On a hot day last Summer, I woke up to red and blue lights saturating the white dolomite walls that loom over the Ten Sleep Rock Ranch, the new rock climber's campground in the Canyon just upstream of the town of Ten Sleep, Wyoming. I had been in the area for a few weeks, but this was the first time I'd seen any signs of law enforcement. The lights shut off as the cruiser rolled to the back of the new campground. There was no fanfare, just a brief exchange between the owner of the campground and officer.
The report said that ten shots were fired while the Rock Ranch's controversial founder, Louie Anderson, was dangling from a rope, bolting yet another route. The rock, Bighorn dolomite, splintered like shrapnel around him. No bullets made contact with his body, just the skyscraper skeletons of the coral reefs that used to frequent this desert. Perhaps if he listened a little closer as the bullets riddled the limestone around him he would have heard them whisper, You are not welcome here.
For years now living in Wyoming, I'd meant to see Ten Sleep for myself. However, in recent years, friends in the area have said that it is swarming with climbers—climbers washing ropes in the public "splash pad," climbers using the sink in the public library as a shower, and climbers mining all of the WiFi bandwidth the area has to offer. One local barista named Talena told me that the problem for her is mostly the exclusivity. "If you're not a rock climber then... oh...don't want to talk to you anymore." Although testimonies from Ten Sleep residents vary widely, the central point is the same: a sense that they'd lost control of their town. Too much, too fast.
However, that morning something it seemed like there was a shift. While bitter disputes over land have long riled this small Wyoming town, a new chapter was underway. Like many small Western towns, each chapter in Ten Sleep's history has begun the same way: power and wealth coming from elsewhere with a new way of doing things. After a few weeks in Ten Sleep it became clear that a new chapter was undoubtedly well underway, which was confirmed by a recent dramatic Facebook post which noted that these current conflict over climbing, "is about a battle for nothing less than the Soul of Ten Sleep."
“It was not an accident,” a climber at the Rock Ranch told me of the shooting, “and now half of the people in town don’t believe him, which is great because now everybody just picks what they believe in the world these days, and the other half of the people don’t know what to think.”
There are no leads, no suspects.
From Yellowstone National Park, if you point your car East toward the Bighorn Mountains and drive across the moonscape desert of Northern Wyoming for two hours, just when you think the road should begin climbing toward the alpine it abruptly descends into a valley invisible to any distant vantage. As the road descends, the color pallet morphs from black and white to red and green like The Wizard of Oz. This hidden paradise stuck somewhere between dust and snow and complementary colors, is called Ten Sleep.
After passing a green sign that reads "Ten Sleep, Pop. 260" you will come to the sort of Wyoming town we're taught to see: one general store, two bars, four churches. Most people just pass through on Route 16 on their way to and from Yellowstone. But if in the thirty seconds it takes to drive through Ten Sleep you slow down, and pull over, and look closer; you'll find some things of note.
If you look, you might see that the dusty abandoned lot on Main Street is not overflowing with weeds, but with kale. If you listen, you might hear that that homeless-looking man with a long greying beard that's plucking the banjo outside his trailer is pretty good. His name is Jalan, and he is a national banjo picking champion and has released seven albums since 2000.
Only in the minds of passersby does Ten Sleep exist in the cliches of Western mythology. Although cattle ranching is the dominant culture, kids spend most of their time playing Minecraft and keeping up with the latest memes. In this population of 260, there are engineers, miners, artists, ranchers, small business owners, and a handful of professional athletes.
If you walk around the corner to 3rd Street, you'll find a small home with a garage that's rapidly being reclaimed by vines more fit for a rainforest than this North Wyoming desert. The owner is a friend of mine from town named Mark Carter who, when I asked one day what he thought about the vanloads of Patagonia-clad Rock Ranch-staying rock climbers coming to town, he looked me dead in the eye, and after shifting his ever-present toothpick from left to right, murmured, "It's a goddamn mess."
Mark and I met a couple of years back in the high stakes skiing and snowboarding scene of Jackson, Wyoming. Although he spends a good chunk of the year helping maintain his family’s renowned 40,000-acre cattle ranch, Carter Country Meats, the inside of his garage is no shed stacked with saddle and lasso, but a museum dedicated to his ongoing career as a professional snowboarder. The walls are lined with more than a hundred snowboards from over the years, many that never made it to market. Next year’s YETI and The North Face products are scattered about. An open canister of Daneson toothpicks—his toothpick sponsor—lies on the floor like a beer from last night. The ceiling is one gigantic American flag that casts a red and blue hue onto his face as he works on his mountain bike. After a few more cranks on his bike, he looks up.
“I don’t know man. I don’t think it was anyone in town that shot at him. Nothin’ like that’s ever happened here. All this climbing, I mean, I get it, but it’s just the wrong people. I mean, Louie?”
When Mark and I first met in Jackson, it took about twenty minutes before rock climbing came up. I had come to a bourgie modern-style coffee shop called Picnic to sell a piece of climbing gear to my friend Emile. I was trying to save up a bit more money before heading East to start a graduate program in environmental management, and climbing gear, being worth more than its weight in gold, was a lucrative pawning opportunity.
After trading the small grey contraption for $30 on Venmo, I struck up a conversation with Emile's new love interest across the table. A toothpick dangled from his mouth, and the only hair on his head was a long beard. He had some excellent suggestions about the best fly fishing spots in the Absaroka Range, where I told him I was about to spend the next month teaching a leadership course before heading to school. After a while chatting in the usual Jackson patterns—how long you been here, what you want to ski next year—Mark mentioned, perhaps in jest, that if I wanted to study a crazy environmental management situation, to come to explore the rock climbers in Ten Sleep. "I mean, none of us know what's going on!"
Wyoming is preparing for two simultaneous existential crises that have quickly appeared on the horizon: the collapse of coal and the nonviability of small family ranches. The majority of the State's tax revenue comes from extraction industries, which reign supreme. In terms of coal, Wyoming produces more than the next seven states combined. A single mine, called Black Thunder, produces about as much coal each year as the char-famous State of West Virginia. As the demand for coal shrinks, so does the financial viability of mining operations and Wyoming's tax base. And while coal is the economic powerhouse of the State, cattle ranching is the founding mythology, the cultural glue.
Here too there is a sad decay. Small family ranches are in most cases no longer financially viable operations without government subsidy. Those who continue the work sit in a dissonant suspension between deeply held myths of rugged individualism and full reliance on government. Even in Ten Sleep, parents generally discourage their kids from getting into ranching. Mark told me sadly, "we're a dying breed." There is a particular Grapes of Wrath-like collapse underway, where many of these small ranches, “will be a part of a great holding next year, for the debt will have choked the owner...Only the great owners can survive, for they own the canneries, too.” As these core Wyoming industries become economically obsolete in our rapidly globalizing world, whole cultures will be eradicated, and new ones elevated.
In 2016, then Governor of Wyoming Matt Mead formed the Outdoor Recreation Task Force, “to assess Wyoming’s outdoor recreation economic sector, needs for now and the future, relationships with land access, and the possible creation of an Office of Outdoor Recreation.” In 2017, The Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Office and Wyoming State Parks began the Bighorn Basin Outdoor Recreation Collaborative, charged with, “exploring ways to promote outdoor recreation, develop new recreation opportunities, and create a plan to enhance the Bighorn Basin's recreation-based economy and quality of life.” This was the first collaborative of its kind in the State’s history, which means that in the Bighorn Basin, where Ten Sleep lies, the writing is on the walls. Any sort of just transition is unlikely. Things change quickly in the West.
I grew up in Upstate New York near several towns that have never recovered from their early industrial heyday and collapse. When Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System made the Erie Canal obsolete, a long list of cities that were once on the main thoroughfare connecting the East to the Midwest and beyond rapidly collapsed. Rust, memories, and abandoned theaters in many ways characterize my hometown of Albany, New York.
When I was young, I learned to climb at the Albany Indoor Rock Gym and after college spent four years calling my car and Wyoming home. I am a rock climber. So, when Mark told me that my community was ruining his town, it felt personal. We stayed in touch from across the country while I was in graduate school, and at the end of my first year, I thought the only way to truly understand what was going on was to embed myself in the community. In May, after assembling some collage of grant money, I got in my car in Connecticut and, after picking up Interstate 90 in Massachusetts, drove West—Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Madison, Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Gillette, Exit 58 at Buffalo, up over the Bighorn— to the Ten Sleep Rock Ranch.
Towering over the Rock Ranch are the Bighorn Dolomite walls that constitute the deepest parts of Ten Sleep Canyon. Across Wyoming, this massive 300-foot thick geological formation rises out of the Earth at random like the sharp spine of a gigantic sea serpent. And in some ways, it is.
This off-white stratum was formed about 450 million years ago in the early Paleozoic. At the time, Wyoming was a shallow sea in which the cycles of life and death played out daily. When organisms like the snake-with-legs Eogyrinus and fish-worm Cephalaspis died, their bodies fell to the bottom of the ocean, eventually leaving only their Calcium Carbonate skeletons behind. Over millions of years these skeletons piled up, and under massive pressure, the once separate skeletons molded together like clay into what we now call Bighorn Dolomite, CaMg(CO3)2.
Dolomite erodes chemically—or corrodes—and water is the main culprit. As small pockets form on the cliff surface, they tend to collect water and corrode further. As water pools, some of the Calcium and Magnesium end up in solution, and as the puddle evaporates so goes some of the rock. In this way, Bighorn Dolomite grows walls strewn with these so-called "solution pockets" that make the crags climbable and allowable for some, half mistakenly, to call the cliffs, "the greatest limestone climbing in the Western Hemisphere."
The Rock Ranch was the recent brainchild of Valarie and Louie Anderson, a wealthy Orange County California couple who moved to Ten Sleep in 2016 to fulfill their dream of “living a slower pace and semi-retiring into a lifestyle of camp hosting” and to “begin another chapter in their legacy of climbing and crag development.” For Louie in particular, the potential for nearly unrestricted climbing development was enticing. Sitting with Valarie one day under the pavilion she told me that they almost moved to Chattanooga, but at the last minute chose Ten Sleep. It was quieter.
Back in California, Valarie taught yoga and Louie owned a series of rock climbing gyms, which he still manages. They both live publicly healthy lifestyles. Louie’s Instagram is filled with action shots of climbing and healthy meals, and Valarie’s mostly time-lapses of yoga routines. Although well intended, the style and pace with which they have entered the Ten Sleep community have not gone unnoticed. Nothing goes unnoticed in Ten Sleep when you’re new.
After you drive under the big wooden archway that reads Ten Sleep Rock Ranch, you'll notice the gravel road splits and links more than a handful of campsites and small cabins. Fruit is often strewn on the ground, and the air smells sweet and sweaty. It used to be an apple and cherry orchard where Ten Sleepers would pick fruits in the late Summer and Fall. Now there is a bathhouse, public refrigerators full of La Croix, a small rock climbing gym, and a pavilion with WiFi and outlets continuously strung up to some assortment of unattended Apple products. If you're there midday, you're guaranteed to see at least one athletic 30-something in flip-flops wandering aimlessly and shirtlessly. There are more every day.
Most mornings last Summer I would wake up and follow Route 16 from the Rock Ranch down into Ten Sleep. After a few turns in the Canyon, the Bighorn Dolomite gives way to the most beautiful landscape. Where mountain meets desert is a hidden topographical paradise with a scene like the famous sandstone National Parks of Southern Utah. Petroglyphs in these red canyonlands go back more than 10,000 years. Some panels are more than one hundred feet long. There are no statistics about the density of Crow sacred sites in the area because to do so would beg immediate National Monument designation and bring up an irreconcilable past that for those in power these days is easier left settled.
Continuing along Route 16, the red sandstone walls begin to grow smaller and eventually give way to beautiful green grazing lands. Along the road, some sheep farms are ironic to the place.
About one hundred years ago Ten Sleep was the site of the finale of one of our lesser known civil wars, the Sheep and Cattleman’s War. Here in 1909, if the bullets that sliced through the skull, neurons, memories of the Basque sheepherder Joe Allemand as he was executed by wealthy members of the Bay State Cattle Company could make a bold declaration, it would be that, once and for all, This is cattle country. So it was. Yet, today as you enter town cattle and sheep mingle in endless green pastures.
Most mornings I would make the drive—out of the Dolomite canyon, into the sandstone canyonlands, past the green pastures—to the only general store, Dirty Sally's, which quickly became my makeshift office. The building's brown wood siding is growing pale from the sun. The new owners Leah and Wes recently repainted the window frames a beautiful white. A large sign that dangles perpendicular to the storefront and flow of traffic reads in plain font, "ICE CREAM," "COFFEE," "SOUVENIRS," and "GROCERIES." The once-prolific bison on the red white and blue state flag dances in the wind like a memory. It's a sunny morning in Ten Sleep.
Inside it's cold and dark, except where the dusty sun shines through the big front window. Talena is behind the counter in a Star Wars shirt and choker necklace handing brown caramel ice cream in a fresh waffle cone to an older cowboy who smiles through his grey mustache, and thanks her in the sincerest way. He sneaks a quick lick and takes his cone to the circular wooden table next to mine where he and his old cowboy friends share ice cream instead of coffee every morning and are happier bunch than any I’ve known.
After a few weeks, thirty iced coffees, and twenty frozen burritos I found myself chatting with Talena about the town and climbers. She said she didn't want to talk at work, but that if I wanted to go on a hike with her and her kids later that day, she'd love to chat.
On top of the canyon rim above the Rock Ranch, we found the shade of a huge Ponderosa to get out of the heat. We were both sweaty and tired. The boys were not. Talena pulled out a cigarette.
“You want one?”
“Nah. I’m good.”
“That’s smart. Hey boys, go find me some fossils!” The two boys took off, and after a flick of a lighter, a quick puff, she asked, “How many of them have actually hiked this trail? Or to the lookout?”
“I don’t know. Not many.”
Between drags on her cigarette, Talena told me that her dad was from New York and her mom from Iowa. "We came here for some time in 82 and 83. My parents fell in love with the area and spent 23 years trying to get back. My sophomore year we moved. It was hard. I was 14 with a tattoo, listened to heavy metal, got four left feet." She said it took more than ten years before Ten Sleep accepted her family. "But when we left for school and came back, nobody seemed to remember that we ever didn't live here."
We sat quietly for a bit and I closed my eyes. There was a light wind that smelled like sage and cigarettes. I could feel some salt in my eyes. It was silent and warm, except the lightly audible echo of the creek deep down in the Canyon.
“You know, you don’t see the deer anymore down there. You don’t see the elk. You used to see them in that area below the cliffs where there are so many routes now.”
“Yeah of course! We subsistence hunt and process all our own. I think last year we took six deer and I’ve already run out of meat. I’m counting down the days until my oldest is old enough to get a license.” Talena smiled with sadness, a sort of preemptive nostalgia, as her oldest came tearing around a tree with a gun-shaped stick pretending to battle some imagined enemy. No fossils.
It was clear that it was precisely these sorts of informal economies and cultures that were at stake these days in Ten Sleep. I asked if she'd heard at all about Louie getting shot at.
"I hadn't heard of that happening until I overheard you talking about it the other day. Those folks haven't made any attempts whatsoever to reach out that hand, to say 'how can we make this impact less tough on you guys' you know? There's a reason for the animosity."
We sat in silence again. After a bit, Talena pointed to the silence, and added, “We moved to Ten Sleep for this.”
Down in the Canyon, the Rock Ranch buzzed electrically. Looking back at that hike, neither Talena nor I knew the half of it.
These days, the Ten Sleep Climbing Festival is a wholesale celebration of the climbing industry. What used to be an informal party with friends over beer, bonfire, and guitar has become a meditation in upper-middle-class consumerism. Hundreds come from Boulder, Salt Lake City, and beyond to participate.
Last year, the scene on June 30 was a carnival of differently colored and branded tents covering the lawn outside of Ten Sleep Brewing Co. A crowd of athletic millennials and their dogs forage for the best of next year's gear. The event was primarily planned by Valarie Anderson, the Rock Ranch manager who had recently also joined the board of the Bighorn Climbers' Coalition. The event also functioned as a fundraiser for the Coalition but did so only through raffles and product.
A few confused locals wandered about, perhaps realizing for the first time that things were different than they used to be with these climbing folks. I spent my time asking passersby to fill out my surveys about how they were spending money while in Ten Sleep. This simple little economic study was what let me convince my University to pay for my Summer in Ten Sleep. It turns out that climbers spend relatively little in Ten Sleep while they are here, mostly on campsite costs and gas. Many bring their own food for the entire trip. If new businesses are to spring up in Ten Sleep, climbers are most excited for those to be locally-owned restaurants. After a handful of surveys, boredom drove me inside to the bar. I wanted time to accelerate past the carnival and to later in the evening when The North Face rock climbing athlete Matt Segal was supposed to give a talk.
Matt grew up in Florida and got his start in competition climbing before taking his world-class talents to the planet's hardest climbs. The wirey Segal is a remarkably thoughtful individual, with degrees in Psychology and Religious Studies in Tibetan Buddhism from Naropa University. More than a decade ago he started coming to Ten Sleep seeking out some of the areas hardest climbs, but what has kept him coming back each Summer isn't the climbing, but his friend, Mark Carter.
Matt and Mark have been The North Face athletes together for years and became friends quickly during the various annual athlete retreat the company hosts. A few days before the Festival I got a text from Mark that read, “Matts here. You should come by!” A few months prior, I’d seen Matt on the big screen back in New Haven in his climbing film Boys in the Bugs. And so it was with sweaty palms I replied, “Sick! On my way.”
A few minutes later I walked into Mark’s cool dark house to find the two of them catching up over a La Croix. I listened to them talk about internal The North Face drama for a while and Matt spoke at length about his new instant coffee company, Alpine Start. "It's super weird to be the owner of a multimillion dollar company now, like overnight. I'm learning a lot."
Matt asked me what my project was about, and I told him I was looking at how climbing has been changing the area and his ears perked up. “It's changed a ton in the past few years. Oh my god! I’m super intrigued.”
After finishing the La Croix, Matt shot over at Mark, “Hey, Carter, my bumper’s pretty screwed up. You got tools to fix that sorta thing?”
We walked out to the curb where Matt's green 2002 Honda Civic sat like a senior in hospice. The front bumper hung like some incurable sickness. "Yeah, I got you," Mark said before heading into his garage. Matt and I walked around to the back of the dusty old car, and he popped the trunk. Inside was a liquor cabinet stocked with quality elixirs fit for a CEO. "You want a cocktail?"
“Hah, no, I’m good!”
He told me that the success of Alpine Start has made his life pretty weird, but that he realized pretty quickly that he didn't want to change much. Matt still mostly lives out of the Civic when he's not home in Colorado, which is often. He was happy in his patterns. Life didn't need to be bigger and grander.
“But, having a good liquor cabinet on wheels is pretty damn good!”
Mark came back from the garage with some tools and started a close examination of the bumper’s ailment. While Mark squirmed below the car on the concrete, Matt asked me what’s up with the new place called the Rock Ranch.
“A couple named Louie and Valarie opened it up in 2016.”
“Oh, Valarie is the one organizing the Festival.”
“Louie Anderson is here in Ten Sleep! Are you serious?”
"Yeah, he owns the Rock Ranch. People say he's been developing a ton of new routes in the area. Also, a few weeks ago he got shot at up in the Canyon while bolting!"
Matt’s concern quickly became Mark’s concern and my ears perked up too.
“Oh man, Louie Anderson….”
Louie Anderson’s interest in Ten Sleep climbing development was present more than a decade before 2016 when he purchased the Ten Sleep Rock Ranch. In an April 2006 RockClimbing.com forum, Louie called noted that Ten Sleep was “the best sport climbing I’ve experienced or seen in Wyoming” before adding that there was, “endless new route potential at just about any grade you might be looking to bolt.”
In the same post, there were even grumblings of the idea that would eventually manifest as the Rock Ranch when he wrote that Ten Sleep was, "somewhat of a secluded spot, but I predict huge things for the future of the area and its popularity for attracting out of state climbers." The goal for Louie has always been to attract outsiders to the area. However, the desire to attract climbers and thus be known is not what makes Louie controversial. It is his ethics regarding two widely detested techniques in rock climbing development: chipping and gluing.
In a November 2003 online post, Louie momentarily pulled back the veil of purity on his climbing development. “Many people at crags all over the world climb on drilled holds without realizing it. Many of the crags around Lander have drilled holds, some done to look more realistic than others." This process of creating unnatural holds is what people in the rock climbing community called "chipping", or drilling and chiseling handholds into the rock to make particular sections easier, or even climbable at all.
Three years later, on the same site, Louie publicly offered advice for gluing rocks to a wall when he wrote, “Assuming you do a good job of cleaning the rear of the stones you’re gluing, there will be much greater surface area to attach on an uneven rock surface.” Further, he offered an endearing punk history with the technique, saying that, “In the late 80s and early 90s I glued up many, many traverses and routes under bridges around So Cal.”
By the early 2000s, Louie seemed aware that chipping and gluing were particular sorts of powderkegs in the rapidly growing rock climbing community, which imbibes so heavily in arguments over purity and the mythological wilderness. In 2004, he lamented that recently he'd become, "much quicker to glue when bolting at crags. This is something that I'm aware of and am making a conscious effort to change." However, by 2016, when Louie settled into his new home in Ten Sleep, seemingly secluded from the ethical scrutiny of California, he slipped back into old patterns.
On February 12, 2019, a petition began circulating on Facebook that eventually made its way to Rock and Ice Magazine. The authors of the document were a group of older Ten Sleep climbing developers who expressed serious concern with the current State of affairs. After just a few hours of the petition being made public, signatories included hundreds of recreational climbers and a good chunk of famous professional climbers, including Matt Segal.
The petition contends that over the past three years, Louie has put up more than 140 new routes in the Canyon, many of which seem to be heavily chipped and glued. The most egregious case, called Funky Town, has been described by some, "as an entire wall of 27 manufactured routes put up by Louie." One of the petition's authors told me that the original purpose of the petition was to ask "for the chipping to stop, but more importantly, it was a call to action for the routes to be stripped from the walls and be removed from the guidebooks in order to avoid normalizing chipping."
In response, Louie agreed to stop chipping in the Canyon but refused to remove the routes that had already gone up. Another local developer, and signatory to the petition, said that Louie even, "told the President of the Bighorn Climbers' Coalition that he would re-bolt any routes taken down." He was in charge, and his sense of justice would trump all else. However, as the subsequent Facebook comment section ballooned, another story emerged that was perhaps more damning than the petition itself. It quickly became apparent that this was not Louie's first rodeo.
One signatory, Devlin Gandy, recounts being high off the ground on a route Louie had bolted called Hijacked in a climbing area in the Santa Monica Mountains when suddenly a hold broke off the wall, sending him careening toward the Earth. Dangling just a few feet from the ground he looked at the rock that had broken, which he describes not as a rock at all, but “a foot-long piece of epoxy carefully caked in breccia dust and chalk.” Later, he continues, writing, “Holding the former hueco lip in my hand, I could see the great efforts you took to obscure your handiwork, how you had carefully layered grit and chalk onto the surface of the epoxy with the hold ergonomics in mind.” Similar stories emerged from throughout the West that, taken as a whole, seem to paint a picture of power and entitlement.
The petition and subsequent fallout haven’t affected Louie much, beyond losing his Mad Rock Climbing sponsorship. In an Instagram post from late April 2019, he still seems to be going ahead with publishing his 464 page, 1110 route guidebook that will secure his reign of Ten Sleep dominance. The cover shot is even at Funky Town and is tilted to make the climbing look steeper than it is. After seeing the cover, one of the petition's authors said, "It was like spitting in our face." It became clear to me after a few months in Ten Sleep that if anyone that had a stake in the area had shot at Louie, it was probably another climber. Some locals told me that one of the original climbing developers went off the deep end a few years back and now spends most of his time wandering around the streets of Worland with his AR-15 yelling about chemtrails. One can only wonder.
When I talked to her this March, Valarie said she is starting to plan for the 2019 Climbing Festival. She also told me that she’d recently joined the board of the Bighorn Basin Outdoor Recreation Collaborative. “The folks who started this know that recreation is the future. But capitalizing on tourism, while protecting land and keeping locals happy? That’s tough.” She didn’t seem yet to consider herself a local. Maybe she never will.
Climbing continues to grow unrequited in Ten Sleep. When I asked an employee of Bighorn National Forest if they had any data on climbing in the area, they were vague. "The Forest doesn't have any specific data on the changes that may or may not have happened due to the climbers," but that they, "know that there has been an increase." After being forwarded to the Forest's Natural Resource Specialist, I was told that the "Forest Plan stated in 2005 that we would complete analysis for a climbing plan within ten years and here we still are. The Forest is currently looking at downsizing, making it more difficult to plan completion of the project."
Later in the Summer, while I was typing away at my Dirty Sally's office space, Talena came around the counter and sat down next to me and told me she'd just gotten back from a hike up to the ice caves. In a special part of the Canyon, there is a massive cave about two feet wide and a hundred feet tall. All year, even on the hottest July days, thirty-two-degree air pours out from a mysterious somewhere deep in the Earth. The depths of the ice caves have yet to be fully charted.
"We hiked up there with the owners of the brewery because they'd forgotten where it was, and I knew." When they finally reached the cave, Talena says climbers were swarming the walls on either side. She said that when they walked up, it was awkward. "It was that, look straight ahead, don’t look at the locals, don’t say hi to the locals, don’t acknowledge that the locals are here, oh my gosh the locals are here, what are we gonna do, we’ll just keep climbing. I was like, wow guys, I’m just here trying to enjoy my backyard you know?” After a pause, she added cooly, “You know, right there at the ice caves, there was a chill in the air.”
I asked her what she thought was going to happen over the next year. "In the Ten Sleep community...you're either in or you're out. And if you're out, it's gonna take a hell of a long time for you to be in. Having the climbing community and the Ten Sleep community get off on the wrong foot, it's gonna take one hell of a someone to be able to heal that rift. I don't know if it's ever gonna happen."
The end of the Summer was painful for me because by that point I'd fallen deeply in love with Ten Sleep and its people. Throughout the Summer I'd frequently been recording Voice Memos on my iPhone about my daily wonderings for my girlfriend and about a week before I planned to leave each routinely devolved into tears. Unlike emotions that flow from unknown sources deep inside, these headwaters for me were known: the shattering of a deep culturally maintained hatred by coastal elites, of which I am one, for everyone that lives in small town, Trump-voting, America. In a more profound sense, perhaps I'd fallen more deeply in love with myself.
Before leaving town, I stopped by Mark's to say goodbye. It was bittersweet. After saying thanks and goodbye, I got in my car and headed to the gas station. While my car was filling up, I went inside to get ice for my old cooler and some Flavor-Ice for my belly. As I was checking out, I saw a text from Mark that read, "wait, come back, I've got something for you!" When I got back to Mark's, he was standing with only shorts and a toothpick in his open garage with a brand new silver YETI cooler and growler.
“These are for you!”
"Yeah man, thanks for everything this Summer. I think we're starting to figure it out around here."
“You know what? I’ve got something for you too.”
I went around to the back of my tightly packed Black Subaru and found a pair of recently resoled climbing shoes. At some point in the Summer, we realized, probably after a few beers, that we had the same sized feet. "Maybe you can get up there someday!" With a laugh, I offered, "Maybe Matt'll take you."
“We’ll see! Man, you better come back. Maybe we can climb. I think there’s more work to be done here.”
I told him I would, and after transferring the ice from the old cooler to the new, I was on my way, amongst a stream of automotive passersby of this place, back East.