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Forget Politics, Let’s Go Climbing in the Banana Republic!

So far this year we’ve seen an insurrection, an inauguration and an impeachment. A climber’s report from America’s last, and most reluctant, state.


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New Year’s Day, 2021. At 2 a.m., I felt like I was under attack. I’d gone to bed early, sore-shouldered after bouldering at the Pali, but concussions and crackling trails of lights woke me up at midnight. On the mainland, Independence Day is the big fireworks deal, but in Hawaii many of the residents don’t even recognize United States sovereignty and don’t celebrate July 4. This is probably because the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Queen Lili’uokalani, was illegally deposed by the feds in 1893 and the native population was subsequently suppressed and decimated and people don’t feel super patriotic. Whatever the reason, July 4 is kind of a dud, but excessive fireworks shatter Hawaii every New Year.

Travis “The Kid” Hackett squeezes the blunt prow of Tiki (V8), at the Double Bridge Boulder on the east side of Mau, while the author and Badger spot. Photo by Drew Sulock

I lay sleepless and angry, while 25 yards away my neighbors were partying. Somebody had set up a drum kit and pounded it to music blaring from a karaoke machine. Amplified, drunken shrieks approximated Bob Marley, Bob Seeger and Bob Dylan. And this shit had been going on since 10 p.m.

Then I heard a much-closer putt and a shock wave shook my house to the foundation. I jumped out of bed and pulled back the curtain in time to see a big dude drop another rocket into the launcher. My neighbors were kicking off their own fireworks show. Cough! Spit! Boom! Sparkles.

At that moment I hated my neighbors more than usual.

To be honest, I hadn’t liked them from the moment I saw their road-crew orange T-shirts through the branches of the lychee tree where I’d always sent my sons Kai, 13, and Isaac, 10, when the red fruits were ripe. Yes, the tree was on the neighbor’s side of the fence, but until now the lot had been empty—several grassy acres sloping all the way to Maliko Gulch. Axis deer would come to the fence in the early morning and peer through my kitchen window with glossy black eyes.

I’d liked my neighbors even less when they’d brought in backhoes and started clearing, always on weekends, always at night—moving earth and pouring concrete, the pistons of nail guns hammering and hissing. Then the dogs moved in—pit bulls kept in a chain-link run—that barked and yelped and howled for a quarter hour at every distant siren.

Finally, the house was built, and the neighbors arrived with their infrequent but out-of-hand parties, posting two “NO TRESPASSING VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED” signs on their locked front gate, and a campaign placard for President X.

Yes, at 2:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day, I detested those people. It’s probably a good time to mention that I’d also never met them.

"What did you hear about the guy who blew his junk off last night?" Sally asked after the pause. "He had a bunch of fireworks piled in his lap, I guess, and ... "

I’d contacted the police after the tsunami-warning test siren sparked a 47-minute round of hound baying, and the dispatcher told me that I should try talking to my neighbors before filing a complaint. I considered walking those 25 yards, violating the front gate, and knocking on a stranger’s door—but quickly decided against it. I figured I already knew what kind of people they were. They were the opposite of me and, honestly, I was a little scared of them. It was easier and safer to simply resent them.

At around 4 a.m. I thought again about walking over and talking to the neighbors, but instead indulged in a delicious half-dreaming power-fantasy. I’d wait until they were sleeping, then belly-crawl through the undergrowth, lobbing five pounds of grass-fed beef dosed with rat poison to the hounds, grab a few sticks of dynamite off the pile I pictured lying by the neighbor’s back door, light them, toss them inside, and run.

Uncle Chris Janiszewski takes a lap on Goat Attack (V5) near the Double Bridge Boulder on the east side of Maui, Hawaii. Photo by Drew Sulock

My superego (who I call Franz), castigated me for having such thoughts. “Unhinged, psychotic, subhuman.”

That afternoon I rode with Uncle Chris Janiszewski and Sally Bilodeau to the Double-Bridge boulder, a long band of columnar blue-rock just steps off an eastside blacktop. We warmed up by tooth-brushing grips and bounce-testing holds in the 10-foot roof. Spaced, banana-skin-textured slopers led to a toss. The first problem of the new year, 2021 (V6), went down like a rum cocktail.

“What a year we had, right?” one of us said. “Global pandemic managed by a clown car.”

“At least X is gone.”

“But he’s still lying his ass off.”

“And lots of people are buying the lies.”

“So many people believe the lies.”

“I wonder if X will leave without a fight?”

We were sitting on the pads, listening to a red-crested cardinal twitter in the Kukui tree. Literally. That’s not a metaphor.

“As the school grows … as few as one in 100 fish have any idea what the goal is, and yet they still [follow the leaders].” What does this tell us about ourselves? Photo: Drew Sulock

“Did you guys get any sleep last night?” asked Sally.

“Not a wink.”

“The fireworks, dude. It’s like we live in a third-world country.”

“I felt like I was being physically attacked.”

“Totally.”

“I actually dreamed about assaulting my neighbors.”

We assessed the gravity of that statement.

“If only karma was real.”

“If only.”

“Wait. Did you hear about the guy who blew his junk off last night?” Sally asked after the pause. “He had a bunch of fireworks piled in his lap, I guess, and … ”
“He blew his junk off?”

“I’ll show you on my phone.”

I read the Maui News alert: “Medics responding to a residence for 22 y/o who had fireworks explode on his groin. Male is in and out of consciousness. **No jokes, please.”

My first thought as I looked at the report was, “I wish that would happen to my neighbors.”

"The perception that life is good is entirely dependent on what you choose not to notice," I said.

THE INSURRECTION

On the morning of the capitol riot, January 6, 2021, I was turning into the Maalaea 76 station on my way to go climbing with a visiting Boulderite named Eric who was the friend of a guy I’d met at a crag somewhere. (I’ll climb with literally anyone.) My phone buzzed. I pulled into the lot and answered it.

“Are you watching this?” It was my mother, Mary Nell Jackson. “They’re storming the Capitol.”

“Storming?” I asked.

“They’re breaking windows.”

“Who is?”

“They’re storming it, aren’t they, Frank?”

She held out the phone and I heard my father’s deep Texan voice.

“Damn sure are.”

My mom texted me a picture of some overweight people dressed in red hats, camo and costumes climbing an 18-foot wall of white marble near the Capitol Building. Recessed edges led to a dowel-shaped ornamental top-out. It looked tricky, maybe V0, and I remember thinking that somebody was probably going to get hurt. (And somebody did. At least one of the insurrectionists pumped out, fell from way too high and ate shit, and the video of his “Climbing Wall FAIL at the DC Protests” now has 70,000 views.)

It all checked out. It was 2021 and a mob of disgruntled white people was attacking the U.S. Capitol to try and overturn a free and fair election.

The author forgetting about politics on his favorite crag in his Maui backyard.

Eric and I began the long walk into the mountains.

“There’s a fucking insurrection going on!” I shouted.

Eric is a pale redhead, skin so white it’s bluish.

“Really?”

He seemed awfully blasé about the attack on democracy, and I flashed on the possibility that he might be one of them.

“For reals,” I said. “X’s people are storming the Capitol.”

He grunted, noncommittal. Was he really that apolitical or was he one of those people who believe the wrong things? I tried to smoke out his affiliation with a few leading questions, but Eric-From-Boulder’s politics remained inscrutable and soon we were lost in the haze of action, and none of that mattered for a few hours.

INAGURATION DAY

On Inauguration Day, January 20, 2021, I was at the Double Bridge Boulder again, climbing with the Professor, aka Neil Stotts, taking turns falling off the top of a 15-foot prow. Probably only V4 but the holds polished and hidden, and the feet vexingly high. Finally, we both topped it out.

“What should we call it?” I asked the Professor.

“Inauguration Day,” he said.

“That’s right. Y is President now.”

“You know,” Neil said, “I’m hopeful.”

The Professor was hopeful. Wow. A self-described “interstitial Generation Xer” pushing 43. Ragged-cut black hair falling into his eyes. In-your-face, anti-authoritarian, with a heart like a plushy wolverine. I’m not sure I’d ever heard Neil endorse the future so unreservedly.

“I have hopes for unity,” he said. “I’m optimistic.”

“I am, too,” I said. “And I can’t wait for politics to be boring again so I can get some shit done.”

“Think about all the time we spent reading and analyzing X’s Tweets.”

“In some ways I wish I’d slept through those four years.”

About a year ago, a woman named Aloha had posted a picture of my pick-up and Uncle Chris's green van on a Kaupo Community Facebook page with the caption: "I been seeing these here a lot and every time I pass them, I get an icky feeling."

“I wonder if we’d actually notice any differences in the country today?” he asked. “Yes, it was horrifying to watch, but what is measurably different in your actual life after four years of X? It’s kind of a wash, right?”

OK, maybe.  Nothing in my life was measurably better or worse. But life was much worse for a lot of people. Five hundred thousand people had died, for starters.

A light rain began to fall, and we pushed our pads under the overhang, sat down.

“Check this out,” the Professor said. “I was talking to a student the other day and she told me that she’d been on a bender, strung out and tweaking for months and months. Then she got arrested and cleaned up, and one day, recently, she looked around and was like, ‘Why is everybody wearing masks?’”

IMPEACHMENT

X’s second impeachment wrapped up the day before Valentine’s Day, and I’d thoroughly enjoyed it. It was great to watch the teams of different colors ritually assault each other; the partisan violence interrupted by displays of religious piety—kneeling and lowering the head, making a cross in the air, kissing the fingers, pointing to the sky—and courtship displays like dancing and gyrating. The ads were genius, too. I think the final score was 31 to 9. Or wait, am I describing the Super Bowl or the impeachment? I get them mixed up.

I’d woken in the middle of the night with a bollock dagger pushed through my lower right side. (Google “bollock dagger” to get an idea of the pain.) The next morning, I could barely get out of bed, but I’d made plans to hike 45 minutes into the Columns—a mixed-gear, 70-foot wall of smooth, columnar basalt—with my buddy Chaun Miller, who was turning 50.  A recent Cali transplant, he wanted to check out the wall, which has six outstanding routes from 5.11c to 5.13, so I rallied. It was his birthday, after all.

Chaun drove and we climbed the seven-bolt Major Rager (5.12a), and then Chaun drove home while I writhed in my seat complaining about my “pulled back muscle.” Chaun recommended a chiropractor and dropped me at the Makawao public lot where I’d left my truck and I gingerly drove toward home.

As I approached my driveway, I saw headlights—a vehicle was waiting to turn out of my neighbor’s gate onto Olinda Street. The people who’d kept me up till 4. President X supporters.

I was in pain and tired, and just wanted to get home and lie down, but at the last second, I pumped the brakes instead of the gas and flashed my lights, held my hand out the window, thumb and pinky extended in a shaka. I still don’t know why I did that. I was a little upset with myself as the new, black, lifted Tacoma turned in front of me, shakas held out windows.

The shakas did it. I instantly and forever forgave my neighbors for being assholes.

They liked to party, but who doesn’t? The dogs had been quieter lately. They didn’t want trespassers but neither do I. And they had to build their house on the weekends and at night because they worked 40 hours a week. They were just people like me (with a much nicer truck).

A heavy weight lifted.

We spent the day in a rain of dirt and drill dust and wound up with a 10-bolt 5.12b slab we called Banana Republic.

NATIONAL COMFY DAY

Saturday, February 20, 2021, was National Comfy Day according to nationaldaycalendar.com and nothing exceptionally bad or good occurred in the United States as far as I know. I’d been pissing blood since X was acquitted. Turns out the back pain was a kidney stone, but even my kidney stone was taking a break, lodged somewhere in the tight plumbing like a peanut in a straw, so I called up the Professor and we drove to Kaupo and hiked into the Columns.

Neil was, again, in an outsized good mood.

“All I know is that life is great, Uncle Jefe. I love my wife, love my job, live in a cool place. All of our friends—Coco Dave, G$, Va-blessa, Uncle Chris, Detch, Arnie, Mangonon—they’re killing it.”

“The perception that life is good is entirely dependent on what you choose to notice,” I said. “You see rainbows and unicorns, but somebody else sees bloodsucking zombies. It’s all a matter of perspective. Not everybody is killing it. Not everybody could go to sleep for four years of X and wake up to no change in their lives.”

You can see what kind of mood I was in. The Capitol riot had pushed a bollock dagger through my heart.

“I don’t want you to think I’m a supporter of X,” he said. “I’m not. And I’m not saying that nobody was affected. Not at all. X’s policies affected a lot of people. Immigrants had their children taken away. But middle-class white guys like us made out OK. That’s not an endorsement of X. It’s the opposite.”

We spent the day in a rain of dirt and drill dust and wound up with a 10-bolt 5.12b we called Banana Republic.

"You guys want to drink a coco?" We did and while we sipped, we talked about America's favorite sport: politics."

The sun was setting as we walked down the goat trail, glancing across the Alenuihaha Channel at the snow-capped summit of Mauna Kea 100 miles away on the Big Island. By the ocean, in the starlight, I could just make out a black truck parked beside my truck. That was odd.

About a year ago, a woman named Aloha had posted a picture of my pick-up and Uncle Chris’s green van on a Kaupo Community Facebook page with the caption: “I been seeing these here a lot and every time I pass them, I get an icky feeling.”

Her post attracted a bunch of comments like: “I think they’re rock climbing,” “Is a lot more graffiti now, brah,” and “Yo cuz, I think this is the truck I saw shoot three goats out the window.”

I laughed it off until Uncle Chris got his tires slashed. Why did these people hate us? Was it because we didn’t live in Kaupo? Was it because we’re climbers? Was it because we’re white? Once again, the fiction of “us” and “them” was affecting the real world like other-dimensional protoplasm seeping from a rip in time/space.   

Turned out it was Coco Dave sitting in his truck. He’d been on his way to his land in Kalepa, he said, saw my truck and decided to wait and say hello.

“You guys want to drink a coco?”

We did and while we sipped, we talked about America’s favorite sport.

“I think politics has become the primary way people create identity these days,” the Professor said. “Life is so void of meaning and connection. Nobody does anything. We’re lucky because we’re climbers. We get out. We have a community. But most people sit around on social media craving attention. Post something political and you get an immediate response.”

I told them about a study I’d read in the book Simplexity, where researchers looked at massive schools of herring that can number in the hundreds of millions. A Princeton University biologist, Simon Levin, wanted to know how fish “manage the fluid, almost balletic movements … without any evident alpha fish leading the way.”

The book was written in 2007, and in it the author, Jeffrey Kluger, described the experiment: “Levin and his colleagues found that the schools actually do require a few leaders but not many. In an average-sized school it takes only about five percent of the members to know the proper route and set out in that direction for the other 95 percent to follow.”

The researchers found an inverse relationship between the size of the school and the number of leaders. The bigger the school, the fewer the leaders. “As the school grows … as few as one in 100 fish have any idea what the goal is, and yet they still [follow the leaders].”

As Levin wrote, “Among aggregating animals like fish and us, it only takes a few individuals to set off all kinds of complex behavior. The collective dynamics of a small minority in any herding community can trigger a cascade.”

“I wonder,” the Professor asked, “who we follow?”

“I just don’t like how people are treating each other,” Coco said somewhat ambiguously after a pause.

Coco is anti-vax, pro-conspiracy, anti-establishment, pro-kombo (frog venom). He once asked me how “we knew” the earth was round and I pointed out the shape of the moon and explained how all observable celestial objects appear round and that people have been to space and looked down at the earth and it’s round, to which he replied, “There’s a lot of people who don’t believe we’ve been to space.”

I suspect he might even be secretly sympathetic to X, but good vibes come off him like steam off a bowl of brown rice.

“What’s missing is warmth, love, joy, friendliness,” he said.

I know he’s onto something. It feels good to imagine your enemy twist and suffer, but our human birthright is the ability to ignore those baser instincts and take the higher path of peace and kindness. The way out of this partisan morass is actually pretty simple.

“I let my neighbor turn in front of me onto Olinda last week,” I said.

“Good for you, Uncle Jefe,” Coco said. “That’s proper aloha.”

The other day I made a pumpkin pie for my neighbors—Mary Nell’s secret recipe that always wins the prize at the fair. I don’t know when I’ll get to give it to them. I’ll keep a lookout for an open gate, but until then, Mom says the pie freezes well.

Jeff Jackson is Editor at Large for Climbing and Ascent.