I've started referring affectionately to my seemingly standardized 4:30 am wake-up-and-wrestle-with-anxiety-time as "Fret Hour." It's where my mind throws every possible threat at me as though it's currently scheduled for the day's events. At the tail-end of this morning's bout, I had an epiphany: We're ALL going through hell right now, right? I mean, not all the time and some of the fall out around this is quite lovely, but it's also kind of a horror show. Climate change bringing catastrophe. The big P's of Pandemic and Politics. Economic uncertainty. My favorite restaurant shutting down because of an outbreak. On top of that, throw in some personal crisis....But this is my thought, one that might help peal off the horror mask of all of the above:
This is the kind of shoot-show that brought us "The Last Great Generation." That generation that is currently in their 90s that seemed to be made of a glorious combo of satin and steel. Resilient, resourceful, deeply ethical, conscionable...and kind.
You know part of how they got there? They went through HELL. Two world wars, a smatter of other wars, The Great Depression, The Dust Bowl bringing food insecurity, wide-spread, poverty that sent Americans roving all over the country in search of food and shelter (read Grapes of Wrath if you haven't.)...probably more that I'm not even thinking about.
That generation has been idolized, painted as either a generation of Phoenix or winged angels. But what we're forgetting is that it wasn't a generation of people. It was an ERA of people from MANY generations. What we're calling The Last Great Generation are just the last of a particular era's representatives.
Right now, every single one of us is being forged by these experiences. Those generation's became what they were because of their ideals and philosophies, their deepest beliefs around justice and equality. Also just desperately trying to survive, but they managed to hold onto the higher drives as well.
It made me feel certain that we're going to survive this. Even if there is WORSE to come, We Are Going To Survive THIS and when we do, we, every single one of us, may very well have our own wings. Just hang in there while we grow them.
The following was a writing exercise I did with my friend, Debbie Higgs, last week. The short explanation will be to call it 15 minutes of fiction. This is the first fiction I've written since college. My process was stream of conscious, with no stopping to correct spelling or punctuation (or plot!), just keep the keyboard clicking and see what comes out. This was A LOT OF FUN. I don't think Random House is going to be knocking down my door over this, but, I gotta say, not bad for no plan. Want to try it? Just set a timer and keep the pen moving the entire time. I'd love to see what you come up with. My story idea began with just seeing a flock of buzzards seconds before I got my pen moving. IF YOU DO THIS...WILL YOU PLEASE SHARE?? Here's what came of my 15 minutes. Not sure I'll ever touch it again, but still, Fun is fun, right?
I was one of the vultures and I circled with my tribe, resting my great wings on air currents, round and round, dancing on air currents. I was a hunter, but not for prey. I hunted to help those who passed, return to the mother. So many use scavenger like it's something dirty, something to be ashamed of, but my brothers and sister and I don't mind. We know we are strong. We know we are wise and beautiful...and kind.
You don't see it?
Listen: We have figured it out. We figured out how to live without taking life. it doesn't matter if the whole of earth looks on us with repugnance. But we fly freer than any, being neither predator nor prey. We have learned to live and DO. NO. HARM.
I've learned the essence of this life's lesson, and thank the creator for the opportunity. I release from this being, relinquishing it to its true occupier.
Sabaya sits on her deerskin, cross-legged, eyes closed. Her eyes slowly flutter open. She took several deep, slow breaths, allowing the morning's lesson to seep and circulate throughout every cell. She felt the understanding move into her heart and sighed as she felt one more ugly lie dissolve. She smiled, feeling lighter. One more sticky, toxic spiritual barnacle that was preventing the light from truly shining through. As she took in the beauty in the essence of the vulture tribe, their indifference to the judgment of others, their joy as the wind blew through their feathers and the peace in their buzzard hearts...then it was complete. The last of the toxic energy had washed away allowing the light to stream through one more neural pathway.
When all was complete. She closed her eyes then opened them slowly. The new light could be seen in her eyes a tiny pinprick in eyes with multitudes of light, of all different hues. Her peaceful smile another sign of the success of her strange voyage. She reached behind her neck, undoing the clasp of necklace made of hundreds of beads with constantly swirling colors and fluctuations of light. Beside her a bowl of similar jeweled beads glittered in the light of the fire.
She put her fingers in the bowl, swirling them around until her fingertips wrapped around one bead. Plucking it from the bowl, she held it to her heart, said a prayer then held it up in front of her mouth. She softly blew onto the bead and like a coal from a fire, it began to glow bright, with all of the colors like burning pastel fires that swirled and pulsed within the bead. She held the necklace in front of her. The necklace was made up of several strands, containing hundreds of these beads. She brought the bead towards the necklace and they reached towards each other, drawn like magnets. When they touched, the new bead moved into line on one of the strands. Sabaya moved her long, dark hair back as she reached the two ends of the necklace back behind her neck and clasped them.
She kneeled and started to roll her deerskin when the sound of an explosion shook her rock dome, knocking her off her balance. She fell backwards, knocking over the bowl of beads...
Four personal tales of how the outdoors has provided healing power to a sick or broken body and boosted gratitude for life
It’s said that we should be grateful for the hard times for it is they that truly make us who we are. A year ago, if you said that to me, you probably would have gotten a special kind of dirty look. I’ve been on my own since I was 16. I’ve fought and clawed—and studied—for everything I’ve ever had. I thought I knew all about hard times and kicking and scratching my way through them. Until I woke up one morning last year and couldn’t feel my legs.
Darn the Luck
When I came to Colorado as a wayward kid and discovered climbing, mountain biking, snowboarding and every other way you can go nuts under blue skies, with a big Southern “Yeehaw!” I plunged in and the earth became my giant bouncy castle—without the bounce. After years of falling off this and that, my spine was a collection of misaligned vertebrae that were now straining under overtightened muscles resulting from recently triggered PTSD symptoms. Basically, my body was trying to pull itself into some kind of protective turtle shell, with the slight problem that I’m not a turtle and have no shell. Darn the evolutionary luck.
This all happened a little over a year ago and has been one of the most painful, terrifying andtransformativeexperiences of my life.
Earth Medicine: The Science
As I started to heal, my initial forays back into the wild consisted of lying on a patch of warm grass in my front yard under the glistening needles of a favorite pine. I was surprised at just how good that felt; how much it felt like medicine. Only half joking, I started calling those sunning sessions my “earth medicine.” I didn’t know what I was feeling, only that it somehow felt crucial to my recovery.
I know how hippie-dippie that sounds. I know how hippie-dippie I would think it was if you said this to me a year and a half ago. But part of my exciting adventure has included learning about the science and legitimacy of some of these supposed hippie-dippies. For one, me having the urge to go lie on my back flush against the ground in the sunshine? It’s called grounding. It’s a real thing.
In 2015, renowned biophysicist and researcher James Oschman published an article in The Journal of Inflammation Research, titled “The Effects of Grounding (Earthing) on Inflammation, The Immune Response, Wound Healing, and Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Inflammatory and Autoimmune diseases.” Dr. Oschman and his team of researchers found significant scientific validity for the healing effects of this previously suspect prescription, and there’s a host of legit research backing him up (read the study here.) Walking across the earth barefoot? Turns out this PachaMama’s little helper’s effects are better than keto, spinning or living off kale.
When I was able to return to my rock climbing and bushwhacking, I held tight to “sometimes just chilling in the sun” and “watching birds flit about the bushes.” It just felt right. Well guess what? That’s earth medicine, too.
There’s a slew of studies documenting the physical and mental health benefits of Mother Nature beyond exercising in it, especially if done mindfully. It’s called “ecotherapy.” The findings are showing that we need nature almost as much as we need food, water and air. A 2017 Business Insider article reviewed the literature on the benefits of connecting with nature and found that a majority of the research reported a minimum of one association between outdoor activities and positive, healthy outcomes – and not one reported a single negative. They weren’t just looking at playing or exercising outdoors, either. Some of these studies just looked at the impacts of having a “view” outdoors. The positive impacts were especially noticeable on mental health, showing dramatic improvements across the spectrum.
We know in our fiber it’s true. How many times have you found bliss or respite in nature? For some of us, it’s the bosom we run to in our deepest trials.
Cheryl Powers: Cave Therapy
When my friend, Cheryl Powers, of Parsippany, New Jersey, was diagnosed with a tumor behind her eye and another growing inside her spinal cord, she loaded her 115-pound German shepherd, Lexi, into her truck and made a frantic drive for Buttermilk Falls in northern New Jersey to a secret cave. As a child, she found sanctuary in the cave and now, more than ever, she needed sanctuary. She made a fire in the cave while Lexi, who had recently recovered from being hit by a car, attacked a fallen tree across the creek as if it was the villain behind all of their problems.
“She tore at that pine tree ‘til it broke in half and fell into the stream,” said Cheryl, “Then she came up and laid down beside me, and we were both just like, that’s the end of that. The end of the fear.”
The tumor behind her eye was removed and found to be benign. The one in her spine shrank and disappeared. That was 15 years ago, and Cheryl maintains a special connection to that cave, a place where she received a boost of gratitude, a feeling that somehow just being there had helped her replenish her courage and restore her health.
“You could feel it was a place of power,” says Cheryl.
She’s not wrong. Studies have found that spending time in nature can lower inflammation, decrease anxiety and depression, reducing cortisol and other stress hormones, and lower heart rates. Pachamama takes care of her own.
Ri Ganey: What Illness?
Ri Ganey has read a lot of those studies. In high school she used them to convince her parents to significantly reduce or eliminate her medications. A junior at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Ri struggles with a number of health challenges including hashimotos thyroiditis, celiac, Raynaud Syndrome, Sjogren’s Syndrome, asthma, eczema, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, endometriosis, sciatica, mild scoliosis and is currently being monitored for Lupus. Some days she just feels like dog poop. Despite this list of challenges, Ri is majoring in adventure education and is an active participant in Keeping Women Wild, an outdoor adventure club.
When Ganey first moved to Durango as a broke student, she got really sick living on a steady diet of Ramen noodles and peanut butter. But she had good friends who encouraged her to get out and make better choices. With their support, she went on backpacking trips that all but exhausted her physically. However, when she returned she didn’t decide to give up backpacking; instead, she pushed herself even more.
Ri said, “It was really a battle to get out the door, but I realized that when I was out there it was the only time I remembered feeling fully happy and whole.”
So she forced herself to go on more adventures. That was six years ago. Today she still has rough days, but she has more good days than bad. Prior to entering a lifestyle that took her outdoors, she was barely able to manage nine credit hours a semester. Now she easily manages a full-time class schedule, an internship at Durango Nature Studies and a job as a snowboard instructor at Purgatory Resort. She even rallies to volunteer at Hesperus Ski Area as an Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC) instructor for other patrollers, is the logistics coordinator for Keeping Women Wild and serves as regional secretary for the Association of Experiential Education for the Rocky Mountain region. That’s a lot for someone without her health challenges!
Brimming with good nature and enthusiasm, Ganey throws her head back and laughs when I asked for her biggest challenge. In answering, she turns serious. She wants me to know that she means what she’s about to say. “The biggest challenge is separating my illness from my goals,” she says. “People learn about my issues and think it means I can’t do this or that, but other people don’t get to decide what’s above my limits. That’s up to me. They’re just going to have to trust me to make those choices.”
Ri credits the outdoors with playing a crucial role in her evolving strength. “The outdoors have helped me understand what it is to truly be alive,” she said, tossing a stick for her dog, Bridger. “It’s easy to cave in to an illness, but you can’t do that when you’re in nature. It teaches me to be present.”
Thad Ferrell: Sight Restored
This is all well and good when nature treats you right, when it teaches you, saves or soothes you, but what if betrays you? Or worse, almost kills you? Could you imagine referring to it then as a life blessing? In September of 2017, Thad Ferrell took a 100-foot fall just after summiting a climb called Holy Grail outside of Durango. Miraculously, he landed on the dirt between two sharp boulders and lived. But still, 100 feet is a long way to fall and he didn’t walk away from it. He was carried out by emergency rescue personnel and has had a long road to recovery. He’s undergone multiple surgeries for broken ankles, pelvis and jaw, yet he maintains the kind, positive spirit that made him so many friends throughout his life.
“I’ve got metal in my feet, my pelvis is welded together and my entire bottom jaw is made from my left leg’s fibula,” said Ferrell. “But I still have to punch myself because I’ve got it so good.” Since the accident, he has started his own fly fishing guide service, Kingfisher Fly Guides. This is one of the blessings. He said he would never have started this business before the accident because his life had been all about getting the next hit of endorphins.
“One of the human dilemmas is finding your place in the world, and I had been focusing all of my attention on climbing or trail running,” Thad said. “I’ll always be a climber but it’s not my identity. I used to not be able to do anything else until after I climbed or ran a long way on a hard trail. Now I can bring my daughter out to boulder, but if she’d rather just run around and play, then that’s what we do and it’s awesome. There’s more to life than the next adrenaline rush. What’s most important now is to make sure I’m a better son, a better husband and a better father.”
Thad still heads for the wild whenever he can but the relationship is different. It’s grown into a deeper experience. “Before the accident I was frustrated because I was hitting a plateau,” said Thad. “I was losing the ability to see all that beauty out there. Now I can see again. The autumn light, the gold on aspens…that’s the blessing when something like this happens, you get to see all the beauty. It’s always been there, you just couldn’t see it.” Chalking up his hands before we warm up on a boulder in Sailing Hawks bouldering field, he added, “You think the world has changed, but you’re the one who’s changed.”
Dave Williams: One Peak at a Time
Dave Williams was facing a personal crisis when he heard the mountains call. The Head of the Outdoor Education Department at New Zealand’s Botany Downs Secondary College, Williams had recently lost both a former student and a close friend to suicide. He was still processing their deaths when a friend asked him to join him on a sea-to-summit climb of Mount Taranaki, New Zealand’s dormant volcano. A sea to summit is an adventure that involves summiting a peak by foot from the nearest seaboard. It was on this trek that Williams came up with a way to honor his fallen friends and bring awareness to mental health issues, particularly male mental health challenges.
“For New Zealand men, it’s taboo to talk about vulnerability,” Williams says. “It’s seen as weak, so we hold it all inside. I want to promote the idea that it’s not weak, but strong to show when we’re vulnerable.”
To that end, Williams founded his organization, sea2summit7, whose mission is to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents, starting from the nearest coastline.
“I started off not really understanding how big this issue was for men in New Zealand. I believed in it, but didn’t really understand it,” Williams said. His experiences on the summits for his cause have taught him considerably more, he explained — as any of us who’ve attempted hard summits can attest. “When you put yourself into these harsh environments, you get a next level understanding of vulnerability and it’s helped me understand the cause so much more.”
These summits aren’t his first outdoor adventures. Williams is a lifelong outdoor enthusiast who teaches this art and passion to college students. He actually has a degree in Outdoor Recreation. Given what he’s witnessed in his classes, an outdoor-oriented campaign is a perfect fit for a mental health cause.
Why? It’s summed up in Dave’s favorite quote, one most often attributed to Edmund Hilary: “It is not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves.”
“As an educator, from day one I was taking youth into the outdoors, watching how it changes them and the kind of impact it has on their lives,” he said. “I can’t even count the number of students I have that have been going through issues in their lives and the outdoors has become their medicine.”
So far, Dave has completed four of the seven summits: Mount Kosciusko in Australia, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mount Elbrus in Russia. Still to come, Vinson Massif in Antarctica, Mount Denali in Alaska, and Mount Everest on the border of China and Nepal.
Next May, Williams heads for Denali.
As we remember our blessings this season, it’s also good to remember our incredible planet. Earth is a miracle in our galaxy, possibly in all galaxies, a place where Mother Nature not only feeds us physically, but spiritually. Please raise your glasses this holiday season and join me in a toast to our brilliant Earth. May we treat her with greater kindness in the years to come. (Last two sentences were not part of the originally published article, but were part of my original vision for the article).
I’ve always felt that there was something deeply spiritual about climbing: that when we’re climbing, we’re tapping into some kind of pure state of being that may somehow, I dunno, maybe even help make the world a better place? I realize that some of you may have just rolled your eyes at me. But I also know that some of you just said, “I know, right?”
I’ve been doing some digging through the tomes on this kind of stuff and there’s almost diddly squat on the subject. The closest I’ve found so far are the words of those who’ve nearly died while climbing (there’s no religious experience quite like nearly dying, it seems) and Everest climbers beseeching the grace of Miyolangsangma, the Buddhist goddess of Inexhaustible Giving, who calls Everest home. Many climbers seek Miyolangsangma’s blessing before setting out to summit the mountain and some Sherpas will do no work with climbers who don’t. (Speaking of transformative experiences, Miyolingsangma was originally a malevolent demoness who was converted by a great Buddhist and was so overwhelmed with gratitude that generosity became her, um, middle name.)
As part of my digging process, I unearthed inspiring stories on the transformative power of climbing. Whether you believe there is something spiritual about climbing or not, if you’re a climber, at the very least you likely have a deep gratitude for finding this sport. Some of us owe our very life to climbing… which is kind of funny for a sport that, done wrong, can take your life.
I’m one of the life owe-ers. When I found climbing, I was on a dangerous path. I was a homeless kid with nothing to lose and the voices of a past full of trauma I desperately wanted to silence. The only way I could feel most days was by scraping down to the raw, which usually entailed near-death experiences. Before I discovered the wild outdoors, this entailed jumping on moving trains, a mild fascination with breaking and entering, and climbing old buildings on the way wrong side of the tracks in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee (considered one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. even on the right side of the tracks—though this is changing, as you’ll see in a moment).
In high school, I was voted most likely to be dead by our first reunion. No one is more surprised and grateful than I that I’m still here. Not only am I still here, but I’m sort of thriving. And climbing is partially responsible for that. I’m still puzzling through the spirituality of climbing for me, but as I encountered more and more of these butterfly effects, I’ve discovered that I’m not the only one who’s been transformed or feels such an overwhelming gratitude for the sport, even when the price for participating is high.
Craig DeMartino was climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park in 2002, when there was a tragic miscommunication between he and his belayer. He thought he was going to be lowered down; his belay partner thought Craig was going to belay him from above the ledge, 10 stories up the cliff face. Craig stepped off the ledge expecting the rope to catch him, but instead he fell through the air, bounced off a tree, then landed on his feet. He shattered bones in his feet, ankles and ribs, and vertebrae in his spine.
Eighteen months later, Craig was still frustrated with his right foot. For one, there were so many metal parts now permanently implanted in his foot he couldn’t put on a climbing shoe. Plus, there was the pain. He’d talked to other outdoor athletes who had elected for amputation rather than give up active lives and live in pain. So, almost two years into his recovery, he elected to amputate his right leg seven inches below his knee.
“I told myself if I wasn’t going to be a climber, it’d be fine, but I wanted to decide that,” says Craig. “I didn’t want the accident to take it.”
He never looked back, and when he looked forward, he started seeing more possibilities than limitations, and that wasn’t just around his climbing.
“I feel like my life was great, but now, the things I’m able to experience and see are things that I never would have before,” says DeMartino. “It all came from the accident.”
Craig now lives a life dedicated to helping others find their inner strength and joy, by learning to live and thrive with whatever hand life deals them.
“I was pretty selfish and self-indulgent before,” Craig says. “Getting hurt opened my eyes to what my life could actually be like.”
Craig works with people with a wide range of disabilities, from those who suffered accidents liked him to veterans crippled by their experiences. Getting them into their bodies and showing them what they can still do has marked influence and science is now trying to articulate why. There are more and more studies about the health benefits—both mental and physical—of getting outside. The science has been so convincing that, according to a video on MSN, “In 2017, the VA funded adaptive sports programs in every state. Veterans are learning how to heal their war wounds through outdoor therapies like backpacking, skiing and rock climbing.”
Rana Betting, a climber, trained psychotherapist and curator for the blog Climbing Psychology, tells me, “Outdoor education programs have known for years that utilizing rock climbing experiences with their students often results in profound transformations.” As both a climber and a psychologist who has recommended outdoor therapy for patients, Rana has given this a lot of thought. She believes climbing creates greater self-knowledge, increased self-esteem, and greater connection to community and the outdoors—all of which enhance mental health. “Each time we try and succeed in any small or large way, we create positive pathways in our brain’s reward system.”
For climber, yoga instructor and Reiki master Debbie Higgs, climbing has taken what she was told was a broken body and brought her strength—physically, mentally and spiritually. “I am doing things with my body that, a few years ago, I would have thought were impossible, because I was told they were impossible. But I’m doing them and it’s not because of some radical transformation of my body. It’s a change of attitude.”
Debbie was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 21, but she had had the disease for much longer. While it’s not clear how long, it is clear that a lot of damage had occurred before detection, especially in her hands and feet. Her toes arch and curve gracefully, but in a way that, especially as a climber, you can see right away is not normal. It’s obvious that her toes pose challenges in balance, and that it would be painful to try to use her feet in the same way that most of us do. So Debbie finds other ways.
“How can I be climbing, balancing up there on rocks? How can I be up there, trusting this body that so many people have told me not to trust?” Debbie asks. “I don’t have to copy or emulate others, I’ll find my own way to get to the top, or sometimes I won’t, and at those times I’ll learn something about what my limits really are.”
Doctors are surprised Debbie walks around as much and as well as she does, but I’ve hiked miles with her and gotten winded keeping up. (Full disclosure: Debbie is my friend and one of the strongest, most focused women I’ve ever met. We climbed for months before I found out about her arthritis, because I wasn’t climbing with a woman who let her illness define her reality.)
Even Debbie’s relationship with climbing is one uniquely self-tailored to her: “It’s not the same relationship that everyone has with the sport…the time I spend climbing represents a place of total freedom, releasing expectations for myself, letting my body write the story instead of the stories and fears in my mind that limit the possibilities of the game.”
Doctors originally told her that climbing and her other outside activities would cause her condition to deteriorate further, but she’s found that not to be the case. Instead, her body continues to grow stronger and she no longer needs as many medications as she once did, especially antidepressants.
“The thing I cherish most about climbing is that within it, I’ve created a space where I do not evaluate myself on any kind of framework at all. I let myself enjoy the challenge, and I refuse to measure my success or my strength on any kind of scale. When I go out, my only goal is to give myself space to see what I find that day,” she says.
For Debbie, it’s one day at a time. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I still struggle with my illness, and I know that struggle will go on. It’s all part of the journey…some days my mind feels like steel, and I feel strong. Some days I’m gripping my hands to a rock, with someone below cheering me on, telling me to stay up there because I can do it and I want to break into tears. My heart shatters and I think, ‘I CAN’T DO IT!’ Some days I wonder after every climb if I’ll ever be able to do it again.” The next day, she gets up and tries again.
For some, climbing provides a safe haven, metaphorically, literally or, as in the case of Jarmond Johnson, a climber from South Memphis, Tennessee, both. In May 2018, Rock and Ice published an article on a cultural experiment spearheaded by Tom Shadyac, director of blockbuster movies like “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “Patch Adams,” and my personal favorite, “Evan Almighty.” The experiment involved building a climbing gym in South Memphis.
Memphis, Tennessee is my hometown. It’s an incredible city full of talented artists, writers and what I have always felt was an overwhelming abundance of good hearts. It’s also a city struggling with some of the highest poverty and violent crime rates in the country. A few years ago it made it into the top ten of Time magazine’s peculiar list, “Ten Cities Where Americans Are Pretty Much Terrified To Live.”
Jarmond grew up in South Memphis. If Memphis has the kind of reputation mentioned above, South Memphis is the epicenter from which that reputation was built. It can be a dangerous place where trust is hard to cultivate. Jarmond grew up in a house with his mother and two sisters. From an early age he felt it was his responsibility to protect them. He thought becoming affiliated with one of the city’s gangs could help him do that. Understanding the complexity of Memphis gangs is beyond the scope of this article, but we all know that some of the activities come with great risks.
“I was on the wrong side of the law,” says Jarmond. “I fell toward that life and was getting involved in some crazed activities when my mom told me about Memphis Rox.”
Jarmond’s mother, Florence Johnson, was one of the first employees hired after the gym opened, and she believed in its potential. “She kept talking to me about the gym and telling me I needed to come by there and see it,” says Jarmond. Shortly after that, Jarmond started working at the gym, too. Three months later, he started climbing and has been hooked ever since.
When construction started for the rock gym, people thought it was a waste of money. “They ain’t gonna come,” says one naysayer in “Safe Haven,” a recent Shadyac film on what the gym has meant to Memphis. “Black kids don’t do outside activities,” the person says.
The gym doubled its membership sign-up goals in the first year and that’ss with a system that has a voluntary payment model. At Memphis Rox, if you can’t pay, you don’t have to. As for the complexion? It’s in all colors: everybody is there. It’s bringing a city together that has remained one of the most segregated in the nation, despite the fact that it hass been 55 years since the Civil Rights Act. Memphis Rox has been called one of the most integrated places in Memphis.
“It used to be that if they don’t look like me and they don’t talk like me, I don’t talk to them,” says Jarmond. “Now we’re in here all climbing together: Black, Caucasian, Asian, it don’t matter. It’s taught me not to judge so quickly.”
Jarmond started working for the gym as general staff, but management noticed that he spent any time he could mentoring the younger kids, and so they created a mentoring position for him. He says the more he climbed, the more he shied away from the high-risk gang activities.
“A lot of my friends haven’t lived to be 20,” says Jarmond. “Any time I get to work with these kids is valuable to me. This gym is a safe haven for a lot of these kids.”
Every Wednesday, Jarmond leads a group of kids in what they call Hump Day Talks. They have conversations around questions like, “What do you want to do?” “What can we do to improve ourselves?” “How can we improve in order to get to the next phase?” The program appears to be working. Last Halloween, Jarmond talked to some of the neighborhood gang leaders about working to uplift the community, too. Halloween night, rival gang members called a truce and handed out candy side-by-side from the doors of Memphis Rox.
“My biggest inspiration was my mother, who passed away this past February,” says Jarmond. “She put her heart and soul into this gym. She’s seen this community go up and down, places open and shut. But this place? She said, ‘This place is gonna be here forever.’ Long as I’m working here, I’m gonna try to make it be here forever.”
An ancient philosopher once said, “If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. For truly, the greatest gift you have to offer humanity, is your own transformation.” In this case, it seems to be one climber at a time.