About a month ago, I gathered a makeshift team of oddballs together to celebrate my birthday in the Alabama Hills. It was a Tetris game of wildly different personalities from nearly every one of my friend groups – the photographer, the mountain guide, the dude I met once from Facebook, the couple that picked me up at a goth club 6 years ago, and the weird kids in the back who really wanted to stay up late and do too much acid. We were a junkshow.
Early Saturday morning, after a near-Herculean effort involving Kanye West, Carl’s Jr. coffee, and a naked woman gyrating around a campfire, I rallied my tired soldiers at 6am to go rock climbing. With the grace and enthusiasm of a quintet of baby sloths, we laughed our way up a slew of 5.7 routes, topping out on a towering, granite shark’s fin as we gazed across the valley towards Mt. Whitney herself. I was hot and headached and… happy.
Skin began delicately shredding from our fingertips the more we climbed, and afternoon heat was turning the rock face into a sweltering, brick oven as it baked. We eventually high-tailed it to find a pizza and an outcropping of shade, setting up our tents and vehicles in a half-moon spread wide across the desert floor, bodies piled into the 20 square feet of shade under a giant boulder like kids at a slumber party. With a box of cookies as my pillow and a yoga mat as my mattress, I giggle-snorted in the late sun as my polyamorous friends raised questions and eyebrows. I didn’t mind that we weren’t crushing more routes. The ephemeral blanket of camaraderie was all I needed.
In the city, it can be easy to forget that we’re all just a bunch of naked, social apes. Humans evolved out of communal groups for tens of thousands of years, and our mental sanity is literally tethered to this constant source of interaction and stability. In the urban world, I think we do ourselves a great disservice by pairing off into boxes and workplaces full of boundaries, no wildness or serotonin-inducing clan in sight. The modern family has been fractured based on college selections and job locations, meaning it’s up to us to combat the cycle by creating a deeper sense of community within the spaces we hold dear.
I am tickled by all the brilliant ways I’ve seen this concept come to fruition. Book clubs, intense weekend LARPing retreats, craft nights, jam sessions, and houses with nerf-gun arsenals are just a handful of the gorgeous ideas I’ve seen my friends enact on a regular basis. The pervasive notion of creating modern tribes has even invaded the often isolating world of contemporary parenthood, with forward-thinkers living in communal spaces or hosting dinner parties where parents and children merge every Saturday night.
Studies have shown that social media and our increasingly technological world can be isolating or empowering – depending on how you interact with them. Are you a passive scroller and clicker, or are you actively reaching out and communicating with your peers? The former is said to lead to unhealthy comparisons and unhappiness. The latter allows you to help break the cycle of modern isolation by designing a choose-your-own-adventure family that supports you in the ways you need most.
And so, as an altitude-addict and lover of intensity, I find myself torn. I love mountaineering. I love solo trekking and hurling my body against an alpine landscape until I am broken and trembling. But, the more I adventure outside, the more I realize that, if I were to be truly honest with myself, my best days in the outdoors were the ones I spent in good company. Climbing is such an arbitrary hobby anyways; why not share a smile with a person instead of an unflinching mountaintop?
The day after my friends and I bailed on our sport climbing to goof-off in the shade, I led three remaining stragglers up an icy trail, deep in the Eastern Sierra. We boulder-hopped and fell on our asses repeatedly as we clumsily tried to avoid the late-season snow. In the foreground, Temple Crag loomed large and ancient like an intricately carved palace on the horizon.
As we stopped to eat our lunch on a rocky perch above a frozen alpine lake, I couldn’t help but wistfully look out at the high mountains that loomed just beyond us, a twinge of anxiety seeding itself in my gut. Climbing them would mean giving up weekends like this to suffer with near-strangers, a prospect that no longer fit my personal desire for solitude or masochism.
I shivered and tossed another cheese stick into my mouth before splaying out on a lichen-splotched rock, using a friend’s lap as a pillow. The familiar warmth of dopamine comingled with the blood in my veins as I catnapped in gratitude. Who needs to cheat death when you’ve got friends like these?