(Originally published with Forum Magazine.)

Six o’clock in the evening, Sunday, May 24, 2015.  I’m sitting in a plane waiting for takeoff to San Francisco, California.  The farthest west I’ve ever been from my home state of Virginia is Kentucky.  This trip will be my first time on a plane, first time out West, and first time on a rock climbing trip without my family.  I couldn’t be more psyched.

Let me rewind a bit.  When a friend invited me on this trip, I couldn’t believe it.  A week, rock climbing and camping, in California, with three of my closest friends?  Heck yeah.  School was finished, tickets booked, cars rented, gear bought.  I didn’t have as much time to train as I would have liked and am bit nervous, but I know it is going to be an adventure no matter what.  And that’s what an adventure does.  It pushes your limits both physically and mentally.  The plan is to fly to San Francisco, drive through Yosemite to Bishop, California, camp in the Inyo National Forest, and climb in the Owens River Gorge.  Two days of travel and six days of climbing.  And I couldn’t be more jazzed.

The plane ride lives up to my expectations.  Bumpy car rides make me laugh, and flying proves to be no different.  The setting sun rides our wing, lighting up the sea of clouds with ruddy glory.

Hilton, Laura, and I meet up with Bryan in San Francisco and stop for a bakery breakfast on our way out.  “You’re in SF!” says Bryan.  “Too early for protein bars.”  There would be plenty of time for that later.

The drive through Yosemite necessitates quite a few stops to admire the view.  The vastness just seems to expand inside of me—so much purity, color, power, hugeness, in one place.  It’s overwhelming.  This is only the first time I am awed by God’s creation on this trip—nature’s breath-stealing beauty continues to thrill me.  The mountains call to me like they always do.

Once near the Owens River Gorge, we pull off the highway onto a maze of dirt roads.  This is Inyo National Forest—plains of old pines, sandy dirt, pocketed boulders, and pale, scruffy shrubs clinging to the ground, all ringed by snowcapped mountains in the distance.  Someone told me that I wouldn’t find the desert beautiful.  Starting here, I know they’re dead wrong.

We set up our tents, but there’s no time to climb before dark descends.  We settle for the hike into the Owens River Gorge, a steep, class three scramble with skittery switchbacks.  This will become our daily approach to the crag.  It intimidates me at first—a rocky plunge into the gorge, a deep rock slot with a small river bounding through the middle.  It’s easier than it looks, and although we hike out in the dark with headlamp light bubbles bobbing, I feel more confident in my ability to handle it with my pack the next day.  Back at camp, we christen the fire ring, easily lit with bleached desert wood.  There’s an abundance, armfuls easily gathered only a few feet from camp, oddly twisted limbs turned white by the strength of the sun.  The air turns cold and we turn in for the night, eager to begin climbing the next day.

The days that follow accumulate a pleasing rhythm, a comforting predictability punctuated by the unexpected adventures of each day spent outside.  Each morning the sun wakes me up and turns our tent into a steamy incubator.  I emerge into the crisp, spring-like air, and Laura and I read our Bibles before the boys wake up.  We cook a quick but nourishing breakfast—oatmeal or boiled eggs and bacon.  Bryan is always the last one up.  It generally takes a few unsuccessful wake up calls before I can see his socked feet disappearing into hiking boots beneath the rain fly.

Off to the crag, we plow through the hike in.  It’s usually a bit dicey with heavy packs and shifting white stones underfoot, sometimes flavored with log bridges, slopes of crumbled rock, and stinging nettles, as if the gorge is worried we’ll get bored.  By the time we begin climbing, the sun is high in the sky, blasting us with heat.  Shade proves to be a must for happy, hydrated climbers.

The rock is perfect—a golden-tan, with deep edges and plenty of footholds.  A bit slick in the sun, but in the shade, nice and rough.  The routes are tall and clean, stretching to the blue sky, scattered with occasional pockets and slots, angling in slabs and overhangs.  My hands begin to remember the feel of smooth metal quickdraws and the reassuring roughness of rope.  The gear’s bright purples, yellows, and blues pop against the rock around us.  My body remembers how to climb better than I thought, and although I fall a lot, I am happy with the routes I am able to climb.  I love to linger at the top of the routes and look across at the towering walls and down at the river and the small people below.  I climb my first multi-pitch with Bryan, a route that requires us to stop halfway up the wall and bring up the rope.  The wind and the rushing of the river makes it hard to hear, but we both make it to the very top.  Two-hundred and fifteen feet up is pretty high.  All the changing of gear makes my palms sweat, but there’s no place I’d rather be.

We’re always pretty beat when we hike out and look forward to a hot meal and relaxing around the fire.  Stopping at the hot springs becomes a nightly tradition—there’s nothing like soaking your tired body while you watch the stars come out.  Bryan points them out to me—the big dipper, the North Star, Jupiter, and Venus.  There’s so many of them.  I didn’t know the sky could be so vast.

The temperature plummets at night.  We gather around the fire, eat our ravioli and burritos, and figure out our plans for the next day.  I decide that every day should be capped with good friends, a hot springs soak, and a blazing campfire.

The week comes to an end all too quickly.  I joke about slashing our tires when we reach Yosemite—but my heart is heavy with the thought of leaving, of friends going their separate ways once more.  I know we will always meet up again, that there are always more adventures to be had.  But saying goodbye is always hard—and truthfully, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

After one last soak in the hot springs, we reluctantly leave Bishop behind.  We stop for a quick hike to Vernal Falls.  The day is a whirlwind of bus rides, double rainbows, and sandwiches.  We collapse into hotel beds at two in the morning.  Bryan and I rise a mere three hours later to catch the plane, and just like that, our adventure is over.

Thinking back on this trip, I realize that my most treasured moments were not spent on the wall.  Sure, I love climbing and always will.  I love everything about it—the movement, the rock, the puzzle, the fight, the flow, the pushing of fears, but it’s the people that make every trip perfect.  I love learning little things from people I love—like how to build a fire, how to find the North Star, how to find dry wood in the snow.  I love the laughter, the jokes, the shoulder-shaking moments of stupid hilarity—watching Hilton and Laura waltz through the grocery store, drinking coffee at odd hours of the night, listening to a case of indecision so complete I can’t help laugh ‘til I cry.  I love the sharing of beauty, of standing together and just looking at the stars, spotting a prairie dog, pointing out strange and beautiful shapes in the rock, holding a squirming, soft mole in my hands.  I love the quiet, one-in-the-morning conversations.  I love bear hugs before bed.  I love trust and vulnerability and love and strength between friends.  That’s really why I come out here.  To the mountains, to the wild places.  It’s not an adventure without this.  These people are home.

And because of this I know—the adventure is never really over.