Last Saturday night, I was running one of my favorite trails in the dark. I had gotten a late start, realized I failed to pack a headlamp, and figured I’d just push it as long as I could and then finish by moonlight or iPhone flashlight. I came upon a guy walking about a half-mile from the trailhead, also with no light, and we said hi, and he asked to confirm that he was in fact almost to the correct parking lot by the footbridge. I said yes, and kept running. A few minutes later, I started another lap on the trail and ran into him again and apologized for not offering use of my phone flashlight. He said, Oh no, that’s OK, I have a phone too. And I do a lot of walking in the dark.
I kept shuffling up the road to the summit in the near-blackness, trying to get in some more elevation gain, thinking about my evening and that guy’s evening: I’m in a running vest, shorts, and a bunch of high-tech gear, and he’s in a fleece and jeans. And we’re both kind of idiots, bumbling around here in the dark, both with plenty of experience and wisdom to know what a flashlight is and that one might come in handy when walking in a place with no lights after sunset.
I popped over the top of the trail and the ocean of city lights of Denver lit up the plain below where thousands of people were having nice dinners in warm houses and restaurants and I was just barely not freezing up there, and I thought, This is dumb. But it’s not that dumb, is it?
My dad’s favorite thing to do is golf, and it’s a very different thing from climbing mountains or backpacking or trail running, but every once in a while, I go with him, and although I suck at it, I get it. Yes, you chase a little white ball around an expansive, manicured plot of land in the hopes that you can get the ball in a hole the size of a coffee cup several hundred yards away, by hitting it as few times as possible with expensive and specially-designed pieces of metal. In the best moments, you focus, control your breathing, and put all your mental and physical efforts into doing one thing as perfectly as you possibly can. Which reminds me of the feeling I’ve had in yoga classes sometimes too. And at the climbing gym, trying to get through one move that I keep falling off of. And whether or not you do any of those things perfectly, the world keeps spinning.
Have you ever tried to explain sport climbing to someone who’s never climbed before? “So, you tie into the rope and climb up the rock about 75 feet to those little chains up there.”
“Why don’t you go to the top?”
“The chains are the top. Of the route.”
“Why doesn’t the route go to the top of the cliff?”
“Probably either the rock quality or the climbing isn’t as good above the chains, I guess. So they put the chains there.”
“Yeah, but it’s not the top of the cliff.”
“Right, but …”
Really, if aliens landed on Earth and you had to try to explain everything to them, they’d probably have some very reasonable questions for you about the things we do for fun that might not make sense to someone unfamiliar with our societal norms:
“Why do you scream at the television when it has no effect on the sports contest being played far away from you?”
“Why do you pay someone to make a cup of coffee for you when you have coffee and the means to make it at your home and your office?”
“Why do you purchase music on records when you can instantly access every song ever on the internet?”
“Why do you sleep on the hard ground in the mountains when you have a comfortable bed at home?”
Of course, if those aliens understood concepts like joy and fun, you wouldn’t really have to explain anything. Fun and joy are totally subjective, and definitely aren’t universal to everyone. Beyond food, shelter and survival, everything else is arguably pretty pointless, and if everything is pointless, then nothing is pointless, right?
On the side of Mt. Shasta a few years ago, my friend Robb shared a story with our group of fundraising climbers: He had talked to his dad, Gary, on the phone a few weeks before our climb and explained what we’d be doing, that we’d be waking up at midnight to start climbing so the snow would still be firm. Gary, a lifelong midwesterner who has never worn crampons and usually slept until a reasonable hour of the morning, replied in the drawl I had heard so many times during high school at his kitchen table in Iowa:
“That is the dumbest. Goddamn thing. I have ever heard.”
Gary is definitely not wrong. Dragging myself out of my sleeping bag and trudging up the snow in the dark sure didn’t feel that sensible the next morning. But I have to say, that sunrise from just below the summit was pretty damn fantastic.