LATE JULY SOMETIME in the mid-80s: the night ticked away in a dizzy swirl of white lines and mile markers. Tall Northwest cedar and fir trees formed blurred tunnel walls, and only fast-food joints and phone-booth stops interrupted our trajectory along the endless road. In the driver’s seat, Fred scrunched over like a vulture, his weathered talons wrapped tightly around the wheel, and his crinkled nose inches from the windshield. He’d told me his ignition quit working near the British Columbia Coast Range in May, but he’d been too busy (going from climb to climb) to get it fixed. Thus, we’d have to find a suitable hill before we could stop to bivy: in the morning, to get the car started, I’d need an incline to push it down while Fred readied himself to drop the clutch once we reached the appropriate velocity.
Back then, I was an itinerant house painter, and Fred had picked me up after work in West Seattle (lots of good hills for jump starts). I’d known him for more than a decade. The day after high school graduation, June 1972, my buddy Brian Leo and I had hopped a freight train from Montana to Seattle where a mutual friend handed us off to Fred. The three of us had spent that entire summer driving around western Canada, two seventeen-year-old boys and a fifty-year-old man, climbing and attempting to climb. To my developing teenage brain, the adventure seemed like something between a John Muir wilderness story and a climber’s version of Kerouac’s On the Road. After days in a crowded little car, however, Fred became irritated with us–perhaps the last straw was Brian’s decision to use Fred’s spoon to snow seal his boots in the back seat. And so Fred dumped us out of his car on I-90 outside of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where the cops soon busted Brian and me for underage hitchhiking. Nonetheless, I was hooked on the idea of a raw, nonconformist lifestyle in search of elusive first ascents, and I signed on for future seasons with Fred. Since then, our travels had ranged from Alaska to China, Mexico, Kenya and Tanzania.
Over a pizza box spread open on the coffee table at the house where I was staying, Fred now asked if I had the guidebook to the North Cascades, seemingly oblivious that he’d written it. Surprised that he didn’t have one, I dug mine out, and we thumbed through it to the photo of Mt. Goode. Fred pointed at a swath of unclimbed rock between two existing lines drawn on the picture. “I know this mountain is good rock,” he said. “It should go.” I didn’t see any continuous cracks where Fred had traced the imaginary new route, but I kept quiet. If anyone could sniff out a route up an improbable face it was Fred.
Before we could set out, Fred had to retrieve some gear from his urban bivy at Alex Bertulis’s house. Along the way, we stopped at various phone booths–at McDonald’s, at Burger King and in a parking lot–so Fred could make calls to arrange future climbing trips. Finally, he marched over to Alex’s doorstep on the other side of town. Fred’s cache was upstairs in the studio behind a couch pulled away from the wall. After Fred dug out what he needed, he checked the refrigerator for cold soda pop. “Have some,” he said. He handed me a bottle. “Alex doesn’t give a shit.”
We didn’t begin driving toward the North Cascades until 11:00 p.m. I was dozing, my head pasted against the passenger window, when the car weaved off the main road into a little village, and I awoke to Fred’s announcement that he could go no farther: the grassy lawn of a public park looked like a comfy place to sleep; and a nearby slope of pavement to park the car seemed too good to pass up.
IT WASN’T LONG AFTER SLEEP CAME, just before the faint morning light, that I heard the suspicious sound. Schuunk, schuutt, schuutt, schuutt…. Big globs of water slapped our down bags and ricocheted off the ground tarp. I jumped up and howled. Fred rolled out from wherever he was in his dreams, and we dragged the bivy across the clean-cut lawn, away from the torrent of the automated sprinklers. An hour later, the noise began again. This time, our slapstick performance was visible to god and country in the clear light of dawn: two grown men (so to speak) in underwear hauling a tarp of wet sleeping bags and clothes at 5:00 a.m.
So that explains why the grass is so green, I thought. When the sprinklers went off again at 6:00, we decided to throw our soaked gear in the trunk of our car and go look for a coffee shop. As I began to push the car down a not-quite-steep-enough incline, the car jerked to a false start. I shoved as hard as I could, and Fred dropped the clutch again as I yelled, “Turn the key on!”
Since there weren’t any coffee shops open yet, we went back to the park and dumped all the wet stuff on the ground to dry near the bathrooms. A gaunt, coveralled caretaker walked toward us at a brisk pace. “You can’t camp here,” he shouted. “This is not a campground! What if everybody camped here?”
Even after his best post-bivy grooming, Fred still looked exactly like someone who’d been on an all-night drive, with two hours of sleep interrupted by lawn sprinklers. But he stared at the caretaker for a moment, as if seriously considering his question. Then Fred replied in a casual tone, “I guess you’d have to put up a liquor store.”
THE CARETAKER WAS STILL SHOUTING that we were nothing but freeloaders when Fred and I drove away. We arrived at the Lake Chelan ferry terminal just in time to stumble with our overflowing packs up the gangplank and onto the boat as the mate closed the gate. At the other end of the fifty-mile-long lake, we got on the park service tour bus to eliminate some of the long, steep approach to the base of the peak.
As the young ranger collected the fee, she told Fred that seniors could ride free of charge. Fred grumbled, torn between terminal habits of frugality and sensitivity about his age. Pride won, and he shoved the five bucks in her hands. The bus rattled along slowly, coming to a halt a dozen or so times so our guide could recite her diligently rehearsed lines about flowers, animals and waterfalls. Each time, she invited everyone to go on short little walks, while Fred protested that we needed to get on our way. The ranger countered that this was not a private taxi service and there were other people to consider. By the end of the ride, both Fred and the ranger were silent, and the rest of the passengers (myself included) kept our gaze on the ground; such was the collision of wills.
At last, Fred and I escaped the group, and we began walking up a gentle path through a green forest that morphed into game trails and soon disappeared into steep heather slopes that wove between granite outcrops and slabs. Again and again, I charged ahead as fast as I could, only to collapse panting. Meanwhile, Fred moved continuously at one speed–the definition of the mountaineer’s pace. We arrived below the face at the same time.
After a bivy, we roped up in the morning for our terra incognita. From below, I could see no clear line to follow, only a mosaic of disconnected fractures. For the next few hundred feet, the stone crumbled beneath our hands, and once we’d removed a significant amount of the mountain, I said no thanks.
“If you’re not having fun, it’s OK with me if we go down,” Fred replied. His voice was at a higher pitch than usual. “I don’t want you to do anything you don’t like.”
So we went down, scurried around the base of the peak, and climbed back up the regular route. It was one of those beautiful summer days in the mountains. Small tuffs of white clouds clung to the tops of the surrounding peaks and gleamed against a vivid blue sky. In silence, we scrambled through the cool still air to the top of Mt. Goode. On the summit, we sat and gazed in all directions at mountains and valleys without end.
FRED AND I WENT our separate ways for the rest of the summer, but in December we ended up together again for some off-season cragging in Arizona. On the last day of the year, the sun had just set over the mountains west of Tucson as I drove my van down the winding road from the top of Mt. Lemmon. A soft winter dusk still illuminated the air with a faint blue. Ahead, the road was empty, and the rugged mountain desert tumbled through thorns and cacti toward a shimmering blanket of urban lights. Just then, a big mountain lion flew down the bank and streaked across the road–not thirty feet in front of the car. Its tail flickered, long and stout, and I was struck by how close it moved to the ground, its body hunched but fast. Fred shouted to stop, and he jumped out with his camera. By then, the cat had vanished into the shadows of rocks and bushes. We stood mesmerized by the vacant wake it left behind.
We headed for town to have some New Year’s Eve fun and take advantage of free Happy Hour bar food. After our third or fourth trip to the buffet table, the waitress scowled. “This food is for paying customers. If you are going to eat, you have to buy something to drink.”
“That’s OK, lady. I’ve had all I want,” Fred replied. He shoved his paper plate with a couple of cold Swedish meatballs and broken tortilla chips into her hands.
Before her shock could abate, I said I’d have a draft beer. I was drinking ever so slowly, engrossed in a college basketball game on the TV; I hardly noticed Fred go out to the car and come back to the men’s room with a small bag.
“Do you know what he is doing in there?” the waitress shouted. She stood between me and the basketball game; she was trembling with anger.
“Who?” I said.
“That man you’re with,” she said.
“No,” I said.
“He is in there shaving,” she said. She pointed at the men’s room. “This is not a campground! What if everybody came here and shaved in the men’s room?” she said.
I thought that since it was already a bar they wouldn’t need a liquor store, but I didn’t offer that answer.
“Are you in charge of him?”
“No,” I said. I could hear the buzz of an electric razor through the men’s room door, insistent and implacable as a swarm of flies. “He’s almost twice my age. I don’t know anyone who is in charge of him.”
The night sky was just beginning to show some light when we pulled off the road again, a hundred or so miles north of Phoenix. Surrounded by towering saguaros, I turned off the motor, rubbed my eyes and glanced over at the craggy human curled up in the seat beside me. I thought of the puma that Fred and I had witnessed a few hours earlier: both the cat and Fred roamed intersecting ranges of mountains and deserts, roads and suburbs; neither could stay exclusively in one realm or the other. By force of will, Fred had traversed impenetrable wild places, where his understanding of what lay between car and summit was known only to him.
I pulled my bag from the back and flopped out in the dirt beside the van, listening to the hum of the trucks go by on the highway on the other side of the hill. Periodically, the noise grew louder, piercing the silence of the stark and majestic desert and then fading somewhere in the vast ocean of night. Fred, who could always drift off when he needed to–with a granite block for a pillow in an alpine meadow, or with no pillow at all in an arroyo next to a buzzing freeway–was a few feet away, already tucked in his bag and sleeping soundly, dreaming of whatever it was that Fred Beckey dreamed. Perhaps of new routes, but I’ve often imagined that in his trance-like slumbers he communed with the spirits of alpine explorers and cartographers from the past, who long ago roamed and mapped his beloved mountains. Slowly, the sunrise warmed the cold dark air. Still buzzing from the night drive, my mind began to quiet, and I fell asleep for what would be only a few hours before we headed out on the road again. It was a new year.