Champ, my thirty-six-year-old Volkswagen Bus, had her speedometer pegged at sixty miles per hour, as fast as she could go at this altitude. I was around fifty miles outside of Wendover, Nevada. So far I had seen only a handful of cars since leaving I-80 and not even a house since Toole, Utah. I was truly in the middle of nowhere. It was not a good place to break down. I was on my way to Bishop, California where I had an internship as a rock-climbing guide waiting for me. As I kept my eyes peeled for roaming herds of sheep crossing the “highway,” my thoughts drifted back to the unforgettable week I had spent climbing, camping, and exploring in the Wasatch Mountains.

Champ in the High Sierra ©Isaac Tait

My adventure began with an overnight trek from California to Salt Lake City, fueled by copious amounts of caffeine. I was headed to Salt Lake City to get my Wilderness First Responder (WFR) Certification, which I needed for liability reasons for my internship with Sierra Rock Climbing School. As I battled traffic on the I-15 into Salt Lake I was awestruck by the scenery. The Wasatch Mountains were awesome – shrouded in mist, dusted with fresh snow, and green, tree-studded grasslands streaming from the foot of the mountains like a royal cape. It was unlike anything I had ever seen in California, so fresh and free of smog. Although it was early June it was unbelievably cold (another new experience for a California kid). I had foolishly decided not to hook up the heater pipes in Champ before I left home, so I had no choice but to bundle up and wipe the condensation off the inside of my window every few minutes.

The WFR class was on the beautiful, yet expensive, University of Utah campus, which I discovered by paying one hundred and eighty dollars in parking fines. Not too far from the campus I found an amazing campsite set among aspen trees, flowing creeks, blooming wildflowers, and beautiful snow-covered mountains. Every night I had the entire campground to myself. I have not seen that many stars in a long time. The peace and serenity that surrounded this place was a breath of fresh air that I desperately needed. I had just spent the last four months attending college, miserable and thinking of ways to convince fellow classmates to ditch class to go climbing while at the same time figuring out how to hide my deplorable grades from my parents.

On my first day in WFR class I met Tyler, a Salt Lake City native, who offered to show me around some of the “local” climbing spots. I was more than happy to climb with a local and so every day after class Tyler and I would drive out to Little Cotton Wood Canyon, or the lesser-known outlying areas and climb till well after sunset.

Isaac and Champ

Oh sh** a cattle guard!!!

My attention was rudely diverted back to the highway in front of me, I had a run in with a cattle guard on the way to the Buttermilks earlier that year that had almost set Champ on fire. The worn out shocks rattled over the cattle guard and the engine sputtered a few times and then finally died out. I pulled over and opened up my engine hatch to see fuel leaking profusely from my carburetor. I spent the next hour removing and rebuilding my carburetor. Thankfully, once I had it back in Champ fired up on the first try. Back on the road the drum of asphalt droned beneath my tires and once again my thoughts drifted back to my last few days in Salt Lake City.

It was frigid morning – Champ took twenty minutes to warm up it was so cold. I was driving down Route 65 squinting through my frosted windows. It had snowed the night before and the roads were covered with ice. I came around a corner and there was bicyclist laying in the middle of the road. What kind of idiot would be riding a bike on roads in this conditions? I was having a hard enough time staying on the road with all the ice and snow. I jammed on the brakes trying to stop before pummeling the motionless biker, almost careening off the steep cliff on the edge of the road. As I slid closer the biker suddenly scrambled to his feet, throwing his bike off the road, probably motivated to his feet by my screeching tires. As I slid past the bicyclist he made a motion for me to keep going. So I put Champ back into gear and putted down the road, thankful for a happy ending.

Isaac Following Pitch 3 on Unnamed Route

Later that day after class Tyler and I went out to a locals only crag that shall go nameless, on the pain of my death. As the sun dropped below the horizon I spotted an inspiring sport route. A fine little 5.10a with bat guano splattered all over the face (not a bad way to finish the day). I was up about fifteen feet and clipping the second bolt when the hold in my left hand ripped off and I plummeted to the ground. I hit the deck with a solid thud. It was the first ground fall I had taken in my sixteen long years of climbing. Thanks to the combination of an attentive belayer, a thick bed of pine needles, and the rope tension from the first bolt I was not injured, just surprised. I attempted to climb the route again but my nerves were shot, so we cleaned it and headed back to Tyler’s place.

Every morning Tyler and I would drive Champ to class and afterwards we would go climbing. I began to understand why people would leave everything behind to go live in Yosemite Valley for an entire season. Forget about school, work, rent, and bills. I had barely enough food, a negative balance in my checking account, and a disconnected cell-phone. I had never been happier. I had what I needed, just barely. Every night I would go to sleep listening to a babbling creek or crackling campfire. I would look at all the stars and ponder what possessed someone to work fifty to sixty hours a week at a job they hate, to get stuck in car payments, a mortgage, and other ridiculous toys. I was perfectly happy with no money and an aging 1969 VW Bus that all my earthly possessions could fit inside. This is the way I was meant to live, not at some boring desk job dreaming about the weekend when I would maybe be lucky enough to get out to and go climbing for a day or two.

Hillside Covered in Daisies ©Isaac Tait

As I squinted my eyes into the sunset still three hundred miles from Bishop, my mind was filled with these memories of adventures and friendships that I would not soon forget. They had all been tied into one obsession of mine: climbing. Maybe it was unhealthy for me to drop everything to pursue this one thing, but contentment and joy had eluded me for years, and I felt like I was finally getting closer to finding them. I was on a quest for meaning and I could not contain my anticipation to see what fate had in store for me over the next pass, sliding down a slippery road, or finding out how vicious gravity can be.

 

Authors Note: I originally wrote these articles when I was twenty years old. I have since grown a little wiser, gotten married, bought a brand new Honda, and work a 9-5 desk job. I couldn’t be happier. It’s funny how things change.

My First Camping Trip with Champ ©Isaac Tait
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