The Squamish sand lot.
It’s a parking lot on the side of the sky to sea highway in British Columbia, Canada. It can hold maybe 10-15 cars if you pack em in real tight. Less if its the weekend and we’re trying to keep the tourists out. Many nights we realize there’s no room for one of the regulars, so we frantically re-shuffle the cars and make just enough space for one more Econoline.
It’s a small gravel parking lot next to a river. At night you can hear the cars endlessly driving past on the highway, and at 2am every few nights the wail of a trail whistle wakes you up with 5 long, slow, loud pulls.
The gravel base of the sand lot is a different color than the rest of the parking lots in the area. It’s a pale yellow gravel instead of industrial gray. The color is subtle, but you can see the difference from space. I checked once on google maps, trying to show someone where I’d spent months of my life ‘in a van down by a river’.
The tiny, pale yellow, oblong circle peaked out between green blackberry bushes. The black strip of the sky to sea highway hugging it from one side, and the endless green forest pushing in on it from the other.
The Squamish sand lot is technically the overflow lot for a recreational parking area at the base of the Chief. The Chief is a 2,300 foot tall granite dome that brings climbers from all over the world to its shadowy grey base.
As of the writing of this post, the Squamish sand lot has been shut down. As with anything good, it can’t last forever. Climbers and other vanlifers alike were abusing the privilege to stay at the sand lot (and other places), and the locals got sick of people not properly packing away their food and attracting bears (As well as a host of other complaints). I’m not here to write or pass judgement on what is happening in Squamish right now or in the future. I’m here to share stories of when the days passed through my fingertips like dry sand. When the heat baked us into submission and we lay out like reptiles in defeat.
I’m here to tell the stories of the strange characters, the odd outcasts and the big personalities of the people who lived, for a time, in a parking lot on the side of a highway in beautiful British Columbia.
There is someone screaming in the parking lot.
I sit up in bed.
Someone is dying. They are falling to their death. Someone is about to die and their friend is screaming for help.
Sitting up feels like getting hit in the face with a two by four. My skin feels puffy. My whole head feels like a blown up balloon. And someone is screaming in the parking lot.
My body is trying to respond to the outside stimulus but I'm so exhausted that the wires get crossed. Adrenaline half wakes me up, but is dampened by my body's unwillingness to move.
In Squamish people who don't really know how to climb take their first steps into the vertical world all the time.
Someone got stuck on the wall late at night and has taken a fall and is dying.
“Shuuuuut tha fuck up!”
I hear my friend Aarons voice cut through the screams. His thick Canadian accent making the command sound forceful but unconcerned. I try to peak out the window, but my body doesn’t work right, sleep still has a hold of me. I hear Aarons voice continuing outside in a low murmur.
The screaming has stopped. A mans voice responds. My brain understands that no one is dying, and sleep hits me like a ton of bricks.
The next morning, bleary and blinking I rub my eyes and greet the day with a stiff cup of coffee.
It’s 8am and it’s already hot outside. Ahh, Squamish in June. The parking lot is full of dirtbags, people are drinking coffee, smoking spliffs, looking through guidebooks, lounging in ratty half broken camp chairs, cooking breakfast and throwing sticks for the dogs.
This morning everyone is sitting in a circle, soaking in the sun. Shirts are, as always, off. After my coffee is brewed I meander over and check to see if anyone else heard the screaming in the night.
“Oh yeah, dude. Aaron has the story.” My friend Eric tells me. There is a chorus of ‘It woke me up’, ‘I thought someone was dying’, ‘It was fucking horrifying’ and even ‘Wait, what? Someone was screaming?’
There was a man traveling along the highway, he put his life’s belongings down to run back to the casino where he left his phone charger and when he ran back, everything he owned had been stolen.
That’s when he started screaming.
The screams I’d heard were the sounds of agony of someone who thinks they have lost everything they own.
Aaron and his friend Bryon had been able to talk to the guy and calm him down, but after they had gone to sleep, the man spent the next hour shining a flashlight into the windows of every car in the lot, trying to see who had taken his life’s possessions.
“Damn.” I sipped my coffee, “That’s heavy.”
“So, what happened to his stuff?” I asked Aaron. He opened his mouth to respond when Bryon slapped Arrons chest with the back of his hand and pointed to the entrance to the Sand Lot. “Hey, look. That’s him.”
A man wearing two huge backpacks strapped to him was wandering slowly towards us. He had a walking stick in one hand. His hair was a burnt red circle around his head, the beard and hair melding into one shaggy mane.
“Hey.” He hailed us sheepishly.
Looks like his things hadn’t been stolen after all.
I’m sitting in a different parking lot.
A bigger parking lot with more people in it. I can hear the gravel crunch of boots against the ground. It’s my first week in Squamish and I’m sitting shyly in someone else’s patched up and worn camp chair. A cold beer sits idle in my hands, I’m scratching the label down to nothing. The scene unfolds around me.
I watch as cars pull up. Headlights shining across each of our faces, momentarily blinding the group, then they turn away, park and hop out of the side wearing patched dirty clothes and wide smiles. The men are unshaven, the women are unshowered, and the dogs are off leash. Each person has a small package in their hands. A Tupperware the size of a football, a frisbee with tinfoil over the top, a cast iron with a rag tossed over it.
Grimy hands pull camp chairs, mismatched fold out tables, and musical instruments from the backs of cars. They say every party begins and ends in the kitchen, but what happens when you have no kitchen? Or no house? Or nowhere legal to sleep? You make do.
An assortment of tables and chairs are laid out in front of us. Pots, pans, plates, platters, pot lids and books are placed on top of the wobbly legged tables. Each plate is a contribution to dinner, to the communal food for the night.
It’s a dirtbag potluck.
Someone has made sweet potato mash with ketchup as a side. Someone else presents pop tarts cut up into little pieces and topped with individual blue berries. Someone else brought a watermelon. There are pancakes sprinkled with packaged oatmeal, a bag of Doritos, a large green salad with a simple olive oil and vinegar dressing, and there is beer. Lots and lots of beer.
I watch as people bring bowls, forks, mugs, plates, spoons and nut tools out of backpacks and eagerly scoop a mix of everything into their container for the night. Hands reach for a loaf of bread and tear off a chunk, take a bite of whatever’s in that bowl and chase it with a swig of beer.
I knew barely anyone at this pot luck, but it was the first time I realized how strong the rock climbing community was.
I didn’t know who organized it. I didn’t know how everyone knew this was happening. But people came out of the wood work to bring their meager offerings to this empty parking lot in the mountains. The only thing bringing us together was the love of this sport. We shouted at each other from across the table, laughing and asking explosive questions. Route names like curse words were thrown back and forth between friends in disbelief or admiration. Climbing techniques were recited and hands held up in demonstration for newbie climbers. The worn, calloused hands of the more experienced among us placed the softer delicate fingers of their students in a specific shape or motion. Grinning friends like fools held out new cams, passing them around like treasures. Each person holding the new cam reverently in their hands, pulling the trigger wires, looking at the lobes and passing it on after a few short comments of envy.
A guitar was pulled from nowhere and music began to wind around us, adding flavor to the night as the sun went down. A song spilled out of a dirty kid with blond hair. His scratchy voice and too hard pounding on the strings bringing the evening chatter into a low hum.
I sat back in my seat and looked up at the stars. The night sky, that deep emerald blue peppered with stars looked back into me. I felt the beer and the sounds of the pot luck around me. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and for the first time in a long time, I felt like I belonged.
Do you live in a van down by the river? Someones Dad inevitably asks me at any mention that I live in a van. Hahahaaa yeah I’ve never heard that one before.
While normally untrue, in Squamish, I do in fact live in a van down by a river. The Stawamus River runs under the highway and right along side the Sandlot. The glacier melt is clear and cold enough to hurt the bones in my fingers when I crouch down next to it and wet my grimy hands. On many days, after a long afternoon of climbing, I’ll hop down along the river bank and walk under the bridge.
Normally you can hear the nonstop sounds of traffic, cars, trucks and motorcycles flying past at 90km an hour. The endless hum of cars and the thump thump thump of tires over cracks in the road. When I walk into the cool shade of the bridge, the sounds fade away into the background. The noise of traffic is replaced by the soft murmur of the river. The cement bridge is covered in purple, black and neon green graffiti. People’s names in large puffy letters are scrawled against a backdrop of anarchy symbols and curse words.
If I stand directly under the bridge, no one can see me. I’m hidden from any people walking across the bridge, and the foliage is so dense on either side of the river that no one could walk there anyway. After the hot oppressive nature of this Canadian summer, under the bridge feels like a place out of time. I can feel, rather than hear the cars wizzing by above me. The pressure in the air ads to the sense of displacement.
I strip off my dusty, sticky clothes and toss them aside on a nearby boulder. The ground is a sandy, grassy, muddy mixture of earth that is so common at river banks. The air is colder here in the shade of the concrete bridge, and I shiver ever so slightly in my bare skin.
Every time, right before I do it, I think I should just turn back. I feel good now. I’m cooled off.
But you can’t let negative thoughts like that ruin your day.
I step quickly into the stream, feeling the glacier cold water grasp my feet and ankle bones. Don’t think about it, just do it. If I wait too long I’ll be too cold to commit. I wade up to my knees and face up river. I feel the hot muggy air against my chest, my hair sticking to the back of my neck, small grains of sand or dust on every surface of my skin.
I take a deep breath, my eyes close, I bend backwards and let my legs collapse out in front of me.
I’ve never been baptized, hell I’ve barely stepped foot in a church, but every time I go under I feel how powerful an experience that must be. My back arches, arms out to the sides, knees bent until the very lest moment when the water takes my weight and my feet shoot forward, weightless. In slow motion I feel the water envelop me. Gliding over my bare skin like icy silk until I am completely submerged. My hair spreads out from my head like a halo and I can feel it tickle my ears softly. My eyes are closed.
In the cold weightlessness of these moments, I see nothing. I hear nothing but the sound of my own heartbeat.
Every nerve in my body is awake, firing on all cylinders, screaming at the cold. And yet my body is weightless, my muscles still, and breath silent. The river is pushing me ever so slightly downstream, the force of it sliding over my cold skin and up through my hair. I always try to stay under longer. The silence, the weightlessness, the cold, I want to sit with it for hours.
But the cold is pushing the air from my lungs like a sledge hammer and my hands and feet are beginning to ache.
In the space of four quickening heart beats,
I rise back up into the world of light, of sound, of heat. The traffic resumes overhead, the hot air warms me. I stand up on wobbly legs and splash awkwardly to shore, stubbing my toes on river stones. I snatch my towel from the riverbank and pat away the remaining droplets of that cold, silent place. I force myself back into my dirty clothes and towel off my hair.
My heart is still racing from the shock of the cold as I walk barefoot, back towards the parking lot.