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.