We’ve been on the road for weeks.

Our van is in a staggering state of disarray, and my days of pleading for organization and some sense of order are over. One of the things I did not consider when we began our brief van life was that everything that is not secured will fall over.

I think, disheartened, as the box that holds all our soft climbing gear—slings, webbing, cordelette—careens into the aisle yet again, as Ryan makes another sharp turn. We built a shoddy gear closet on the road with cheap plywood from a Home Depot in Bend, Oregon, and our cams clank nervously together as they hang from tiny hooks, threatening to dislodge in a cacophonous symphony of metal.

Our left windshield wiper broke during a rainstorm on the last leg of our journey from California to Alaska, and we raided the soft climbing gear box (lying upside down on the floor, of course) for slings to tie on either side, pulling the wiper back and forth from each of our windows.

Van life isn’t perfect (sorry to break it to you, Instagram). But it is worth it. We pull into Anchorage, tired and delirious from days of pushing it through Canada, our combined stench from a week of no showers becoming a little excessive. We’re low on food and clean clothing, and most importantly sick of being sedentary. So we get out our phones (3G! Finally!) and look up the number one thing we can both unconditionally agree upon: the nearest climbing gym.

From the minute we walk into the Alaska Rock Gym in Anchorage, we feel at home. We’re in a drastically new environment and closer to Russia than we are to where we began our journey in Yosemite, California.

van life

Yet the moment we smell that familiar smell of plastic and fairy—I mean—chalk dust, feel the soft plushy pads underfoot, and are welcomed by the stoked person at the front desk, we are at ease.

I look around as I sit on a bench, pulling on my climbing shoes, and am reminded of the gym where I first started to climb. This gym is not one of those sterile, fancy rock gyms that feel more like an Equinox (and is just as expensive) than a place to cultivate the rugged pursuit of rock climbing.

This is one of those homey, thrown-together gyms with old wooden cubbies to stow your things, mismatched mats and used furniture, funky chalk bags and hanging Tibetan flags. With no blaring techno music or bright fluorescent lights, it’s one of those places where you feel you could spend hours—taking rests on the comfortable thrift store couches and picking the brain of that stoked person behind the desk about local crags.

climbing gym

Photo: Michael McCullough

When you’re on the road, climbing gyms become little beacons on your map that beckon you to their sanctuary. They promise a fun escape and a much-needed workout, hot showers, locals who know good places to get cheap food, and where a good spot to pull over and sleep in your van for the night would be.

The climbing community will always be there for you to seek out and no matter where you are, you will speak the same language and will dream the same dreams–of sun-drenched cliffs or snow-covered peaks in far away places.

And after a couple hours of climbing in our Alaskan refuge, we are instantly rejuvenated in a way that no other activity could make us feel. Worked and psyched and sweaty, we grab towels and soap from our van and take advantage of the luxury that is a hot shower.

After days of being on the road, this gym is a place where we could recharge (ourselves and our phone batteries for that matter). It’s a familiar place of refuge along an unfamiliar road, and it beats washing up in the bathroom sinks of McDonalds.

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