Sometimes your life, everything about it — where you live, what you do, who you’ve become — can be traced back to one thing. One moment. One chance encounter.
For me, it was a poster.
It was Christmas time, and I was four months into a year studying abroad in Grenoble, France. My mother had come to visit from California, where I was born and raised, and we were traveling through the French Alps en route to visit a friend in Switzerland for the holidays. My mother has had a life-long love affair with Venice, so of course I had to show her the “Venice” of France: Annecy.
The comparison was a bit of a stretch — there was really only one canal running through town, and the smell was, shall we say, less distinctive. But a beautiful lakeside town nonetheless, encircled by dramatic, jagged peaks. I loved it.
I was told that around four months into my stay, my language skills would plummet suddenly — both French and English — and then my brain would sort of reboot, launching me into the beginnings of fluency. Judging by the looks of confusion my mom would give me at times, I realized this must be true.
But I wasn’t prepared for the lifestyle reboot I was about to receive.
I had always considered myself an adventurer. And as we all know, adventure comes in many marketable brands and logos. So, naturally, I couldn’t just walk past a Patagonia store in the Venice of France. I ventured in.
It was a beautiful building — maple floors, raw wooden beams, pastel walls adorned with shiny Gore-Tex. I found a stairway and followed my curiosity, steps creaking as I left the ground floor behind.
Midway up to the top floor, I passed a poster that caught my attention. A woman was running through golden fields, flanked by spindly leafless trees, purple, snow-crowned mountains presiding over the whole scene. She looked so tiny, in a world of immense natural beauty. This is my next adventure, I want to go there, wherever it is, I thought.
In my travel- and adventure-minded youth, I was sure it must be somewhere exotic and remote, like the Tibetan plateau. I searched the image for the caption. It read: “Salt cedars and grassland. Janine Patitucci on a cool-weather run through Owens Valley, California.”
It was like a smack in the face, a reality check, reminding me, Hey, you live in a beautiful place, too. Don’t forget that.
I had been getting rather avidly into climbing, and while most of my friends made regular pilgrimages to Bishop for the world-famous boulders, I had neglected to join them. But here I was, halfway around the world, and the dream place I saw in this photo took me right back to the land I came from — not further from it, as I had assumed (and maybe even wished) it would.
I am sure this chance encounter with the poster framed my year abroad in ways I still can’t imagine — it certainly shook some sense into my naïve, other-world focus, and may have helped me to remember the wonder of the place I called home. Any time I failed to deflect political flack from my French peers, I could easily distract them with awkward assortments of French adjectives describing la Californie, a place with wide open spaces and purple mountains.
Fast forward to the next fall. I was finally driving to Bishop, linking up with the annual climber’s migration route from the mountains to the desert. One of my friends had been there several times, and had the local scene dialed. We pitched our tents at The Pit and headed to Schat’s Bakkerÿ in the morning. Fresh-baked bread and flaky croissants hearkened back to my year in France. I was in love before we’d even hit the boulders.
The next morning, we awoke to a dusting of snow on the White Mountains. There I was, in the poster.
The following spring, I was preparing to graduate, clueless as to my next move. I got an email advertising a position as a backcountry field tech for the White Mountain Research Station. It was a seasonal job, based in Bishop, and involved spending most of the summer in the mountains collecting bugs from alpine meadows: Extensive backcountry leadership experience ideal, and familiarity with benthic invertebrates preferred, the email read. From my random smattering of college jobs, wilderness leadership and microscopic bugs in the mud happened to be the strongest themes on my resume. I couldn’t help but think it was meant to be.
I contacted the lead scientist, sent my resume, and before I knew it I was driving to visit the research station — and go backcountry skiing to get to know my new boss.
Is this for real?
After the summer job ended, I knew I wanted to stay on the Eastside. I found a job driving buses for Mammoth Mountain, and a room to rent near Bishop. The poster still haunted me, and I wanted to find a copy of it.
I contacted Patagonia, wrote them my story and asked if they knew where I could find a copy. They got right back to me, and sent me a jpeg file — it fit the description perfectly, but it was definitely not the one I remembered. The marketing guy from Patagonia informed me that the Patituccis did a lot of photography for them, so I might contact them directly.
I found their email and wrote them my story, expressing how, in wandering retrospect, this photo changed my life. Dan Patitucci sent me a very warm and appreciative email. He knew exactly which photo I meant. He was in Italy, but he connected me with Janine, who was going to be in Bishop soon. She asked if I could meet her for coffee.
I arrived early at the Black Sheep Café, oddly nervous. I didn’t know many people yet, and had a feeling I was meeting with someone very prominent in the community. Janine walked in with a large roll of paper under her arm. She was just visiting for a month or so, but was glad we could meet — she had something for me.
I unrolled it, and there it was — the impetus, the beacon that brought me from the European Alps back to my home state, into a world of adventure and discovery that had always been right in my backyard. I could feel my eyes welling up, and tried not to smile too broadly, for fear that my scrunched cheeks would squeeze out a tear in front of someone I had only just met.
I thanked her, and we chatted for a while about the Eastside and the Alps.
I have never considered myself a fatalist, nor have I necessarily subscribed to a belief in destiny, but sometimes, looking back at the events in life and tracing back to one encounter that completely and permanently altered everything you are, defined who you’ve become — it’s hard not to wonder.
Some years ago, while milling about in a conference room before an orientation for my first mountain guiding job, a quote by Rumi on the wall caught my eye: “Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.”
Wide open spaces and purple mountains.
Bishop bouldering beta
No Bishop bouldering trip would even start without a visit to Wilson’s Eastside Sports. It’s the best spot in town for any gear, guidebooks, and great local info from the guys and gals behind the counter. In the past few years, a couple of other stores have made a home on Main Street, and complemented Bishop’s outdoor store scene tremendously: check out Mammoth Gear just next door to Wilson’s, a consignment outdoor gear shop with great deals on new and used gear; and just across the street you’ll find Sage to Summit, primarily geared towards mountain runners but with a very thoughtful assortment of items.
Camping is ubiquitous in the Bishop area, with The Pit being the main climber’s campground. The campground is not much, as the name suggests, but it does have restrooms and it’s hard to complain at only $2 per vehicle per night (though the view of the mountains is quite spectacular). Other camping options exist, just ask one of the local climbers who came and forgot to leave.
In the morning, when the warmth of the sun chases you out of your sleeping bag and the crisp morning air wakens your senses, skip the coffee in camp and head into town for fresh pastries, a hearty breakfast sandwich, and a cuppa locally roasted joe. The Great Basin Bakery has croissants of which even the proudest French enthusiastically approve (I’ve checked), as well as outstanding bagels, baked goods, sandwiches, and soups. Schat’s Bakkerÿ is a longtime climber’s go-to, with great danishes and other baked goods. For a mellow start to your morning, and to key into the local climbing scene, check out the Black Sheep Espresso Bar on Main Street. Finally, as the days shorten and the evening chill sets in, the Looney Bean is a good spot to catch up on your blog, or just enjoy the great indoors.
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