When I was a kid we played the card game Uno a lot. When somebody plays the same color or number as you, you can get rid of your cards during your turn. Sometimes, however, somebody will change the color or number and you will have to pick up cards until you have a card to play just as you thought you were winning. When this would happen in my family growing up, the smug players who thought they were about to lose would sing 'back in the saddle again' to the poor possessor of a fresh hand of cards.
As those of you who read this blog know, it has been a while since my last entry. This is because I have been working on oil rigs, and while there are many things I learned in the oilfield – some very beneficial - most of these things I would rather not have known or seen or smelled or lived. Therein lies material for a completely separate blog. Maybe for a book. But I do not care to think or write about that which I have lived, for it is over. Oil prices took a big downturn, as anyone with access to TV, internet or a newspaper and a remote interest in why gas is so cheap right now will know. I knew the signs from watching the fishing industry begin a downward trend.
I had been talking to a company out of Canada that did seismic guiding. When I got the announcement that our rig was going to be laid down (stacked in the company yard) I leapt and accepted the seismic guiding job, even though it was only a month long. I would spend the month of February walking the steep sides of Canyons of the Ancients with Mexican crews, picking up geophones (stakes in the ground connected to a battery and transmitter box with a long wire that transmit seismic information about what is under the ground), putting them in bags and hooking the bags to helicopters.
My last night in Williston the sky put on a show. I walked over the frozen ground to put the cheater bars I occasionally use to break apart a tool in the back of the Toyota Tacoma that I now own outright. My co-worker Jeff was putting a pulser in his truck to take to the shop in Dickinson the next day. I noticed something the orange color of a gas flare out of the corner of my eye. I looked up to see strips of light suspended and shimmering in midair. “Wow, Jeff, look, I think it’s the northern lights!” We both looked up. Trucks went by on busy 1804 and our breaths were visible in the subzero air.
The lights were closer and lower than an aurora. There was movement in them – they hung and shimmered a hundred feet in the air, warm and orange like the gas flares on wells already drilled. “It must be the flare reflecting off the suspended frozen mist. Like an ice fog.”
“Yes, it’s probably foggy and the fog must have frozen tonight.”
“It gets like this in Jackson when the snowdust is suspended, but it’s sunlight that reflects on it. I’ve never seen it at night.”
I walked back along the edge of location towards my half of the MWD living trailer. The ribbons of shimmering light hung vertical all around the rig. Was it some sort of alien invasion? They made me feel vaguely unsettled, but they were eerie and beautiful at the same time. My mom believes in signs and fate, two subjects we disagree on with regularity. I am not superstitious, but it was not lost on me that it was my last night in North Dakota after a long journey towards paying off debt, securing my finances, and giving myself a leg up into the life I wanted to live in the mountains. Strange beauty when I was not even looking for it, in a most unexpected place. As I moved in and out of my trailer, packing up the clothes, weights, ulu/round cutting board, pictures of my fiancé and cat, organic bathing products and leather slippers I have carried from rig to rig I accepted the shimmering slivers of reflected light as a gift for my long journey through the outer limits of exhaustion and frustration. My plan had worked. I was debt-free save part of one student loan and heading towards a life I had made and not just away from the big money of the oilfield and the burdens of my past. My step became light on the ground frozen firm. I was leaving.
Between Billings and Bozeman I drove out of winter and into global warming. Sloppy gray clouds hung over the hills south of Livingston. It made me want to cry, because that gray was the color of ice melting. Home was not much better. Our winter started pretty powdery and has been good up high, but the valleys were sad and melty too. I unpacked my stinky-petroleum clothes for the last time in our storage area, repacked for Colorado, and drove to Cortez to meet the crew. The mornings were early and triple safety meetings redundant, but the crew was dialed and full of jokes and good humor. The job, and the people doing it, opened my eyes to the work available with rope access certification and a new aspect of the guiding world.
The very best thing about that month in Cortez, though, was the sense that I had emerged blinking into the sun after a long journey underground. Working long days in the canyons in hard terrain, sitting in trucks spitting sunflower seed shells and watching movies on someone’s iPad on standby or joking with the Mexican crews in a mix of English and Spanish – it didn’t matter so much what I was doing, but where I was doing it and with whom. Sunlight shone on our faces and on the thousand year old ruins of the canyons. We were laughing. I was so grateful to be among people who did not value dollars and material status symbols above the health and movement of their bodies and the amount of time they could spend in the mountains or climbing areas once more.
At the end of the job I joined a co-worker and two other women for climbing in his hometown of Ouray. The ice park looked dull and melted. Where did we go, my third day climbing this winter? A nice easy water ice 3? Oh no no. We went to the Hall of Justice - one of, if not the hardest, mixed crag in the country. My co-worker had done most of the bolting there. I proceeded to get spanked on the climbs he and his climbing partner used as warmups.
It was not bad. It was a starting point. The movement was fun, but my strength was not there. I tried hard and got good and pumped. One of the women who was climbing with us that day said she was headed to Canada and was renting a house for a lot of people near the Icefields Parkway. We got along well. Just like that, I pointed the red Toyota towards Jackson and my sweetie once more to prepare to climb as much ice as I can in the next couple weeks.
So here I am, on the eve of departure. In the oilfield I watched Facebook and knew that out in the world people were climbing. During last year’s missed Alaska season I knew people were at fourteen camp, melting water and waiting for a weather window. Climbing past seracs onto golden granite and summiting via different routes. In the summer I knew people were bivied on alpine routes, watching the stars move against granite towers in the warm night. In the fall I knew dirtbags who smelled like chalk and sweat were poised like spidery dots up on the cliffs of the American southwest. And in the winter, people were chasing pow and ice in our melting warmed-up world. It was like a train that I was watching go by, the lone climber in the flat fields of North Dakota wishing I could hop back on. Finally, through work so hard I had to prioritize sleep over exercise (and not getting much of that) for almost a year, I got to the place where I was able to step away from this imposed stillness. I recognized that train when it came through, and I jumped on once again. I am not at my former peak as a climber, but these years in the oilfield have removed the burdens that were holding me down before. The best I can do is to start where I am and keep climbing. Though I want to despair and beat myself up for being so out of shape and losing so much time I must continue to show up every day. That’s how it’s done. That’s how I will get back to that place.
I have a hand full of cards and time to play them. I am so, so tired. But I am free.