. Basically, you should not leave your local area, especially if it is a hot spot for the coronavirus, to go anywhere where you might facilitate transmission, particularly in small gateway communities that don’t have many resources. It is arguably worse in places like France, Spain or Italy, which have shut-down their crags. Some are ignoring these orders, going to popular cliffs in sensitive counties while feeling justified in their actions due to empty parking lots and crags. I do not offer an opinion here; I do not know what I would have done if I found myself in such a dilemma, where the only places I could go to were technically closed. It is certainly possible that I would have been one of those climbers, alone at a cliff because I was also alone in breaking the rules.
I, though, experienced this pandemic from the view of my car windshield. Van life is arguably challenging now, but it is also a real advantage. I have gone to a remote crag in the middle of Nevada where I can self-isolate for two weeks if I need to, and where I dramatically limit any interactions with people in the neighboring (2 hours away) small towns, while climbers in places like New York and Arco quarantine. Is it fair that I can travel, because I was already traveling to begin with? Is this even a reasonable question to ask? This is an argument of circumstances. Life is random, and things outside of our control dictate much of our reality.
I was born healthy and have more opportunities than someone who was born with a disease. I was born a white female during a war, and as a result I do not have the exact same opportunities as a white male born to a well-off household in a first world country. I happened to stumble into rock-climbing because I happened to choose a university that had a gym inside of it at which a cute boy happened to be working at. I am 5’4 (and a half!) and some routes happen to be harder- or easier- for me, than for my 6’1 boyfriend. I happened to be traveling in a van when the pandemic hit and was able to isolate and able to avoid cities.
It is simple ecology – life thrives on coincidence, circumstance, entropy. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Organisms resilient to change are generally rewarded.
Unfortunately, I believe the emotional undercurrent propping up the argument to not climb really boils down to “I can’t do it, so you can’t either. The holes I can find in the other argument only solidifies this more in my head – it’s an emotional, rather than a logical response. This sounds childish, though the emotion is certainly real. I’ll be the first to admi that I am certainly ruled more by my emotions than I would like to be. When I took six weeks off of climbing due to a serious finger injury I had reason to believe may not ever fully recover, it could feel incredibly overwhelming or difficult to be surrounded by climbers. Still, I am an adult, and I dealt with it.
Am I a selfish spoiled brat?
I recognize I am lucky to be able to climb at all right now and that I have a partner and the flexibility to change locations. Again, my circumstances were beneficial to me at this moment. However, I sought out this life and created it because climbing access is my priority. This wasn’t easy. Sometimes it feels like the sacrifice is too big, that I’ll never make real money or have a significant impact on anyone else’s life. Sometimes, I think the activity is pointless. However, that is beside the point. The point is that I set my life up this way, and I made sacrifices to do it. Others had children, or took corporate jobs, because that was their priority.
I know it’s not that simple and I, like all of us, receive misguided comments all of the time in relation to my writing, which focuses on climbing. I get accused of being funded by my parents and that I’m a selfish person who only climbs. Maybe the latter part is true, I’ll probably spend the rest of my life thinking about whether it is.
However, anyone who read my name and realized it was unique- Jasna Hodzic- might have done a google search on its etymology. He/she may have come across its obvious Bosnian roots, and maybe even the Muslim roots of the last name. Perhaps he/she found their way over to the Wikipedia page of the Bosnian genocide that occurred in the early 90s. Maybe, he/she might have inferred that my family was affected profoundly by this. He/she would have no way of knowing without asking me, but it might have done something to douse some inflammatory judgment in his/her head that I have a ton of money I didn’t earn and was just having fun all of the time. Perhaps he or she would also have found a link to my CV, which shows the beginning of a fruitful career in research that took many hours of work to achieve.
Quick judgment leads to misunderstandings, which can lead to a sorrow and jealousy often masked as anger.
I am a privileged and lucky person. But that is not the only part of my story. It is inappropriate and insecure for others to publicly lash out at my lifestyle without knowing the details as to how I got here and how I live. Just as it is inappropriate for someone to lash out at someone else on Instagram for posting a climbing photo, or for someone logging a climb on 8a.nu, without knowing how those people have been climbing – with the same partner at a remote crag, or not. Just as it is inappropriate for me to judge someone else who isn’t climbing for the reasons that aren’t convincing enough for me.
I am sure there are climbers and individuals who aren’t doing their absolute best in battling the pandemic. We certainly know the politicians int this country did not do so. But, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt – that we are all trying to do our best by showing up, day after day, walking along a tightrope trying to balance our personal needs with social responsibility.
Days have hazily melded one into the other, like a soft coalescing dream you grasp at as you awaken, forgetting only to keep remembering bits and pieces of throughout the day. But, you are never really sure if any of it really happened, if you’re really even there.
Sometimes I give into the soft flow of truly doing not much of anything, of just existing. Sometimes I feel trapped.
My work is on pause and I do not know when it can or will re-start. I cannot see my family or my friends, I am about to enter the job-market in a very weak economy. The uncertainty makes planning close to impossible. Right now, I would choose to one-hang my project forever to be able to ride my bike along Lake Washington, on my way to meet my friends at a brewery on a long summer day. Like most of us, a part of me is grieving a significant loss.
My nature is to dwell and to be agonizingly introspective. It takes enormous effort for me not to be like this. Even when times are good my mind is almost always busy.
I truly need climbing more than I ever have before. It is so absorbing that the focus it demands mutes all my thoughts. It is a total off switch and I find it incredibly therapeutic and even relaxing. Those 20 minutes when I am trying to redpoint a route near my limit demand the absolute clarity from me that relaxes the talon’s grip on my mind. It is a medicine.
The uncertainty that is built into this pandemic reminds me of a time in my early 20s when I once had my heath threatened to be taken away from me for the rest of my life. I learned the meaning of gratitude – something you can only understand when you lose something so essential you took it for granted your entire life – and the experience taught me to always appreciate my body and my health. In times like this, the message to use it while you have it seems even more prescient.
We all have lost a lot. But, until I am convinced that climbing is actually risky or wrong, I will not stop.
I thought upon this one evening as I sat upon a rocky ridge where I often walk to get a few bars of service. Looking out at the teal wash of sage, I could easily make out the tan dirt road we came in on. I could see where our tires made ruts. Like the mountain lion, we have made an impression, ephemeral tracks in the dust to be picked apart.
I looked at the Castilleja chromosa. I thought about how I have spent more than three years of my life studying this genus. I thought about how I am an expert in its biology. I thought about how Castilleja does not know anything about me and how I do not really know anything about myself, either.
I became intrigued with plants because they exist without one of the facets of life I value most – mobility. Instead of going to what they want, they wait for things to come to them. They are unaware of anything besides their immediate surroundings, incapable of longing for anything – even memories – because nothing else exists.
Again, now, I try to be like the plants. Pay attention and use what you have – a gust of wind to spread your seed, a thunderstorm to quench your thirst, a burst of sun to feed your soul – be resilient and be robust in the face of everything else.
Although it is mid-April in the Nevadan desert, it will not stop snowing. Occasionally, and now, a brilliant sun bursts open the sky , setting the landscape on fire.
But, the moment I take my jacket off, my hopes are dashed by a strong gust of wind, a fast-moving cloud, and I hurriedly scramble to put my arms back in.
“Much like the coronavirus” I mused to no one but Igor and the junipers.
It seems like it’s passing, slowing down, only to get worse. All you can do is be patient, knowing it will turn. It must turn. Impermanence is built into life.
Until then, I am a desert plant in the wind.