by Rebecca Bacon Ehlers
When he was a child, Joshua’s hands, though strong, were very sensitive. Despite his father’s patient lessons, he was never able to learn to play the guitar. A deep paper cut reduced him to tears in the middle of Mrs. Phillips’s fourth grade art class. The handlebars of his bicycle blistered his palms.
In the corner of his parents’ backyard, there was a large piece of granite covered with moss on one side. Sometimes when he felt anxious Joshua would sneak outside and run his hands over it slowly so that he could feel the sharp edges of the rock and the place where the soft damp moss began.
When Joshua was six years old, he saw a painting of a man in an art museum. The man was sitting in an open meadow and wearing a hat made of straw. Joshua stood in front of it for a long time and tried to memorize every detail. None of the colors in the painting matched the colors of a real meadow or a real man, but that was what they made together. He stood as close to the painting as possible and studied the ridges that the artist’s brush had left. With his fingers spread and his palm flat, he ran his hand across it slowly and closed his eyes.
After a moment, a security guard rushed over and pulled him away from the painting roughly. His mother, who was on the other side of the gallery, came to collect him and apologized profusely. She scolded him in a loud whisper and led him from the museum by his wrist.
Joshua’s mother suffered from chronic migraines, which occurred frequently, sometimes two or three times a week. She would wrap an electric blanket around her head and lie motionless in bed for hours with the blinds drawn and the drapes closed. From the time he was fourteen, whenever this happened, Joshua would take the keys from the pocket of her coat and drive to an abandoned quarry just outside of town. He was terrified the first time he did this and thought only of turning back until he reached the quarry gate. But there was no padlock and the chain was rusty and not difficult for him to break through. He drove the van slowly down the gravel ramp and parked it in the bottom of the pit with the headlights on.
The cliffs appeared soft in the brown twilight, and only a narrow sliver of the sky was visible above them. It seemed that if he could sink his fingers into them and bring the stone to his mouth and consume it his body would be nourished completely.
He started to climb. After a while he kicked off his shoes and let them fall to the ground. He did not look down, and he was not afraid. His pale hands began to bleed from the jagged stone and a thin layer of dust settled into the cuts. The smell of his own sweat was all around him and he continued to climb higher and higher. When he reached the top and felt the damp grass on his hands he was surprised. He looked over the edge and saw the van far below. His shoes were on the ground in front of it, barely visible.
After that night, Joshua began climbing every face in the side of the quarry until his hands grew thick and rough. One night in late fall, when his mother and father were asleep, he drove there under the light of a round moon. The stone was gleaming and cool against his fingers. It had rained earlier that day, and he could smell the dirty water that had pooled in the bottom of the pit.
He pulled off his shoes and socks and began to climb. But the rock was wet with rain and slippery. Fifteen feet up the quarry wall, his foot slipped. He tried to twist as he fell, but the gravel scraped the right side of his body and shredded his clothing. He scrambled to his feet and when he touched his arm, it was sticky with blood. Stone rose up before him so high that he could see nothing else. He began to climb again.
When he pulled himself over the lip of the basin, his muscles were burning and there was sweat dripping down into his eyes, but he leapt to his feet and broke into a run. He was gasping as he reached the bottom and his clothes were soaked with sweat. Though the night was cold, he peeled them off. He looked up at the walls of the quarry and felt the blood rushing through him. He wrapped his hand around himself and sank to the ground with exhaustion and pleasure.
When the last spasm coursed through him a wild scream erupted from his body and reverberated off of the quarry walls. He lay still on the gravelly earth for a long time. There was blood coming from the scrapes on his arms and the side of his face.
His father was disappointed to see him the next morning. In the car, he turned to Joshua and said, I would’ve thought I’d raised you to know that getting yourself into a fight isn’t gonna turn you into a man.
Joshua nodded to show his father that he had listened and he got out of the car and went into the school.
When Joshua came home for the first time after leaving for college, his parents were overjoyed to see him. It was November and his father grilled hamburgers outside in the cold. They wanted to know how his classes were and about the kinds of people he had met. He answered their questions politely but did not elaborate much. He told them about the job he’d gotten teaching rock climbing lessons at the YMCA, and how hard it was to learn how to use the ropes.
That night he had difficulty sleeping. At 3am he went into the kitchen for a glass of water. He saw the keys to his mother’s old van hanging dusty on a hook beside the refrigerator. He put them in his pocket. At first he drove to the quarry, but he didn’t get out. He stared at the stone for a while and decided to keep going, west. He filled up the tank and didn’t stop driving until it was empty.
He called his mother the next day from a hotel in Boulder and when she heard his voice she began sobbing uncontrollably and had to give the phone to his father.
I’m sorry, Joshua said, surprised. Really, I’m so sorry.
When are you coming home?
I’m almost to Boulder.
Where are you?
I’ll be home tomorrow.
You gave your mother a migraine.
Joshua’s parents let him take the old van back to the university with him, but a week later he dropped out. He sold the furniture that was in his dorm room and he used the money to outfit the van with a fold-out cot and enough canned food to last him several weeks. He drove to Nevada and spent the rest of the winter in the desert, living out of the van and climbing something different every day. He never used ropes.
People who saw him climbing would sometimes stop and watch him. He never noticed them until he had finished, and then he would feel suddenly nervous. Often he would try to wait at the summit of the rock face until they had left.
Joshua learned that he could live quite happily without eating anything that brought him a sensation of pleasure. When he was in the mountains and found himself without butter or milk or anything to season his food, he found that he did not miss it. He would awake early in the morning and open a can of black beans, which he would eat quickly, without a spoon, pouring them directly into his mouth. When he was finished he would lick the salty water from his lips hungrily.
Often while hiking back down to the van after a climb he found blackberries growing wild along the path. They were almost always underripe and tasting like soil and limes. He would fill his pockets with these berries and chew their pithy seeds without spitting them onto the ground.
Women of a certain kind had always been drawn to Joshua. His thick eyelashes and gentle voice made them feel as though he was a man who could love them purely and wholly. But with each one the end was always the same.
Sometimes they would ask him if he was afraid to sleep alone in a van every night. He didn’t understand the question. In the morning he would cook breakfast for them in the desert, and they would watch him climb as the sun rose. Some stayed with him for weeks or perhaps months, but they found that living with him was much the same as living alone. His body was perfectly supple and his hands were warm on their skin, but often he would leave before dawn without waking them.
Some waited longer than others, some got angry. He could see that they were hurt and wanted to stop it. But he had nothing to say, and they would look at each other sadly as if they were both pressing their palms against a sheet of clear glass that had risen up between them.
One winter, Joshua decided to travel with the van by barge to Hawaii, but when he arrived in Los Angeles he couldn’t scrape the fare together. He spent a few months working behind the counter at a convenience store in Reseda. The owner of the place was a stocky Venezuelan man named Juan Fernando who whistled Sinatra incessantly and accused every teenager who came into the place of shoplifting. They got along well and enjoyed each other’s company, and Juan Fernando would often share with Joshua a few of the empanadas that his wife packed him for lunch.
During the months Joshua spent in Reseda, he settled into a sort of drowsy contentment. He rented an apartment in the basement of a young couple’s house and ate fresh fruit every day. His sleep was thick and full of dreams he did not remember upon waking.
One day a group of backpackers came into the store. They were tanned and carrying expensive water bottles, and they were irritating. While he was arranging a display of instant soup cups, Joshua overheard them talking about the mild winter up north and how the snow in Rifle Mountain was already melting. The next day before closing down the shop he filled a plastic bag with nine cans of creamed corn and took $400 from the register and put it in his wallet. In the morning he packed up the van and was heading north on I-15 before the sun was up.
He spent the next six months in Rifle and felt nurtured by it. He climbed twice a day most days and moved the cot onto the roof of the van so that he could hear the sound of the wind in the trees at night. But as the summer progressed, the crowds of people who would gather to watch his climbs bothered him more and more. Once, after seeing him a thousand feet up a rock face with no ropes, a man vomited down the front of his shirt. Children who recognized him would ask him for autographs or climbing lessons. One grey-haired woman told him he should be ashamed of his behavior.
One day Joshua packed up the van and headed south.
The day after he set out from Colorado, Joshua passed through Oklahoma. He hadn’t climbed for days. After miles of empty plains a string of telephone poles rose up alongside the highway. He slowed the van and pulled over onto the grassy shoulder. He got out and stood at the base of one of the poles, staring straight up at it. He wrapped his arms around it and, after a few awkward moments, discovered that with a synchronized movement of his legs, it was not difficult to climb. He scrambled two thirds of the way up and paused. There was no breeze and he could hear the wires buzzing above him. The branches of the short trees were bare, and yellow grasses flowed over the dry earth outwards toward the horizon. He listened to the sound of his own breath and it sounded foreign to him. When Joshua saw how low the sun had sunk he felt a heaviness in his muscles and he looked out over the endless flatness with a feeling of despair.
He drove until the border and then kept going until he found a place called Potrero Chico. He slept on the warm earth with no blanket to cover him and in the morning climbed the tallest cliff he could find.
In the middle of the climb Joshua found himself stranded. He could see the next foothold three feet to his left, but he knew he couldn’t reach it without supporting his entire weight on the tips of his right index and ring fingers. His arms were already shaking. Before his muscles gave way he pushed himself away from the cliff and for a moment was suspended in the air with nothing to secure him. Above the new foothold was a deep fissure. He wedged his hand inside it. As he paused to determine his next move he glanced toward the ground thirteen hundred feet below and realized he felt nothing. He turned his face upward and could see the pale lip of the cliff above him against the empty blue sky. When he reached the top he knew that there would be no one there.
By the time he returned to the bottom of the cliff an hour later, a crowd had gathered. Several dozen other climbers clamored to shake his hand and a few local reporters questioned him in halting English. What was it like to be the first person ever to climb that? Everyone asked. What a day to be alive! Someone said.
By the time Joshua had returned from Mexico, his money had nearly run out. The van broke down just outside of Austin. He called his parents from an empty gas station just after midnight.
It’s me, Dad, he said when his father answered. There was a long pause.
I didn’t know when we’d ever from you.
I’m fine, said Joshua, just busy.
It’s been five months.
I know, he answered quietly. There was another pause.
Dad, I think I need to borrow some more money.
Where are you?
You can have enough money to get you back home, and then you can stay here as long as you need. Otherwise I can’t help you.
That’s all we can do.
I’ll think about it.
Your mother wants to speak to you.
There was a rustling as she took the phone.
Oh, Joshua, she said.
It’s okay, he said, it’s okay.
What did we do wrong?
Two weeks later he was living in a garage when a reporter from the local television news channel tracked him down. He had heard about the Potrero Chico climb and was looking to do an inspiration piece for the nightly news. Joshua was uninterested in this, but he agreed because there would be no other way to make it north again before winter.
One day during the time he spent in Colorado, Joshua spent the morning climbing a bluff overlooking a wide lake. When he reached the top, he paused for a minute and looked out across the landscape. The sun was high in the sky and the silence that enveloped him was as cool and luxurious as silk. He could see the cliff reflected in the clear water below, and he tried to find himself reflected, too, but he was too high and too far away, and his body could not be seen.
He thought of this moment after the interview when he was standing in the empty men’s bathroom at the television station. It was a large bathroom with two rows of sinks that faced each other. For a moment he found himself standing between them and in the mirrors he could see his own image, reflected over and over, stretching out forever into nothingness.
Rebecca Bacon Ehlers is the founder & editor of Culturework.