Chongo by the power
“I wake each morning filled with hate,” said Chongo as I stood to leave the table, a wincing self-indictment the punch line to the ‘stupidity’ and ‘obedience’ of his fellow Americans, sat on tables all around us in the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria, shovelling down their pancakes before hitting the trail. I laughed like it was a joke, or if not a joke, then so that in laughing I’d take some of the edge of the idea of such a man as this being filled with such nasty sentiment. But Chongo didn’t parry my smile with another, his wrinkled face remaining uncracked. Instead, I got a slow nod. “Filled with hate,” he said.
Our long conversation that morning had begun with Vogue’s war photographer Lee Miller in Hitler’s bath around eight and ended via a winding trail with the Jesuits by ten, Chongo unpicking their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience as a metaphor for American society. The only interruptions had come from people wanting to use the power socket at our feet, the only one that works in the building, the search for power the anxiety of our age.
Chongo had been the first and only homeless big walling quantum mechanic I’d ever met, a man I bumped into at the base of El Cap in 1997, living in the trees below Tangerine Trip. Seeing his things hanging in a tree I’d been told by another climber “Oh those are Chongo’s”, conjuring up an image of some monster Vietnam vet living wild, faded army fatigues cut off at the knees and shoulders, a climbing Tasmania devil. But the man himself, when he appeared a few days later, as I belayed Paul Tattersall on the first pitch of Zenyatta Mondatta, a route far less cool once you realise it’s named after a Police album, was no Tasmanian, yet he did not disappoint, a devil of another form.
“If you want to be bitchin you need to look bitchin,” said Chongo, touting a bottle of tequila, toasting the walls, the sun only just painting the boulder where I sat. “Do you smoke?” he asked and I didn’t, which is a shame, as to get stoned with such a man is what dope was made for I guess. “Everything you need falls from these walls,” said Chongo, as Paul shouted down for me to focus on his A4 lead, not some hobo Alchi bullshit. “You just wish for it and it falls from the walls” he added, a light tinkle coming as a full stop to the sentence as a wire landed about a hundred metres away, dropped from a team on The Shortest Straw. “See,” he said, hobbling and stumbling over the talus to snaffle it up. “Dude! Number one BD stopper!” he declared, slipping it into his holey tatty shorts, where it immediately fell out onto the floor again unseen, Chongo declaring “Fuck and here’s another one!” as he turned around.
That memory came back to as I stood to leave, Chongo’s hate hanging in the space between us, above the empty plates and cups, not the whole thing, but the essence of this man, this stealthy legend, like it betrayed him not as the man I’d wanted him to be, but more as the man I’d always scared he was, the man most others only saw - or never did.
Chongo’s words often stick like that, stay around in your head, in the heads of better men than me as well if you’d imagine me easy prey to a well-turned idea. His ideas can change the shape of your thoughts a little, sometimes a lot: the light tickle of an idea, or like a mad dog zipped inside a bouncy castle. Like time on a big wall or any good climb, you come away changed, well the hard ones. I remember reading his ‘The Homeless Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics’ on the Reticent wall in 2001, some line about past, present and future only being an illusion, or how matter cannot be killed, only change from one state to another, that nothing dies, ideas that came around like a cheque in the post when you’re on the bones of your arse. Other memories are less intense, like showing me how to get free food, that children always ask parents for five pancakes but only ever eat one, a memory that like how I saw Dean Potters on the wing of any raven that passes by while on the wall, I always see Chongo in the hungry eyes of any child queuing for food at the lodge.
And so I think Chongo is a man worth taking the time to listen to, that he adds value to those who can really listen, which is a skill, and not just wait their time to speak. He makes you laugh, he makes you think. Yet he’s a man whose wisdom often does go unheard. You see it when you know him, sit beside or near him in that cafeteria, how he’s almost invisible to most, how the clean world, the world without holes, the world that smells nice as you pass it on the trail, can’t see him at all. Chongo is a man who could easily creep into the dragon’s lair to steal its treasure unseen, well if that dragon wore creased Chino shorts and an Under Armour vest. Chongo wears a disguise you see - well you don’t see, my point really - few recognising that his vagrant sun dark skin and flophouse threads are not the uniforms of a homeless man, but as the stoic shamanic robes of his very majesty. They are not the American Dream like they imagine, raised suspension and garage full of junk, their reality is a delusion, but Chongo, his reality is as old as the walls around us. He’s Yosemite, not them, knows this place and its nature greater than any ranger, tourists to nature. He and John Muir would get on like a house on fire far more than Muir and a park administrator. You cannot know the wild nature of the world when you sleep in bed, can’t see it on a bank statement, only know plaster over you instead of stars, not know how a bear thinks until you too have sung for your supper, your head stuck in a trash can. Poverty makes you wiser than any king.
Chongo’s ability to cloak himself is how the ‘man’ had so much trouble surveilling him all those years while living in the park illegally, a skill you find in many places in nature, people who turn down your beds in fancy hotels, the Lock Ness monster, baby pigeons. But if you can see this man on his parallel plane, take the time, to respond, to listen, to this man who flies at wave height, asking an opening question such as ‘So you like math’ or ‘I’m guessing you’re educated’ as he goes table to table, it’s worth seeing him blip on your radar.
But of course, Chongo is not invisible. We choose not to see such people, and I admit that morning I’d almost done the same, pretended not to see him sat there.
I’d not seen Chongo for a good ten years following his banishment from the Valley (featured in Valley Uprising), so it was strange seeing him back there again, after so long, on his throne in the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria, all his worldly possessions in his backpack next to the toilet door, tired looking, the saddlebags of a long life on the road. He’d been sat alone, looking a little lost, the canteen empty still, the sun still to peak up from behind the range of light, sat beside the only plugs that worked, were the climbers always gathered like moths. And now for a confession to this old friend: for a moment I’m ashamed to say I hesitated with my tray, not immediately sitting down beside him, as I had countless times, but hesitating, even though there was a man who could recall my name, a man who shared some history with me. Why? Well the obvious answer would be Chongo is a man somehow contaminated, infected, tainted, some stink to him you can’t smell, yet most people steer clear of, a component to his invisibility; part madness, part poverty, part leprosy we most often just walk past, the leper at your feet proffering an empty cup for your change, looking for pity. But Chongo only ever really gives, not looking for small change, the currency he seeks just ears and ideas, to simply give him some time, which is maybe worse, his ideas and thoughts close enough to some kind of visionary truth to be madness. Yet my reason for hesitating was different, after all only the insane or lost ever really speak the truth. For me, I saw Chongo sat there like a man at the last supper, only one ten years stale, and so surrounded by its ghosts, the dead, the departed and the elsewhere. What I saw in Chongo was what I saw in myself, that like me he was lost a little in time, yesterday another country, yesterday another place he’d been thrown out from. You see Yosemite is a place where memories are richer than almost any other, a rich mix of passion and joy, fear and endeavour, the walls around us places where life’s greatest moments are often beat out. Here at these tables life, long friendships are made, ones that last a single serving yet sustain. When I sit here I cannot help but think of those people I’ve shared so many mornings, afternoons and nights with, sat talking from opening to closing, a dirtbag youth club. I think of the Leo, the Hubers, Timmy O’neal, Pep, Tommy and Beth, Alex Honnold and Dean Potter, and so many partners and friends, the buzz, the shared stories and dreams, epics and great escapes. These were the greatest days of our lives, and here was where we came down, where we decompressed and debriefed, at these very tables. This place is more than tables and medium quality junk food and stolen coffee. And so we run back here, to feel such feelings again, back to the fellowship of this space, to sit and plan, scribble out topos and get the jen and the beta, and to return with tales of what we took, what it took, and what remained. But Yosemite, this place that remains unchanged, is really forever changing, always moving on, stones falling in the dark. To allow the spell of yesterday to be cast on you here is to be eroded by the sadness of these valleys changing unchanged, to be haunted by the ghosts of past seasons. How could a surfer find his greatest wave if he stood on the shore mourning his last?
I feel this, this little mourning for the past, and I wonder if ultimately that’s why those who loved this place so much eventually stay away?
I hesitated, saw my loss in his, but stole myself and went to sit with this great man.
“I’m full of hate” he repeated, “really” he added, maybe seeing my surprise, “Filled with it”. I laughed again because I was uncomfortable, maybe to persuade this man so full of honesty, hard-won wisdom and raw humanity that he was wrong about that after it’s easy to misdiagnose such a feeling, that love, despair or longing can feel just the same, that hate can be a misdiagnosis of something good, that you can feel as sick with love as a belly full of E.coli. I laughed but he was gone, and so I walked away.
I try not to judge anyone these days, but it was like Bill Murray admitting to such a thing, but then would I feel anything but hate if I lay my homeless head down on some Santa Cruz street each night only to wake homeless again in the morning? Who was I to judge such a man, his cruel reality simply bisecting mine in that narrowest of meetings, both tourists to each other. But as it happens just as words open doors, so do blogs, and within an hour of writing this I had an email from the man himself, that I had talent but had missed the nature of that hate, not simple hate, but hatred of ‘traditions of ignorance’. Amen to that.
As I stepped out of the door, down the stairs past people waiting for the bus to Merced, I wondered if like me Chongo had realised long ago, an old hand to a transitory world, that you could only return here if you embraced now and tomorrow, not then and yesterday. He was a hunter-gatherer of the greatest skill, his searching not just for the grubs and roots of the cafeteria leftovers, but of the rich picking of time spent sharing stories and ideas with fellow-travellers as sustaining as a child whose eyes were bigger than their bellies breakfast.
But as I passed by the window, squirrels darting amongst the picnic tables in search of crumbs, and looked in at him one last time, silent, stone-like, brave in this new world, I saw his face flicker and light up, but not for this stale diner, but as a bunch of fresh young climbers, Adam Ondra amongst them, sat down around him, holding out hands to shake to this invisible man, guardian and gatekeeper, sat on his thrown, rich as any king, sat where he knew the moths fluttered close, canny as ever, like any great forager, by the power.