Published: Inside Outside Southwest Magazine
December 1, 2005
The storm was nothing, the aftermath was everything. After six weeks of enduring Katrina's wake including walking around my city armed, visiting my home by canoe, pet rescue by boat, zero utilities, becoming one with my chainsaw, alarmist national media, Hep A & B and tetanus shots, and experiencing the death of one of the most beloved cities in America - I had to finally get out of New Orleans.
I had lived out west for a few years and skied Colorado every Mardi Gras until I was eighteen, so I knew that the mountains, desert and cooler weather was as foreign a place from my home that I could get to.
Armed to the teeth with MRE's, stories to make a war vet weep, and a few New Orleans' exiles or expatriates strategically positioned throughout the west offering couches, I got in my truck and left one odyssey for another. Destination Santa Fe, the Canyonlands and Durango.
The road out of New Orleans was tough, driving through military convoys and the fact that after the twin punch of Rita, normalcy on the road did not appear until nearly through Houston, but the wide open expanses of Texas and then New Mexico did come. As did eventually the familiar sight of Santa Fe.
Camped out on the floor of an adobe staying with a friend of a friend, the extravagance of coffee houses, bars and fried poblanos at Del Charo's was a beautiful thing, but what I discovered was that this town was bringing me down. I don't know if it was the kin tourist nature of the city, the nightmares that started to come or if it was the outright normality of a functioning town that was doing it, but five days was enough.
As it turned out, an old high school buddy of mine who is now a technical climbing guide and who has lived in the west since college offered to meet me in the Canyonlands of Utah for several days. I semi-seriously warned him that I hadn't been above sea level in 15 years, and hadn't put on a pair of climbing shoes in the same, in fact my hiking boots were to be a beat-up pair of Reebok tennis shoes, my sleeping bag south Louisiana weight with a failing zipper.
As I waited for him and his climbing partner to arrive, I already knew that this is where I needed to be as I sat in the back of my truck at Newspaper Rock sipping on a beer in the cool night air.
The days were filled with climbing these insane 5.12+ routes, none of which I succeeded in getting past even the first holds - explaining that my failings had all to do with the size 8.5 borrowed climbing shoes I had on my 10.5 feet - all of us laughing at these bare attempts at deception and explanation.
I quickly settled down into my duty of sitting at the base of these routes, watching my friends and others defy gravity and the laws of the physical body, sipping on water and soaking in the high desert sun and amazing views which names like the Valley of the Gods gives no justice. All was good in the world.
My MRE's ended up being a big hit for about a day and were eventually rummaged through for M&M's and Reese's Pieces. I do have to say, they're not that bad. Not that good, but really not that bad.
At night by the campfire over tequila and Tecate, I started to learn the language of climbers, laughing at all the slang. In awe at the creativity of route names, climbs like Belly Full of Bad Berries, Serrator and Way Rambo as they planned their next day's climbs. Eventually my Katrina stories started to come out, and each one told released me a bit, my spirits continuing to rise dust, sweat and all.
We discussed a climb up the tower, South Six Shooter, and I told them I would give it a run. The next day we set out for this spire crossing through marscapes and geological lotteries. Bringing up the rear in my Louisiana lungs, I eventually made it to the top only to very nearly have a panic attack as I was buffeted by familiar strong winds. Even in a place as far removed as this was, my past was right there in my face.
Before I hit the road out the next day, I walked over to Newspaper Rock and stared at the Indian marks and the few left by western men and had the urge to carve my name with no date under, but Katrina Survivor instead.
That night in Durango after a much needed shower, I walked down the main street and happened upon a bar that was holding a Gulf Coast fundraising concert. I paid my five dollars, drank many beers and contemplated the road home and what will eventually constitute home, my spirit freshened by the west.