Monkey Face

by by By Gregory Conyers

illustration by by Annika Finne

If the man in the West once lived somewhere else, he has forgotten about it.  The sky has soaked it up.  If the monkey whose face appears on a tuff tower in central Oregon remembers the monkeys of Africa and Asia, his expression doesn’t show it.

We, those who have come three thousand miles, remember the East via the warm car hood.  Or we think we do; the War of 1812; 9/11; the Met; the War of Southern Independence; Katahdin; the Land of Lincoln; but we also can’t summon it or measure it in front of the little lichen and fissured face on a winter morning.

No other climbers appear all day. Perhaps they’re home, over the mountains.  Only families walking off Christmas dinner try the chilled dust—families from Madras, and Terrebonne, and Culver.  They watch us scramble over the broken lower section and around the corner of the climb’s shoulder that’s less like a shoulder and more like axe edge honed from a shoulder bone.

Ted ties in from the bottom of the pile and I tie in from the top, and this double act of tying the doubled figure eight doesn’t recall the real and the represented or life and art but is the start of the climb, what we came here to do.  With the knot tugged tight and the rope softly piled at our feet the stone begins to flow under us like a glacier slipping into the sea.  A foot goes in, and hand comes out, and back in, and out again and up and the other foot up and the other hand up.

Out we go around the shoulder blade and then up the neck into the mouth where we feel like we’re crouched in the actual soft but present breath of the West.  The mouth faces east, actually, but east of here is more range country.  We’d forgotten about east of that. And east of that, if we cold see over the gentle sloping gradient of the amber waves of grain, would be another ridge. And east of that, if we could see over the oldest ripples in America, would be the old familiar salty seaport towns that are not ours, not the placard of colonial rule anymore.

We both breathe the central Oregon chill and then Ted crawls over the place where the tooth just back from the canines should be and out and then up the world’s shortest pitch.  The world’s shortest, but not really when the world is also only about as big as the next hold plus a sense of the one after that.  Eyes, ears, and nose function like knees and shoulders: not as receptors but as actors.  The world seems cut off at the friction rubber underfoot.  The rock smells of evaporated rain. The rain is gone and we are here. The rain is gone and the rock is here.

The land below the monkey looks zoned for growing in the summer and for deer and cows the rest of the time.  The river below looks like it comes from somewhere in the west and is indubitably headed for somewhere else in the west, probably where steelhead swim and where sea lions eat them.  The clouds look like stacked UFOs teetering over the mountains, which themselves look like flinty hardened bits of Domino’s granulated sugar.

The monolith proffers profound minutiae, and these cracks offer a road, path, way, passage.  A broken wall, a needle tip, and we emerge to the warmth above.

Metaphors come later, in a coffee shop back east with photos and the gear under the empty backpack in the closet.  There on the crown of the monkey the metaphors bow to reign of the sky and the sky ties the scene together.  No one really gets Crater Lake until they lean forward over a cliff to look down the slope to the shoreline.  No one can feel the mind of the monkey until they stare between their feet on the summit and eat lunch.

We’re here for the accumulated human activity and the benefits therefrom.  We have to leave to find accumulated geologic activity.  The switch from the former to the latter relaxes its tension in short order, but the opposite move seems fine for a while until the ache enters the chest and thinking explicitly about the monkey only makes it worse.

The hanging double rappel line down to the flats is jarring in its straightness.  The blue and the red ropes don’t twist together but hang like the double yellow lines on the road back to the airport.  At the bottom you can cup your friction device to warm up your hands. The grainy taste of the wind dissolves in your mouth, touching the tongue in the old familiar way, stimulating the same palette that sampled the salacious air of University dorm rooms and salty summer nights by the barbecue when nothing was wrong and the long vapid expanse of week weekend week became the only landmark on the narrow horizon, like the Little Prince chasing the sunset on his little planet, hoping to one day find an eclipse, but alas, the world is too small for that when life is only seven days long, a far cry from the limitless long indigo sunset of the West, a place that was pronounced closed but is reopened every time we rekindle the spark in the imagination, latching on to the granite and drinking the nanogram drip of adrenaline again, two hundred feet above solid ground.

Here, though, the growing importance of moustaches in the under-thirties creeps back in. The New York Times has a relevant article.  The cappuccino slowly deflates. In the West a climber on a sandy patch has forgotten all this.