Words By Chris Schulte | Photos by Stephen Eginoire
We swam and watched crawfish in the shallows and shore stones. Catfish whiskers twisted lazily in the current, swirling slow under the dark cypress roots. Not many folks would bounce down the rutted, dusty road at town’s edge, along the languid Medina River. High noon was heat itself, quiet but for the cicadas, the very sound of summer.
Our spot on the river bend ran clear and cool where a towering cypress tree shaded a small sandy beach. Wet two-by-fours roughly nailed to its trunk provided a route to its highest limbs, often twisting underfoot a horrifying 30 feet above ground. After traversing a large branch overhanging the placid river, we’d drop and count expedited seconds until the cool, green water closed overhead, hammering into our eardrums. Slipping in damp tennis shoes along the shore, we walked from shade to shade under the riverside canopy. Across a crumbling concrete bridge, we looked upslope to a steep and winding road that led up to who knows where. We’d never gone to look. We were young, my best friend and I, maybe 10, 11.
We sauntered along the burning potholed road, bordered thickly by cedar, vine and thistle. The summer heat pulsed, and the humidity kept the damp stuck to our sunburnt skin. In my periphery I saw, along the road’s edge, a shape too clean and even, though weatherbeaten, for nature to have cut. It was a broken, hidden staircase, winding up into the steep and treed hillside. Discussion. Indecision. Eventually, we padded quietly upward, stopping now and again to collect ourselves before boldly setting out once more, 10 steps at a time. The ramparts of an aged wall reared up from the chossy, limestone cliff. A rusty door pierced the mountainside. Creaking joints broke free as we leaned into frozen hinges and entered into a darkened room presided over by a weathered bar. Blooms of multicolored broken glass lay scattered, ankle-deep. In the corner, another staircase climbed upward into the light, where a wide expanse looked out brightly from the ruin, across the greens and tans of the rolling hills and ranches of home, now smaller from our newfound viewpoint.
After hours of exploring, we made our way down the now tame winding hillside road that once mocked our bravery, our younger selves. We were newly minted masters of our home ground, with a corner of the river bend now known just to ourselves. Of course, mom knew what it was: The Silver Spur, the old dance hall, burnt down by a lightning strike sometime in the ’60s. But for us, it was our secret realm, our castle and our cool. It was a place and a doorway, a benchmark that we’d come to use to measure every cool spot we found for years to come.
Another decade passed, and I was drawn to the feet of the San Juan Mountains. I climbed with ropes and an eye to the skyline, heading up and always toward some nifty tree or ledge, some nook or aspect of the mountainside. In winter, I’d walk solo and cold, far into the Weminuche, scrambling into canyons with picks and crampons, hunting for jewel-blue smears of ice hiding in dark hardrock corners.
With the arrival of spring, the ice disappeared from the mountain stone, and I’d wander farther down into the Animas Valley. There in the bright March sunshine, I met The Crew, tanned and technically adept, lounging, smoking, climbing laps across the pockets and edges of the Boxcar boulder, at X Rock. Pulling on and into queue, I danced my way up the routes I knew and shook up ones I didn’t. We talked the walk of local spots, and they dropped place names I’d never heard, taking the gentle ribbing as the new kid on the “bloc.” I guess I’d kept up just enough, for soon we’d climb together more.
I learned and sank my roots deep, where they hit bedrock and branched out. I scratched up climbs high above Camp Bird Road, kicked steps up Snowdon, jammed my body into desert cracks, and hunted for summertime routes in Eureka and Wolf Creek. Variety and accessibility are hallmarks of much of climbing in the Southwest. It’s an easy thing, with eyes and ears open, to learn from all disciplines of master climbers here.
A few years passed and a particularly strong and bright-eyed climber said, “Meet me tomorrow and I’ll take you somewhere new. Bring a trusted friend or two, it’s time somebody else came to appreciate this.”
A 10-minute drive from downtown Durango brought us to a mountainside dotted with houses. We parked at the edge of a quiet neighborhood and hustled for the trees. Stomping breathless up the steep shale slope, we came at length to a bench under the high ponderosa, piqued with dark sandstone boulders. It was the best bouldering area I had ever seen, and right here, in my back yard. We walked and climbed for hours, zigzagging up and down the slope, climbing all the routes our guide was kind enough to share. We wandered through the new trove, agape at so much hidden and unmarked terrain. With torn skin and sagging muscles, we circled back around to a spot near the trailhead, to a pristine boulder. A glassy slab edged by a steep arête soared high into the branches of a neighboring pine. With just enough holds, I imagined myself somehow reaching the large hueco near the top and using it to pull myself up and over the lip to the summit of the boulder.
“Holy cats, man,” I exclaimed. “Why didn't you bring us to this amazing route to start with? I'm too crushed to even put on my climbing shoes now!”
“Because it’s still unclimbed and I haven't done it yet,” he grinned. “I wanted to completely wear you out before bringing you here.”
He was a kind fellow, all smiles and good energy. Thoughtful, generous and a strong climber admired by everyone who knew him. Yet he kept this ultimate boulder from our little crew until he knew we had no hope of climbing it first. However, he had shared this whole new area, hidden in plain sight and crowned with this coveted unclimbed route, knowing that we'd soon return.
As time drew on, I kept the colder season for traveling to the high deserts of the West to climb higher and harder block, but always returning back to the Animas Valley, lost souls and all. I’d creep the long way up into what some called The Secret Spot, an irony at the edge of town. Rumor was, a pistol-packin’ hombre on horseback patrolled that gambel and pondorosa thicket, and you’d get run’t off iffn he saw the likes of you. I never did. But in that great expanse of tilted orange Dakota sandstone, I found a hundred brand-new routes, as well as old ones; the traces of hidden legends. I also found parts of myself and set the corners of my own foundation.
The motley blend of ingredients concocting secret spots are colorful and diverse, shifting in spectra and strata. Hemingway loved working in quiet restaurants, and he’d run you off from his own workspace-feast-in-motion. Secret spots proliferate every sub-culture: the fishin’ holes, the offshore breaks, the campsites with a view, the out-of-sight and well-waxed curb, the boulder field packed with stones high enough to climb, untouched and cut by angels, each with its own subset of keepers of the supposed secret with unique justification.
Some people want to pluck all those fish, unclimbed routes, truffles and thrift store finds. Maybe Eden rests in a sensitive spot that can’t handle the traffic. Some would save a place for themselves, some just want to save it. Maybe paradise is set deep into private land, just bring a friend or two. Sometimes the secret sits wide open, the only caché thing is some actually make the long walk to get here. Some don’t trust a damn one of us to not blow it for everyone. Often folks just want to KNOW, to be a holder of some special currency, a member of the circle. But one thing seems sure: once you walk the secret road, you’re damned if you do share, damned if you don’t.
I’m back down here in the San Juans, a decade hence from carving through the Front Range crowd to find some elbow room outside and swing my legs on sexy peaks. I’ve gone back to secret spots I held as aces to my breast and found them as before I’d left: dusty, overgrown and packed with bears and skeeters. Places I once guarded fierce are quiet as a church, without a human hand to touch or pair of eyes to see. Or are they?
The value of place to me was secret and prospective; nowadays it’s still there, but only I recall. Conversely, The Secret Spot, manned by the horseman on patrol, has now become city open space, opened up for all non-motorized traffic to enjoy. One can still stroll the winding paths, now much less overgrown. The trees are trimmed to mitigate the chances of wild fire, the paths are cleaner, bikes wheel by, and dogs beside themselves with joy come romping through the oak. And still there lie the quiet corners at the borders of the norm, where no one takes the time to go. The thicket closes tight around these frontier lines until you crash a moment through where it opens up again, and on.
Many of us preserve our secret spots in part because we want them for ourselves. We want to know they are there for us, left in the state we found them. We want that feeling of the novel quietude, the space inherent and the security of the wild. We need them there, away from everyone. We need sometimes to be alone, to be ourselves at some feral home. The spots I’ve known, found myself or shared, or those that have been shared with me, keep me looking, hoping, searching. They fill me with a sense of gratitude and respect so good and pleasing that I can’t help but be in awe at the growth of things, life’s patterns, the measure of the world, great to small.
I don’t know who or what to thank when I’m gifted a new spot or route. I thank the world for making it, the slow urge of tectonic force, the relentless seasons and sunshine, winds and rain, runoff from melting snows, and high hanging pine needles. I’m glad I went out there to look, that I made a move on some force tugging at my chest, as if I could feel new rocks and hidden glens incoming. I can almost sense a new route, where the foggy edges of possibility and reality coalesce. Am I manifesting this unknown world that does not exist until I see it? What a wondrous state, in these places, this feeling of discovery blending elements we sense and feel. We participate in the fluidity of reality. It finds us, and we, too, are real.