When They Speak to Me
by Adam Ramer
I first got into the mountains out of a sheer determination to stay alive. My high school years were dominated by substance abuse and dependency, depression, and suicidal ideation — I knew that if I wanted to heal and find peace with myself, I needed to throw myself into something dramatically different than my relatively boring and privileged upbringing in Wisconsin. Like the millions of cliches before me, I packed my bags and headed west. I ended up going to college in Montana for a year. I truly have no idea why I picked Montana — I had no close connection with anyone there, and other than one childhood snowboard trip to Colorado, I had never been west of Iowa.
The Bitterroot mountain range quickly became my closest companion. Still riddled with social anxiety and depression, I frequented the mountain trails by myself, often bringing a notebook along to journal or a book to read. Other times, I would just walk for hours in complete silence, not necessarily thinking of anything, but merely existing, urging my legs forward one foot at a time as if a metaphor for my life. If I kept walking, I was still alive.
It was in my time in Montana that I first found climbing. Unable to really make friends, and unaware of proper attire and etiquette I climbed alone at the climbing wall at the school’s recreation center, in an old pair of sneakers. I took quickly to both the physical contortions climbing required of my body, and of the mental focus used in unlocking the puzzle that is a climb. Left foot here, drop the knee, turn the hip, reach up, grab, pull, right foot, repeat. Every hour spent on the wall distanced myself from the world around me. It didn’t matter that I was failing half of my courses, for the first time in years I had found some microcosmic grain of happiness and hope within myself.
In the traditional college sense, I did not flourish in Montana. And although I never really made any close friends, I did build and find something powerful inside of me. Being outside gave me freedom. Freedom away from my mind, freedom away from the outside world, freedom away from the 2016 presidential primary that was heating up, freedom to live.
After one year in Montana, I moved backed to Wisconsin to start over once again. Out of money, and out of a new–found determination to graduate from the university in my hometown, I went back, leaving the mountains, but ready to keep growing.
South central Wisconsin stands in stark contrast to western Montana. Aside from the obvious topographical differences, I felt like a stranger in my own home. But I had a goal, and I knew to accomplish it I needed the peace and strength I had found in the mountain passes a thousand miles away. I began to drive into the country, going to as many natural areas as possible, trying to find a new sanctuary. What I decided upon, and where felt the most at home for me were the purple quartzite bluffs at Devil’s Lake State Park. These bluffs, towering above forest and a small lake, are some of the oldest geological formations in North America. At 1.5 billion years old — or 9 times younger than the birth of the universe, or 65 million times older than me— the park’s existence is a lens into the past, and a testament to what it means to survive.
Over millions of years, quartz sandstone was pressed and heated with unfathomable levels of force from tectonic shifts churning below us. Overtime, the ground eroded, and purple quartzite rocks entered the visible world. Thousands of years ago, the Wisconsin Glacier pushed south, and the bluffs were nearly flattened as the lake was carved from the ground. A hundred years ago, wealthy families from Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago stayed at resorts and hotels on the cliff’s tops and were entertained by masquerade dances, strength competitions, and circus elephants swimming in the lake — swept away with time and excavation, those buildings and elephants are now long gone. And then a few decades ago, white chalk marks began to tick the rock’s skin, as climbing entered the park. By cosmic luck, or maybe some sort of will, these outcrops have survived; they have witnessed the rise and fall of life, of destruction and creation.
These massive and ancient bluffs quickly replaced the Bitterroots as my confidant. I began to make the drive every weekend to wander. Before I met people to climb with, I would scramble up the scree and talus fields, finding a perch to sit on overlooking the lake. I found that the best time to visit the park is in the late fall. Crowds of families have families have dispersed, the park itself, with all its changing colors and fall winds, is on its best display, and the low temperatures mean that the rock has better friction for climbing.
After a while of exploring the park alone, I joined my school’s climbing club, and met people — friends even — to properly climb with. It was then I truly began to understand and comprehend the rocks under my hands, my surroundings, and my own humanity. Every few weeks, my friends and I take to the park to climb. Hauling our gear to the top of bluffs in the late fall wind, we hike up quartzite cutbacks. One foot after another. The stakes feel lower now, I’m not hiking to stay alive, I’m hiking because I am alive.
As we reach the top and set up an anchor at the top of a cliff to repel down, I look around to what’s below me and what’s around me. Exposed and hanging off the edge of the cliff I notice the intricacies of the rock. My senses align — the cracks, ridges, grooves and edges of the rock all connect in my mind, unlocking the puzzl. As I finally lower to the ground and begin up the wall, placing gear in the cracks, my mind feels the rhythmic flow of my body. Under my hands and feet, and inches away from my face, I realize that these rocks, like you and I, can speak. The scared features of their skin tell me a story of perseverance, they’ve quite literally stood the test of time, a trait I admire and now try to embrace.
When I was younger and in my darkest and most depressed states, I used to imagine, in a way, what it would be like to die. Now, I imagine what it would be like to live. Like the rocks under my hands — I dream of a powerful existence that survives time itself. The great glaciers, the changing environment, the greed and recreation of humans, all have done nothing to these bluffs. Like them, nothing can stop me from truly living.
I reach to the top and pause, craning my neck over my shoulder to look at the lake and forested valley below me; pines blow in the fall wind, colors of the fall foliage make the ground appear to be a blanket of oranges, reds, and yellows. I feel reverential. These moments, the breeze against the rock, the swaying of the trees, the slight waves on the lake, have all existed long before us climbers took to its walls, and this moment will exist long after we’re gone — I lean back into my harness and breathe.