Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

Picture a litter of puppies, each one piled on top of each other with folds of blankets covering a head here and a leg there. Growing up with five brothers and a single mother, our start was much like this. When I was seven we moved into a small apartment with cold tile covering the floor of each room. At night we created a makeshift pallet on the floor, each kid grasping a handful of blankets, covers spilling out of our arms. I remember squealing with delight as I tossed a pillow on the pile and dove in headfirst. My brothers would join me and I would look up at my mom, shaking her head watching us. She smiled and I felt rich.

As my mom worked more, our space grew and we acquired real beds. Soon the boys were in their own room and my mom and I shared another. When my mom remarried, we were thrown into another home, the kind my mom had always wanted for us. Eventually meals together became a rarity and even being in the same room all at once seemed a distant memory. We had a three story house with thousands of miles between each floor.

My life started out as a warm bundle squeezed between two of my five brothers and eventually became something else. It became three brothers in three different states and another in the basement and the other constantly chasing his friends. It became an ongoing battle between my mom and I, fighting for space, for freedom. By the time I was 17, I had achieved it and I stood alone in a studio apartment, feeling the cold hard tile beneath my toes. I felt transported back to that first apartment, only this time I was alone.

A strong sense of love had remained in our family but that pile of blankets remained untouched, locked away in a forgotten, one bedroom apartment.

It was only after the loss of my brother in 2015 that my mom began to search for that forgotten part of us and sought out comfort through touch. This unexpected death had stolen her sense of control and given her the heightened awareness it could happen again. Suddenly it seemed the only thing she had control over was giving us hugs. So each visit began with a tight, almost smothering hug and ended with an even closer embrace, holding us a little longer each time we left her house. When it felt like I was falling apart, I felt the click of a piece going back into place with each tight squeeze.

Holding Lee at El Buho Coffee Shop in Mexico

Thinking back to these moments, piecing ourselves together through touch, seems pertinent now. Especially in this lifestyle where I am constantly embracing others, even strangers. Living in a small climbing community leaves no room for polite, standoffish ways. Living in a van leaves no room for space. It is common to see six or more climbers piled into one truck to ride somewhere. On rainy days when climbing isn’t an option, we will all pour into a warm coffee shop, legs sprawling onto each other in order to share seats. I have had the same coffee shop all to myself aside from one person and still we huddle together, sharing our words and close company.

The ability to share space opens myself and others to share parts of ourselves. I will discover the heartbreaks or the triumphs or the realizations that brought them to the point of, “I want to live in my car.” And sometimes they will discover how I got there too. This aspect is one of the most unexpected upon moving into my van. It has brought me closer to other humans more than I ever thought it would.

Mitchell going for it- Chattanooga, TN

The sense of closeness brought on by intentional conversation is mirrored in the voiceless act of climbing as well. Without words, rock climbing tears away any facade a person carries and reveals the rawest state. On the wall there is a sense of vulnerability and complete focus, something I love witnessing and experiencing myself. I have watched a climbers face contort on the rock, calculating the moves and their brows furrow as they prepare to make them. I have followed their breathing and listened to their unspoken fears, witnessing them overcome them in the same breath. Try hard noises escape their mouths and I feel a swell of emotion, willing them up the wall internally. It is an incredible gift to watch someone you care about try with an effort most people give to the most strenuous task in their lives, every single climb.

These displays of unbridled emotion are reciprocated when I tie in and go up the wall myself. There is often fear, the harnessing of strength, (mostly mental), and a burst of action taking me one step closer to the top. Being transparent with my efforts, I often gasp with surprise when I fall off a hold and find myself free falling. Then when the rope catches me I either laugh at the unexpectedness of it or chastise myself for not committing to the move. By the time I reach the ground, my world of emotions simplifies to enjoying being outside, just rock climbing.

Chattanooga, TN

When the climbing day is over, it’s common to find a van with more than a couple climbers inside. There is talk of future climbs, dreams of big walls, and many other topics digressing from the sport. Facing each other in the living room that serves as a kitchen and is also the bedroom, we’ll laugh over dinner. If there are movies downloaded, we will pile into one shared space to watch. Stuffed between friends, I feel the sense of comfort I did as a child, in an even smaller space, feeling just as rich.

Miguel’s Pizza- Red River Gorge, KY

Thinking back, I realize many of the closest moments in my life began simply out of lack of space. My life went from elbowing a brother in the ribs while reaching for another blanket to a quiet, spacious apartment alone to embracing strangers on a regular basis. As my living area grew smaller, the space I had reserved for only close relationships grew and in turn, I grew closer to people. I accept their emotions while climbing as they do mine, enjoy their company in my van, and feel a twinge of sadness at their inevitable departures as they head towards their next adventure. When we say our goodbyes, I hold them close, squeezing tight, thankful for the closeness they, my mom, my van, and climbing has given us.

Coffee with Emily- Red River Gorge, KY

25 year old woman living in a Ford Transit Connect van. Telling honest stories of real love, loss and every experience in between.

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