Paul David Humphrey
It occurred to me the other day that I can't outrun my hangups. I can't hide from myself forever. The issues which cripple me will be addressed eventually like it or not. For many years I plowed my insecurities under, replacing them with an obsession with what I believed I could control. A reckoning was inescapable though. Man... sometimes my past gives me vertigo.
I used to think that establishing new routes on virgin stone was the hardest & most rewarding work I could do. Hell, I didn't even get paid. I still owe money on bolts purchased with Master Card & Visa years ago. Living on credit, I went 'everywhere I wanted to be'.
But reality bit at my heels. My rock-jock image of myself was showing signs of age. I had sold my soul to the company store & became a burnt-out gear shop wage slave. My wife & I, post college, were rapidly alienating each other & my finances were going under fast.
So in an unexpected move I became what I call a “Field Science Mercenary” (FSM), a sub-contractor surveying the forest canopy for misunderstood "species of interest" (SPI's). It involved a lot of note taking, acronyms & math. But it paid better (PB$) & was worlds away from retail.
I was soon outfitted with 40 pounds of gear, including a crossbow equipped with a fishing reel & duct tape blunted arrows for accessing high tree crowns. I crawled & climbed through countless forests all over Oregon & Northern California searching the canopies of Douglas Firs for the elusive Red Tree Vole, an unusually arboreal rodent. They sustain themselves with a strict diet of Fir needles which they grasp at the ends as if eating corn on the cob. Weird, yeah, but it was outside, offered an image of adventure & payed the bills, at least some of them.
As soon as I began the work I realized why my rock climbing friend & tree climber Adam Wanden, A.K.A. Wando,
People seemed to think my job was a Bambi-like romp through pristine old growth forests; skipping through a Sun dappled day. “La, la-la,la-la.” Yeah, right. The science didn't care if the forest was young or old, clear-cut, old growth or brush choked. We endured swift cold rivers, wasps, unmapped cliffs & 20 mile cross-country days. It was simply & complexly random. Random Hell. Chasing money, I had no idea how much my life would change in the next two years.
My wife & I separated not long after I got into canopy biology. Climbing was now not only my mistress, visited for an afternoon, but my full time job as well. “I need some time alone to figure things out,” my wife told me one day.
What was she talking about? “I'm already gone four days a week. How much time alone do you need?” That comment didn't help me.
The following January started out warm. My allergies were acting up, so I threw on a pair of shorts & walked the eight blocks from home to the community clinic. The first thing the doctor did upon seeing me was point to my thigh. “What's up with that mole?”
“What?” It was only one of a hundred freckles and spots on my skin. Sure it was bleeding a bit, but I was always bruised & scratched from working in the woods & cragging.
A biopsy later it was no longer my 'beauty mark'. It had morphed in perception & name into the Big C, Malignant Melanoma. I talked to the surgeon. He left me feeling like a spinning penny pitched to call a bet between life & death. Heads-Tails. Heads-Tails.
I needed to make fun of this disease before my emotions were pulled down by it. So I dyed my close cropped hair grass green & promptly left on the 14 hour drive south to climb away the three weeks before surgery at Joshua Tree NP.
The next evening there was a large hole where my mole used to be. It was covered by grafted skin harvested from higher up the same leg.
Missing photo ID#174957
Missing photo ID#174958
It wouldn't have been so bad if I wasn't forced to stare at it, this painful bleeding mess. The side effects of the operation dazed & weakened me. I felt toxic & pissed blue radioactive dye, injected into my groin while in surgery to find lymph nodes. I went from walking five miles at least a day to collapsing after two blocks. I was looped from the drugs I was given & shocked that my skin was trying to kill me.
The next two months were depressing. The cancer had been caught in the nick of time & the wounds were healing, but my mind was still reeling. Once again I sought solace in stone.
Life sure is expensive. My phone was flooded with calls from creditors. I felt scattered & scared. The cancer B.S. left me broke before fully healed. So three months after the surgery I set off into the woods again to climb trees for money.
My first day back started out frustrating. The first Douglas Fir of the morning had one nest out on a wrist- but trunk until that branch, waaaayyyy up there. Above it were a handful of live limbs. After two hours of crossbow shots ending in no safe rigs I was fuming. "I should freakin' quit right now!" I screamed. My mind replied 'Quit or climb, dude.'
The next arrow hit the sweet spot, arcing over a solid looking live limb close to the trunk around 90 feet up. Time to climb. I clipped my ascenders onto the rope. Shove up the left hand, bring up the right. I crawled up the nylon thread, moving quickly & soon hung just below the nest, spinning slowly around & around. Kicking a foot out to the trunk, I stopped my rotation & leaned forward toward the aromatic sap-scented mat of needles. They looked fresh.
I heard a "pop!"
My mind lit up.
Missing photo ID#174964
I glimpsed ground cover coming up fast & screamed again. “Arraaaaahhh!” Computer animation of the Martian Lander bouncing along the red planet's surface flashed in my lit up mind. If I hit the ground flailing I would most likely auger in & shatter.
The command was beyond reproach & came out of nowhere. I tucked into a cannon ball & impacted, landing on my elbows & right butt cheek. My spine compressed like an accordion. The right ribcage yielded first, popping inward from convex to concave; breaking some ribs in the process. Several compression fractures occurred as my spine failed. Then Lumbar-Two (L2), one of the largest vertebrae in the small of my back burst, leaving almost nothing but multiple shards resting against my spinal cord.
"Mmmnnngguu!" That's all I could say. Inside my mind was racing, trying to reorient. 'Who am I ? Who am I , who? Who...What, what is me, is this ,what's happening...Am I awake?' My lungs were covered in lead & my back was on fire. “Aaaaaaammmm!” I felt something grinding in the small of my back. Then I didn't.
I lay crippled in the middle of nowhere, hours down an unmarked maze of logging roads, 200 miles from home & deep in an Oregon forest. I bellowed from the incredible aching-tingling-spasming convulsions. Then I heard Nolan Bowman,
“No! Dude, Damn! I think my back may be broken. Mmmmmaaaahhhhhh – Mother F*#!*er!” I couldn't believe any of it. Had I grappled with cancer & separation from my wife only to die in a brush choked second growth forest looking for the nests of a freakin' rodent of no consequence to 99.9% of the human population?
“Nolan, I think I really screwed up this time.”
“How far up were you?”
“Probably 80 feet, near the nest structure. Mmmhhhhhhaa! Dude, my back is really spasming. It keeps trying to arch. If I can't keep still I think I... Huoohaaaaamu! I might cut my spinal cord.” I wept from the effort to stay immobilized. “Nolan, I need you to clear my spine. Do you know how?”
Nolan hovered over me on his knees, arms out in a gesture of bewilderment. “No, buddy. What do I do?”
“Run your fingers lightly, Lightly!, down my entire spine & tell me if it is shifted or broken feeling. Be careful. Mmmhuuuh!”
Nolan slid his hands down my back. It felt so good to simply feel another human's touch, even though it hurt like hell. 'I am not alone. I am not alone,' I repeated in my mind as he checked my spine.
“Um, it feels OK down to your mid back, but then it sort of disappears. Damn! What should we do?”
My heart accelerated then sank. “Dude, I need a back board and paramedics.”
“OK, OK. I can't get a cell signal here so I gotta drive until I can call out for help.”
“Paul. Paul, it's gonna be alright. I'll be right back.” He ran straight up through the undergrowth.
It felt like I'd had the Peter Pan beat out of me. My pixie dust was used up. So this is true pain. I slipped into an in-between place, where mad-mind calisthenics attempted to push my torture into a smaller corner of my brain. I had to escape for a while. My consciousness felt lit up like a jack-o-lantern, with a raging fire burning me up from the inside out.
“Stay conscious, stay here,” I repeated to myself. I was the only one I trusted to get me through this. 'God Damn It! I am not ready to fade yet. No way.' I swelled with illogical confidence, at least in between the spasms. “Aaaaaaaaaaaarrrrruuhhh!"
I lay there for five hours before help arrived. Horns announced the rescue. At last! Lying upside down was disorienting. It gave the whole scene an off-kilter balance. Fire hats & mustaches popped into view from the corners, like whack-a-moles in some acid trip. "Hey, there. What can we do for you?"
Was he kidding? "Aaaarrrr...DRUUUUUGGGGGS!!!"
"OK, OK. We're EMT s. We don't have meds. We're going to roll you onto a backboard & get you moving towards the road."
"Hell no! My back has been trying to arch since I fell & my legs tingle. If you roll me it will cut my cord."
"Don't worry. We know what we're doing."
"Arrrrruuuuuhh...So do I. I'm an EMT too & I'm not releasing...Ddddmmmmnn...me into your care. I need DRUUUUUUGGGGSSSSSSS!" I would have kicked him if I wasn't broken.
That seemed to confuse my rescuers. I heard them confer, try to radio out. They put a collar on me & held me in place, saying paramedics were on the way.
Thirty minutes later shots of morphine arrived. Things became much more bearable, giggly even. I turned into a body, a case, a problem to be packaged, hoisted, dragged, dropped, pushed, carried, deposited & transported.
I awoke. There was a blood filled tube in my side emerging from a long horror movie incision in my back, a catheter in my dick & IV lines in my arms. My spine, broken in two, was now held together by titanium bars and screws.
I was measured for the custom formed torso cast I would live in for the next few months. I christened it my 'plastic prison'.
Her chuckle quickly turned to a cough then a hard wheeze. A nurse rushed to her. “She's asthmatic. Don't do that."
The first couple of months home I was ecstatic. I was high on being alive; that & painkillers & beer.
Friends threw a fund raising party, SpinalPaulLooza with music & belly dancers, raising over a grand.
My post-fall high was gradually crushed by mounting debt, divorce, depression & pain. I missed my mind. So many drugs coursed through me my baseline was lost. Percacet, Morphine, Fentinyl, whatever; they were in my blood. I had become what I eat & what I ate were chemicals. Only four months after the fall painkillers, debt & the welfare system had succeeded in doing what the Devil himself couldn’t; banish me to Hell without killing me.
One day on the way back from the doctor I imploded & collapsed, boiling over with grief. I lay on the sidewalk, a complete dejected weeping mess. For half an hour people stepped over my shaking body. I would have too, in their position. What could they do? I was overwhelmed & overwhelming. My social contract with America seemed null & void.
My life rolled on like an angry ocean. Doctors pushed long needles with heated tips into my spine every other week for two months, trying to cauterize nerve pain away. I flew to see specialists. My trials piled up on top of me. I was spent. Panic attacks wracked me twice a month or more. Living on pennies only encouraged them. I would vomit daily from pain or the meds. I saw no escape save blotting myself out with more pills.
When I ventured out to the cliffs they only confirmed my infirmary.
"Pop, pop, pop.
I start to drop
and my mind
as I fall.
Bam, bang, boom.
Down to my doom.
On to the
Whenever I plumit,
I bounce back quick,
No just lying there
like a splat
on the floor.
I am a rebound,
a trajectory traveled
at high speed.
I am the seed
of my own future."
Months passed, then a year. I fell in love. I got dumped on Valentine's Day. My journal & poetry recorded my bitter apathy, my belief that constant nerve pain & spasms that crippled me would never cease. All I saw ahead of me was fifty years of torture. I slipped off the edge. I became my fears. I lived them, uncovered others & spun out. I was more screwed up than I realized. One summer night a drunk jock shoved me to the pavement after I danced with his girl. I hit face first. The next morning I saw my messed up mug in the mirror.
Those who love me slowly prodded me back into living in the most unexpected ways. Friends told me about this crazy place where they did yoga for over a hour in a room heated to over 100 degrees. They called it 'Bikram Hot Yoga'. I thought they were nuts. They thought I was if I didn't give it a try. So one morning I walked into "Sacred Palace," a tiny storefront in downtown Eureka, CA. My face was a mess. I shook from nerve pain. I had electrodes & cords hanging from my back to shock spasming muscles into submission. I was taking eight Percacet a day & wore a three-day fentinyl patch. That's a lot of opiates.
The instructor gave me a towel & mat to use. There were around seven others in the hot room chitchatting and stretching. Then class began. Wow, it was difficult. I couldn't keep my balance, my mind was swimming in heated up opiates & I was sweating like I'd never sweat before.
That evening it dawned on me that I felt a little better than usual. I wanted more yoga. But I couldn't even balance on one leg with the amount of pills I took. I was at a fork in my mental road. I could not take both paths. So I cut my pill doses in half & made hot yoga my number one priority.
Boredom breeds despair in me & when I despair I wish only to be numb. Now I decided to embrace the pain. I set a goal to get off painkillers by my 100th yoga session. I treated it as my job. I would go every day, rain or shine, arriving by bus, car, thumb or bike. Less than 30 days later I threw my painkillers away. I still lived with constant cramping, but I was exploring it now, not cowering from it. And I had my brain back.
It soon got to the point where I could feel a definite improvement after a morning session. Pain was still always with me & cramps would be back by afternoon. Instead of giving in & popping a pill I began doubling up on daily sessions, sweating in the morning & the evening, three hours a day. I did my 100 sessions in around 75 days.
Missing photo ID#174986
Everyday I did my yoga. Little by little I felt my body strengthen. Bit by bit my mind stabilized. I began to make peace with my pain. The trick with anything is doing it, practicing it; not just talking or planning. Armchair climbers read books & mags, then evaluate others' achievments. Practicing climbers accomplish goals; then push their mark forward.
The hot yoga room became my incubator. It warmed & nurtured me until I realized I had never ceased to be a climber. I just lost sight of the cliffs for a while. So I began anew, on "easy" top ropes with new friends just learning they were climbers too. I was in love again, with life. My world view had been three dimentionalized. I realized that pain is just a signal, a blip on my mental radar, not a monster eating me alive. Sure it sill sucked sometimes, but what doesn't?
My friends began to notice the new, more level headed version of Paul. Some started going to yoga. It's pretty hard to say it won't work if it helped a basket case like me. They agreed. This yoga gave a climbing buzz. The type of good you feel after bashing your knuckles open in pursuit of a difficult rock route, after falling again & again, then deciding to try again tomorrow. Hard climbing & Yoga are all about failing now to succeed later. So is life.
One of my climbing friends who began going to yoga with me asked if I wanted to go to Smith Rock for a long weekend. Whoa, I knew I could get up a cliff close to home with my comfortable bed only minutes a way. But sleep on the ground again? Try all day like I did before? Sit in a car for the seven hour trip? These unknowns freaked me out. They weren't factors in the mind of before-the-fall Paul, but now these thoughts were intimidating.
Will-power is one of the most precious commodities in us. Try-power starts a lot of things, yet never finishes anything. Frustration is usually simple impatience mixed with doubt. Release yourself from goals & you will pass your fears before ever considering them a hindrance. I did not find an incense filled new age cop-out. I found a way; a way to climb again & exist with all of myself, all at once.