At about 8 o'clock on Saturday morning, January 13, I was standing in my kitchen in Makawao, Hawaii, eating a pancake and working on a haiku. I was teaching haibun—linked prose and verse—and wanted to try to write a haibun about a climb. The 17th-century Japanese master poet Matsuo Basho had written his classic travel sketches as haibun, and what is a climb if not a journey?
For inspiration, I’d been reading Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, a haibun travelogue about his years-long road trip into wild and dangerous Edo-period Japan, where travelers risked brutal cold, illness and meeting roving brigands who’d chop your arm off with samurai blades to take the gold out of your fist. Basho sold his house in 1689 and took off for two and a half years, traveling over a thousand miles and living on handouts as a Zen-influenced pilgrim. In 1694, five years after starting his northern journey, Basho died back in his home province at the age of 50.
That morning in January, I was standing, eating, looking at a haiku I’d written, holding a book and hollering at my two boys to be quiet so I could get in the right mood to tell the story behind a route that Guillermo Marun, Coco Dave Elberg and I had put up a couple years before.
The route is Sky Turtle (5.10+). A long, steep hike past ancient petroglyphs and shelter caves leads you to a room-sized hole in the mountain, the remnants of a giant gas bubble. You make five rappels out of the hole past orange, black and purple streaks that trail down the gently overhanging trachyte (a close geological relative to the syenite of
Foggy, green, rainbow-laced valleys rise northward toward the crest of the West Maui mountains jutting like pyramids from the Pacific Ocean, which shines like a 2,500-mile-long grow light behind you. From the halekoa tree at the base you climb back up the only crack, 100 feet of 5.9+ protected by cams up to six inches. A pitch that will keep away the riffraff. Continue up ladders of tacky finger buckets and wormlike lava flows for six more pitches, all bolted. Wandering, bulging, cutting across the big wall, they take you places where you can really feel the mana (spiritual power) all around.
Sky Turtle is a metaphor for the mystery that hovers above us all the time. Climbs can be portals into that mystery; you just have to step outside the familiar confines of habit. Or something like that. Honestly, I was having a little trouble with the metaphor.
After some stern hectoring from me, the boys quieted down, and I tried again to conjure a poetic frame of mind.
Looking for insight, I opened my book and read the introduction: “In other words, the Narrow Road to the Deep North was life itself for Basho, and he traveled through it as anyone would travel through the short span of his life here—seeking a vision of eternity in the things that are, by their own very nature, destined to perish.”
That’s the contradiction of life, I thought. Everything we love dies.
At precisely that moment my phone buzzed, and I saw on the screen a little exclamation point in a triangle.
I’d seen that before. It was a flood alert, but instead of the familiar flood warning, in a glowing light-gray box, under the heading EMERGENCY ALERT, were the allcap words:
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
Perhaps you're wondering: Did he really read that heart-rending line from Nobuyuki Yuasa’s intro at precisely the moment the missile alert went out?
The answer to your question is: Yes.
My mind went blank. Then my guts melted. I called my boys over and hugged them tight for a long time.
My mother-in-law goes by the name Unci, which is Lakota for grandmother. She came in from the ohana (grandmother’s cottage) and pointed to her phone. “Did you get this? Ballistic missile inbound to Hawaii?”
My 10-year-old, Kai, perked up. “Missile?” he asked. I could tell he thought it was cool.
Blond and long-limbed, into baseball, Norse myths and playing the violin, Kai trusts in the universe. I don’t think he had any sense of danger. He’s also into that fearless boy-stage of broken collarbones and chipped teeth, and to him maybe missiles were just another name for a rocket ship.
Isaac, 7, is more perceptive. He picked up on the vibe, hugged me harder, and said, “I don’t want missiles to come here.”
“I don’t either,” I said.
What do you say to your still-pudgy, blue-eyed, soft-cheeked first grader about the inbound-missile alert? I couldn’t think of a single honest way to assure him of its impossibility.
I wanted to believe it was a hoax or some hacker or a mistake—that it couldn’t be true because nuclear war is MAD (mutually assured destruction) and crazy and unthinkable, and just the dumbest fucking thing human beings could do to each other.
And yet Trump had been Tweeting, engaging in a nuclear pissing contest with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Just a month earlier, Hawaii had started testing nuclear sirens for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
I thought about what might happen in the next few moments. Would we be wiped out in a flash of white light? Vaporized or turned to glass?
The missile, I thought, would probably be targeted on Honolulu, Hawaii’s largest city, with a metro population of nearly a million people. Honolulu is on the island of Oahu, about 116 miles away. But I didn’t know how far the blast—or whatever you call it—would travel or whether we’d have radioactive ash raining down like red-hot cinders for a decade. The alert had said to seek shelter but there are no shelters. We live on Maui. Our house is single-wall construction, built in 1957. I looked around at the open windows and felt again the knee-weakening sink, and in an ironic moment lamented never finishing my haibun.
I thought about all the things I’d left unfinished. The climbs and stories—raising my sons. I’ve had a great life and was surprisingly O.K. with dying in a flash. In some ways a quick death would be easy, maybe even a relief from the existential ennui that troubles everybody from time to time, some of us more than others. But not these little boys, who had all of life unlived—their fate couldn’t be so senseless.
I held them in the kitchen for a little longer, gaming it out—wondering how to survive the blast and the fallout and the horror-show of what was going to happen to North and South Korea and Japan and China and the Pacific Ocean and the Mainland. War, martial law, power outages, contamination, burns, shortages, starvation, disease and death. At any moment there could be a roaring concussion and mile-high drifting radioactive cloud only 100-some miles away. What was I gonna do?
I learned to climb in southwestern Oklahoma in the late 1970s and early 1980s at a time where difficulty was measured not by the grade of the climb but by its survivability. None of the routes at Quartz Mountain were super hard, mostly 5.10s and 5.11s, but almost all of them had sections where if you fell you’d die or be horribly broken. Many of the routes were between 100 or 200 feet long. Many only had a couple of bolts or pieces of gear to protect the entire span. But it was also the only place to learn to climb within five hours of my home in North Texas.
One day I worked up the nerve to try a climb called The Big Bite, a 5.10 put up by Duane Raleigh, or maybe it was the S Wall? It’s been so long I can’t recall. Let’s just, for obvious reasons, say it was The Big Bite, an infamous line responsible for at least one 100-foot fall when Mark Herndon slipped and tried to slow his plunge by dragging his hands across the hot granite. He survived, but he scrubbed his palms down to the bone.
I smeared up the low-angled first 50 feet and clipped the lone bolt and charged on higher and higher till I stalled, over a hundred feet off the deck, the distant bolt a tiny glint no bigger than the point of a star. I tried to move off the crystal, but my foot slipped, and I clasped the bald slab tighter, pushed my butt out, and lifted my heels. I started to slide again but leaned back and brought my weight over my feet. The rubber gripped. My slide stopped, and I scrambled onto the desert-island-like foot crystal and tried to get my breathing back under control.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. It was hot, and sweat dripped off my nose and splattered onto the rock, dampening potential footholds. I slapped chalk on the wet marks and resolved to go. Just move. But I couldn’t. Because what if?
Fifteen minutes later my feet hurt too bad to hang out any longer. I had to go or melt off. When I finally went, the climbing was wobbly but easy.
That was the lesson. Just move. Even when you think you can’t, move.
I called uncle Lance Endo, my ex-military, Maui-born, kama’aina who’d taken part in missile-tracking exercises when he worked at the military telescope on Haleakala. He always knows what to do in big rains and hurricanes, and he’s related to everybody in Hawaiian government.
Lance said, “I made calls. It looks real.”
“What do we do?” I asked.
“I’m closing my windows. You shouldn’t come outside for 15 days. We’ll know in 40 minutes.”
“O.K., Uncle Lance,” I said.
“Aloha, Uncle Jefe,” he said unsteadily.
I hung up, even more shaken.
“Can we go outside and play with the chickens?” Kai asked.
“No, buddy. Help me close the windows. Help Unci fill up the jugs.”
As I filled the bathtub I called my mom and she asked me to “just stay on the line with me, let’s just stay on the line,” but I wanted to keep the line clear for any glowing gray screens I hoped might pop up and read:
OOPS. WE MEANT NO BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII TODAY.
I called my wife, Hannah, who was in Colorado at the time, but she didn’t pick up so I sent her a text, which felt awfully banal. As I took inventory of the canned food and calculated days, I called my brother and choked up a little bit about the boys.
Over 40 years of climbing I’ve had plenty of scares but nothing like this ugly lack of agency. When you’re climbing you can always do something: downclimb, rig a rappel, or press on, just move. This was different, but I kept moving anyway, breathing, getting ready, keeping my boys close, and calling everyone I loved.
For a little while that morning of January 13 I believed a nuclear warhead could momentarily impact near my home and annihilate my family and possibly kick off a conflict that would poison the entire world. That I’d ever be in a position to believe in such a scenario strikes me as terribly sad.
The experience also prompted a few questions. To wit: Is it always better to be well-informed and available for the ballistic-missile alerts? Or would it be better to simply disappear up the Narrow Road to the Deep North? How am I going to travel through the short span of this life? Listening to depressing news, governed by liars on both sides, and checking my phone every few seconds? Or by loving things that are destined to die? The responsible citizen wants to keep voting and texting. The wild one wants to take a hammer and beat his phone into a scrapyard.
Uncle Lance said it takes 40 minutes for a missile to travel to Hawaii from North Korea. Thirty-eight minutes after the first alert, my screen lit up again (with some lower-case letters this time):
EMERGENCY ALERT: There is no missile threat or danger to the state of Hawaii. Repeat: False Alarm.
One month since the missile alert, and I’m looking for some resolution—or is it consolation? I reach for the Buddhist sop of interconnection versus dualism. Black and white, me and him, us and them—illusions that lie at the root of all suffering. They damn sure lie at the heart of missile alerts.
I want to feel connected to all things, but I can’t. Perhaps I’m still too sad and unenlightened? Or maybe, as a friend once said, that’s the point of being human—to love despite death, to live like everything is connected despite bumping against edges every moment?
Today is a Wednesday, and the boys are at school. A rooster crows in Makawao but otherwise it’s peaceful and quiet, so I open my haibun and begin writing:
If you’re a climber and you’ve surfed Thousand Peaks on the
west side of Maui, you’ve looked in at the 700-foot plug of trachyte Hawaiians call Honu (Turtle) and wondered if it’s climbable. It is.
When it rains, my shoulder hurts. Silver strands lace my hair. Forty years of climbing cliffs and mountains have tracked my face and hardened my toenails. Older than Basho when he died: Who is this travel-worn stranger in the mirror?
My older son stands taller than my shoulder and writes his age in two numbers. Soon he’ll be gone, and then the little one will go away, too, each son taking all my heart. What will remain of me?
All loves are doomed. Nothing withstands time. The days spiral like elm seeds in a windstorm, and I wonder: Am I missing everything?
The cure for these heart pangs is a project into which you can pour life force. A chalice. And so the rust-colored rock calls me.
Jeff Jackson is Editor-at-Large for Rock and Ice.