Monday, December 1, 2008

The Magnificent Bastards

In the winter season of '93/'94 there existsted as motley a tribe of dirtbag miscreants as Joshua Tree's Hidden Valley Campground had ever hosted. Most of the post-climbing nightlife centered on campsite #10, known forever more as "The Life is Good Camp". The denizens of that camp became the unwitting parents of the nightly social scene for the semi-permanant residents of JTree. Folks were attracted like moths to a candle by the unusually large campfires of site #10, and stayed to enjoy the anthropologically diverse specimins who basked by their fire like over-fed lions. Ah, life was good.
The Life is Good Camp started with humble beginnings. It's founders were three young men of very different backgrounds who seemed to bump into each other at dusk one evening. Damien was from Squamish, British Columbia. He had no car, and little else but climbing gear and a cup. He was the youngest of the three and a very likable guy who had nothing on his immediate mind but climbing in JTree until he was forced to return home. He was speaking to the primary occupent about sharing the campsite. That man was a cabinet-maker from Switzerland named Urs, and true to his namesake he did look a bit like a shaggy bear. He had started his trip several months prior in Central America, and being held at gunpoint by Sandanista rebels as trucks of civilian bodies rolled by was enough to persuade him that Alaska was, indeed, the last frontier. He arrived in JTree sometime later in a P.O.S. Chevy Citation that lacked most of it's windows due to Urs rolling his car off the trans-Alaskan Hwy while sleeping. He was a very friendly man with thickly accented English and I liked him immensely. The third young man was myself, outgoing, cock-sure, and probably insufferably arrogant. We all wound up sharing the site for several weeks, and what weeks they became.

Urs, Damien, and myself climbed together most days, and we shared meals, pooling our food resources. Since I was the American I had the most food, which was good for them. Damien being the Canadian, always had pot, which was good for Urs and myself. Urs could make a great meal out of anything, which was good for all of us. The Life is Good Camp earned it's namesake less than a week into our stay. We had gone to town to fill up water and buy cases of Pabst when it occured to us that we needed firewood, and that pallets were free. After a successful pallet theft, and with beer stocks in surpluss territory we could look foreward to several nights of luxurious and comfortable self-indulgence. The next day, Urs and I were tramping back to site #10 when, almost a mile from the campsite, I spotted a chair leg sticking out of a dumpster. On closer inspection, the chair leg turned into an intact but worn sofa chair, and damn-all if there wasn't a second one underneath it. Urs and I must have looked exotic indeed, with ropes and gear hanging all off us and sofa chairs being carried on our heads. Damien's was an exuberant response, "Hell yes! We'll get chicks for sure!". Urs sat down on one of new chairs, and with a sly old look in his eye said, "Life is good.".

Between the novelty of sofa chairs and the abundant firewood, the Life is Good Camp was born. There were people in our camp even when we weren't. Every evening a dozen or more folks would bring their grub and some intoxicant to share and hang out next to a big fire in good company. Most of the time we managed to keep the chairs to ourselves, however Damien, being on the smaller side would try to coax any female in the neighborhood into one of those chairs with him. On any given evening we would host such JTree luminaries as Chongo Chuck, Tucker Tech, or Monkeyman Brian. In all, I don't remember one bad evening.

Before long, our lazy morning starts had attracted a small gathering of like-minded individuals. The Life is Good Camp was, we found out, blessed with direct morning sunlight, which was a godsend on cold mornings. Andy, Gentle, Steve, The Orange County Mikes and others would sit around well into the morning shooting the breeze, discussing climbs, poring over the guidbook for the days plans, drinking coffe and smoking cigarettes. It became a kind of social ritual and since nothing in JTree requires an alpine start, those late mornings became a modus-operandi.

Nothing lasts forever, and the demise of the Life is Good Camp took some time to unfold, but it did end. I had to retreat to the spring semester of college even though I was back out there every Thursday night through Sunday. With a kind of sadness I watched my creation dwindle. By that time, Urs had suffered a terribly sprained ankle, and later a concussion falling off caveman boulder while drunk. Damien had so many hideous hand injuries that he couldn't put his hands near a crack. I had hurt my back, torn a finger tendon, and had stitches in my palm. It was time for everyone to move on, and the Life is Good Camp became a memory.

Above are some archival photos of the Life is Good Camp. I ran into Urs a few years later, he and his fiance were visiting California and looked me up. He is just a great individual. I never did find out what happened to those sofa chairs.


  1. I visited you there with my buddy Marc and the chair, or one of the chairs, ended burning up. Remarkably, it took the whole night for the thing to burn and never really caught fire. It just smoldered. I hope that triggers the memory, or am I thinking of an entirely different campsite and chair? Cheers, Dale

  2. Is that David spade in the red pants!?