— I —
I have been reading David Whyte’s beautiful book Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. He summons his readers to a life of “spaciousness and freedom”, which requires living at what he calls the cliff edge of life.
This cliff edge is a frontier where passion, belonging, and need call for our presence, our powers, and our absolute commitment.
My soul aches at those words. I have spent both my youth and my adult life in dutiful service to responsibilities. Voices murmur in my mind, voices of parents and bosses and colleagues, voices that David Whyte so eloquently articulates. They say:
Life is precarious; you young cannot know how precarious. Don’t add to the sum total of difficulty that waits you: Stay off the moors: Stay off the ocean, stay away from the edge, don’t follow the intensity of your more passionate dreams, find safe work, and adventure not into your own nature lest it lead you directly into nature itself.
I have spent so much of my life doing what those voices ask of me, and life has rewarded me for my obedience. I have an extraordinary wife, who I love. Three beautiful children. A litany of professional accomplishments. Strong values, and a sense of duty that has served me, my colleagues, and my organizations well. But I am often dying inside. Something vital has been left behind. I have filed away the edges of my life, padded the sharp corners. I sometimes crave a rebellious phase I never had and never will.
That groundswell of longing is breaking. I think of the final lines of Donald Justice’s poem Men at Forty:
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something
That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.
Those lines capture so much. The responsibility, the faithfulness, but also the thirst for an enlivening—a need to satisfy the unnamed something rising up within me.
At forty, I am searching my past for clues for who I am and who I am meant to me. So many of my discoveries turn out to be acts of remembering. I am returning to a person I used to be, a person who was wiser than I gave him credit for amidst his naïveté and immaturity.
My memory ranges over my senior year at the U.S. Air Force Academy, a time when I briefly rose to my best self. Too many of my weekends had been spent in the safe confines of USAFA, in familiar routines with familiar people. But that last year I had set out almost every weekend for the unknown frontier. Trudging up 14,000′ mountains in winter with snow shoes and ice ax; lighting camp stoves with numb fingers, watching my breath curling and rising in the tight beam of a headlamp; plunging into the cold depths of New Mexico’s Blue Hole in pursuit of another diving credential.
My soul stirs and hungers at these memories. I need to know that these adventures, this ongoing immersion in the wild, is still within my reach. The clock is running, and something deep within me cries to be reawakened.
— II —
For Labor Day weekend I plan something unusual: a one-night solo camping and climbing trip at Cherokee Rock Village in Northern Alabama.
In the days leading up to the trip, it is all I can think about. A wave of vital energy swells in me, building, ready to break.
The night before I leave, I wallow in guilt and wonder if I should cancel. I tell my wife Wendy that I am having second thoughts. What kind of husband and father slips away to be alone? I concoct unrealistic schemes for her and the children to join me after the first night, involving complex logistics and pet sitting arrangements, to assuage my guilt.
And of course there is the danger. I will tackle some of my tallest climbs yet. I will push my limits lead climbing. Each risk, however carefully calculated and weighed, is a risk to my family.
My wife encourages me to go. A loving gesture of grace. A recognition that wholeness requires more than weary compliance with the imperatives for safety and responsibility. She understands; she thirsts to be on a bike the way I thirst for the mountains, even after her frightening crash earlier this summer.
I pack quickly on Friday morning as my children are getting ready for school. I rarely travel so light; that alone gives me a sense of buoyancy, of endless possibility.
I hug and kiss my children. It is a normal goodbye, our daily ritual, but behind it this time is the piercing knowledge that I will shortly encounter the cliff edge of my life—the wild unknown of an interior journey, but also the ninety foot rock faces piled mysteriously and unexpectedly in the rural grasslands of northern Alabama.
This time tomorrow I will be straining against that rock, searching for the next hold, held to life by a tenuous thread of rope and the competency of a belayer eight stories below. With each hug and kiss, the proximity of death and the incandescent beauty of life are immediate and visceral. After Wendy returns from dropping off the children at school, we drink coffee together and talk. A quiet interlude in the relentless torrent of life.
As I leave behind Montgomery and then Birmingham and then the Interstate, the landscape turns pastoral, almost impossibly green, bright and sun-lit. My heart swells, sensing echoes of my favorite landscapes in California, which I miss dearly. One of my goals in this solo excursion is to prove to myself that beauty is still within reach, that it hides in pockets here for those who seek it. I feel validated in that quest now, hopeful, tingling with expectant energy for future excursions and discoveries.
My climbing partners will not arrive until tomorrow. I drove up a day early because I do not want to plunge right into the rough-and-tumble of grappling with rock. I want, as Whyte says, a sense of freedom and spaciousness. I need unfilled hours.
I arrive at Cherokee Rock Village early enough to nab a prime campsite, not fifty feet from a sandstone ridgeline where a group is climbing. I do not bother to unload the car. I set off on foot down towards the rock, then follow the path around a bend and find myself in a labrynth of towering rock formations. It is a climber’s paradise, a staggering array of styles and difficulties compressed into this hidden little oasis. The air tastes freer here; my chest seems to open, as I inhale the expansive wonder of this place.
I spend hours systematically encircling every crag in Cherokee Rock Village, studying every route, comparing every meandering crack and bolt line to the maps and route descriptions in a mobile app. Tomorrow, when I climb, this familiarity will fuel confidence.
A group of beginners, loud and perhaps a little drunk, is hooting and cheering a friend up an easy climb on the aptly named Boy Scout Wall. The noise is obnoxious, but it is impossible to resent a group of ordinary middle-aged people who are daring to confront their fears, test their limits, and stretch their potential at a cliff edge.
I wander down to the Holiday Block, where a woman is grappling with the final stretch of a classic 5.10a called Oyster. She is seventy feet off the deck, shaking out pumped arms, looking grimly up at a small roof that is the crux of the route. She is on lead, taking the rope up with her, clipping into bolts drilled into the rock. If she falls, she will fall twice the distance to the last bolt she clipped. Lead climbing is a head game as much as a physical sport. Each move past the last bolt is an escalating encounter with fear. A fall is always one slip away. The paradox is that hesitation undermines good climbing and all but guarantees a fall. Topping out a route requires boldness and confidence despite taut nerves. It requires daring commitment to each move.
The woman summons all her energies to advance from the small ledge where she is resting. She is above the bolt now, in the zone where a slip will mean a nerve-rattling fall. The terrain is sloping backwards, forcing her to rely on limited forearm endurance.
She moves deftly through the first moves. Climbers are beautiful to watch, like dancers or gymnasts. The best climbers rely not on strength but on graceful movement. They flow over the rock like water, a graceful bubbling upward, a lighthearted and buoyant challenge to gravity.
High above the last bolt (having skipped an awkwardly placed one), she struggles. Her arms quiver at the crux move. She holds on, trying to work out the movement. Then, with all the cool nerves of a fighter pilot declaring an emergency, she says, “Falling.” She plunges almost twenty feet, black pony tail flying, before the rope catches her.
My stomach knots itself. That was bigger than any fall I have taken. I am staring at the edge of my own abilities, at the fear of what lies beyond. At the same time, her emotional and mental power is breathtaking. Her fall is almost sublime.
After a long rest, she gets back on the rock and tries again.
— III —
My canned soup does not sound particularly appealing, so I drive into town. I briefly wonder if I am selling out somehow, but I am not here for hardship; I am here to explore, to wander, to taste freedom. I eat a delicious pulled pork sandwich, text with Wendy, then drive back to camp.
Alabama is hot and muggy in the summer, and the mosquitos were out in force when I left for town. But when I return, I find Cherokee Rock Village transformed. A breeze has picked up. The mosquitos are gone. All that muggy discomfort has turned to delicious cool. This, this, my soul cries. This is what I long for.
This is the place we all long for, the place so often left unsatisfied in our encumbered lives. This is where we make fleeting contact with the most vital center of our being.
That place looks different for each of us. It might be oil paints, a dance studio, or the stage in an Irish pub. It might be fishing from a kayak or building a cabinet in a garage. For my wife, it is the wind rushing past her on a road or gravel bike. For me, it is this. This is what I found that senior year at USAFA, roaming Colorado’s backcountry, before somehow losing it to the responsibilities of adulthood.
I walk the campground before night settles. The trees are silhouetted against a deepening blue. Campfires come to life around me, some of them atop hundred-foot cliff edges overlooking a lake. Guitar chords and youthful laughter accompany the wafting woodsmoke.
I retreat into my tent and text more with Wendy. In these quiet hours my thoughts are returning to my family, but it is from a place of inner wholeness, of deep satisfaction. I am reaching out to them enriched by this healing solitude.
— IV —
I sleep without the rain fly. A cool breeze blows through the tent all night. I wake in the morning to refreshing cool and a canopy of tree branches. I make oatmeal and coffee and scramble up the back of a cliff to look out over the lake.
My climbing partner will not arrive until lunchtime, but a gregarious gentleman named John invites me to climb with his group. He might be the only person besides me in the crag who is older than 30. John is a professor, climbing with a group of undergraduates from his university. His ease with these young people, and their full-hearted acceptance of him, renews my hope for myself. It confirms that we are only ever as old as we feel. I melt right into the easy camaraderie of the group.
It is soon my turn. I have not climbed outdoors in months, thanks to COVID19 and my move to Alabama. I have been training on a small home wall in my garage, but have no idea how that will translate out here, on sustained routes. I start up what should be an easy 5.9 called My Dog Has Fleas, but after a short ways I am pumped. I struggle through it and complete the route without falling, but I am embarrassed and flustered by my weak performance.
This is life at the cliff edge; a pushing up against one’s limits, a constant dance between success and failure. It is a place of constant humbling and sometimes of humiliation. But I am here, grappling, topping out routes that would have paralyzed me with fear not that long ago.
We move to the New Wall, a short cliff with a wide array of routes of varying difficulty. I top rope a 5.8 that looks featureless but has surprisingly easy holds. Then I try again on lead. I am terrified of climbing to first bolts, which always seem too high to be safe; even if the climbing is easy, an accidental slip could mean a broken ankle, or worse. This is part of my frontier, my dance with the edge, the place where I confront my fear of the dangerous and unknown. Perhaps I will fight that battle another day, but today I clip the rope through the first bolt with a stick clip, protecting me during that precarious short stretch from the ground. I climb the route easily.
I lead it again. This time, I tell my partner, I want to practice lead falls. This is another part of my frontier, another source of fear. I climb until the third bolt is at my waist, then let go. I plunge three feet down and bounce gently against the rock. I repeat this maneuver again and again, climbing higher each time, until I am five feet above the bolt. My nerves are chattering now. Falling is always scary, even on a safe flat wall like this. I think of the woman yesterday, plunging from the top of Oyster. I take a deep breath and let go. Ten feet below, the rope catches me. This time, though, the rope swings me a little too hard into the rock, my foot compresses, and I feel a jolt of pain. It isn’t bad, but I know I will be limping the rest of the day.
I am annoyed. Practice falls are supposed to be safe. That is the entire point. An injury, however mild, was not part of the plan. I complete the route, descend, and process the sudden swell of negative emotion. Part of living at the edge is accepting the lessons, seeing the opportunities to grow, expanding that frontier just a little farther. Perhaps my falling technique was wrong. Perhaps I pushed out too hard from the rock, worsening the swing. Perhaps I unconsciously extended my legs. I will research this later. This is learning and growth in action. Maybe, someday, I will avoid a broken ankle in the middle of some epic multipitch climb because of a lesson I learned today.
Even as I limp away from the rock, I feel warmly satisfied. I have achieved a goal. My comfort level falling has expanded, however slightly. I am on a path of vitality, of creativity. My world has contracted to this crag, and thoughts of work and mortgages and responsibility have receded entirely from my consciousness.
I reflect on the cliff edge of life, on David Whyte’s book, on his argument that the pursuit of meaningful work is a pilgrimage of identity. The working world imposes so many pressures that constrain our freedom, seek our conformity, ask us to sacrifice the most vital parts of ourselves out of duty and responsibility. Whyte’s summons is to reconnect with the wildness at our center, the raw primeval force from which our strength and purpose flows. That force is our most precious resource in our working lives. Whyte writes,
In order to stand up against a force of nature, we often have to find that same elemental nature inside ourselves.
That is what I am out here to rediscover. Here in the crag, amidst the soaring spires of rock, the voices cautioning me away from the cliff edge have fallen silent.
— V —
My partners arrive, and I switch to their group. They want to climb a 5.11b called Never Believe that is too hard for me. I give it a go anyway, top-roped, and wrestle for a while with a brutal move that has to be executed perfectly. I try variation after variation but cannot find the right body position to enable the move. I descend, satisfied that I at least learned something in the struggle.
Next we climb Oyster, where I watched the woman fall yesterday. I do not feel ready to lead it, so my friend leads and anchors the rope. I go next, safely under a top rope, meaning falls will be limited to inches. I expect to struggle with the moves, given the weakness I felt on the 5.9 earlier, but everything comes together this time. I climb strong and well. I find and take the rests. When I reach the crux, I climb through without trouble. At the top, I briefly look down at the ground eighty feet below. This might be my tallest climb yet. I do not feel afraid, which tells me I am no longer the person I was a year ago.
As my partner lowers me, sitting and twisting in space, I think about my performance. I felt good. Perhaps I will lead this climb next time. That is my new cliff edge, my new frontier where, some other weekend, I can continue my ongoing journey of self-discovery.
I lead a 5.8- called Kennel Club after that. Once again, the first bolt is terrifyingly high, so my partner clips it for me. I start up, coddled by that initial bit of aid. The route should be easy compared to Oyster, but I am suddenly in an entirely different headspace. I am tired. My nerves are fraying. I have grim thoughts about pushing my luck too far, of falling and dying on my last climb of the day. Halfway up, I pause to check my harness and tie-in knot, an unnecessary quadruple check that has the ironic effect of wasting energy and making a successful climb less likely. I stop and rest twice, hanging from the rope after clipping bolts. I think of my family.
I have only one shining moment: near the top, arms shaking, totally pumped, I know I am about to fall. The move before me is scary, given how tired I suddenly am. I need to get my right foot high up near my knee, then propel myself up to a further handhold. Committing to that move is the only way forward, but if I miss it, I will take a lead fall. It is one of those many dilemmas climbers face, when committing fearlessly to a hard move is ironically the safest course of action. I go for it. I make it. With a swell of pride, I pull myself up to the anchors.
Overall it is a marginal performance, with only that last act of commitment to redeem it. As my partner lowers me, I realize that all the vital energy that has propelled me through the last two days has whooshed out of me. My partners plan to climb for several more hours, but I am tired, and if I leave now, I can complete the three-hour drive in time to see my wife and kids before bed. That, I realize, is what I want more than anything.
Back home, I am enfolded in embraces and cries of “Dada!” We sit together and cuddle and talk. I recount my adventures, and they recount theirs—baking bread, swimming, playing with our cat and dog. There is a wholeness in our reunion. By going out solo for a night, I have returned a better and truer version of myself. A better husband. A better father. I still have two days of this long weekend to savor my family, to rejuvenate in other vital ways, before I return to the domain of work.
On Monday, I take the kids for a hike while my wife—always living at her own edge—is on a 45 mile gravel ride up north. The park is ten minutes from our house, nestled between major roads and a golf course. A sign warns of alligators. My kids are captivated, and spend the hike vainly searching for a predator that might snap its jaws on their precious young lives. They dare at their own cliff edge of life, and return home enlarged by their victory.
After the kids are in bed, I flip back through Whyte’s book.
For Whyte, this inner journey also equips us for our working lives. He writes, “All good work should have an edge of life and death to it, if not immediately apparent, then to be found by ardently exploring its greater context. Absent the edge, we drown in numbness.”
I never want to be numb.
Now, preparing for the week, I think of all the ways I might dare at the edge of my professional life. A deeper level of mentorship. My writing. Academic projects. Work I am passionate about, forays into the deep unknown, projects that raise skeptical eyebrows, projects I have been told will never work.
I think of that woman plunging through space, hanging precariously from her rope, and chalking her hands to try again. And I know what I will do.