Horse Pens 40 Text & Video

Kevin and I finally arranged another climbing trip in May. I’d been strangely inundated with work from WeaveTales, Sister Cities, and getting mentally ready for THINK Global School. With pandemic protocols easing (most importantly in the minds of my friends), my social obligations filled my days with cooking and entertaining, too. Kevin and his wife were our first guests after returning from Rocktown and Asheville, and we quickly integrated them into our social bubble.

We continued to set routes every Thursday, and I managed to stick to easier ones. When we finally finagled time to drive to Horse Pens 40, temperatures were rising and our significant others wouldn’t be joining. As a result, we did much of our climbing at night, resting during midday.

Like Little Rock City, but much more so, HP40 is a veritable repository of fond memories. Randy took me here on my first climbing trip back in 2002. I also came with Dad on that final trip in High School, with countless visits in between. I think I last visited in 2008 or 2009, shortly after taking a summer class at Yale in Digital Photography. I’m clear on this timeline simply because my camera was stolen from me here.

I climbed my first outdoors V0, V1, V2, V3, V4, V5, V6, and V9 here. I drank my first hot tottie here, and tried Southern Comfort for the first time on a particularly cold night. I slept outside, without a tent, in just my sleeping bag on my Misty Mountain Magnum crashpad. I met Chris Sharma, the Colombian brothers, Lisa Rands. Took my first fall off a highball (Grooverider). The climbs here go beyond routes or movements for me. I wrote two of my college essays about trips here – one about climbing Super Coola, one about driving back home late at night with my older brother. I’ve painted these rocks and these moves from memory while in France. I’ve written songs about them. My seminal Jook Songs piece featured these rocks. This magical collection of slopers is nearly sacred to me. I reveled in the opportunity to share some of that with Kevin.

One other group of climbers shared the campsite with us – four college kids from New Hampshire. They inspired us to climb right after we arrived on Monday night after we tried to eat more of the Nigerian food we’d bought in Atlanta (too greasy to polish off or store). Kevin’s lights illumintaed the rocks just enough, and I was once again teleported back to the past – to my first night climb sessions here and the amazing ones in Squamish (when I sent Sesame Street and Mantra). We struggled bemusedly on the nigh impossible Bumboy after my old favorite Genesis, then I destroyed Super Coola without even thinking about it – the problem so wired that it simply happened.

The trip was wonderfully humbling for Kevin, though we ended it triumphantly. My fingers began to fail me, so I endeavoured to preserve them rather than try anything difficult. As ever, The Wood flummoxed me, something clearly mental as I hit the top a few times. We climbed a nice mix of old classics and problems I’d never bothered to try before, such as the wonderfully ridiculous Sandbox.

Many climbing areas – many places, really – change to become nearly unrecognizable. So HP40 was a comfort in many ways. The campsite identical. The Schulz family ran it at the same pace, in the same way, and the same cost. The kids I’d seen running around were now grown and running the store, doing the lawn maintenance, and a new generation had begun. The burgers and chicken tenders were just as excellent as I remembered, helped as always by the spice of mid-climbing-day hunger. Kevin concurred that they were good burgers; it wasn’t just my nostalgia talking.

We were rained out on our last day. Our friendliness with the New Hampshire students paid off, as we asked them why they were packing their tents. We’d not looked at the weather at all since leaving Gainesville, and it had taken a sudden turn. We’d hilariously commented that “you would think it’s going to rain, but it’s not” while out in the boulderfield that evening. Kevin had just flashed Redneck, restoring some confidence and ending the trip on a high point. I had felt and heard a tweak in my tendon on the undercling on that route and determined that I was done for the trip anyways. We packed up, got an insanely generous refund from the Shulz family, and drove out just as the first drops of rain began to fall.

Our highlight of the trip (at least in terms of fully new experiences) resulted from our search for dinner. I was absolutely famished (as I tend to be), but all the nearby restaurants closed as we passed. Even the gas station diner closed for an hour and a half precisely when we arrived. With no other options, we ended up at Dee Ford’s West.

Dive bar doesn’t quite explain. Nor joint, nor southern, nor kitsch, nor americana. This was a local hangout, a wonderful cultural experience I’d never had. The place looked like a stripper club on the outside, with no windows to see in/out. Yet the interior was well appointed, complete with a beautiful stage with permanent instruments. It reeked of smoke, but not alcohol. Our waitress oozed southern belle charm. with all the turns of phrase that one forgets exist outside of stereotypes. Regulars played pool – “confidently but unskillfully” as Kevin put it – with cheap beers. Our food was terrible and somehow took ages to make. Kevin described it as college-Kevin cooking ability, complete with shredded cheese added to the tacos after everything else was cold.

We leveled up as Americans in our short time there. Somehow Kevin stayed awake enough to drive us to Macon without issue, and we arrived at our AirBnb, showered, and slept.

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