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Cochise Stronghold

Photo credit: — Amalesh Parajuli
Evan Belknap and Amalesh Parajuli relax on the summit of “West World Dome”—Cochise Stronghold

 Cochise Stronghold

Evan looks down to belay Amalesh up the last pitch of “Warpaint”—Cochise Stronghold

Time on—Cochise Stronghold

—Evan Belknap

Having finished all the real world things I told myself I had to do—applying to graduate schools, managing not to completely fail the GRE, and attempting to move out of my five-year home of Prescott, Arizona (again), I set off into southeastern Arizona on a grand rock-climbing adventure. In the name of a deliberate existential life, of God, of meaning, of something greater than all this, dammit, my friend Amalesh and I gathered the essentials to be in the back country for a few weeks and disappeared into Cochise Stronghold.

Cochise Stronghold is located in the Dragoon Mountains about twenty minutes on dirt roads from Tombstone, AZ. Desert scrub and a dry, barren landscape morph into abundant grasslands. Hundreds of granite domes and spires, glowing green and blue with lichen, grow larger and larger as we approach in the fading sunlight. Bumping and smashing on the rocky road, we lose ourselves in the castles of stone. Within a few hours, we have been teleported to Africa.

Humbled and intoxicated by the miles of rock to be climbed, the thousands of canyons and nooks to be explored, the sky and space and air to be consumed, we claim our first campsite, build a fire, marvel at the stars, and finally celebrate the fact that the adventure we had created in our minds is now to be our reality for a long, long while. I bed down with Into the Wild, which my parents bought for me, saying, “Read this, but don’t do this.” I dream wily dreams full of gut-wrenching vertigo and sharp-toothed animals slinking through the bushes to eat me.

This transition from college to what my dad has been calling the “real world” seems to be a conundrum for many people like me. Many of my friends, like me, have little desire for, or faith in, the traditional career—the idea of a nine-to-five cubicle job makes us grind our teeth. So far, at least, we have been learning how to live as cheaply as possible, to get odd jobs where we can, and to embrace the good things. I wonder if that’s how it’s always been, or if this is really the end of something big. All these horrifying questions, this unease about my future, and the tweaking annoyance of my bank account continuing to dip into the double digits—it all finally floats away while I lie under the stars, warm in my sleeping bag.

In the mornings, we drink Oolong tea and eat fried eggs. We pack up our ropes and cams and nuts and slings and decide which huge chunk of rock we want to tackle and how we will go about it. We make PB&J sandwiches, pack victory beers for the summit, and begin our approach. The morning mist fizzles from ridge tops as we hop from rock to rock with our heavy packs, following drainages and tiny mossy pools full of alien creatures upward into the stronghold.

I think about the blood shed in these canyons. In the late 1800s, Chief Cochise and the Chiricahuas Apaches, while resisting the influx of colonizers from Mexico, Spain, and California, used the nooks and crannies of these canyons as their last base of resistance. For a long time, using their knowledge of the territory (and, obviously, their badass rock climbing skills), Cochise and his family held their own here. I think about how this is probably where I’ll retreat to when the world ends in a few years—throw rocks from on high at the snarling zombies. It makes me wonder how similar zombies are to colonizers. 

The sun burns off the clouds and strips us to T-shirts by early morning, and within an hour or so of sweating and panting, we arrive at the base of some beautiful batholith. We rope up, shake hands, and start climbing.

These days are magnificent. By high noon, we have pulled ourselves hundreds of feet off the ground—chicken heads, quartz dikes, crystal pockets, and alligator skin, all strange rock formations typical of this place, allow us passage into the sky. While I feed rope out for Amalesh, he climbs smoothly upward, searching for places to put protection, following the anything-but-arbitrary vertical roadmap we’ve put to memory. Once he has used up all the rope, he builds an anchor, and then pulls in the slack as I climb to his high point. Then we switch, and I am on the “sharp end” of the rope for another length, or as Royal Robbins would say, on the “thin line between fear and desire.” Amalesh and I make a good team and move quickly together; he is a frogman, able to hold onto the tiniest of holds with little fear of slipping, and I am happiest when squeezed into a steep and strenuous wide crack, the rope swaying in the wind below.

Swifts, with their white rumps and razor-sharp wings shred the air into ribbons and fly so close over our heads that we worry they’ll cut our rope. We bat away the malevolent wasps. By the time we pull over the last lip of rock, seven-hundred feet off the deck, we are wide-eyed and happily out of our minds. Munching our sandwiches and drinking our beers on the summit, we try and fail to understand this insanity that drives us to such places—whatever it is, for just a few hours, our lust for life in this seemingly paltry world is whole-heartedly fulfilled.

On the walk back to camp, the fading light comes horizontal through the golden grass. We come upon horses the size of elephants. They blend in with the savannah and the rosy rock. They wander over to us and lean down to let us pet their peachy noses. We watch the wind move in waves through the grass and through the horses’ hair. It is one of those pictures that will continue to be stuck soundly in my mind, and though I don’t want to be that guy running through a field, screaming “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!” I get it and have to resist the urge. We get back to camp by nightfall for our typical feast of beans and rice, and spicy peppers.

Weeks have passed, and we’ve moved deeper into the canyon. They say that the wilderness can be a map of our own souls, and to move into uncharted territory is to move into the unknown parts of ourselves. After all this time in the woods, my hands and fingertips have turned to leather. Cat’s claw thorns are constantly unearthing themselves from my arms and legs. Every part of my body is sore. The cumulative effect of climbing hard everyday has suddenly put in me a fear of the unknown territory of both this place and myself—that cold wind in the morning keeps me in my tent longer than usual. I finish Into the Wild and decide that I’m no Chris McCandless, that I’m a failed mountain hermit, that truly, I have a deep hankering for other people, for the energy of women, for late-night street vendors—I long for those things that I had been trying to escape in the first place.

My friend is as tired as I am. We have been out of tea and beer and sweet things for a few days, and it’s starting to wear on us. We decide to take the day off climbing. Instead we hike two miles up a canyon to bathe in the pools there, to lie in the sun. We realize that we only have a few more days for this particular adventure, and that we’ll soon have to head back to the “real world” for a while. Back at camp, as the sun fades and the air gets cold, we build one of our last campfires. Amalesh tunes up his guitar and starts to play, and I pick along on my mandolin. We sing loud, and our voices echo off the cliff faces all around.

Back in the city, I notice that the two worlds have switched. Already, I long for the real me that I was able to feel while living outside. It scares me how almost as soon as my feet are back on the ground, I begin to miss that flirtation with death, the majestic and haunting beauty of vertigo, of weightlessness. It may be an addiction, but I am intoxicated by it; everything around me thrums with a grand intensity that is hard to describe. The tedious logistics of life can, for a brief while, be laughed at.

Within a week of leaving Cochise Stronghold, I had gone to Utah, near Canyonlands, for another week-long climbing adventure, and now, back in Prescott, it has been snowing for thirty hours straight. I am finally forced to stay inside and heal the swollen holes in my hands and the knots twisting in my back. It is also time to make a little more money. As the itch for another adventure grows unbearable, I wait to see how long this cold spell will last.


Las Placitas Association plans hiking events for April

Las Placitas Association (LPA) will present two events in April. On April 21, LPA will guide residents to the top of the Crest of Montezuma. This three-to-four mile hike is strenuous and involves bushwhacking and steep ground. Walking sticks, sturdy shoes, sun hats, snacks, and water are recommended. Meet at the Placitas Post Office at 8:30 a.m.

On April 28, well-known naturalist Bill Dunmire will lead a tour of shrubs, grasses, and flowering plants in the Placitas Open Space. Bill is retired from the National Park Service and a writer and photographer on natural history topics. A plant list is available at: lasplacitas.org/lpa_pdfs/plant_list.pdf. Meet at the Open Space East Access at 8:45 a.m. For more information, visit lasplacitas.org.
 
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