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Submitted by roninthorne on 2004-03-16

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My forearms are the size of hams, my fingers tingling and warm from friction and concentrated force. Sweat trickles slowly along my neck, drying in the cool breeze that wafts through the open door of Vertical Relief, Flagstaff's Little Shop of Honers.

The Thai food still dancing on my palate and sinuses was excellent; spicy and nutritious, replenishing my starved cells after two days of long hikes and new routes on Sedona sandstone, followed by an intense hour of bouldering with my friend Lucia. Her "significant other", Kenny P, studies with grim determination behind the front desk, unable to abandon his efforts to actually graduate from college, at some point, for the joys of the chalkbag and crashpad.

Kenny is a former student of mine, one who has gone on to surpass the teacher in every way; guiding river and stone, cranking hard numbers and long pitches and doing winter alpine ascents. Alerted by a mutual friend of my impending visit, he had played hookie the day before, hiking into the Red Rock country with John Burcham and myself to send some fine 90'+ routes on devious, aesthetic, faith-testing Sedona formations. After the surprise of seeing an old student and the pleasure of reunion with an old friend, the three of us had hit the trail and spent the afternoon chasing shade, cranking gorgeous splitters and tenuous slab moves, milking every drop out of the day.

As evening had fallen, I sat perched on the shoulder of a 100 foot dihedral, a tower of red and gold and blue-white soaring another hundred feet above my head, watching the colors deepen as John and Kenny TR'ed a 10+ project and a peregrine sailed against the platinum clouds, high above.

Our retreat was made beneath the last crimson glow of twilight, stars brightening in the deep velvet of the sky, threading the washes and laughing quietly as the wind carried the first scents of evening down from the wilderness; night-blooming flowers and sprays of palo verde blossoms, barrel cactus with bouquets of red, and nodding ocotillo with it blazing tips and subtle musk.

At the nearby convenience store, we applied cold cervesas to our swollen digits and limbs.

Sedona, despite the late hour, was still crawling with tourons, and we carefully avoided those who had obviously found their own private Truth, vortex, or bartender early in the day. Pilgrims clutched their "real Sedona crystals" from Brazil, and paid in blood for "native" dreamcatchers from Guadalupe, their eyes mystic with thoughts of Vortexes and the Mothership.

Retirement groups wandered in slow, polyester herds in the dim glow of sparse streetlamps and headlights, and slacker kids hunched together over Gameboys, oblivious in the very shadow of the temple.

Eventually, we were free of the lights, and 89A took us back to the outskirts of Flagstaff. After an introduction to his lovely partner Lucia, with whom we would climb the following day, Kenny had to bid us a fair and regretful early adieu, commited to study and, um, interpersonal interaction, while John and Ronin went in search of cold brews and thin crust pizza.

[page] The first glow of predawn saw me out of the rack, with strong coffee and a huge grin, watching gold steal down the peaks above Flagstaff, glad for capilene in the predawn chill. I organized packs and water and was chomping at the bit by the time John appeared, touselled and blinking back a yawn, from the lovenest of his own "special someone", just across the street. An hour later and halfway across Flag, Lucia dived in the door of the van and we were back on the road to Sedona.

The sun rose quickly, as we raced along 89A, and the hike in seemed even hotter that the previous day's noon deathmarch.

The approach was far more demanding, today; up a gulley choked with boulders, followed by the ascent of a steep, loose ramp that barely missed definition as a slab. At the top of this, a steep wash marched us via tumbled scree up a stairway of multicolored stone to another slab and chimney. Finally, an hour and a half from- and about two hundred feet above- the vehicles, we dropped packs in the deep, blessed shade of an incredible, twisting, overhanging dihedral John had recently discovered, and walked left along the adjoining formation, to where a single splitter crack rose in stark precision through the rosy stone.

John, a professional climbing photographer who has graced the pages of some of the more high-brow gear catalogs, as well as both the major U.S. climbing rags, set up the shot, with an eye to the magnificent backdrop of Sedona falling away below us. Lucia was glowing, smile wide and blue eyes bright against her tanned face as she struggled between the exhiliration of a great lead, and the worming finger of doubt dancing there at the pit of her stomach. A former ballerina and dance student, she stretched her powerful shoulders and quietly set about racking up for the sharp end. I settled into my Crazy Freak chair, belay monkey for this production, a cold sip of water rolling around my tongue as I eyed the urban sprawl scattered among the distant formations, then turned my focus back to the climb, and my climber.

We worked the beautiful crack all morning; yours truly laughing and shouting encouragement or silently urging "Breathe.... pull... trust your feet...", while John shot up several rolls of film and Lucia climbed smooth, strong and confident. I eventually got on toprope, and grunted my way through the crack and excellent finish moves, loving another day on this gorgeous stone, so misunderstood and much-maligned. Lowering, spent, I reflected on the trip, my expectations, and my realizations. We had done aesthetic, ropelength routes of three to four star quality in the last two days, and I could find not a single bad thing to say about any of them.

With prior social commitments, we called it an early day, heading down about 4 pm, and wending our way back to Flag. A shower of red dirt flooded from me at John's, the cool water a lovely relief after the heat and grit of the hike out. John's friend Bernadette had just finished her exams, and we all sat and sipped a celebratory Corona (with limes!) before I left them to their evening, with many warm thanks to John for another fine adventure and solemn, ferverent oaths to return. I waved them good-bye, and pointed the Westie towrds downtown, seeking Relief.

[page] Downtown Flagstaff is a place near and dear to the heart of Ronin. Whatever it is that makes someplace a destination, this town has got it... in spades.

Check out the Animas Trading company for interesting beads and glasswork, Indian dresses and fresh, hand-rolled incense. Stop at Babbits Outdoors and find a sale item or two that will have you grinning on your next outing on stone or trail. Grab a slice of orgasmic pizza at Alpine Pizza, before a brew at Murphy's, the Mogollon, The Mad Italian, or the Arizona Brewing Company. If it's early, there's Macy's International Coffee House (with NYSE prices), Mike and Rhonda's megalithic spread, or Biff's Bagels. Rosa's Huevos Rancheros and chorizo would raise Warren Harding from a class Five hangover. She's just up the street a short wake-up walk from the Grand Canyon International Travelers' Hostel. In ski season, Peace Surplus is the stop for casual beta on the area, a few bits of climbing gear if you are in a bind.

I smiled, wandering the streets past porches of hardman extreme mountainbikers and climbers, dreadlocked slacker princesses smiling at me with saucy appraisal as I stroll by, stoned immaculate, their bearded, beaded male counterparts grinning conspiratorially with a raised head and a "'Sup?". Two Natives stand in huddled conference as I make my way, one extending a hand to me in supplication, as I meet his rheumy eyes and shake my head, still smiling but inside hurting to see this ancient people brought so low, by the bottle and a culture they can neither assimilate, nor resist. Stranded like a frog in amber, they move like ghosts through this world which has eaten their own.

The bright lights of the gym clear my deeper, darker introspections, and I shake hands with Kenny, turning from that to meet local legend of sorts Scott Baxter, and the Caroline for whom Caroline's Boulders were named. The gym is full but not crowded, with local white collar professionals and cragrats sharing space in a friendly atmosphere distinctly lacking in attitude. Many members of the local "bouldering posse" are here, pulling impossible, upside-down moves on sloping holds, throwing dynos the length of a McGuire homerun, and dragging crash pads around in their version of a spot. Two that I meet work for Wired Bliss, and I compliment them on their products and we swap a few lies before returning to the search for the Ultimate Pump.

Vertical Relief has grown, from the sparse little climbing panels I remember in the early days of its existance, to a full-on climbing center with long lead walls and a full assortment of route styles and difficulties. I am drawn inexorably into the boulder cave, and soon Lucia shows up to join me in the final decimation of our tendons and strength reserves.

I play follow the leader in the cave until the folly of trying to keep up with a fit, determined lass in her 20's sends me crashing to the mat, chuckling in satisfaction at the pump and memories of the day's efforts. Lucia is gracious, encouraging even my thrashing efforts with genuine enthusiasm, applauding every accomplishment among her several other friends sending and struggling through the cave.

Reminded by the stereo growling of our stomaches, we order up Thai food for ourselves and the diligently studying Kenny, and Lucia takes advantage of the pause to give one of the local schralpers a massage she had donated as a prize in the recent climbing comp.

As the sounds of the Cure echo through the gym, the aches and strains of the last two days' climbing ease from my muscles. While trains roar kinetic through the night, the wind carrying a passing phrase in unknown tongue, a siren wailing like a banshee dream in the distance, dogs barking from passing trucks and Spanish voices ringing laughter from the smokey kitchen door across the alley, amid the throbbing pulse of life my mind is on the wing, lost in desert stone; all dreams at rest, all questions dismissed, all sorrows at bay, somewhere in the Flagstaff evening.


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