The Space Between

Returning to Smith. (Photo: Tara Kerzhner)

The room was dimly lit, with teal linoleum chairs, a grumbling AC, and late Nevadan light penetrating even the darkest of curtains. It was large, meant for meetings or  presentations for an audience. The woman I had just met, who led me into the room, told me that I was welcome to use the kitchenette, and I wondered where she came from, considering how comical it was that this woman was a critical part of a day I had been planning for years.

I chose a chair and placed it against the most unadorned part of the beige wall. I filled the cup I had brought with water from the kitchenette. I took out a few snacks from my small backpack and placed them neatly near me, just in case I got hungry.  

Three hours later, I closed my laptop and leaned back uncomfortably against my chair. The whine of the AC suddenly grew louder as it started another cycle. For the first time, I heard the footsteps of the guests milling about on the other side of the wall. Doors closing, muffled conversations fading away.

It felt strange being a newly minted Dr. Hodzic alone in this hotel conference room in Nevada. Having attended many defenses during my time in Seattle, I knew the drill: you hope to get Douglass hall, because it is the nicest room, with large windows revealing the vibrant greenery of the botanic gardens. But, you will settle if you have to go to Bloedel. Everyone in your lab brings snacks. You socialize during the 5 minutes you have to breathe after your defense and before your private deliberation with your committee. Then, you throw a party at a house, at a brewery, wherever; all that mattered was that you let go of everything. I craved the same celebration for myself.

In that moment, the air was mute, numb, unsaturated, unpalpable, disappointing.

A loud knock interrupted my thoughts. I opened the door and out bounded my favorite person in the world, who embraced me immediately. He was lit up because of what I had done, and I could tell he meant it when he said he was proud of me.

Suddenly, the colors came back. He had been watching from our hotel room, the one he had paid for and reserved, two stories up. He had organized the entire thing, so that I would not have to worry about the logistics, the new demands of Wi-Fi the pandemic posed. Disappointment instantly became gratitude and love. I bought myself a steak that night and had more than a few beers. I virtually cheered with a friend whose absence for nearly a year was sobering, yet whose return was doubly as joyful. I showed off how bad I was at pool, and we went to bed early, plans to climb the next morning at the crag where, three years ago, we observed each other for the first, well, technically the second, time.

It was easy to see us there, both curious about one another, cautiously excited. Then, I had just decided to pursue a PhD. We talked about what my research entailed as we walked up the trail, the air sweet from the vanilla of the ponderosas mixing with the honey from the phlox.

The ponderosas were still there, standing tall and robust, defying the dry environment. The phlox were beginning to flower; in a few weeks their white flowers would overwhelm the landscape. We, though, were different.  I saw us now, a bit tired, but hopeful. The curiosity and the excitement were there, but were less about the discovery of someone new, but about, what things might look like post PhD.

We were in the area far-longer than we had planned, the culprit of a stressful situation revolving a piece of mechanical equipment that made my van, and therefore, my way of life, run. Leaning on friends for help, we made the most of it. This time, I put my own work into the crag he had created, a manifestation of his unique blend of skill and creativity. The day before I found out it was all okay, I set up on two bad underclings and did the improbable moves on the top of the 180ft pitch. The weight of all of the stress and effort that I threw out into life came right back at me like a boomerang, though this time, the feeling was unencumbered inquisitiveness and joy at the notion that this section of rock was, serendipitously, possible.

A hot and sweaty day in July at the Palatine Wall. (Photo: Tom Moulin)

All you need to know about Smith in one photo. Getting prepared to launch for the razorblade. (Photo: Tara Kerzhner)

Walking down towards the Crooked River that morning, I was expecting a feeling. Two months left to go before my defense was scheduled, I felt beleaguered and weary. I was working before climbing, I was working after climbing, yet I was still, somehow, climbing.

I went through the motions. I warmed up on Magic Light. I sampled routes. I saw familiar faces and people recognized me. The geese still owned the place, honking and cackling and making rather inelegant dives onto the water.

Soon I was in the familiar throes of projecting at Smith. I was hyper-vigilant about the weather and about my skin. I got a little bit afraid,  but went for it anyways. Though it wasn’t love at first sight, as it had been for a route in the past, I eventually was seduced by the movement and history of a seldom-done line snaking up the first wall you see in the park. The Big R(azorblade) – hereafter renamed to appreciate the redpoint crux, which consists of a big deadpoint to a hold the shape, size, and texture of a big (well, more like a miniscule) Razorblade – made up for its general lack of high quality rock with outstanding movement of every flavor imaginable.

A beautiful cross in the middle of the Big R crux… (Photo: Trúc Nguyen Allen)
culminates to this throw to the arête. The crux of the Big R, and the airy arête
climbing that follows, is some of the best movement I’ve ever done. (Photo: Trúc Nguyen Allen)

What I had expected to feel never settled under my skin. It teased and tickled me like a light breeze, but it never overwhelmed me. It was not there on the send, it was not there when I tried a dream route, one of legends and of myths, and sat in awe of the holds. I waited for the flood of obsession, the passion, the need. Its hole left me curious.

When I sat with friend at the base of his project, he, uncharacteristically, turned to me for advice. I was surprised. Years ago, we had sat at the base of a different route and I, a less experienced climber, would often turn to him. Ever-evolving yet stubbornly the same in my overly introspective attitude, I did the same days before on my current project.

I saw myself leaning at the base of that vertical wall. I was wearing glasses. I was nervous, and talkative, and concerned, but I was too infatuated to ever be mad. I walked right past everyone and did not hear the talk until after it was all over. I was a master’s student, I had completely forgotten about the silly fellowship I applied for half a year earlier.

Now, three years later, he described to me, after an effort he clearly found disappointing, his strategy in quantifying how he should feel before going for the crux of a route. This tactic had provided reliable success in the past, but also lead to his previous attempt in which, not meeting his preconceived idea of how he “should” feel, he did not truly commit to the crux move at the top of the route.

 “Sometimes you have to let yourself make magic”, I said.

When I stepped out of my van and into the high country of the Sierra, the high alpine air cut straight into me, and, despite the altitude, I felt that I could finally take a deep breath. Two months after my defense, I still carried fatigue with me.

I was, undoubtedly, a different person than she who had last spent a summer in Tuolumne. Five years, though, is nothing for the mountains, the lodgepole pines, the sheer, clean and intimidating granite. Though Tuolumne Meadows carved me in the same way the glaciers carved the stone, any fingerprint of my existence was long forgotten. I found this oddly comforting in as I walked into Olmsted canyon, on a solo mission

As I pressed the toe of my shoe into the granite and gripped the flakes of diorite, I remembered that this place can bite back. I gripped harder, I wanted the rock in my skin. The route was a hard one, particularly for my first day, but it had been in my mind for a long time. I figured out my own way for the top boulder problem and walked out, content.

I drove by the store, hoping for any kind of cellphone signal but mostly relying on the old-fashioned way of meeting my friend. Glancing into every Outback, my heart lifted when I saw a familiar face. Maggie and I forged our friendship here, and as we walked down the Soda Springs trail, where we had worked an entire summer doing vegetation restoration, I felt sentimental. I cracked a joke so it would go away.

Faced with thunderstorms every afternoon, we changed our plans of multi-pitch routes and crafted some new memories. Chortling “it has to be just over here” as we got very lost trying to find the Whizz Domes. My near vomit-inducing fight on Sacred Fire (hereafter dubbed “Sacred Sunburn” for the fact that it gets sun at 10 AM), and Maggie’s glorious effort on Shadow Warriors. Me trying to “reel her in”, as I joked, into face-climbing and projecting.

Maggie sussin’ out Shadow Warriors, Tuolumne Meadows
Getting ready for a redpoint burn up Sacred Fire, Tuolumne Meadows. (Photo: Maggie Keating)

More than anywhere else, I saw myself in the Meadows.  I saw myself waking up at 5 AM before a grueling physical job, so I could run up the John Muir Trial and watch the mist come off the river. I saw myself rolling out of bed in our sub-standard government housing that we somehow thought was acceptable, my eye on what dome I would stand on top of today. I saw Maggie next to me the entire time, when shit really hit the fan, and when things, sometimes, went well. With a different yet equally important partner, I suddenly felt blissfully sleepy as I recalled the mid-afternoon naps in the Meldicott parking lot at Peace.

Then, and now, I heard Maggie and I laughing, unable to stop, about something entirely trivial. The humor does not come from the actual moment, but rather, from the precise and simultaneous understanding of two people viewing something in the same way. The laughter is just our acknowledgement of each other in ourselves.

The gaps between the feelings I had when I first visited these places, and those I experienced now, revealed how my priorities have changed. The journey of learning and performing near my mental or physical limit – the process of the Big R, the creativity of Lex Julia, the magnetism of Sacred Fire –  is so clearly what I value the most.

Chronic stress is pernicious. The talons of the PhD had tightened across my brain and my heart for years. Like a slowly uncoiling spring, I find the vice grip loosening, the veil that made it difficult to really see, to really understand myself and my decisions, lifting slowly. I knew it would not be an immediate shift, but I was ready to see what was underneath.

I had expected to greet myself, the whimsical, energetic person who had walked up the path in Mt Charleston easily being the best version of herself. I expected that person who shocked everyone with To Bolt,  but really did not realize or care that others thought it was a surprising ascent. I expected, more than anything, to greet the vigorous spirit, the one that fueled a seemingly inextinguishable fire that summer in the Sierra. I remembered youthful infatuation, instant connections, passionate voyages.

When I realized I would never truly revive this part of myself, I, at first , sensed a loss. Now, I sense a gain. With experiences gone by, I am more patient. I am more thoughtful, I am more considerate, and I am more picky and cautious about , to what and to whom, I wish to direct my finite energy. Yet, I also mourn the loss of someone who, prior, did not really see the gaze or feel the expectations, self-perceived and otherwise, of those around me.

I am changing constantly, as revealed to me by these unchanged places. The commonalities that were left behind describe my perhaps immutable values and core – humor, drive, tenacity, friendship, curiosity, love. They also show, with painful precision, my vulnerabilities.

After my PhD defense, my dad called me. I was surprised when he described that , more than anything, my hour long presentation of the niche area of plant ecology I studied made him struck by the fact that everything I had done in my life I had done myself.

The statement was obvious in its inaccuracy – he and my mother sacrificed everything to support my brother and me – but in a way, it is true.

It is true because something else I have always done is that, despite not knowing where it will lead me, I have done my best to observe others, filter out what I find useless, and, singularly, follow my nose.

A stormy day in Nevada

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