September 7, 2016

People : Strangers

San Juan, Puerto Rico. March 2008.

When I told my friends and family I was going camping by myself in New Hampshire and planned to rock climb with locals whom I hadn't yet met, they were concerned. They asked me how I found these people. They asked me to contact them regularly to make sure I was okay. They asked me whether I was bringing a knife (I did and I used it to cut my avocadoes).

I absolutely appreciate the reasonable concern about traveling in a remote area as a lone woman, and climbing tall walls while entrusting my safety in the hands of people I know nothing about. At first, I felt pretty good about my independence: I uber'ed myself to the airport for less than $10, retrieved my rental car without any hassle, navigated myself out of Boston (the most irrational driving city in America), picked up water and groceries, arrived at my campsite even having lost service in the last 15 minutes of the drive, and set up my tent before dinner.

As it got darker, and nature noises got louder, I became a little less sure of myself. I was a little lonely, a little scared, and generally wondering what I was doing. Whether it was worth it. Whether there's a reason petite Asian women don't do this. Whether I would survive to see the morning (okay, I wasn't that scared, but when you consider all the ways this could be a mistake, this kind of thing crosses your mind).

But even after just night one and day one, I knew it would be worth it. For the simple, full existence of good people. Which I'm really convinced is the norm rather than the exception. Especially if you take a liberal stance of "good," a practice which I've found to be accurate, useful and healthy. By that I mean: any person who adds to your perspective something to appreciate, is a good person.  Don't think about this too carefully--it's one of those things I've found works best as a vague first approach, not something to follow all the way through...

For example, at my campsite, I met a woman who had just attended an herbal conference.  She told me in great detail how she has renewed motivation to design her garden in concentric circles. This made me appreciate the spectrum of how connected we can be to our earth. She told me that she felt that as a scientist it was hard for her to find jobs because she was a woman.  Then, when I told her I would be going to a medical conference soon, she asked me what kind of nurse I was.  This irony made me think of the differences in how we see our own lives versus those of others.

I also met a man whose home is a treehouse that he rents from the camp. He comes to the camp most days for dinner (the camp also being an organic farm homestead that makes farm-to-table meals), and also uses their wireless internet. He shared the password with me: "disconnect."

These are light collections, but really--the weight of people's good is real. My first day climbing I met up with a fellow whose climbing skill and experience quadruples mine, a stranger I found through a Facebook group. This can be intimidating. But instead, his humility, easy willingness to teach, and sincere encouragement pushed me to have a true climbing experience. One where I pushed myself to complete climbs I would've been otherwise scared to even attempt--at moments where I was internally struggling, he sensed the hesitation and the desire to give up, and said "Stick with it," so calmly that it seemed matter of fact and I pretty much just had to, and did. One where I took some scary falls, free falling until that eventual catch that on ground, you know rationally will happen but mid-air, feels like a myth. Afterwards he assured me that I'd fallen well, consciously gave me space to reflect on what happened, and validated the fear of it as well as the fact that I was okay and that I would be if it happened again. And so the experience was such that I felt that the success of reaching the top and the success of falling were equal in significance, helpful to my growth as a climber and my perspective as a person.

On my second day of climbing, I met up with another stranger. I had thought we'd be on a similar level as we've both been climbing outside for just a year. But even though I have six years of indoor climbing experience in addition to that, her confidence and skill were far, far greater than mine. It was part strength and ability, part committment to moving on rock. Just a year into climbing, on the day we climbed together she attempted her first 11 level climb.  This is something I personally can't imagine attempting for a long time, if ever. And she attempted it by taking free fall after free fall, and continuing to get back on it.  Then she took the longest fall I've ever witnessed outside--30 feet and hitting the ground (luckily with no injury). Ground falls are the most dangerous possible fall, and she had climbed this route and continued to climb it knowing this was a possibility. And though she was shaky afterwards, she knew without a doubt that she'd be trying that climb again.  She wasn't without fear--she just took it as part of the process as much as the joy. It was so inspiring to see her dedication, her attitude, and see how far that can take a person. And now my goal is to get on an 11 level climb even if I'm not sure I can complete it.

I didn't think I would have a third day of climbing, as the partner I'd initially found had a wrist injury and couldn't make it. But while climbing on my second day, we met another pair who happened to be camping at the same place as me. In addition to going out of their way to help us with a couple of routes that day, they went out of their way to come find my tent later that evening and ask me if I wanted to join them to climb the next day. To clarify exactly how nice this was--when climbing, a third person tends to add more waiting time.  You have to wait for all three people to finish a route before moving onto something else; it tends to move more quickly with even numbers where people can pair up.  It's particularly slower when there's a person newer to climbing like me.  I wasn't going to add anything to their climbing experience, but they simply wanted to add to mine.

I couldn't have asked for a nicer, more patient group of people to climb with on my last day. In addition to saving me when our gear was lost on a terrifying climb, one of them was a mushroom aficiando and helped me identify the many varieties growing in the area.  I finally saw what an Amanita looks like in real life (learned about it in medical training as a hallucinogen!), and I learned about a kind called Chicken of the Wood, which my climbing partner gleefully gathered into a plastic bag, saying it really does taste like chicken.  I also learned that button, crimini, and portabello mushrooms are all the same species, just in different forms of development (button growing into crimini growing into portabello).  I bonded with the other over our immigrant parent experience, and how privileged we felt to be able to be outside doing things like this.  When I thanked them effusively at the end for letting me climb with them, they thanked me with equal effusion as if I had done them a favor. Their easy, matter-of-fact kindness and openness created a space of safety and sharing, which is hard to establish in any interaction but especially so in one like climbing that requires a certain degree of trust.

I know in these types of ventures there will always be the fear of encountering the exception--the not good person. But that fear is well worth the surprise of the many good people.


  1. I'm so glad you had this! I'm now hungry for chicken, mushrooms, and fresh air, not to mention climbing!

    1. You were one of the first strangers I met in college, and what luck!!


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