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Chapter 6 — Climbing in Yosemite, Quest For Fire, and Penthouse magazine
An Ordinary Disaster chapter 06 — Sex Ed
We’d all heard about Sex Ed as we were approaching high school, and we looked forward to it with anticipation, but I don’t recall ever actually being taught anything at all about sex in school, or anywhere else, for that matter. Maybe Sex Ed had been phased out by the time I got to high school. By then, of course, it would have been too late anyhow. Even if it had materialized, given the quality of educational materials at the time, what we might have been shown would have been another in the series of black-and-white spools similar to the ones we’d seen about driving, drugs and prison—something along the lines of Scared Straight and Nancy Reagan’s laugh-show of an abstemious slogan: ”Just Say No.” Yeah, right. It was striking—and disappointing—that the mythical Sex Ed class never did materialize. The entirety of what little education about sex I did receive came indirectly, in three short acts, all involving my father.
The first time the subject came up in any way was on one of our trips to Yosemite. My dad was a secondary member of the hip sixties climbing crowd that included guys like Doug Tompkins, Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, and other dirtbag luminaries of the time, and he brought me to Yosemite several times as a boy to introduce me to his love of the Sierra Nevada. My parents left Long Island to get away from their own flatland families, away from too many siblings all sharing the same CB radio channel, and away from the ground-down, low-rolling-hills history of the slow, old east coast. They went west for the mountains. I’ve asked them about the culture, about San Francisco, about the Haight, the music, the drugs—but they weren’t interested in any of that. My parents hardly noticed what was going on in the city, and, from what I can tell, they put most of their youthful energy into the smooth granite domes and high crystalline peaks just beginning to be explored by a new generation of outdoorspeople who were also city dwellers, entrepreneurs, and world travelers. I can dig it—I never really liked hippies that much either, and that’s where I would have wanted to be—up in the mountains.
I was nine or ten years old at the time of this particular trip. My dad and I set up in one of the valley campgrounds, and I went to sleep that night with the anticipation that we were going to do a real climb together the next day. There are a variety of reasons that Yosemite Valley became the birthplace of modern climbing, not the least of which is the fact that there are many classic routes that can be done by novices, and even children, with proper equipment and guidance. The wide range of difficulty in the climbing there, all of it on such clean, perfect, vertical rock, and all in such a monumental and yet approachable setting, is what caused climbing to break out from something that had been done only by a few beardy mountaineers in hobnails in the early part of the twentieth century to become the sport practiced these days by fit young singles at your local climbing gym.
We broke camp the following morning and drove to the Yosemite Falls parking lot in the silver Ford Taurus station wagon that my dad had at the time—complete with electronic combination door locks and a big brick mobile phone in the center console—and set to the task of organizing our equipment for the day. If you’ve ever leafed through a copy of Outside magazine or seen a climbing documentary, you’ve seen the shot of climbers sorting gear as they prepare for the day—two guys with their shirts off, picking through a pile of ropes and colorful hardware in a parking lot, one bent over the pile of pro, the other eyeing the cliffs looming above the pines.
The look in the seventies was long hair and bandanas. In the eighties it was powdered Gatorade and Patagonia pile jackets—just as these days it’s Aeropress coffee and Apple watches—regardless, the sort is a key part of a day out on the rock, not just to be sure that you have everything you’ll need up there on the wall, but also to advertise to everyone else around that There Are Climbers Here. As insular and disdainful of civilians as most climbers are, the fact is that they love attention as much anyone else, and often go out of their way to set up where they can be seen.
It was just the two of us there together with our pile of bright pink, green, yellow and blue ropes, cams, nuts and slings spilling out of the back of the car on a clear Yosemite morning. My dad had described the route that we were aiming for as ”do-able” and yet also quite “exposed,” meaning that the climb would be easy, and yet vertical enough to offer a full-on view of the drop to the valley floor hundreds of feet below. I soon came to know the feeling of swimming in thin, alpine air, watching birds circling below, having climbed around a rocky corner to stand on a ledge the size of a dinner plate—and that was part of the promise of the day, as I soaked in the warmth of the morning sun and the crisp scent of the tall evergreens that stood between us and the base of the climb. The sound of the thundering Yosemite Falls, also hidden by the trees, filtered towards us along with scraps of mist and bits of conversation, fragmented by the full volume of Yosemite Creek pouring down from more than a thousand feet above.
With everything ready to go, we locked the car and began the walk of a mile or so to where we would begin the climb. Sunnyside Bench, so named for being on the south-facing side of the valley, rose up along the right side of the falls, themselves a well-known tourist attraction, and so there were plenty of other people making their way along the wide, paved trail dusted with pine needles. My father, still at least twice my size, carried most of our gear as we set off. Before we had gone more than a couple hundred yards though, he stopped and turned to me with a smile. “Here, you carry the rack,” he said, lifting the nylon sling crowded with aluminum nuts and carabiners off his shoulders and draping it over my small body. The weight was a comforting and containing embrace, and all the bits of hardware dangling around me made me feel like I was carrying a giant, cartoon tool belt. Rock climbing is serious business—and, it’s just as true that it’s a way to play outside, climbing on rocks with lots of colorful toys.
I was already used to carrying weight from our past backpacking trips, and I was happy to take my share. Adjusting to the load as we moved to continue the hike in, my dad leaned over towards me and said, “Make sure to jangle the gear as you walk,” and mimicked a little side-to-side shuffle. I looked up at him as if to ask why, and he chuckled and stage-whispered back down to me that “The sound attracts girls.” I had begun to take notice of the opposite sex that same year in the fourth grade, and so ”attracting girls” did seem like something that I might want to do, in general, but…then what? My stomach felt light with the possibility, and the uncertainty—and I felt proud that my dad was letting me in on one of his grown-man climbers’ secrets.
My dad never said anything more specific about this little scene afterwards, although it is a favorite story of his to tell. That phrase—the sound attracts girls—has remained one of the most memorable things that my father ever said to me, because it’s funny, and even moreso because it’s true. The sound does attract girls, but what really sticks with me is that it seems that he noticed what he was thinking and took the step to share it with me. He put me out front. He traded places with me. You might say he was kind of offering to be my wingman.
I did my best to make plenty of noise as we walked the rest of the way along the Falls trail together, and, maybe I’ve added to the memory, but I think some hikers did stop to ask where we were heading—a mother and daughter, all of us equally thrilled, just for a moment.
In my pre-adolescent and teenage years there were still plenty of proper full-size movie theaters in San Francisco. Roaming the city at night, riding the streetcar up Market Street, or sitting backwards in the ”back-back” of my parents’ station wagon, the towering, incandescent marquees of the Alhambra, the Castro, and the Alexandria were landmarks by which we navigated the city. When Star Wars came out in ’77, the lines went around the block at the Coronet, and they took me back there see it again and again, seven times in all.
Going to the movies was always a special occasion, and that was certainly true when my dad took me to see something called Quest for Fire a few years later. I was eleven that year, and I had already discovered the racks of triple-X magazines on display at the corner stores near our house in Noe Valley. The stacks of explicit covers had their own architecture of lurid colors calling out come see, come see, look inside like the bright facades of those big theaters. I had pocket money from my paper route and I was already used to buying small things for myself, but I knew that I couldn’t just step up to the counter with a bottle of Coke, a pack of Hubba-Bubba, and a few porn mags, so I figured out how to steal them. I can remember the tingling vibration that I felt from a glossy new copy of Hustler, Oui or Chic tucked inside my jacket, the weight of the pages projecting heat into my belly as I made my way back to my downstairs bedroom.
I hadn’t heard of Quest for Fire, but I’d read the paperback copy of The Clan of the Cave Bear that was floating around the house, and the book and the movie both combine similar themes to produce a combination of historical fiction and fantasy romance—with more than a little bit of sex. What I hadn’t remembered until I watched the film again just recently were the multiple scenes of brutal violence, rape, sexualized captivity, and cannibalism, and how deeply the imagery and sounds of the film were etched into my eleven-year-old consciousness. It’s not a poorly-made movie, and I’d say that the violence is included in an authentic effort to show how savage life may well have been in that era—still, I found it gruesome, upsetting, and scary, watching it over again as a grown man.
The film turns on a encounter between three young men on their quest for fire and a tribe of filthy ogre-like primitives whose camp is strewn with debris, weapons, and the bloody, gnawed, and roasted bones of what we soon gather are human victims. As the camera pans across the scene, we see two captives trussed like game and marked by their intricate body paint and more sophisticated clothing as members of a third, more advanced tribe. Our protagonist sees the prisoners and, despite being hugely outnumbered, rushes in to free them. The second prisoner quickly disappears, leaving the focus entirely on the nubile Rae Dawn Chong, who attaches herself to the hero.
Even now, I can recall the buzz in my body as a I watched the transformation of a female captive, in imminent threat of being dismembered, cooked and eaten by violent thugs into the doe-eyed and submissive sexual prize of the rescuer. Watched closely, the film clearly depicts the freed woman’s agency, and in fact her leadership and her superior intelligence, but as an eleven-year old just on the edge of puberty, and fueled by my exposure to Larry Flynt’s triple-XXX aesthetic, what I absorbed most was that there was something sexy about a woman in a helpless position, about how she was tied up and displayed. The scene also planted the seed of a connection for me between violence and sex.
The film ends with the hopeful image of the original tribe reunited in their old territory, gathered again around the fire with the happy young couple and their new baby. What I remember most of all though is my own small-bodied self making his way out from the crowded row of theater seats, still in the dark, quiet and embarrassed. My dad didn’t say anything either, and as we left the theater, I did my best to digest what I’d seen, on my own, in silence.
By the age of thirteen, my collection of porn magazines filled my second-to-the-bottom dresser drawer to nearly overflowing. I had even had a few groping, tongue-twisting sessions of French kissing with girls that made themselves available, but the really cute girls— the Amys, Tinas and Heathers—they remained out of reach.
My parents had separated and my father had a new girlfriend, someone from work that seemed funny, energetic and stylish. That spring—I would have been finishing eighth grade—the two of them brought me along on a ten-day road trip to the Pacific Northwest. As with many things about my father, I was destined to repeat this same trip myself more than once, also without any particular purpose in mind. Like him, I’ve often gone wandering, hoping to stumble across something that would give meaning to the journey.
Leaving to find something that might explain the leaving—I know the feeling—and that’s brought us to a lonely stretch of blacktop winding deep into the temperate rainforest of northwestern Washington state. My dad had already taught me how to drive by letting me take the wheel, first on the levee roads near the marina off the Petaluma river where he was working on his boat, and then on our frequent trips up to Yosemite. The rain was coming down hard that day up in Washington, as it almost always does out on the Olympic peninsula, and I was piloting the silvery Renault hatchback through a dark tunnel arched over with huge trees, a sea of green and black and dripping wet. We might have even had the car radio on.
Driving for the sake of driving, hard to see properly through the steamed-up windows, I rounded a bend carrying a bit too much speed. I saw the pothole, but I was stunned into inaction, and what happened next happened too fast. Perhaps you’ve heard of target fixation. I drove straight through the hole, thump thump on the left side, and the result was two flat tires, on a Sunday, somewhere out there between Quinalt, Humptulips and the edge of the map.
Let’s just say that we were all deflated. One minute I’d been tooling along, enjoying the still-new sensation of the weight of the car moving as an extension of my body, and the next, stopped by the side of the road in the cold rain, disappointed and feeling a sudden distance between myself and the two adults.
We might have managed to get one tire fixed, but two, no way, and so we were stuck there for at least a night. We got a tow into town and checked into a motel, everything grey and cold and still rain, rain, rain. The landscape there outside the primeval forest is the low, sucking mud of tidal flats, fog-bound fishing ports, and mildewed mobile homes clustered along the highway. The motel was the dismal highlight of shelter from the rain, with its tall, bright sign stretching into the gloom. Stringy-haired and supernaturally gifted songwriter Kurt Cobain grew up not far from there in Aberdeen, and I imagine all that thin grey damp seeped into him as a boy, so much so that he just couldn’t help but eventually go down into it, and eventually disappear.
There wasn’t much to do but wait for the two new tires. I parked myself on the sofa to eat Ruffles and flip through the static on the motel TV. My dad went off for few minutes, and then I heard the key in the motel room door, and he was back, holding a paper bag in one hand. My father reached into the bag, pulled out a copy of Penthouse magazine and tossed it in my lap, and then disappeared into the bedroom with his girlfriend.
The way I remember it, the door closed behind them with a click, and then we were driving south on I-5, in the sunshine again, heading back to California—but there’s a chunk of time there that just reads blank. I don’t know what happened. Most of all, I feel the silence. When he handed me that copy of Penthouse, I couldn’t help but think of all the even-more-explicit porn that I had back at home, hidden in plain sight. Until then, I didn’t think that he knew about it—as unlikely as that was—but with that gesture it became clear to me that he must have known, and that he was choosing not to talk to me about it. Not talking about the porn, not talking about sex, not talking about much of anything. It was all omitted, skipped over, ignored—which is how I felt sitting there on that motel sofa.
The truth is that as we drove home the next day, I was angry, and it was still raining. And that was it for sex ed.
Thanks for reading, and for being part of this journey.
This is part of AN ORDINARY DISASTER, the book-length memoir about a man learning to listen to himself, and the price I paid until I learned how to do that, serialized right here on Substack with a new chapter published every week.
You can find everything from the memoir that I’ve published so far right here.
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