When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a Firefighting Border Patrol Agent Dog Trainer Engineer Physical Therapist Who Sells Weed


There are some who would say that job hunting while living out of the passenger’s seat of a Subaru in the middle of the Southwest desert is not the best place to job hunt. And while they would technically be correct, this has not stopped me from conducting informational interviews with nearly everyone we’ve met along the way.

Quizzing the people I meet at climbing areas on what they do to maintain their climbing habit predates my current jobless state. However, unemployment has undeniably increased the fervor with which I ply these people with questions.

Multipitch climbing does not, for the most part, lend itself to meeting new people. In an ideal world (according to the handbook of serious climbers), if you are unimaginative enough to be on a climb popular enough to have several other parties on it, by the time your leader reaches the next belay ledge, the follower from the party ahead has already left. And vice versa for a party behind you. This allows you to maximize the illusion that you are alone on the rockface going mano-a-mano with nature.

This perfect system breaks down when the party in front is slower than the party behind. And it really breaks down when the party in front gets their rope stuck rappelling the pitch the other party is climbing. This was how we met Dan and Monica at the bottom of pitch 3 of The Nightcrawler. 

They were cruising up the climb. Dan, a slight, mustached man joined us on the ledge as we began pulling our rope. It became clear that our rope was stuck, so we chatted with him while his partner, Monica, a short haired woman with glasses followed the squeeze chimney pitch.

We complemented Dan on the speed with which he was ascending. He explained that he was training to climb Cloud Tower in another three weeks by going up every corner system he could find in the park. Cloud Tower is the climb that keeps me motivated when I start to think that trad climbing is a needlessly scary and reckless pastime. Last winter, I’d made it ten feet from the top (thanks to Dante’s ability to lead the harder pitches. I’d failed ten feet from the top because of my foolish decision to lead the last pitch which went at 5.11c, over a grade above my hardest successful trad lead at the time). While The Nightcrawler is a far cry from Cloud Tower, learning that a route I’d just led was being used as someone else’s training made me think I might one day be ready to go back and try to lead the harder pitches of Cloud Tower myself.

Small talk out of the way, I asked Dan what he did for a living that allowed him to climb in Red Rocks on a weekday in November. He explained that he was completing PT school. This magical-sounding school involved a rotation that had placed Dan and Monica in a series of locations no more than half an hour from some of the best climbing in the USA. They were currently based in Vegas. Before that, they’d been living in Bishop, and their next stop was St. George. By now, Monica had joined us. She’d studied mechanical engineering at Yale and currently works remotely, allowing her to move with Dan. While working remotely as a mechanical engineer is probably not in the cards, a PT school that necessitates living near some of the best climbing areas in the USA doesn’t sound too bad.

The next interview I conducted with the woman waiting on us at a place that advertises itself as the world’s largest weed dispensary (in case the people conducting Sarah’s background check are reading this, Sarah did not come with me on this adventure. The “us” refers to a handful of friends from New Haven). While my friends asked her about the effects of various different gummies, hard candies, and cannabis-laced beers, I asked her what the hiring process was like for her job.

It had involved the typical interview followed by a drug test. “To test if she used weed,” her husband had joked at the time. She’d then had to complete a weeklong course which educated her in the science of weed and the specific products sold in the store.

“Are you hiring?” One of my friends asked. Everyone laughed at his joke, but I had been contemplating asking the question seriously moments before. His joke brought me to my senses. While it would be great to live near Red Rocks and go climbing whenever I wasn’t selling tourists gummy bears with a one to one THC to CBD ratio, the fact remains that I’m not a huge fan of weed or customer service jobs. If those qualities didn’t render me unhirable, chances were I’d come to hate the job. On top of that, I’d be stuck living in Las Vegas.

After Vegas, Sarah and I shivered our way through Utah and into northern New Mexico. On November 27, we woke up just outside Diablo Canyon, a crag that claims to have some of the best climbing in New Mexico. It was 15 degrees when the sun hit our tent. All of my water bottles had frozen shut. Our normal routine for climbing involves making breakfast, packing for the day, and heading out in short succession. On this day, we finished getting ready and sat in the sun for another hour drinking coffee and wearing all of our warm layers. Not long after we hit the crag, a couple who looked to be in their mid 30s approached us. Matt and Amber were the only other people staying at the crag campground. We chatted briefly while Matt warmed up on my intended project for the day. They then left to try some harder routes in the nearby cave.

In the evening, as Sarah and I were making dinner, Amber approached and invited us to join them by their fire. It was another frigid night. They could have been serial killers, and we probably would have agreed. 

At the fire, we had the opportunity to find out more about what they did that allowed them to take the month of November off to climb. Amber owns a dog training company in Durango where they live. Being a business owner with a couple employees allows her to tailor the time she takes off to fit Matt’s schedule. I have a fear bordering on phobeia of dog saliva, so I quickly ruled this out. 

Matt is a firefighter for Farmington, a conservative town in northern New Mexico. His department has them on a two day on, four day off schedule. He’s able to trade shifts with friends. If he gets a single shift covered, he gets ten consecutive days off. He and Amber have made a habit of taking November off to climb and have gone to exotic climbing destinations ranging from Thailand to South Africa. On top of that, Matt gets healthcare through his job. I’ve never been particularly oriented toward making a lot of money; all I really ask out of a job is the flexibility to climb and health coverage when I’m old. Firefighting sounded perfect.

Sure, I’d probably be one of only a few women at the station (in Matt’s case there were no women working at his station) and I had a history of asthma which might not combine well with hanging around fires, but what was a little discomfort in exchange for a lifetime of climbing and healthcare? On top of that, it wasn’t like firefighters were answering calls 24/7 during shifts. Matt had seen all the latest movies and had plenty of time leftover to workout and nap. I could get a masters and finally achieve my dream of having a six pack all while collecting a paycheck.

Matt, sensing that there was more to my questions than polite interest, suggested that wildland firefighting might be an even better option for a climber looking for steady (but not too steady) employment. Wildland firefighters work from May to September or so, and make enough to live the rest of the year. Depending on the level of risk your specific branch of wildland firefighting requires (anything from preventative brush clearance to jumping out of a plane to fight fires inaccessible by roadways), you could make quite a good living. While I appreciated that Matt was trying to help, this sounded less appealing than regular firefighting for two main reasons: 1) I’d met a wildland firefighter earlier on the trip and he did not have health coverage during the part of the year when he was not working and 2) I was much more likely to die working as a wildland firefighter. Dying in the line of duty appeared nowhere on my list of job requisites.

Firefighter now ranking at the top of my list of potential jobs, we headed south toward El Paso, TX and the Carlsbad Caverns. The National Border Patrol Museum had drawn us to El Paso, a partched city at the westernmost tip of Texas. It’s a tiny museum, more like a PowerPoint you can walk through than anything else. We wandered through border patrol paraphanelia of the past century and read plaques informing us that border patrol’s original purpose had been to keep Chinese from entering the country illegally.

To the right of the exit, a large poster board read, “Interested in a career in law enforcement?” Below were pamphlets about the process and benefits of becoming a border patrol agent. “Not a desk job” it read in large font across the front. I pictured a lifetime of wearing a green uniform and sunglasses, holding a giant German Shepard, stopping cars at checkpoints across the southwest (preferably checkpoints within 60 miles of a killer climbing destination) and asking drivers if they were American citizens.

Definitely not a customer service job, but also not a job that would get me killed, hopefully. A government job, so medical benefits and a pension. The application process involved many steps: an application, a written test, a physical test, a polygraph, and then time at the border patrol academy if all went well. I could already do 20 push-ups in 60 seconds, so I figured I had this job in the bag.

I called my parents to tell them their baby was going to be serving her country as a border patrol agent.

“Yo creo que es una buena idea,” (it’s a good idea) my father said.

My mother, however, was even less enthusiastic than she’d been when I’d called earlier in the trip to tell them I was going to be a firefighter and she’d reminded me about my childhood asthma. 

“Yo creo que es una buena idea,” my father repeated. He offered no further explanation. It’s often hard to take him seriously. This is the man who used to yell “brinca” (jump) whenever my sister and I were climbing on the roof of the garage as kids.

As I compared the relative weight of my parents’ differing opinions, I continued reading about the benefits of life as a border patrol agent. Compared to firefighters, they didn’t get much time off at all!

My mom was right, I decided. Being a border patrol agent sounded pretty lame. 

As Sarah and I headed east, watching desert turn to swamp and menu items become increasingly deep fried, I remained directionless as ever. But at least I’d ruled out becoming a firefighting border patrol agent dog trainer engineer physical therapist who sells weed.

Stuck

“Come on!” I heard Sarah grunt, followed by manic scraping, the sound of the cam being bludgeoned by her nut tool (a hooked piece of metal used to remove gear stuck in the rock) and labored breathing. 

And then silence.

“Ceri, it’s stuck. I don’t think it’s coming out.”

I’d never had to leave behind a piece of gear because it was stuck and had trouble believing this was the case. Plus, chances were it was my fault if it was stuck, and I did not like what this said about my ability to place trad gear. 

Was it stuck or did it have yet to move? I wondered. If you had the right attitude, maybe nothing ever seemed stuck. And all glasses of milk were half full.

Positive thinking, however, would not change the fact that it was now 2:30 pm. Sarah had been struggling with this cam for over an hour. I was cold from lack of movement, and we were running out of daylight.

“That’s fine,” I called down to Sarah, “I can try to get it when we rappel.”

We climbed one pitch higher and assessed our situation. I wanted to continue up the next pitch of the climb which was described as “exciting.” Sarah thought we should head down given our limited daylight and the fact that our first rappel ran the length of a rope-eating crack, perfect for getting our rope stuck when we pulled it to begin the next rappel. With all the grace of someone whose ego-fueled desire to reach the top is telling her to continue, I acquiesced to Sarah’s plan.

We set up our double rope rappel and made it down to the top of the pitch with the stuck cam. We began pulling the rope now anchored over 120 feet above. We heard a whoosh as the rope descended toward us, then a slap as it contacted the rock 20 feet above. I gave the rope a tug, expecting it to continue its downward trajectory. It didn’t budge from the crack. I gave it a flick and another tug but still nothing. Sarah made a similar attempt with similar results. I gave it a series of exasperated tugs, each one lodging the rope deeper in the crack. We then conceded that our rope was stuck (or at least had yet to move and seemed unlikely to given our current efforts). Which meant that we were also stuck.

“Let’s just cut it,” Sarah said. I shook my head. While that was the quickest way out of our predicament and the lowest risk, it would reduce Sarah’s rope to a half rope only fit for the gym.

Our other option was to lead climb back up to where it was stuck and throw it down. This would involve re-climbing the most difficult section of the route, but I was fairly confident I could do it safely and not willing to classify the rope as irretrievably stuck. My pride wouldn’t stand for it.

“Are you sure? It’s my rope. I’m fine with it.” Sarah is incredibly safety conscience, a quality I value in a climbing partner, but also a quality that constantly leaves me feeling like I’m being reckless and pushing the boundaries of what is sane.

I had Sarah put me on belay on the other end of the rope and proceeded to climb back up the crack, plugging gear to protect myself from a fall and using the gear slings as hand holds to make climbing easier. I got back up to where the rope was stuck. It had doubled over itself and caught in the crack. Beneath it lay a graveyard of abandoned rope segments, a testament to the many before us whose ropes had been eaten alive by the crack.

I threw the rope down to Sarah and was then faced with the choice of building an anchor and lowering, or climbing back down the 20 feet I’d just gone up, pulling the gear meant to protect me as I went. The first was a safer option but one that would require leaving behind a couple pieces of gear. It should not be difficult to guess which option I chose.

Lowering myself over the bulge was the scariest part. I unclipped my top cam, which would be out of reach once I lowered. My next cam was at my feet. I reminded myself that this was no different than a potential fall while lead climbing. I would fall twice the distance to the next cam. I might be bruised, but I would 100% still be alive at the end of it. 

Learning to trad climb with a modicum of confidence has been a series of finding myself in situations like this where my brain says, “oh, shit, we’re gonna die!” and I start to panic. In these moments, I have to slow my breathing and remind my brain that falling does not equate to death because, unlike Alex Honnold, I’m attached to a rope.

I jammed my fist into the crack and lowered myself on that arm until I could grab the sling of the cam below. With tentative, cautious movements, I made my way back down to the belay ledge. Sarah thanked me for the intact retrieval of her rope, noting that it was good we had turned around when we did so we could carry out Mission Impossible: Rope Retrieval in the light.

Our next discussion was how best to retrieve the stuck #3 cam. The rappel had taken us to lookers right of the cam. Getting there would require a lateral traverse of at least 25 feet. I’d then need to anchor myself with another cam to keep from penduluming across the rock face. I played out the physics in my mind, watching myself careen uncontrollably when I made a misstep on the traverse. While I very much subscribe to a no cam left behind philosophy (a product of my incredible cheapness) and while I felt personally responsible for having gotten the cam stuck, the sun was setting. The prospect of careening through darkness was unnerving and as Sarah sagely put it, “probably not worth it.”

The cam was stuck, or at least, it had yet to move until another party with superior cam unsticking skills climbed the route and claimed it as booty.

The rest of the rappel went smoothly. The sky was a deep blue green when we reached the ground, and we hiked out in the dark.


This was only the beginning of our misadventures with getting things stuck in Red Rocks. The following day, we got our rope stuck pulling it from the top of Mushroom People. The rope wrapped around a horn protruding from the rock face and would not come down no matter how hard we tugged. Later that day, we learned that we were stuck in Vegas on our cross-country road trip until Sarah could determine if they’d refill her prescription or if she needed to return to LA for blood tests. The following day, we got the rope stuck rappelling the crux pitch of The Night Crawler and had to wait for the party behind us to climb the pitch and toss the rope down. Dan and Monica of Los Angeles were very kind and did not make us feel inept for what was clearly becoming a chronic problem.

At this point, it began to feel like everything in my life was stagnating, flat-lining, stuck. Not only were we stuck in Vegas with what seemed to be a proclivity for getting everything we owned stuck in the rock, but I was also stuck in life, unable to pick a path forward. I realized I’d felt a little stuck ever since I’d graduated from college. Up until that point in my life, I’d been on a path, making steady forward progress. Post college, I’d lost that path. I remembered a discussion with a friend who was ecstatic to have graduated and said he’d never felt more free; he could do whatever he wanted, go wherever he wanted. For me, that was the problem. But perhaps, like the cam we’d left behind, I was not stuck; I just had yet to move. My sense of stagnation was a mental state and only real as long as I believed it.

I excitedly related my breakthrough to Sarah who pointed out that walking a path, while it might not equate to stagnation, was certainly not freedom. In a sense, I was never really free.

Prescription in hand, we hit the road again, heading north to the Utah high desert.

October 10: The Art of Winning

“Did I win?” the ten-year-old boy asked as I lowered him from a climb. Baron, a sandy haired kid with a bowl cut, was my charge for an hour-long private belay session and had just finished flailing his way up a 5.7 route. I had no idea how to answer this question which was asked without a trace of irony or self-mockery.

“Uh, yes?” My eyes involuntarily darted to his mother, who was reclining on the padded floor behind us, watching her son’s every move.

I’d been about to start my own workout when Von, the gym employee who wears a button down shirt, waistcoat, bow tie, and dress shoes without fail (the gym uniform is a black t-shirt with the gym name in white letters across the front), asked if I’d be willing to do a private.

“He’s climbed outside before. He’s very advanced,” Baron’s mother informed me within seconds of our introduction. I nodded politely. I have yet to find a West LA parent who inderestimates his or her kid’s climbing ability.

“When he was four, we wanted to take him outside. The guy who was guiding us wouldn’t work with kids that young. We begged him to take Baron. He said he’d do it, but don’t expect to get your money back if he cries. Afterwards, he was amazed and said he’d never seen a kid that young climb that high.”

“Wow,” I said, nodding.

“We went to that wall they used in the movie Planet of the Apes.” Though I hadn’t seen the movie, this was one of the few walls in the LA area I’d been to, so I nodded again.

After trying on 6 different pairs of shoes (we started with size 5, his alleged shoe size, and worked our way up to 7.5), Baron and I headed over to the slab wall. It’s a slightly less than vertical wall (the opposite of an overhang), which means that the climber does more of the work with his legs. This is the wall we start most beginners on. I asked Baron which route he wanted to climb.

“Which one’s the hardest?” He asked. I indicated a 5.11b consisting of tiny red crimps and credit card feet. This, of course, was the climb Baron wanted to do.

Baron’s feet never left the ground. Eventually, I suggested we try a different route, an orange 5.8 on the same section of wall, estimating that this was near the upper limit of what he’d be able to climb.

“Which one’s the second hardest?” he asked.

“He’s stubborn,” his mom called out from where she was observing. It sounded like this was a point of pride for her.

Baron proceeded to fall off the dark blue 5.10b repeatedly. Eventually, he decided he’d climb the 5.10b with the help of an unlimited number of additional holds from other routes. He wanted to know if this still counted as climbing 5.10b. I told him it did not.

I finally got Baron to try a 5.7, which he completed with some effort. We then moved to an overhung wall. I suggested a green 5.9, but yet again, he wanted to know which climb was the hardest. I indicated a 5.11c and prayed he wouldn’t try it. Showing some sense of his own limitations, Baron selected a 5.10a instead. After failing to get beyond the first move, he agreed to switch to the green 5.9.

Baron was clearly athletic and not afraid of heights, but his technique was poor. His lack of footwork and tendency to pull with his arms meant he tired fast on the overhung 5.9. As he alternated between climbing and resting, I tried to offer tips about using his feet and balancing his weight. My success was limited. His mom came up next to us and began telling him specifically where to move his hands and feet, offering suggestions every time he seemed to hesitate.

“Mom, I’m resting,” Baron said, clearly annoyed.

“He’s so stubborn,” his mom repeated, winking at me.

“He’s strong,” I said, uncertain whether I was allowed to agree that her son was stubborn or if that was a privilege reserved for parents.

“Oh yes. He’s got legs like his daddy, strong like oak trees. And crazy upper body strength. He gets that from his dad too.” I nodded, trying to remember if I’d ever heard the phrase “strong like an oak” used outside of books and movies.

“But he’s got my agility,” she added with a conspiratorial grin. I would not have pegged this woman as agile, but judging by her tone and expression, having her agility was a good thing.

“Wow, that’s a lucky combination,” I said. Baron’s mom returned to directing her son’s every move. I considered explaining to her that she was stunting his ability to develop the problem-solving skills necessary for climbing. What will Baron do when he has to try to figure out how to get up a wall without his mom?

“Am I good?” Baron asked when I lowered him from the climb.

“Yes. Of course!” I said after only a slight pause. “Most people your age can’t climb just one color.” This seemed to satisfy him. I wondered what would’ve have happened if I’d said “no.” Would he have quit climbing on the spot? Does he only enjoy the sport because he thinks he’s good at it? What happens when he gets more into it and reads about a dude named Alex Honnold? 

In 6th grade, my math teacher told our class that there was always going to be someone out there who was smarter, faster, stronger, better in every category than we were, and that was life; we had to deal with it. At the time, I’d struggled to wrap my head around this idea. What was the point of existing if someone else could do what you were doing only better?

When I first started rock climbing at the age of 9, I’d enjoyed being good for my age and the praise I’d received, but did little to ensure steady improvement. Eventually, someone came along who was younger and better. I stopped climbing when I entered high school so I’d have more time to pursue other sports, sports for which I still received praise. When I got to levels where I no longer received praise for those sports, I quit them as well. It took a two year stint as the worst player on Yale’s varsity softball team to realize I was selecting my “passions” based on what I was good at rather than what I actually enjoyed. I guess this is more or less the future I imagine for Baron unless his mentality changes (or he becomes the next Alex Honnold).

I’m still not sure I have an answer to what the point of existing is if someone else can do what you’re doing better, but I do know that it’s not a productive line of thought. I’ve interpreted it as license to do what makes you happy.

On her son’s last climb of the session, Baron’s mom resumed her narrative of their time at Planet of the Apes wall.

“He’s fearless; he climbed 600 feet in the air, and it didn’t scare him.” The Planet of the Apes wall is a top rope wall. A standard rope is at most 70 meters, which means on a top rope route, the climber isn’t getting more than 35 meters off the ground, 115 feet. I realized then that I was being incredibly petty. We all live with our own delusions (though they might seem reasonable enough to us). What did I care if Baron’s mom thought her son had been 60, 600, or 6,000 feet off the ground? My job was to make sure the kid had a good time climbing.

I lowered Baron for the last time. Back on the ground he turned to me. “Did I struggle less than other kids on that climb?”

I’m pretty sure this was the moment where I was supposed to give him a speech about how climbing is about competing with yourself, striving to be the best that you can be, etc., etc. But I’m also pretty sure any impassioned speech I could have given, no matter how poignant and filled with introspection, would have gone in one ear and out the other as it would have for me at that age. To this day, I’m not sure I fully subscribe to the “you’re only competing against yourself” philosophy. It’s the intellectually and morally superior philosophy, but if I’m being honest with myself, I only ever use it as a crutch in situations where I know I’m not going to win.

September 12: Back to School

I couldn’t stop staring at the elaborately made up blond across the room. All the white women in the room, except for me, were elaborately made up blonds (most did not come by this blondness naturally, judging by their roots), so it wasn’t for these reasons that she stood out. The reason my eyes strayed to her whenever I thought no one else was looking was because of her arms and her lips. She had beautiful arms–toned, with large biceps and forearms. I watched enviously as they bulged whenever she reached up to play with her hair (she did this almost constantly). Her lips were also large, full beyond belief. In profile, it was hard to tell which jutted out farther, her lips or her nose. When she faced forward, I’d search her face for other signs of tampering, quickly averting my eyes whenever she felt my gaze on her.

It was day two of a semester-long class I’d signed up for at Santa Monica College (SMC). After swearing I was done with school forever, here I was, right back in it, taking a class called “Social Media Marketing.” I was inspired to do this by a job I’d interviewed for that was seeking someone with a background in social media campaigns. I didn’t get the job, lacking a background in both social media and environmental activism, but it’d gotten me to think about the world of media beyond film and television.

Someone at SMC, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that it made sense to hold this class in Malibu (45 minutes from SMC’s main campus) in order to attract a “different demographic.” When we went around the class on the first day and said where in LA we were living, the only people from Malibu were a trio of middle-aged women and a blond couple who looked to be about my age and used a shiny red convertible as their mode of transportation (the dude looked like Sean Penn’s character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High). If the demographic they were hoping to attract was white people with money, mission accomplished. SMC is still working on building its Malibu campus, so this class was held at Webster Elementary. Something I hadn’t considered before I showed up for the first day of class was how this would affect the size of the room’s furniture. My thighs were mashed against the underside of the desk. Every time I shifted position, one of the table legs would leave the ground, causing everything on the desk to slide.

Our professor had the physique of someone who goes to the gym a lot and focuses on the big muscle groups. He’s an Italian dude with a full head of silver-gray hair, and a smile that says “I was popular in high school.” On the first day of class, he wore jeans and a red collared shirt with the under armour logo. On the second day of class, he wore jeans and a navy blue collared shirt with the under armour logo. By the second day, I was beginning to sense a pattern.

On the first day, he gave us his professional life story over the course of an hour and a half. He went to business school in Vegas after moving there to spend time with his mother who, supposedly, wasn’t long for this world and needed to live in a dry climate (my mind immediately jumped to tuberculosis, but I think I was probably off base). After school, he started a business with his brother selling carts to casinos that allowed people to walk around making change for customers. These cart were rendered obsolete in 2000 by more advanced technology. At this point, his mom had lived many years past her alleged expiration date, so he moved back to Ventura, CA, where he’s originally from. He worked in marketing for a news paper until the iPhone came out, at which point he’d seen the future. He quit and started selling software. His biggest sale (which he’s mentioned at least once each class) was to Cisco. With that money (somewhere in the millions), he started a business selling ergonomically tailored chairs to large companies.

On the second day of class, we went through a powerpoint and learned a little bit more about our professor’s wife. Apparently, her idea of a night out is going to Pier 1 Imports followed by Starbucks. Our discussion then turned to Facebook. The professor pulled up the following chart:

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I was sitting at my little desk, trying to figure out what it would look like for a social media platform to know you as well as a spouse, when I heard the professor ask if anyone had any questions. He stopped pacing and stared directly at me. I guess I looked like I had a question.

Me: “Uh, what does that even look like? Like Facebook knows you as well as a spouse?”

This launched him into a scenario where the two of us were married and his mother, my mother-in-law, wanted to know what to get me for Christmas. In this scenario, I loved going to Olive Garden, so he suggested a gift card to that illustrious establishment. I was momentarily distracted by the thought that I needed to find a husband who knew me better. The big takeaway was that Facebook would also know this info about my spending habits. So I guess his mom, my mother-in-law, could have saved herself time and asked Facebook instead. The professor concluded with the idea that after 500 likes, Facebook knows you better than you know yourself, which is more or less equivalent to knowing what you’re going to do before you do it. I was starting to feel like we were living in a Christopher Nolan movie.

Our discussion of Facebook and its relationship to us ended when the professor asked me what my name was. I said, “Ceri.” This, of course, autocorrected in his brain to “Siri,” and a gray haired woman a few rows down started talking about the voice in her iPhone. At this point, I turned back to my fellow classmates for entertainment. Sean Penn was watching a video of someone surfing, dimming his screen every time the professor paced to our end of the room. On the first day, I’d pegged him as a surfer because of his long blond hair and tanned, stringy physique, so I felt somewhat vindicated. The elaborately made up blond on the other side of the room was running her fingers over her impossibly large lips. Maybe they were new.

September 8: Grounded

I’d been ignoring the nagging pain in my left shoulder since the end of the trip. I finally went to see a medical professional about it on Tuesday. After jerking my arm in various directions, Dr. Rosenzweig’s assessment was that I needed to stop climbing until my shoulder stopped hurting. While this might sound logical, in the moment, sitting on the examination table, I struggled to follow his line of reasoning.

Me: So, I should take a few days off, pop some Advil, and then I can climb?

Dr. Rosenzweig (struggling to figure out how to explain this since I clearly wasn’t getting it): Um, no. You should give your shoulder a chance to heal. Then rehab it through physical therapy. Once it’s strong, you can go back to climbing.

Me: So I can go back next week?

Dr. Rosenzweig: If it doesn’t feel better in a month, call the office, and we can schedule a cortisone shot. If that doesn’t work, surgery is the last option.

Me: So if I climb, but make sure I don’t do anything that makes it hurt, I’m good?

Dr. Rosenzweig (having had enough): We want to nip this in the bud.

I’m now on a diet of anti-inflammatory medication, regularly heating my shoulder to “stimulate healing,” and I start physical therapy on Monday. When I want to wallow in self-pity, I think about the irony of working at a climbing gym, having free gym membership for the first time in my life, and being unable to use it.

Now that I’m grounded, I’m having to seek other forms of exercise, exercise that doesn’t involve raising my left arm above my head. Imaginatively, I’ve come up with hiking, biking, and running. Biking has risen above the other options because it doubles as a legit form of transportation, dovetailing nicely with my desire to spend as little on gas as possible. And save the planet, of course.

I’d always thought of biking as a fairly unskilled form of exercise. It turns out this assumption was not entirely correct. I’m slowly learning how and when to shift gears on the janky bike my dad found on the side of the road (our family’s only bike. It has one of those baskets on the back for carrying things, a nice feature, but I can’t figure out how to lower the seat). I’m pretty sure that, as a biker on city streets, I’m supposed to obey the same rules as cars. I try to do this as much as is convenient for me. I’m also still unclear about what arm gestures I’m supposed to make to indicate right and left turns. I’m a little afraid to learn these arm gestures because if any involve raising my left arm above my head, that will eliminate biking as a form of exercise. So far, I haven’t hit or been hit by anything. I’m starting to think the Tour de France might be in my future.

My father’s bike and I are an unstoppable team, making our way all over the west side of Los Angeles (usually no more than a 5 mile radius from the house). Yesterday, we biked to the bank to close out a checking account where they’d started charging me a monthly fee. I had to wait to be seen by a bank official, for which I was thankful because it gave me time to stop sweating. Through my interaction at the bank, I learned that really all they want to do is keep you on as a customer. The woman I spoke to quickly came up with three different ways for me to keep an account with them without paying a monthly fee (one involved claiming I’d be in school for another four years, allowing me to open a new college checking account).

Post-bank, I decided to reward myself with an espresso drink at the Caffe Luxxe across the street (one of a long list of LA coffee places that have passively rejected me over the course of the past month). Sadly, there was nothing in it for the bike, but I think it understood. When I enter coffee shops, I try to hang back because it takes me time to go through the drink offerings and pretend like I’ll choose something new and exotic this time, before finally settling on an almond milk cappuccino. The place was pretty empty when I walked in, which meant that the baristas noticed me immediately. I stayed back, hoping they would take this as a cue that I wanted to mull over my decision, but I think they read it more as fear. One of them, a guy with glasses, who I would later learn was named Preston, called out to me, asking if I wanted anything. In an effort to appear well-socialized, I took several steps forward and told him I was considering my options. After anther minute of careful consideration, I ordered an almond milk cappuccino. Preston didn’t ring me up; he just started making the drink. After pulling out my credit card, I had nothing to do but wait. I felt awkward waiting for Preston to make my drink in silence, so I brought up the first thing that popped into my head.

Me: You guys sell liquid soap?

There was no reason to phrase this as a question since they were quite obviously selling soap, and it was quite obviously in liquid form. Either that, or it was an art installation designed to be reminiscent of a soap display case. Thankfully, it is the job of all baristas to engage with their customers, no matter how pitiful their attempts at small talk. My comment led to a discussion of all the non-coffee-related items for sale in the store and a recommendation that I try a sample of their hand cream.

I watched with envy as Preston confidently poured dollops milk into a thick, creamy shot of espresso. When he finished, he’d transformed the dollops of milk into the classic leaf-shaped latte art. I offered him my credit card, but he shook his head. “This one’s on me.” I did my best to keep from grinning and thanked him. I sat down on the far side of the cafe with my self-help book, feeling incredibly special. This day kept getting better and better. Free checking account, free cappuccino. I was on a roll, and it was all due to the awesomeness I was evidently exuding.

After reading for an hour or so, my concentration was interrupted when I heard Preston say, “It’s on me.” My back was to the counter, so I couldn’t see who he was gifting a free coffee drink to. Needless to say, that put me back in my place. Still, a free coffee is a free coffee, regardless of whether or not validation of your existence comes with it.

 

September 1: Day Job

They talk about coffee in terms of waves (kind of like feminism). There’s first wave coffee, which is the approach you find in diners–they brew a pot of coffee with faint turpentine undertones and leave it on a heating pad until it evaporates. Then in the 60s you get places like Peet’s and Starbucks opening. These nationwide chains are the second wave of coffee. Third wave coffee consists of the small, artisanal shops that talk about roast flavor profiles using terms like “floral” and “peach cobbler.” I know this info thanks to “Barista,” a documentary I watched with my aunt about the national barista competition. Apparently, there are no limits to what can be made into a competitive sport.

After a google search titled “how to become a barista,” I concluded that if I was going to get a job in coffee without ever having held a job in the field, it would likely be at one of the second wave places. I got really excited when, last week, I received an email from a manager at Peet’s saying he’d like to interview me. We agreed on a time for the phone interview, 12pm last Friday. I trained for the interview. I rode my bike to the local Peet’s and sampled their offerings (on a total side note, putting condensed milk in coffee seems to be a new fad in the commercial world. I’ve been visiting coffee shops all over LA in recent weeks, and many, including Peet’s, are offering beverages with names like “Havana Cappuccino” or “Cuban Coffee” that contain a mixture of regular and sweetened condensed milk. It kinda seems like the antithesis of the almond/soy/coconut milk fad). The soy cappuccino I had at Peet’s was not too sweet. I was confident that, if asked, I’d be able to list Peet’s beverages I liked and what I liked about them. I rehearsed my answer about why I wanted to work at Peet’s, a combination of loving coffee and needing a job. Despite Urth Caffe’s rejection, I was hopeful that this would be my break. The Peet’s manager would realize that I was a levelheaded, diligent person with a sincere love of coffee, and would hire me on the spot.

Like most of my fantasies, it didn’t play out this way in real life.

12pm last Friday came and went, and the manager never called. I sent a follow up email, and we rescheduled for 12pm the following Monday. 12pm Monday came and went, and I received no call. At this point, I had to conclude it wasn’t an accident. What perplexes me is that the manager reached out to me presumably to fill a position that needed filling. Isn’t he interested in filling that position? Has he already filled it but has some social phobia that prevents him from telling me that this is the case? If not, what’s going on? I sent him an email asking if the position was still available and am waiting to hear back.

I’m not naive. Like any person who aspires to something lofty, difficult, and creative, I’ve come up with a backup plan in case my caffeine-laden dreams never come to fruition. In other words, I have a day job. Though Yale didn’t prepare me for the world of professional coffee, it turns out there’s one thing my time at that institution prepared me for exceedingly well–belaying children at birthday parties. I’ve applied to over 20 different barista jobs and one climbing gym, and it’s the climbing gym that called me back and offered me a job. The manager remembered me from eight years ago when I was last on the youth team at the gym. I was mildly flattered until my mom said it was likely the manager remembered me because I’d been dropped off the top of a climbing wall while at practice.

I showed up at the gym for training yesterday and was directed to Cameron, a bubbly dude who excelled at word play. I asked for some paper for note-taking purposes, and he handed me two sheets of yellow-orange paper, which he said were “bright like me.” I was caught by surprise and unable to come up with a suitably self-deprecating reply. My typical policy for new situations is don’t display personality until you’re confident this is a permanent thing (I don’t think my roommates in college realized how deeply weird I was until our sophomore year), so I wasn’t in a joke-making frame of mind.

The bulk of training involved going through a checklist of do’s and dont’s–do be kind and courteous to the people you are belaying, don’t let kids do anything that looks unsafe like running on concrete or whipping each other with ropes… I’m sure there’s no end to the imaginatively unsafe things kids can do for fun in a climbing gym. We briefly made sure I was comfortable with the safety procedures required of a belayer:

Cameron: “Can you tie a figure eight knot? You can tie a figure eight knot. What’s next on the checklist?”

Me: “Uhh…”

I was toured around the birthday cake distribution area, which also doubles as a yoga studio for all the yoga classes the gym offers, the supply closet, the dumpster out back, and the area behind the desk. Cameron then took me through the typical schedule for a party at the gym. Parties run two hours. The first hour consists of climbing. There’s then a break for food. It’s easiest if the pizza and cake are served at the same time for hand washing purposes, but if the parents insist, there can be a second break for cake. If the kids are tired, the second 30-45 minute climbing session can consists of games like simon says. The max ratio of kids to belayers is 5:1, so at any given party, there’re at least two belayers. One belayer is the “party lead” and is responsible for communicating with the “party parent” about all things party.

We had just gotten to the part of training where Cameron was describing what to do if an accident report needed to be filed–turn over responsibility to the people who work the desk (this was the answer for most complicated issues)–when we heard someone cry out. Cameron rushed over to a woman who appeared to have collapsed at the base of the wall. It turned out she’d fallen with too much slack in the system, so she’d hit the ground, rolling forward onto her foot. She was in enough pain that Aric, a coach for the youth team, ended up carrying her to her car. They looked like bride and groom as they crossed the gym’s air conditioned threshold and emerged into the parking lot beyond.

Training ended soon after, and I signed up for my first shift, an after hours birthday party on Saturday. I asked what age the birthday partiers would be but whoever had booked the event hadn’t noted it. Personally, I’m hoping for an event populated by attractive, single men roughly my age. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to hope for this. If it turns out the laws of professionalism preclude this hope, then I take it back.

August 23: Fat Lizards and Free Soloing

My next climbing partner was my aunt’s personal trainer’s longtime boyfriend, David. Heading into this experience, all I knew about him was that he’d been climbing for a long time and was super into it. I think he had even less info about me and was worried that he had someone who might prove a total liability on his hands, at least this is what I surmised from the slow, careful way he explained everything on the phone. He asked me if I was comfortable leading sport. I felt bad for him because he was probably doing this as a favor to Kirschen, my aunt’s trainer, being kind to her employer’s niece.

We met at the agreed upon time and location, and hiked to a secluded pink and gold sandstone spire overlooking Malibu Canyon and the ocean beyond. It turns out David is 57 and has been climbing since he was something like 10. He played a big role in the development of the LA outdoor climbing scene (the place we went climbing was a crag that he had found and almost singlehandedly bolted) and knows most of the famous climbers who’ve come out of Southern California over the past 4 decades (because I am a climbing history ignoramus, of the many names he listed, the only one I can recite for you here is Lynn Hill).

There was a wooden bench at the base of the crag which David himself had carried in and constructed. He toured me around (the crag had climbs ranging from 5.4 to 5.11), and asked me what I wanted to warm up on. I selected a 5.9 and offered to lead it, hoping to set the record straight about my climbing abilities. The 5.9 didn’t start from the ground, so David suggested we see if I was capable of completing a boulder problem that led up to the ledge where the 5.9 started. The problem involved one kind of reachy move that I completed with ease. I think this was the moment David began to trust me.

He suggested we continue to the top of the spire following a 5.4 route. We weren’t roped. I thought about what my mom would say, but then I remembered that I was 22 years old and allegedly capable of making my own decisions. I looked at the route. It looked like the kind of thing I would have scrambled up as a kid without a second thought. It was a ladder of ledges; there was no way I would pump out on it, and I knew I could complete every move, so I said yes. Perhaps, I was being foolish. I can’t really call it peer pressure because of the disparity in our age and experience, but I was definitely guided by a desire to prove myself. For those who are concerned, though I felt secure at every point on the route, it will not be the launching point for my career as a female Alex Honnold. I prefer climbing with the knowledge that if I fall, the worst injury I’m likely to sustain is a broken bone.

David was relieved to learn that I could belay (he must be a very kind/trusting person to take me out for the day without this knowledge). In between climbs, he told me stories about LA climbing history. At one point, he pulled out a bong and asked if I minded. I was amused more than anything. At the end of the day, David gave me some life advice. Unlike many of the people he grew up climbing with, he’d gone to college and gotten a day job (as a real estate agent). The people he knows who are his age and have been climbing bums their whole lives are miserable; they didn’t make plans for a future where their joints were stiff and their recovery time was slower and they couldn’t climb as hard as they had in their youth. He described 60-year-old men who’d lost most of their teeth and lived in vans parked on the side of the highway. I was ready to get on the career train then and there.

I stopped by the condo David and Kirschen are living in while they remodel their house. Kirschen’s also in her mid 50s and has the body of someone who’s been running seriously since she was 12. She was walking around their condo in small shorts and a bikini top. She greeted me warmly when I walked in and introduced me to their fat, paraplegic lizard, Miss Dinky Doinks, who they got instead of a dog. I held Miss Dinky Doinks using two hands and marveled at the way each breath rippled through her soft, enormous stomach. Dinky blinked at me and let her tongue hang out the side of her mouth. She is an utterly charming lizard.

Before I left, Kirschen insisted I take a plum and flavored Pellegrino with me for the drive, and David offered to introduce me to other climbers in the area. He mentioned a girl my age, which sounded promising. Below is me with Kirschen and Miss Dinky Doinks:

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