My friend Robert told me about the times he’d spent working with animals in the jungle of Chile the last two years. He told disgusting stomach-churning stories of maggots burrowing into skin, spiders and fleas living inside human flesh and eating their way out of the soles of feet or human scalps. I couldn’t stop listening to these twisted tales, despite my involuntary squirming and itching, manifesting my mental disgust into physical discomfort. These things are my weakness. I have an aversion to insects and humidity; warm, wet places where creepy crawlies thrive and the thick air suffocates my lungs. “Don’t worry Emily,” he said with amusement “We’re in the desert, there aren’t any of those things here.”
He was right. We were camping in the desert of Hueco Tanks, sleeping in the dirt among cacti and sand. I’d driven down for the annual Hueco Rock Rodeo, to help represent Evolv and give a short slideshow. Oh yeah, and climb a little. Unfortunately I wasn’t very successful due to my complete lack of motivation, desire to try, and fitness. “With time, strength and will should return. Take a break first.” I told myself, and wondered if I was being foolish for believing this.
Nevertheless I enjoyed my time down there. The windblown vastness of the desert stretches and yawns over dull scrub brush, rounded hilltops, tumbleweeds, cacti, and the occasional tired-looking trailer or adobe dwelling. My favorites are the orange sunsets, burnt and raw or golden and soft depending on the kind of day that led up to its birth, magnificent and glorious no matter what. I soon discovered that the desert had a calming effect on my wandering mind, urging me to see, feel, touch, smell, and taste the harsh landscape, filling the void that my current lack of confidence and passion for climbing had left.
“Sketchy things happen out here” said Matt one day. His comment reminded me of the Cormac McArthy books I had read, adding an air of secrecy and hidden danger to the place. But it’s not just fictional. Juarez, Mexico is just over the border from El Paso, and the sight of those characteristic corrugated metal roofs made my heart sink a little every time my eyes landed on them, just a few hundred meters away. I remembered the last time I came to Hueco, 8 years ago, when climbers would venture over the border on rest days just to explore and drink cheap beer. I can’t pretend to understand what has happened between then and now, but I do know that now Juarez is not a safe place to be. As my gaze continued to linger over the hodgepodge of homes, stacked side by side like colorful jenga pieces, I wondered what life must be like over there, and marveled at how I could feel safe and unthreatened when chaos seemed to be occurring just a few Walmart parking lot lengths away.
I found the endless expanse of the desert hypnotizing. It drew me in to it’s harsh beauty and inspired thoughtfulness about life beyond my previous narrow scope. Robert’s jungle stories both fascinated and disgusted me, to the point where I would beg to hear more and then quickly cover my ears and squeeze my eyes shut at the imagery. I found myself quietly thinking about Juarez and wanting to know stories about what had changed. I wondered with mild disgust at myself for my interest in what exactly went on on the other side of that border; questions, concerns, and thoughts about how life must be for the people who live there. It’s fascinating and depressing to be so wrapped up in the world’s suffering and know that there’s not a whole lot any one person can do to abate it.
In college, I majored in International Affairs, and studied conflict in SubSaharan Africa. I read countless books about the horrors that went on, are still going on this very second, and tears always sprung to my eyes at the unfathomable injustice of it all. I studied in an International Politics class alongside some of the Lost Boys of Sudan. They were orphaned, traumatized, and barely escaped death during the Second Sudanese War. They fled to Ethiopia, where they lived in orphanages until some charity organizations paid for their passage and studies in the US. I remember them presenting to our class one day. They were so tall and exotic-looking, especially on our very ethnically homogenous Boulder campus. They spoke beautifully annunciated yet rapid English and told us about the unfortunate circumstances in Sudan, the families they lost, and the childhoods they lead that none of the us would ever be able to fully wrap our minds around.
I recently saw this video posted all over Facebook, and once again, and felt shame and sadness for what is allowed to happen there. There is some controversy surrounding the organization’s purpose and tactics, and after studying this region of the world for four years and attempting to understand the enormous complexity of every problem there, I think it is important to gather all the facts. Nonetheless a powerful message resinates in the film that is worth knowing, and trying to comprehend, whether or not we as individuals have any realistic power to do anything about it. This is life, it’s not fair and never will be. Some of us are born into peaceful, comfortable lives, where others have the misfortune of growing up in war-torn regions with little or no chance to escape and better their situation.
After college, I chose to become a professional athlete rather than work for the United Nations, or study International Law, which were both a part of my loose plan after graduating in 2007. I think that I chose the easy, selfish path. I went with what I thought would make me happy, not what I could do to improve the lives of others. The truth is that studying the problems of the world made me feel sad and powerless, constantly overwhelmed and dwarfed by the enormity and complexity of every situation. I think that the world’s leaders and politicians must feel that way all the time, everything is always going against them and no matter what they decide, it will never be right for everyone and they’ll be hated by someone no matter what. No wonder our presidents age so much over the course of a four year term. I decided that I wanted to stay out of it. Is that wrong? In some ways I think it is, but it’s the luxury of having freedom – most of us have the power to make choices for ourselves.
There is a level of guilt that comes along with actively pursuing my dream, an awareness that very few people will ever have the opportunity to live out theirs, and I have immense gratitude for the hand I’ve been dealt on this planet. No matter what any of us chooses to do with our lives, one thing is certain. There is no ultimate “right” way to go about things. Everything is a shade of grey and perfect solutions don’t exist. I just do my best to be respectful and compassionate in the hope that my life is in some small way a positive contribution to the world.
If you do want to find out more about Africa and scrape the surface on the situations there, here are some pretty good reads:
– What is the What, Valentino Achak Deng
– A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah
– An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography, by Paul Rusesabagina and Tom Zoellner (Don Cheadle plays Rusesabagina in the movie Hotel Rwanda)