I’ve scaled the peaks at mighty Yosemite. I’ve stood atop the lofty falls of Zion
National Park, a place of such beauty some call it “Yosemite in color.” I’ve skied the shimmering surface of Lake Powell. And I hated every minute of it.
For most of my life I’ve been surrounded by people desperate to get me up mountains, down holes, and into murky bodies of water. It doesn’t help that I’ve often lived in places, often through no choice of my own, of natural wonder or beauty— Southern Utah, Northern New Mexico, California’s Monterey Bay.
I thought, when I reached manhood at 18, and left the Mormons, and the Boy Scouts, and other institutions of enforced ruggedness, that I was done, finally free to be soft, urban, me.
But when, in the fall of 1991, I arrived as a freshman at the famously idyllic University of California, Santa Cruz, I was met with unmatched doses of the outdoorsiness I thought I’d left behind.
My father has many of the same issues with climbing and hiking and camping and spelunking. He was dragged into it for most of his life too. After a hardscrabble Wyoming childhood, the idea that you would deliberately beset yourself with hardship, and shun easy luxury, was beyond him.
“Why be uncomfortable,” he says, “when it’s so easy to be comfortable?”
It’s a sentiment I share. But he, unlike me, was often skilled at the manly tasks he was forced into. He’s got that pre-baby-boomer sense of Renaissance manhood. Yes, you had to hold a gun to his head to get him to pitch a tent, but you can be damn sure that tent would be well-pitched, stiffly staked to the ground and possibly containing its own working toilet.
I have none of these skills. And also, unlike my father, I’m an immense pussy.
I’m afraid of just about everything, especially if the everything is outside. From heights, to depths to sneaky raccoons.
I chose UC Santa Cruz because it was in a medium-sized and alternative-minded college town that was not too far from my Los Angeles home. Also I didn’t get into Berkeley.
I had paid my lone visit to the school during the previous spring break, and chose the college I where I wanted to live (UCSC, like Oxford, has separate little “colleges” within the university, where you live in your own little themed community) based not on the people walking around it but on the buildings. This proved a mistake. I’d been desperate to be among the artful, the postpunk, the scenesters that were so lacking at my high school.
When I met my dorm mates they all looked, vaguely, like I expected. Hair was long. There were dustings of facial hair at a time when it still had at least a whiff of rebellion about it. They drank beer like people who had been drinking it for a very long time and truly enjoyed it. But there was something else about them. They wore certain sorts of sandals with names like “Teva.” And almost to a person they loved to go, aggressively and constantly, into nature.
The crew that ended up surrounding me— and I want to emphasize here and throughout that they were all kind-hearted wonderful people— each had a separate emphasis, like Avengers or Superfriends. Nathan was the surfer, fond especially of the freezing mornings when he could shred alone. Jared, my roommate, was the rock climber. Dik was like Superman, muscle-bound and as able at each activity as the specialists. (He was probably one of the last American men named Dick, and he had the bravura and the sweetness to pull it off. I suspect he adopted the abnormal spelling, and quite possibly the muscles, to stave off the mockery.)
When the first rains came a few days into the term there was a mass participation naked belly slide down the grass hills of our quad. I could get into this, I thought, it had enough of an air of decadent zaniness to it for my taste, but I badly cut my lower belly on a sprinkler, and still have the scar. I should’ve taken it as an omen.
A few weeks later the outdoor Avengers insisted I put on some grubby clothes, grab a small flashlight and come with them. They were going spelunking. “Spelunking?” I asked, appreciating the verb but knowing that if it was something I’d like I probably would have heard of it. “Cave diving,” they said. The “diving” part should have been a tip-off. But I was confident I knew what caves looked like. Big, barn-shaped rock structures with broad arched entrances that any adult could walk right into. I could pull this off.
On the walk across campus and into the forest that surrounded it, I saw a woman, Rachel, kind of a Wonder Woman to Dik’s Superman, squat and pee on a tree, as effortlessly and unselfconsciously as a man would. I had, in my modest upbringing, never even known that’s how a girl would pee outside and it was astounding to see.
When we got to the “caves” I thought they were playing a trick on me, a feeling I got a lot on these outings. There were no caves. “Where are they?” I asked. Several pointed toward the ground, at a few rocky rabbit holes that apparently we were about to voluntarily crawl into. This in a town that was still half in rubble from an earthquake two years earlier.
We crouched, crawled, and shimmied through spaces and crevices that me and my 40-year-old gut probably couldn’t fit through now.
Then came the Pancake. It was a passage, maybe 20 feet long, (I remember it as closer to 50, actually, but it’s very likely that’s a number I’ve subsequently inflated), where the only way to pass was to get on your belly and wriggle, holding your flashlight in your mouth. I decided I had to turn back. But the only thing more mortifying than trying to go deeper was trying to make my way out alone. So on I wriggled, last of the group. Only fear fueled me and I made it through, spitting out my flashlight to smiles from my whole party, who thought I’d be proud to have gotten through it. I was not.
Oh, but was there ever a payoff! Not really. No treasure at the bottom. No primitive paintings. There was a place, deep down, called the Hall of Heads. They’d been selling it as a cool destination. And it was alright. A bunch of people had shaped the soft walls of one cavern into little faces, kind of a 3D graffiti, the sort of thing you might stop and look at for 30 seconds were you to pass it on the surface.
And, in the final chamber, we all got to experience absolute darkness, and absolute silence! Ninety percent of which could have been achieved with some cotton balls and a broom closet. I did get a good laugh in the absolute dark, when I, doing Dana Carvey doing Johnny Carson, said “That is weird, wild stuff.” It was pathetic, quoting SNL like I had in sixth grade. But I had to save face with this crew somehow. I didn’t just want to be the scared music snob.
I also somehow assumed that there would be an exit on the other side, sunlight awaiting us. Alas, we had to go through it all again, only uphill this time, which along with the time to dread made the Pancake twice as nasty.
When we crawled out of the cave hole at last, I remember feeling as though my T-shirt had gained a foot in length. I realize this is impossible, but it speaks to how altered I felt. And yet I felt no better, like you’re apparently supposed to after such achievements. I was grateful it was over. And I suppose maybe that’s an OK reason to do something, distance runners often cite as their main motivation that it feels so good to stop.
But I couldn’t stop wondering why you’d subject yourself to that.
Understand, I’m all in favor of facing your fears. When there’s a point. Something, anything, to be gained. I overcame a crippling shyness so I might eventually make friends, and kiss girls. I overcame a crippling stage fright so that I might know the pleasures of making music with those friends, and of kissing still better girls.
But I’ve never understood this need to face one’s fears merely for the sake of overcoming them. I would understand summoning one’s courage and scaling Mt. Everest if they were handing out bags of cash, or handjobs, at the top. But you don’t even get the thrill of a view on top of Everest. It’s a stark little bald spot where you can’t even spend more than 20 minutes relishing your achievement, because you have to start the downward descent immediately, lest the weather or altitude sickness claim you.
You get the knowledge that you were in an exclusive club, and you can always tell the story. But really how often can you tell the story? How fast will your friends be sick of your bringing it up? You couldn’t even mention what you ate or tell a joke you learned from a Sherpa without it coming off as a humblebrag. “When I was on Everest … (eyerolls all round.)”
Facing down perfectly practical fears for their own sake is almost a sort of self-indulgence, of petty vanity. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth once compared drug users to mountain climbers, saying both sought a life-risking thrill that did absolutely no good to society or anyone but themselves. But one is a degenerate while the other is a hero. I think that’s about right.
But I still had to work with the friends I had, not the ones I wanted. And they really were a sweet bunch. A few weeks after the spelunking, they were going to Yosemite to do some climbing, and I finally relented to their their entreaties to at least come on the visit if not up the mountain.
And I had a really good time, on the drive, eating pumpkin soup at Jared’s mom’s house. Until we actually got to Yosemite. They thought they’d get me to climb.I would not climb. I could not, should not climb. Depths were one thing. I wasn’t especially claustrophobic, just generally phobic. But my fear of heights were practically my defining feature. I was like a slovenly version of Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo.”
High places, from balconies to rooftops to ski lifts, make my legs quake and my voice quiver. So as I’d planned, I sat beneath the mountain walls on a blanket and read my books. People have asked me what rock they were climbing. I really don’t know, but it wasn’t Half-Dome. They started to scale the mountain with their hooks and handholds and crampons or whatever. This being 1991, I had a treasured green thrift-store flannel shirt tied around my waist. Dik, however, said he failed to bring a jacket and borrowed it for the ascent, which took them out of sight and around the far side of the mountain.
When they returned an hour or two later, Dik was no longer wearing my flannel. When I asked him about he looked horrified that he hadn’t brought it back. He told me, “come on, let’s go get it, it’s just a little ways up.” We didn’t have the same definition of “little ways.” Yet somehow I felt compelled to follow him. For my dignity. And my flannel. We scaled up rocks and through crevices, my legs shaking and my voice cracking and my stomach leaping. Just like the caves, though, I couldn’t turn back because negotiating it alone was unthinkable. We came to a plateau, where sat my shirt. It wasn’t up as high as the rest of them had ascended, but it was goddamn high. Dik had a proud look on his face, having helped me conquer my fear, and patted my back. He encouraged me to sit on that plateau and look out over the beauty beneath us. I did. It was pure misery.
We descended, and everyone looked proud of me. I forced a smile back at them. Then pulled on my plaid and walked off on my own, dreaming of new friends, and no fears.
“I admit to an overwhelming vertigo that I don’t quite understand, and I’m unwilling to psychoanalyze. The absolutely realistic sensation of falling without end, that I have no power over. Luckily, I love to drive.”
“I don’t want to face my fears. I’m afraid of them.”
is a reporter for the Associated Press in Los Angeles, sports writing and news reporting have appeared in most of the world's major papers and many of its minor ones. Dalton also edits In Lieu of Flowers, a tumblr dedicated to memorable obituaries, eulogies, and other remembrances of folks past.