On Belay (for now)

August 27, 2011

by Jimmy

I’ve lived what I would call a secure life. Growing up, I always had two parents in the house, plenty of food to eat, good friends, a caring extended family. I attended Appalachian State on my parents’ dime, fell into a good construction job right after college (gaining another degree of sorts), travelled for work and play, saved cash for the second round of school, married a fantastic woman, and so on. You get the idea. Sure, there were rough spots. I worked during high school, suffered heartbreak (and broke a few hearts), lost a good friend who wrapped his car around a tree, lost grandparents and other important elders, watched my parents’ divorce after I left home, and worried about my brother’s premature baby boy (who survived and is thriving). Overall, though, I have felt secure living my life. I know that’s not the case for many people, and I try not to take my luck for granted.

These guys are climbing the same route. See how the belayer is anchored to the ledge below?

Instead, most insecurity I experienced came from situations I put myself into in the outdoors, like rock climbing, cycling, and paddling. Over time, I learned to put myself into and climb, ride, or paddle my way out of serious situations. Often, I felt insecure or even scared, like the time at Ship Rock in North Carolina when I climbed a roof that had no place to clip the rope while facing a fifteen-foot fall onto my belayer (the person holding the rope to stop any fall I might take) who was tied to the rock about a hundred feet off the ground. (I have zero recollection of climbing that roof to this day.) Or the time my friend Patrick and I got lost on our mountain bikes on Peavine Mountain outside Reno and raced a lightning storm back to the house. (I swear that storm wanted to eat us.) Or the time my buddy John talked me into kayaking the Pigeon River in NC, and I got thrashed by water too unpredictable and powerful for my experience level. (Yes, I’ve coaxed John into sketchy situations, too. Together, we are idiots.) In all of these cases and others, I put myself in the situation. The stakes were high, but they were mostly physical, though that Pigeon trip rattled me mentally too. But the insecurity and fear I felt were controllable to a large extent and were over once I popped a beer back at the truck. And the main lesson I’ve learned from my outdoor experiences is this: When the physical risk runs high, the best thing to do is to breathe and keep a cool head. A cliché, I know, but it has served me well in all parts of my life, like when my daughter fell and cracked her skull. I fell apart after she was on the Life Flight helicopter.

So, what does this have to do with the Marcellus Shale? Simply this. I have no analogue, no experience, for helping me deal with the insecurity accompanying the development of the Marcellus Shale. It’s not like a climb or a bike ride or a paddle trip that will end with a beer and a re-hashing of heroic deeds and The Cheating of Death. Gas development goes on and on and the stakes are very high. Buying-a-house-and-land-in-the-country high. Keeping-the-family-healthy high. Not a broken ankle or a gashed shin. Huge things.

Two posts ago, Lilace mentioned that buying a house was “stressful.” I read that word and I’m taken back to those “conversations” we had about moving into the country. I consider myself a laid-back guy, but as my bike buds can tell you from chats while riding during this time, I was not laid back at all as Lilace and I conversed about whether we would move out of town. I mean, this is a woman with whom I share values, politics, children, and a bed, though I do question her taste in beer sometimes. But we had a lot of trouble coming to terms on the move and had some version of this “conversation” at least fifteen times:

Lilace: So, I found another house for us to look at.

Me: Where?

Lilace: On top of Pickle Hill.

Me: I still don’t think moving out of town is a good idea.

Lilace: We’ve been through this.

Me: I know, damn it, but if our well water gets screwed up, we’re screwed. Our property won’t be worth anything. We won’t be able to sell. $200,000, poof. Gone. We’ll be stuck. F*** that. [And on and on, ad nauseum.]

Almost always, Lilace calmly watched me blow my top (that’s the PG-13 version, by the way), and left me alone for a while. I was not at my most graceful, usually thinking some breadwinner bullshit like “I make the money, I make the decisions. She hasn’t read shit about this. I have. What the hell is she thinking?” Not pretty. The insecurity drove me to speak to her as angrily as I’ve ever spoken to anyone. I was (and am) not used to dealing with this kind of insecurity, one where forces larger than me can have huge and lasting impacts on my life. That I’ve read about and believed for years the impacts social, cultural, and industrial forces can have on people is an irony not lost on me.

Once I chilled out, we set up a time to look at the house

Now that we’ve moved, I’m happy about it, though uncertainty still bubbles to the surface like frack water. We’ve made our choice, and that means we have to live with it, come what may. I contain my insecurity by learning as much as I can about the process and the politics of gas extraction. As the old saw goes, knowledge is power, and I can use my knowledge to argue for what I think ought to happen. I contain my insecurity by living my version of the country life, hanging with the kids (we had a great hike on our trails Tuesday where the kids battled multi-flora rose with sticks), riding my bikes (I saw a three deer and a grouse yesterday on Shaw Road), and drinking beer on the front porch.

I also contain my insecurity by knowing we have a Plan B. Before we bought our house, I asked my aunt, who owns and rents my grandparents’ old house in NC, if we could move into her house in case our well water ended up trashed or the kids’ health was threatened. Of course, the possibility of losing my job informed my question as well. My aunt said yes. So, we’ve got a bailout option if need be, though it makes me feel a bit disloyal to the place I call home. Commitment means a lot, and I am a strong believer in committing to a place. That’s partly why I’ve never pushed to leave Tioga County where so many great people live. People who may not have a Plan B. My Plan B feels a bit like taking my climbing partner off belay after he’s a hundred feet up a cliff. I’ll be ok, but what about him? Unless he keeps his head, he’ll fall. Not pretty.


3 Responses to “On Belay (for now)”

  1. […] Last post, I mentioned that I’m a strong believer in commitment. Both bike riding and books show commitment to things like truth and knowledge. Riding bikes has helped me commit to this place because I know it. I know where the back roads are, where the red efts most likely hang out, when and where I’ll probably see deer, and now where the tartest apples are. Paradoxically, I read the landscape and at the same time I am inscribing my own story on the landscape. That’s what humans inevitably do. And as I ride, I read the changes inscribed in the landscape by the gas industry—the huge swaths of trees and fields cleared for pipelines (many already buried and re-seeded), well pads, holding ponds, compressor stations; orange extension cords snaking along the roads and plugged into yellow boxes for seismic testing; and even the new additions to houses, new cars and trucks, new roofs, new barns, new tractors, and new businesses. […]

  2. *,very nice page, i certainly enjoy this website, keep on it, keeping on!

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