I first met Shadow Ayala at Black Sheep Coffee in Bishop, CA a couple of seasons ago. I would see him occasionally, either working on his computer or climbing on my computer in one of his many Dead Point Magazine videos. I was curious as to what this character’s story might be. At the same time, I was apprehensive due to the fact that he, apparently voluntarily, had removed his eyebrows and replaced them with blue flames. I suspect that my initial reaction to Shadow – a blend of curiosity and judgmental uneasiness– is similar to that of many other people. By the end of our stay in the Red I would learn that, in a beautifully unscripted manner, Shadow wants it that way.
As I began to spend more time in Bishop, we would cross paths more often and eventually begin to chat. I learned that he was psyched on first ascents, and rarely bouldered on anything in a guidebook. His Pretty Lights-laced movies catalogue many days spent searching out new stone in the Tablelands, and speak to his drive to explore his world further and deeper than most are willing to go. When I last saw him at Black Sheep, he was showing me photos of gargantuan virgin boulders in the White Mountains, across the Owens River Valley from the more popular Buttermilks.
Fast forward to May 2012. Vikki and I run into Shadow on a warm Saturday at Drive-By Crag in the Red River Gorge, KY. He had just driven from Bishop, and his trusty pal Sumo (pure-bred Tchik-Maggnitt) was in tow as always. During the next couple of weeks, Vikki and I would become friends with Shadow, and we would run laps on classic RRG jughauls for training. One day, he excitedly showed us a project he was bolting at a popular sector called The Gallery. We followed him out and filmed the ascent.
Shadow found a plum in the picked-over Gallery, and that’s a testament to his never-resting eye for development. That he blends seamlessly into whatever climbing hangout he visits is easy to see, but I wanted to learn more about how this Basque-bred character (his birth name is Sombra, which means Shadow) chose the nomad lifestyle, and how it works for him. I sat down with him in the Pilgrim over a couple of beers. (Shadow barely drinks, so the beers were for me.)
Spenser: How long have you been living on the road?
Shadow: I sort of ran away from the city. I went from city to city for a while, and I OD’d on the city, and ran away. I found rock climbing while I was in Atlanta. Let’s see, we’re in 2012? I left Atlanta in 2009.
S: Have you only been climbing for a few years?
Sh: I’ve sort of gone back and forth between music and climbing. It’s sort of this balance, this equilibrium with city living and music making, and climbing and being in the mountains, that kind of thing. I’ve always had a duality in life, in that sense, either one way or the opposite way. When I went head first into music, I equally had that reaction to climbing when I found it.
I took a yearlong road trip, got a van and left Atlanta for a year. I drove across the country, went to Tahoe, Hueco, Flagstaff, Arkansas… I was on the road for a year, and went back to Atlanta, and after living on the road for a year, I was falling back into the city, and I was totally not interested in that.
I had been to the Red a handful of times prior, no more than five days at a time, and every time I went back to the city from the Red, I got horribly depressed. All I wanted to do was go back to the Red, to the mountains, to the climbing, to not the city. So when I got back, it didn’t last long, and I was already making moves to get out. And I came here, because this place had a huge effect on me. I was here for a whole season.
At the end of the season, I sort of bouldered my way to Bishop, and started living there and climbing there, going into the mountains and finding these mega-long things…Yosemite, the Sierras…not just these one- or two-pitch things, it’s on, all day, early start stuff. I started learning about that, and my whole parameter of what climbing was exploded into this larger realm. I was like, “wow”, this is what I’ve been running towards, I understand this. This is good.
S: Have you done any big walls?
Sh: Very little. I’ve done some long climbs in Vegas and some in California, in Tuolumne. Not in the Valley, I’m a little repelled by access. I registered my dog as a service animal on https://usserviceanimals.org/ and went there, and got some Valley time. It’s a place where you go and you stay for a while…to stare at the rock day in and day out and climb this and climb that and find your way around and discover things, and put in your chops on the classics…spend time. I’ve learned that, for me especially, at this point in my climbing, I like to go somewhere and spend a significant amount of time and really discover what is there. I love exploring, it’s one of my favorite things to do.
S: In the time that you’ve been on the road, how have you been supporting yourself?
Sh: There was a point in time when Dead Point Magazine was kinda new, and it wasn’t free reign, it wasn’t like YouTube. I made these little climbing vignettes and wrote music to ‘em. I had met Matt [Stark, owner of DPM] here, prior, and I had hounded him with these photos and gotten some photos published. Plus I was writing music for Spencer Victory’s climbing movies.
They [Dead Point] paid for content back then. I’d get 50 bucks for a little photo, and 200 bucks for a movie. And movies are easy, I’ll just film myself going bouldering, and induct people. You know, it’s more interesting with other people, can’t just be there by myself filming me, you gotta have other people. It’s so easy to do, get people excited and film stuff. Sometimes it’s hard, you know, can you do it again, I want to get it from this angle…and I don’t want to change anybody’s day…but you can capture that stuff with a little bit of coercing.
So that was cool, I made a little bit of flow off that. Then that changed, and it dried up, nobody’s getting paid for anything unless you have better gear, because now the bar’s been raised for content.
I had gotten a job through the University of California, while I was in Bishop. That was cool, I worked for them for a while up in the mountains, cooking for smart people. That was pretty dope.
S: How’d you fall into that?
Sh: There was an ad in the paper, and I went out there and sat down. There was like ten of them, and they just fired at me. It was all about maintenance and food, and recipes, and planning menus and being under pressure, being alone at altitude and if I was cool with that. It was cool.
It’s really easy to live on the road with nothing, outside of gasoline of course. But if you’re smart about that, sort of plan your financial battles wisely. You can get somewhere, you have a bicycle, you don’t have to drive your car everywhere. Here, the grocery store is 14, 15 miles away, so, get on the bike, go get groceries with a pack, and I got in a 30 mile bike ride and didn’t spend any money on gas. That goes a long way.
Not spending money at all, except for what you absolutely need, helps tremendously.
The people that come to places like this…you can go to certain crags on busy weekends, and walk away with almost a full rack of draws. These consumers come here and they leave their shoes, their packs, their cameras, their clothes, their $500 jacket, their rope…and they don’t give a shit, they’re gone. They’re on their way home. They’re just going to buy another one. Out of sight, out of mind. It doesn’t phase them. There’s piles of stuff, of gear, it’s ridiculous. Living out here and being at the crag all the time, these people leave so much stuff, you don’t even have to buy anything. You just go climbing all the time, and people bring shit and leave it for you. (Laughs) So that helps.
Cooking goes a long way, knowing how to cook. I can live on 5$ every three days, if I’m smart. You can get it down there. It doesn’t take much.
S: Tell us about Sumo, and the pros and cons of traveling with a dog.
Sh: I’ve had Sumo for over four years, which is crazy, because he was just this little puppy with huge paws. I found him in Utah, and he’s been rock climbing for his whole life. He spent a little bit of time in the city, he did not like that very much. He gets kind of depressed, like I do. He just wants to come out here and be free.
S: You found him…he was a stray?
Sh: I got him through the Humane Society. I went down there with a friend of mine and…I wasn’t open to the idea of having a dog. I had a dog when I was really young, and he died tragically, and that had a really profound effect on me, and I didn’t really have the desire to have a dog, after that. But that feeling eventually left me, and brought me to Sumo, and the rest is history.
He’s one of a kind. There’s a Japanese shaman woman inside of that dog, and there’s nothing I can do about it except listen.
S: He’s wise beyond his years, that’s for sure. Are there any access issues with him?
Sh: He’s a registered service animal. So that goes a long way. It’s legitimate. I haven’t had any problems with it. There’ve been situations where if he wasn’t a service animal, it would be a problem, so it’s nice to have that. There’s a special tag for him, and when we’re in those types of situations, he’ll wear it.
S: Is he ever a pain in the butt to travel with?
Sh: The only thing…he’s so used to comfort. He likes it comfy, he knows what it’s like to have a pillow and a blanket. So when it’s pouring down rain for three days, and everything is mud-soaked, and he decides to go swimming in the muck, and roll around in the mud with another dog, and want to go to bed…he’ll jump in the van, and I’m in bed now…that’s the only thing where sometimes….I just smile, and he looks at me…what can I do. (Laughs).
Lately though…the other night, it was 9 o’clock and I was in bed watching a movie, and I fed him and he snuck out. I didn’t hear him leave the van because I had the door open and the drape down. He went back to the campfire, and he hung out with everyone at the campfire until like 2:30 in the morning, then he came back at 3 in the morning and jumped into bed. He made me feel so old. “I’m gonna sneak out and go party.”
S: Are there any downsides to life on the road? We felt, when we were leaving on this trip, that there’s this whole stigma, this societal guilt about not doing the 9-5 thing, “contributing to society” Do you ever feel that, are there any moments…?
Sh: Well, the working thing, outside of supporting the community, for the self, working is important, because it gives structure. And structure is only a good thing. Structure will not do you wrong. So working is a good thing.
You can eat out of a garbage can, if it doesn’t gross you out. You can beg for money, if your pride doesn’t stick you in the back. You can steal something that doesn’t belong to you, if you can sleep with that. Being on the road has been difficult in the sense that I find out who I am. What kind of a person I am. There are definitely times where, I mean, I’m just going to go out and grab a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread, because that’s all the money I have, and that’s all I’ve got. Somehow, it doesn’t matter, I’m just going to go climbing, and I’ll deal with eating later. And that kind of extreme…it takes a toll, but it’s also invigorating, it’s inspiring, suffering for your pleasure, for your moment. Because it’s all about the moment.
Everybody’s different. Everyone has a breaking point, I mean shit, there are people that can go out there and live off of nothing, live off the land, and just keep climbing. They have a water source, there are fruit trees around, like there’s some perfect environment that people have been living at for thousands of years and there’s boulders there too, or whatever. And there are people that go climbing and they can’t take a shit outside…they’ll hold it all day, and it’ll ruin their climbing, because they can’t shit in the woods. Everybody’s different.
So it being hard, it’s going to be hard for everybody in their own way, and like anything, the more you do it, the easier it gets…er…maybe not so easy (laughs) but it becomes more commonplace. You kinda learn how to…
S: You get better at it.
Sh: Exactly. And you meet other people of the same sort of ilk, you get to hang out with other drifters or nomads or loners or travelers or whatever, and hear their stories, and learn things. How to do this or do that, or if you’re going here, go there, there’s water there, it’s free, you don’t have to pay for this or that, get the skinny. So the more you go around the more you kinda don’t have to rely so much on money.
S: So you did the yearlong road trip and then you decided to leave Atlanta again. Were you nervous about living on the road? And after that, were there any moments where you were like, “This was the right decision”?
Sh: I had a fair amount of gear, I had a lot of instruments, I sold what I could, and what I couldn’t sell I literally just left. I had a lifetime supply of bass strings, and I literally just walked away from them. Because I couldn’t get any money for them, I didn’t want to take the time to put them on Craigslist. You can get rid of gear, it’s like, here, you want to buy this gear? Cool, gimme the cash. Great. This lifetime supply of base strings? That’s like the easter egg from hell. Some bass player’s going to find that and be like, Holy shit, I just found a lifetime supply of bass strings?
I sacrificed a bunch of stuff from a different life, and I just literally walked away from it. And when I got here [Miguel’s] I was raring to go. I had a job, and I’m living outside…it was thrilling to be homeless, living in my van, having an income…the possibilities were endless. It’s like, I don’t have any rent, I’ve got income, and I’m climbing every day? Are you kidding me? This is a dream come true. You know? That was all new, and it was amazing. This whole new life, this whole new experience.
But the road is long, the road is long and it’s lonely, at times. Some people do it with other people, and they stick it out together, you know. People are people, people come and go, relationships are different for everybody. I know a lot of people who live that way solo. They’re loners. And then I meet people who’ve been on the road as a couple, and I’ve only ever known them as two people. It’s really cool, the dynamic of the different kinds of people that you meet, that live similar ways.
It’s killer, man, it’s really cool. It’s better than walking down the city sidewalk, surrounded by people, going “oh wait a minute, I think I saw that guy before…I wonder where.” Out here, there’s less people, and you see someone like “oh, I saw you in Texas!” or “Oh wait a minute, I saw you in Squamish, we climbed at that thing.” It’s a smaller world, in a sense. It makes the world a little smaller, which is kinda cool. Drowning in this infinite sea of people, swimming through them, it’s like, f*ck man, can’t even breathe. Everyone’s breathing the same breath.
S: I often wonder about that because, you know, city life, if you excel in that field or whatever, you know, that community…
S: …that community gets smaller as well.
Sh: Totally, and some people thrive in the city. People come out here [Miguel’s] and just stagnate… “I’m so bored, I want to put a gun to my head, give me the city where I can thrive and make money, or art, or whatever it is.”
S: Since you move into an area for a while…what’s the process for establishing yourself in a new area and sort of becoming one of the locals?
Sh: I will never be a local anywhere, really. I’ve found that having a good attitude, and smiling, and meaning it, and being honest, and outworking anybody at any moment because my work ethic is through the roof, it’s easy to make my way. I don’t really have any set guidelines. I keep it pretty simple. Honesty, and a very strong work ethic, and you don’t really need much else to fit in anywhere. Really. I mean, having a lot of imagination works well, but also having the means to discipline that imagination and get something out of it, instead of just drawing pictures all day.
I find that I can go anywhere and know nobody, and in a matter of time it’s fine. Because people are judgmental. They have to be. Or, they don’t have to be but they’ve learned that, by making judgments, it’s easy for them to get through life. Because life is full of all of these directions, and you don’t really know wholeheartedly, and you don’t really know why you’re going in the direction that you are. You think you might, but you really don’t, most people. And they’re battling that, constantly. So making judgments, ultimately destroys them, but they think it’s helping them, because they need to make sense of things. Because if it doesn’t make sense, then they’re having a hard time with life, and nobody wants that.
And I’ve dealt a lot with that, with the tattoos and shit, and whatever. People make serious judgments. And I’ve found that that can be a really good thing. I used to think that’s a horrible thing. You don’t truly know, so why would you try to pretend? It robs you of the truth, and that’s ultimately what anybody wants, is the truth…(chuckle) Maybe not, but anyway…
Judgments are good. Because to make a judgment, you think something, and then later, hopefully, you’re around long enough to find out that your judgment was incorrect, because that’s when the enlightenment happens. You’ve made this judgment, “it’s this way,” without the information. And then you learn that that judgment is not true, and you learn what it is. That little experience right there is full of so much, and you just reap it all if you really want it. It’s really cool. So judgments, I find, are actually good things. Because they are opportunities toward enlightenment. (Starts to chuckle) Very easy little lilypads of enlightenment, you know, it’s like, “that person’s from so and so, from Puerto Rico,” because of their skin tone or whatever, and then you find out that they’re not, they’re Mexican. Oh my gosh! That’s generalized, but… It’s hard to come up with judgments, because I try so hard not to.
S: So speaking of judgments, I have to ask you about the tattoos. When did you get all these?
Sh: They’re just…over the course of my life, moments of opportunity. Whether it be somebody with a homemade gun, or I had an extra 150 bucks. I don’t have enough.
S: So what are your plans now? How long will you stay in the Red and where are you headed?
Sh: Well, I just moved into a house after living in the van for around 5 years. The house is on 37 acres and we have already, within the last few days, found a wall we are dubbing “The Backyard.” My decision to move back to the Red was a good one. I have never felt more at home and my cup is already spilling over with great happiness. I work for wonderful people and new discoveries are an everyday occurrence. I can see myself buying land and building a house here, but I’m going to give not living in the van a try first. There is endless development to be had and I have always enjoyed epic, all day bushwhacking. The pay off is worth every bit of the discomfort. That reminds me…the Shell station sells machetes, I’m gonna get one…