Strawberry Bluff, Forever and Ever
Still in my boxers, I grabbed the seatless frame of the pooping chair and trudged across the dead grass to find a scenic place to perch. It was a cold morning. January in Arkansas. I used the hoe to dig out a small pit and fixed the chair frame facing into the southern shank of the Ozark Mountains.
As I sat, I gazed at the spread of white oak, hickory, and sumac yawning in their winter colors; I felt the icy, morning air nipping at my bare ass. Better than coffee to clear the sleep from my eyes.
I knew it was still early for visitors, but none had come the night before and I was hopeful Yancey would arrive soon. Another crisp day. And clear. Another day for Strawberry Bluff.
Strawberry Bluff is a scruffy sandstone plug looking southwest into the Arkansas River valley whose only realized climbing potential to date was marked by a single, ½-inch bolt drilled for rappelling purposes by a boy scout troop circa 1693. It was chiefly a make-out point and beer-drinking vista for underage Johnson County-ites. Until we came along, that is…
Hurry up, Yance. Work to be done.
I had recently spied a 40-foot, pocketed wall that led up over a pair of duckbills, which I guessed would require a mantel at about 25 feet. My guts loosened just thinking about it. Strawberry Bluff had enough walls in the 40-to-50-foot range to warrant a rope, but that would betray the crackpot ethic we fancied for it. The pocketed line would go ground-up and ropeless like everything else. But that’s precisely why Strawberry Bluff was destined for rock climbing preeminence, and Yance and I for hardman status.
[Also Read The Labyrinth of Strange – Columbia, California]
It would be fair to ask why we eschewed ropes for the taller projects that winter. No one was asking at the time, though. Definitely not me. I just knew that Yancey wasn’t keen on ropes. A boulderer to the bone. But was 40-feet still bouldering? Was 50? Smarter minds before and since have wrestled with that one and gotten nowhere. Not like we were even trying to sort it out. I can honestly say it really didn’t occur to us except that (1) we lacked the money, gear, and know-how to bolt anything, and (2) ground-up and ropeless just felt like the stuff of legends. Hersey. Bachar. Yurg & Clag.
And this is precisely why I was living alone at The Hill in the nuts of winter. To harvest the stuff of legends.
The Hill was a wide-open plot of hayfield running down toward the Arkansas River and capped by a two-walled barn without heat or running water. What it lacked in basic amenities and walls it made up for in rusty paint cans, loose nails, and proximity to Strawberry Bluff. Of course, that was a tough sell to my parents. Traditional types, my folks. Jobs, et cetera. But this was bigger than jobs. Bigger than money. Bigger than food or running water. These climbs would cement our legitimacy as monsters of Arkansas rock climbing, and as such they were worth whatever they cost.
Wasting time in the barn, I heard him. I could always hear him before I could see him, rumbling down Pittsburgh Road, rocks kicking up and ringing off his oil pan.
I leaned against the creaky, plywood climbing wall. Yancey rolled out of the cab in the fluid way he did everything. “Mornin’, Clag,” he called in his hillbilly baritone. Yancey was a lithe bear of a dude with long, black hair and a toothy smile. Apparently his name was the product of his father’s affinity for Louis L’Amour novels and some ancillary character named ‘Yance.’ Yancey wasn’t small, but he resembled a hobbit because of his huge, duckfooted bare feet with their stained, leathery soles. “Osian, come on.” Osian jumped out and greeted me with her happy, beady eyes and jittery tail. “Got donuts and chocolate milk,” said Yancey.
“Dude, you’re a hero. I’m sick of pickles and soup.”
As we ate, we made our usual morning rounds at The Hill. We walked the slackline. We climbed the stout ladder we had pieced together from spare 2×6’s and had a toke atop the barn. We pulled easy moves on the barn wall. We talked about how big Strawberry Bluff could be. Would be. We didn’t say it, but both of us knew that Strawberry Bluff was our ticket in. Our key to the Hall of the Titans.
“I think we can get the Soill guys to come down.” Yancey had gotten some free or cheap holds from Soill for the barn wall. He had a connection. “Once the Chancellor brothers see Strawberry, it will blow the fuck up.”
“Once we get a few more lines up. Yeah.” I told him about the pocketed wall. “Looks tall, though. I’d guess 5.8 or 5.9. Mantel move up high.”
“Sweet,” he said. “You found it; you get first go.”
I held Osian in my lap as Yancey went careening around and over and through the tumbledown Ozark foothills. Not slowing down as we left Hwy 164 for the chunky gravel of Strawberry Loop Road, the truck bounced and kicked up a storm of dust in its wake. Further up the road, as always, Yancey laid on the horn and we each hung middle fingers out the window toward the home of a couple who had denied Yancey and his girlfriend a rental on account of their concern that Yancey and Kristen might be devil-worshippers. The house would have been less than two miles from Strawberry Bluff and, as Yancey never tired of reminding me: “Bro, it had boulders in the yard.”
This day, as always, we started in the cave area, running laps on our seeping warm-ups. We gawked at the tall, overhanging prow forming one of the cave’s buttresses. “One day, man.”
“Whatever you say, Yurg. On that day, I’ve got your spot.”
We worked our way generally west along the cliffband into the harder, less grungy lines. The cliffs and boulders ran west from the cave to the main overlook and beyond, into the untapped potential we were sure stretched at least into the next time zone.
In the month and a half since I moved to The Hill, Yancey and I had established a few dozen lines, lines we knew to be world-class rubies just waiting for some outside recognition. Between the broken glass and cigarette butts littering down from the top of the bluff, there were some gems. The Pedophile was a tricky pocket problem named for the pair of calcified pebbles hanging down from the middle of a mandatory undercling. Jedi As Me was a legitimately primo line Yancey put up. It climbed a scooped wave of brindle sandstone over a bulge on shallow divots and devious footwork. I’m pretty sure I eventually sent it, but if Yancey said otherwise, I doubt I’d dispute it.
Once we were warm, I took Yancey to the pocketed wall. It was as tall as I remembered. Maybe taller. Maybe it had grown. The face was riddled with pockets. Like a stop sign buckshot all to hell. Up there at 25 feet were the duckbills. It was impossible to see what they were like on top, but from below they overhung the pocketed wall like two hat brims.
The brush guarding the wall was thick, so we ditched the crashpads. “Seems like you’re unlikely to fall till you’re too high for pads anyway.” Sounded right to me. The bottom looked mellow.
As I pulled on my shoes, I could already feel my nerves humming. This route was my find, and I couldn’t let Yurg try it without giving it at least one honest go. It wasn’t a redneck pissing contest or anything like that. It was something in the ethos of Strawberry Bluff. Something that was there before we ever arrived. Something lurking in the cracks and pockets, waiting for a couple of idealistic fools to come along and get suckered in by its barely too-tall walls and their moderate-looking topouts. Hook, line, and sinker.
Starting up, I was surprised at how mediocre the pockets were. Each was slicker and slopier than it appeared from below and I frittered away several minutes testing each one in hopes it would be better, more positive, than the last. I wasn’t even up to the duckbills and my forearms were starting to burn. “Son of a bitch,” I muttered.
“What’s the matter? None of them any good?” Yancey asked.
“I mean, they’re okay. Fucking deceiving.”
I picked my way up higher. With each move, I had to find a reasonable hold, knock it, tug on it, and gradually weight it, hoping it wouldn’t crumble in my hands like one of the mud dauber nests striping the sandstone walls. Arriving at the duckbills, I was pumped and shaking above a brushy, uneven groundfall from 25 feet. Reaching over each bill, I confirmed that each was indeed a molting, sandy ramp.
[Also Read John Long: Gravity]
My forearms bloated. I had visions of pitching off into the rocks and weeds below. Weeks prior, Yancey and I were tooling around under the Flux Capacitor roof. Brushing holds. Loafing on crashpads. Nearby, our frequent coconspirator, Steve, was looped on painkillers and had launched up a 30-foot slab, heading toward the bulging capstone that rounded onto the blufftop. We took vague notice. Steve’s face and hands were blackened from a two-week shift on the oil derricks. He was wearing his oversize work coat as he climbed for some reason. When he pulled up under the roof, we turned to watch. As he committed to the capstone, the hold in his left hand exploded like a clay pigeon. He wheeled backward and was instantly ragdolling down the slab, his flailing jacket an ineffective parachute. He landed in a heap next to a bush. We rushed over. His eyes sparkled and fizzed with the painkillers. “Whoa, man.”
But Steve was tougher than I was. I really didn’t want to take the 30-foot grounder. If I did, I probably wouldn’t shake it off as he had, painkillers aside. As a former high school wrestler, it hadn’t been any great surprise to me that I’d once bested Steve to win a ‘shine-fueled backwoods wrestling tournament. Nothing makes you feel tougher than pinning an honest-to-god Arkansas roughneck. Months later, though, when I drunkenly bragged to some friends at Horseshoe Canyon about my victory, I heard Steve grumble under his breath that he’d let me win. “I’m sorry?” I asked.
“I let you win, man. I rolled over.”
“Bullshit, Steve. Nice try.”
So we had our rematch. Then and there. This time there were no crashpads to form a makeshift mat. It was just us, tequila, and the Arkansas dirt. Seconds later, as Steve was grinding my forehead into the hard earth like pesto, I took a moment to reconsider my position. It was, I reasoned, theoretically possible that Steve had let me win that first time.
I shouldered up and into the duckbills. Bad as they were for hands, the pockets dotting the lower face made for easy feet. I walked my feet higher until I was wedged between the two protruding horns. Palming down with my right hand on the grainy bill, I slowly brought my right foot up to meet it. My breath pinched off. Pebbles rained down on Yancey below. It’s worth it, I told myself. I slowly, and then suddenly, rocked up and onto my foot.
From below, Yancey called up, “Hey, how was it?”
“Sickest line yet,” I answered. “Your turn.”
The Soill guys never came. We never even got around to putting our climbs on Mountain Project. I eventually made plans to leave The Hill. I was broke. I had been broke, but now I was broke. Not enough even for pickles.
A year after I had gone, a tornado hit The Hill, partially destroying the barn. As Yancey and friends cleaned up the damage, some ill-advised gasoline on a pile of debris exploded and engulfed not only the barn, but much of the hillside as well. So far as I know, Strawberry Bluff is once again the domain of tipsy ragamuffins looking for a smooch.
Before all that, though, on the morning I left, I crawled up into the room we’d built in the hollow behind the climbing wall. With a faded marker I scratched a poem on the plywood. The last two lines read:
And when I muster most earnest my will,
I return to our fortress, proud on The Hill.
Hemingway’s mountain is “wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun.” But it was not a peak I had hoped to climb.read more