As you can probably see, I haven’t written on this blog for a couple of weeks. There’s actually been a pretty good reason, at least one other than something limp like I was busy and didn’t have time. For one of the first times in my life I couldn’t find the words to say what I wanted say. I still can’t find them, but I need to say something.
A couple of weeks ago I went to Moab to work at a climbing camp sponsored by First Descents. In a nutshell, the camp was for young adults with cancer. No specific forms of cancer, just cancer. There were thirteen campers and about that number of staff, so all in all there were about two dozen folks milling around a super cool house for a week. My “job” was to photograph the events as they unfolded each day and basically document everyone’s week of climbing. Since I’ve been climbing for quite a few years, this kind of worked out perfectly because the guys at Colorado Mountain School could do their thing and not worry about me roaming around overhead and/or worry about me plummeting to the desert floor in front of a bunch of horrified campers.
I’ll just say here that I’m going to spare everyone every detail of the week because some of it I simply don’t want to share… it’s just too personal to both me and the people involved. But the one thing I will share, or at least try to share, is what I unexpectedly came away with as a person.
My friend Karen, who works for First Descents, told me about the camps a while back and mentioned that they oftentimes bring a photographer along for the week. So you can probably guess the chain of events that ensued from there. After I “officially” volunteered and as the time for me to go got closer, I admittedly started to get a little nervous. Not because I was afraid of the people or the vibe of a cancer camp, please, you should know me better than that. I was more nervous about whether I could relate to everyone enough on a personal level to capture for them what I hoped they were going to get out of the week. Basically I just wanted to do a good job.
So as I waited at the camp for everyone to arrive, I tried to imagine how everything would go down. Would everyone be friendly? Probably, but then again, I always give everyone the benefit of the doubt at first. Would there be a bond that I wouldn’t connect with because I don’t have cancer (and don’t want it). Would they care about climbing at all and really be into it enough to want to learn more — and give me good photo ops? Would they be pissed about me running around like an out of control lunatic all week snapping their pictures at every turn? And for me, would there be things that were taboo to talk about and should I be careful about hitting touchy subjects if I happened to be curious and ask questions about their experiences?
Well, I got answers to all those questions, and more, much more.
Over the week I had the chance to hang out with everyone, a lot. I was so fortunate at times to talk one-on-one about things I just couldn’t have imagined. I’d share terms related to climbing like locking ‘biner, harness, belay, rappel, toprope, dynamic ropes, static ropes, etc, etc and in return learn terms like breast cancer, ovarian cancer, leukemia, ports, radiation, bone marrow transplants, and various other things. The beautiful thing was that if I was curious, I could ask. I don’t know if they’d talked about things so much that it seemed routine, but some things seemed so personal and I was deeply touched that they would trust me with their words. I was totally blown away with the way everyone opened their hearts and were so willing to share their lives and experiences.
That being the case, my nerves about being able to get into the vibe of the week vanished. It was like traveling to a foreign country for me (one of my favorite things!). I got totally immersed and was so totally “into” the week that taking pictures became personal. Personal in that I had an emotional attachment to everyone and I could now hopefully take photos that reflected their individual personalities. There are certainly some photos that do just that, but they are the final judge. Please be gentle Stiletto.
In the end the photos turned out to be such a small part of my week. Again, without getting into too much detail, I’ll give you just a couple of examples as to why this was likely the most personally influential week I’ve ever had.
Late one night, I was talking to one particular person, and I won’t say who, but I will tell you she is young, energetic, beautiful inside and out and a phenomenal photographer. We talked a lot about life in general, but one thing I was so flattered with was that she shared some of her thoughts about how she felt as if she was sitting on top of the world one day and getting slapped down with a diagnosis of cancer the next. I was seriously so teary just thinking about how that scenario played out. We talked about things like fear, moving forward, how some of her friends reacted and most importantly, how she reacted. Her incredible passion for life was right there in front of me, just waiting to get out and I am so touched that I got to share in a little of that. Mostly I was honored that she trusted me with her words. And if you’re reading this, I will never break that trust. I promise.
Then, on another evening I was talking to someone else and it started to make me think about my own life, the way I live and the things I do. I was telling her that climbing is always scary and I actually kind of like that, but when I get too scared, I can always just lower off, untie and go home. But when you get a diagnosis of cancer, you can’t just walk away and go home. From that point you either choose to fight, or not. There is no lowering off. I have to admit that just thinking about that as we talked made me so sad that she had to face that fear, sad for everyone there, and I couldn’t help but get teary. Then, she looked me directly in the eyes and said, “it’s okay if you cry“. So I did. Those tears truthfully weren’t solely from sadness and fear, but from the fact that I had been accepted into a family of people who the word extraordinary doesn’t even come close to describing. I was completely and totally overwhelmed with the love that this camp harboured. Thank you so much for everything…and you know who you are too.
The other thing I loved so much was as the week progressed the smiles got bigger and the bond between everyone got tighter with every passing second. I even mentioned this to one person in particular and she seemed surprised that I would have noticed that. Boy, she has a lot to learn about me! But I noticed it in her the most so I thought I’d mention it. Soooo sweet and such an amazing person. She went from being tentative and slightly reserved to, dare I say, aggressive on the rock and was always in the mix when things got crazy in the evenings — which was a lot. She was totally crushing it. And if you’re reading this, please let me know how things are going. I’ve been thinking about you a lot and hope everything is okay. And thanks for the tough love you doled out on me. I loved it!
Okay, I’m getting sidetracked so back to my point. Because I’m pretty much a solitary type person, I had already planned before I got to the camp to sleep out in my truck. If you’ve read through this blog for a while then you’ve seen the pimped out system I have for spending my evenings in the camper shell! So late one night (about 02:00) I was sitting out under the stars thinking about everything that was happening. I was finding that no matter how hard I tried I simply couldn’t reconcile how the positive, loving vibe could be so strong here and why everyone, and I mean everyone, was just spilling love from every pore. It so easily could have been a total bummer of a week, but it wasn’t, not even close. That’s when I started looking around on the internet for my new photog friend’s blog on my Mac (yep, on my tailgate, gotta love WiFi). Fortunately, with very little sleuthing, I was able to find it. In a word, amazing. But that’s not the point here. What is the point is that as I was reading through her personal blog I noticed that she had a few pictures of herself before, during and after her diagnosis.
It was one photo of her in particular that caught my eye. It was one I assume that was taken during chemo. She is gazing out over the city through a window of a hospital, short hair, and she had this amazing “look” in her eyes. It was right then that it hit me what was going on there at that camp and why there was so much love and just so damn much happiness to be shared. It’s the spirit within. I could see it so clearly in her eyes. It was, and is, so clear. She and everyone else there had it. It is honestly one of the most beautiful photos I’ve ever seen and it showed me so much about my own life and journey. It’s the spirit that must perpetually push forward to make life meaningful and she never let it go. I can see where it may have been temporarily put on the back burner during the really scary times, but fortunately the flame never went out, and that’s why we could sit and talk like we did that night. The eyes don’t lie. She has it and I know in my heart it will manifest itself into something beautiful. It’s already evident in her photos and in the people who are fortunate enough to know her. I will never see the world the same because I now have new eyes; the eyes of all those exceptionally beautiful people there in Moab that week. Thank you.
Okay, before I get all weepy again, which I’ve done every single day since I left Utah, I’ll move this along.
During my week in Moab, I saw pure courage like I’ve never seen. I witnesses determination that is unfathomable to mere human beings. I saw sincere care about one another that is rare under any circumstances. I experienced openness of heart and soul like I’ve never experienced. And I saw pure and unfiltered love between 25 individuals that I’ll likely never see again.
One evening on the drive back from the climbing venue de jour, the fellas from CMS and I talked a little about the cool, energetic vibe and how special everything seemed that week. They naturally felt it too. But let me back up and say a couple of things about them. Number one, these are four phenomenal guys, on and off the rock. They conducted themselves so professionally when we were climbing that I couldn’t help but notice that everyone trusted them 100%, without question. I’ve been climbing quite a while and I was blown away with their efficiency, expertise and teamwork. Just amazing. But what I think was most special to me is that they “got it” on a personal level right from the start. They felt the vibe and saw what was transpiring with the human spirit and went with it…and were a HUGE part of it. I wish I could find more words here to explain the energy, but it took every individual to make the week go off and they contributed an enormous amount with their hearts and souls. And I can’t thank those guys enough for hooking me up with some awesome systems to do my work, trusting me with helping them a little from time to time and just being amazing friends who were willing to open up personally and let me do the same.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe everyone brought their individual souls and energy to Moab and when they melded together it formed an energy that can undoubtedly never be duplicated. Maybe this was meant to be for all of us and things aligned perfectly. A syzygy of sorts. I’d love to think that’s what happened. And I’d like to think that everyone there came away with the deep sense of amazement, awe, love and family that I did. I honestly don’t think people can go into anything and expect it to be that magical, it just happens and you have to embrace it and cherish it when it does. Another thing I didn’t expect was to come away with 24 more people in my family…and they are truly my family. I’ve talked to everyone, some daily, since we left. It’s honestly like I’ve known them my entire life. And the funny thing is that when the week started we chose nicknames and I didn’t know anyone’s real name until the end of the week! How cool is that!
I will definitely have more entries about that week in the future, but this one sort of came to me when I was trail running this morning (more of that solitude I need and seek from time to time). It was truly that photo that got me thinking about how all these amazing friends could rally onward after what they’ve been through and spill out the love like you can’t even imagine. Again, I’ll never write the words about some things, partly because they’re private and will only be shared between those of us at the camp, but also because I don’t want to tarnish the experience by trying to explain or understand it.
It was experienced, and that’s enough.
Mouth, Fridge, Lemon, Stiletto, Cheesesteak, Mutha’, Ceasar, Klang, Slow Boat, Giggles :-), Bubbles, Lucky, Phoenix, Daryl, Daryl, Mama Ludden, Googley, Boots, Parts, Lil’ Bit, Silky, Again, Gomez, Mortisha, Satori, Wang, Karen, Dizzy…I love you guys.