This post is much delayed. I’ve sat down four times now to try and capture in words what our time in Horse Pens was like. So far, my words have failed me. I’m taking a stab at it, and please forgive the length of this post.
And please enjoy our newest video! It’s of our last day in Hueco Tanks, where we climbed a bunch for ourselves. I got my hardest send, and Vikki cruised Orifice Affair. Also note the kung-fu yeti firing Smooth Move (V8). Then keep reading.
Looking back now, a week since our departure, Horse Pens 40 feels like a pleasant dinner with the Soprano family. Laughter, some great people, and good food, but just under the surface is some dark matter that doesn’t reveal itself until you’re more involved. Like anything in life – climbing, love, Mafia dramas, the Force – there’s a light side and a dark side. The best way to detect both is to let the guards down and let go of our San Francisco sensibilities. After all, we’re guests on this land.
Immersion, perhaps, is the best way I can describe our time in Steele, Alabama. I talked about climbing a little bit in the last post, and to finish that up, I’ll give a quick report. But there is a lot of other matter that I’m going to address, and at least for us, it’s way more interesting than our tick lists, unfinished projects, and detailed descriptions of boulder problems.
Climbing took place almost entirely at night. The temps, somehow, kept getting better and better as the days progressed. Our buddy Ryan Terrill came and joined us for a weekend during his spring break. One night the four of us joined about 8 other Louisianans on some unnamed stuff near Great White, tucked away in a tiny little box canyon. We spent hours there on exactly three climbs, roughly V1, V3 and V5 if I had to guess. It was a pit of pads and lanterns, tons of laughs, and lots of trying hard.
After the canyon session, I rallied the pads to Mulletino (V6), which I did first try of the night and was by far the most satisfying climb of the place for me: incredible roof climbing on jugs leads to a rest, and a high, committing top out on nothing slopers. I also had fun trying Great White, the meat-wrappiest problem I’ve ever seen. Otherwise, I cruised around doing classic moderates and learning how to smear and mantel much better. Not too easy, not too hard…just right. I wish I had tried Skywalker more. I think it’s the line of the park, at least in the range of V8, but all the sloper slapping started to set off my elbow tendonitis. I’m hoping it heals, and am looking forward to a low-impact workout at the Red River Gorge.
Byron had a battle with Millipede, falling countless times one evening. He then returned to the trailer, lit some incense to ward off evil spirits, and read a book on third down conversions. This sounds like a strange ritual, but it must’ve worked because the next night he exorcised the punt demons and casually ran four laps on it for the camera, resulting in some mind-blowing moonscape climbing footage. His sends of all three of the Millipede lines that night marked a huge progression for Byron, and he started reeking of confidence, mixed with yeti. As I type, he’s trying to do a handstand in the trailer.
Vikki is whom I might be most impressed with. From strugglin’ on one of the only positive topouts in the whole park on day one to casually rocking over sloper mantels and flashing Lay It Down (V2). She got close to sending Bum Boy, a hard one for shorties. She even started highballing to the point where I was scared, not something that often happens when I spot her. It culminated in her first V4 send EVER, Lea’s Problem, on the last night. It’s safe to say that she learned a lot at Horse Pens, and I’m excited to see what else she’s capable of.
Horse Pens was a powerful, humbling learning experience in the climbing realm. Despite being a little late for the season we still got lucky with the conditions. Now, the climbing is unforgettable, but the people make the place special. Some make you feel strong, some make you feel welcome, some make you feel awkward, and some do all three. We got to experience both ends of the redneck spectrum, a first for me in 8 years of climbing.
Horse Pens is on private property, and we worked for our stay. This allowed us to spend a lot of time with the Schultz family, in particular owner Mike and his sons Anthony (22) and Jeremy (16). Our neighbors in the campground, on the other hand, were Kenny and Kristi. Kenny and Kristi are cut from a different cloth.
First of all, folks in the south are quite honest. They will tell you what they think, and they will tell you the rules. We had a miscommunication with the Rock Ranch management in Hueco, which isn’t worth going into. By contrast, when we asked to work for our stay at Horse Pens, Anthony told us directly that 2 hours per person equals one night’s accommodation. Well, okay then. This is a little different from the hyper-liberal bubble of San Francisco, where you can know someone for years and never figure out who they are or whether they like you.
Let me tell you about the paterfamilias, Mike Schultz. He cuts an imposing shadow. A big round gut overhangs a belt that contains bulk ammo (with mastodon grip) and an antler-handled hunting knife. His cowboy hat shields his big gray ponytail from the sun, which is beating out his beard in the race to his boots, barely. He believes in states’ rights, he believes it was the War of Northern Aggression, and he believes in fairness. If I had to guess, I’d say he favors Ron Paul for prez. Trying to get a word in edgewise during his stories of scattered subject matter is like trying to chop down a tree with a marshmallow. He is open, friendly, loves climbers, loves nature, and has built an amazing institution up there on Chandler Mountain.
The Schultz family bought the land 10 years ago and the place was in complete disrepair. A lot of honest, hard work created a beautiful, well-maintained, rustic yet comfortable ranch? park? hostel? bed-and-no-breakfast? Whatever it is, it’s a must visit, climber or otherwise. Truly the South’s best kept secret. And the birthplace of Alabama Bluegrass!
We watched Anthony and Jeremy work their butts off past sunset, day in and day out. We worked alongside them for hours at a time, digging ditches and stacking firewood, raking and hoeing. Anthony speaks candidly about his life: since he was 12, he’s been working on the land. A diverse set of skills is his recompense, a social life his sacrifice. On one hand he is proud of all the family has done and appreciative of the incredible nest and nest egg it represents for him. On the other, he never really had a choice, or a girlfriend. But he laces up his boots, shrugs everything off, and gets down to business every day.
For his part, Jeremy is talkative, excited about girls, amused by climbers (while becoming one himself), and is much more reserved than his father, whom he respects and admires. To sum it up, Anthony and Jeremy are what your mother would call “sweet kids.” I noticed some evidence of racial prejudice here and there in our dialogues, but nothing compared to the more outrageous stories of the south. Let’s just say these aren’t the folks that Easy Rider warned us about. Above all, the Schultz’s care about you, who you are, and how you act. They don’t care what you look like or where you’re from.
Our next-door neighbors in the campground were Kenny and Kristi. I want to be honest without being offensive, fair without being harsh, but the line is a fine one to walk. Our first prejudiced impressions were such: here is an overweight couple that does very little all day besides smoke cigarettes and drink sweet tea. What are they doing here?
Byron, our social butterfly, met and spoke with Kenny on our first day. He found out that they were staying as guests of the Schultz family while they waited for their disability checks to arrive. He suffered from arthritis, she from heart disease, preventing both from working.
Throughout our stay at Horse Pens 40, the couple was a constant fixture. Kenny would come over to chat, hang out, and kill time with us and in the process we learned more about this couple. Kenny is very sweet towards Kristi. It was near their 16th wedding anniversary, and he was planning a surprise party and vow renewal for her. He spoke earnestly about how he used to think all women were poison, including his ex-wives. Then he met Kristi, and she turned it all around for him. She’s been the cause of many positive changes in his life, and like Marge and Norm from Fargo, Kenny and Kristi may not be traditionally beautiful people, but their love is apparent.
In default city life, meeting a pair such as this would be a source of amusement, like colorful street performers or goofy tourists. In Alabama, we were the tourists, and our choices were to isolate ourselves and awkwardly avoid our neighbors, or let go of our notions of value and culture and approach the situation with an open mind. Having had many travel experiences, I can liken it to participating in a cultural ritual like Kava drinking in Fiji. One is there to experience, not to judge.
We saw a lot of the southern hospitality and openness in them that we saw in the Schultz family. Shortly after we met, they invited us over to their picnic table for a lunch of pork chops and beans, even though they had no money of their own and their food and all was donated by churches and friends. When they learned that we climb, Kenny offered to find us access to more Chandler Mountain rock that exists on private land. We cautiously said thank you, having no clue what these people are about.
The next day we went over to the Schultz’s new home to help Anthony and Jeremy dig a ditch. Our picture of Kenny and Kristi became cloudy along with the weather, as we met Mike and he began to expound on the deficiencies in their work ethic, wondering aloud who would want to live for free on the hard work of others. We immediately went from feeling pity for this down-on-their-luck couple to feeling wary of them. Conflicting stories never help me sleep well.
Kristi suffered a heart attack on September 11, 2010, and I believe that it isn’t her only one. She’s less than 40 years old. Kenny suffers from arthritis. Both blame their health problems not on morbid obesity, but on family history. Can they fairly be blamed for not taking care of themselves? There is no good way to find that out. We all poked and prodded, but didn’t want to directly confront our new friends who were themselves going through a period of absolute destitution. At the same time, it did not escape our notice that Kristi chose Dr. Pepper over water, hot dogs over fish and broccoli, and French fries over sweet potatoes.
During our first night session, Kenny and Kristi wandered over from the campground as Byron was working on Hammerhead, a steep prow with a heartbreaking topout. Byron had just worked the moves and as he pulled on for his send go, our two new spectators turned silent, and upon topping out expressed their complete awe that someone would really be able to hang from their fingers upside down. We wandered some more with Hudson and Sawyer, with Kenny and Kristi following along like the oversized tail of a gila monster. After climbing Spirit, a classic V3, I was dubbed Spiderman by Kenny, and Vikki earned the nickname Catwoman. Byron was Macgyver, and Ryan became The Game, an adaptation of Kenny’s assertion that he was like a game rooster: up for anything.
During the night with all of us in the box canyon, Kenny and Kristi made the somewhat difficult hike out with us and perched themselves at the rim of the canyon. They spent a couple of hours just watching all of us throw ourselves at the problems there. Kenny really got into it, filming many of our attempts and urging Byron to get to the top of his nemesis problem by shouting “Come see me Byron!” Hearty laughter echoed throughout the canyon all night.
Later that night, Kenny confided in us that rock climbing, something that Kristi and he had never seen before (“when we was kids we just drank at these rocks”), was what got Kristi out that night. The ten-minute approach was the furthest she’s hiked since her first heart attack. He continued in his drawl, saying that even though the climbers were all from different places and had just met, that we never fought and only had excitement and encouragement to share. He likened it to his experiences hunting deer and turkeys, an activity that got him out of bed before sunrise and kept him outdoors all season. It was touching to me that our behavior not only was a model to people unfamiliar with climbers, but that the sheer spectacle of what we do was enough to get this woman on her feet and out in the cold past midnight.
The next day Kenny invited us to an Easter Sunday sunrise service. He said that since we allowed him to see what it is that we do, it was his turn to show us a little country life. None of us are religious, and the thought of attending a ceremony in the deep south as godless folk seemed a little scary, to say the least. Nonetheless, he convinced us that it would be fine, nobody would try to convert us, and on top of that it was on the local policeman Jim Clay’s property with tons of rocks. We were convinced.
At 5:45am on Easter Sunday, Byron, Ryan and I drove over to the other side of the mountain, and along with 25 members of the community, we watched the sunrise and heard the story of Jesus coming back to life. We felt honored and welcome, as most people made an effort just to meet us and shake our hands. Regarding the landscape, Kenny hadn’t overstated his case. Jim’s house sat on the edge of 100 foot bluffs, with a view clear to Georgia. After the service, we spoke with Jim for some time about climbing and country life. He was warm and welcoming, seemingly par for the course around those parts, and his only mention of God was a heartfelt recommendation to read the Bible. We excused ourselves from the church ceremony and returned to the trailer to sleep.
Every night that we climbed, Kenny and Kristi joined us for at least part of it. Kenny was able to coach Byron through many struggles on the classic Popeye, culminating in a victorious send in front of a crowd that had grown from four to twelve over the course of his attempts. It was somewhat unnerving having a constant companion for our nighttime jaunts, but comforting in a way as well. At least here was a spectator who cared nothing for the grades and everything for the amount of effort and passion you displayed. If nothing else, this was a great reminder for why we climb.
The sense of friendship was clouded by other observations. Anthony spoke with disdain about the couple and their work ethic, though not having the whole story leads us to wonder how much he was echoing his father. Yet it was evident that the couple was doing nothing to change their situation besides waiting for their government checks to arrive. They were honest about their situation and about themselves (they made many comments and jokes about their obesity, and were more than happy to call themselves “country hicks,” and to make fun of their own slang). This honesty engendered trust, while revealing some unsavory attributes as well. Kenny still had problems with drugs, they used to drive drunk a lot, they had terrible fights in the past. They seemed to have nothing to do, which resulted in Kenny spending hours each day sitting on our couch while we attempted to work on our videos. We took to locking the trailer during our absences.
Whatever romanticism we had for Kenny disappeared one evening later on in our stay. Vikki and Byron were in the trailer working on an edit, and Kenny came in. Apparently thinking that Vikki and Byron wouldn’t mind, he began to crush an oxycontin. His other hand held a rolled up dollar bill. He explained that he wanted to do it in our trailer because that way Kristi wouldn’t get mad. Vikki kicked him out. Earlier I said that we have to reserve judgment, but in this instance there was plenty of judging to be done, and rightfully so.
For all the awkwardness of our relationship and despite our vast differences, we will still remember them fondly. Likewise, we felt honored to catch a glimpse of the inner workings of Horse Pens 40, the Schultz family, and the mind of Mike Schultz. I make it a point not to trust people who can’t make fun of themselves, and the Schultz’s and Kenny and Kristi gave me nothing to worry about in this regard. We allowed them into our lives and they allowed us into theirs, and I believe that everyone was able to benefit from the experience. When we launched our roadtrip, we had no idea the people we would meet and the places we would go, and I can find no better saga to illustrate that point than our stay at Horse Pens 40.