The Ice Silo
I made a habit of hitchhiking during the holidays when I had no one to see and nowhere to go, which was more often than not. Strangers were always in a kind Christian mood between Thanksgiving and Christmas and I’ve never been opposed to taking advantage of others’ generosity. Which meant finding rides around the countryside was never easier.
One Christmas Eve I went strolling around gravel roads west of Dubuque near a suburb of sorts called Peosta which was all townhouses and corporations near the Interstate. The old part of town hated the new, and I stuck to what I know best, which was eating in a small diner on the main street, trying samples of their coffee and pie, and watching men dressed in coveralls and John Deere hats talk to each other. All of this before I took back to the road.
Outside was cold and gray. I walked hunched over, hands in my pockets. All the old homes in this town were angry little hovels shoved close together, and you could feel the worn down pessimism of people overrun by an unwanted blast of big houses, and I wanted at that moment a ride to anywhere else.
When I got to the edge of town, kicking at the dead ditch-grass, thumb out with every passing vehicle, a suburban pulled up. “Where you going?” the driver said. A man in his forties, I guessed, maybe ten years older than me.
“I’m heading your direction,” I said.
There was room for one more. The adults inside were secured by seatbelts and full of good cheer and overwhelming bliss and laughter. They asked me questions about what I was doing, and I decided to tell them the truth, which was a practice I was getting better at.
“Sometimes a guy just needs some fresh air,” I said. “Around this time of year being alone in your own house doesn’t always feel like the right thing. Kids are with their mother, and I was fixed in front of the television for the last twenty four hours nibbling out of microwave meals, so I felt like I needed to get out. Like I said, fresh air.”
“We’re going to this ice silo,” the woman next to me said. She was fit and beautiful in the way rich people are beautiful, removed from any real worry or real pain, and I suppose there was a kind of hatred I had for these people that I would try to suppress. “Join us if you’d like,” she said after a minute.
“I’m probably not the best equipped for whatever you’re talking about.”
She explained it to me: an ice-covered grain silo that people climbed recreationally.
We drove a few more minutes, gravel pelting the underside of the suburban, until we saw a wooden sign with red and green spray paint: “Ice Silo, Open on X-Mas Eve!”
And sure enough, there it was.
From the road it radiated a bluish-gray quality, the ice molded around the silo, thick and uneven. To me it looked intimidating, like a bear roused from hibernation prematurely. Everyone else seemed amiable and jolly, ready for the big challenge, and I suppose these people — especially the men — couldn’t let each other know they were really shitting their pants upon seeing this thing.
Or maybe they weren’t. Maybe they were naturals and climbed shit all the time. The only thing that kept me from running away at that very moment, taking back to the road and hitchhiking further away, was this one, fit-looking woman who seemed to have taken a special interest in me. She touched me on the elbow, the shoulder, and looked me in the eyes when I talked. She took me in a serious way.
“You ready for this?” the driver said. “And, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Vincent,” I said.
He clutched my hand firmly, patted my back.
We parked next to a log cabin outpost with smoke billowing out of the chimney. It was still cloudy and dreary but somehow the Christmas spirit lifted everyone’s moods, including my own.
At the base of the ice silo were a group of kids — all girls — about middle school age, and they were squirreling around, giggling, cheering each other on as they mounted the ice and started climbing. They wore some clamp-on shoe spikes and used ice picks to scale it. I felt my palms grow sweaty underneath my wool mittens.
“What do you think?” the friendly fit woman asked me. She wasn’t very tall or big, but her personality made her seem markedly present, taking up a lot of space.
“I’ve never done anything like this,” I said. “But hell, if those kids can do it — ”
“Look at them go,” she said. “So you have kids?”
“Boy and a girl,” I said. “You?”
“No,” she said.
By her tone, I could tell it was a topic she would’ve talked about had I inquired more, but I decided against it mostly because I didn’t feel like thinking about my own kids sitting around with my wife’s husband’s mom and dad — their new grandparents — getting gifts from them I could never afford.
“You ever do this?” I said. I pointed at the kids, the ice silo. The other people from the suburban were milling around the outpost talking to some bearded guy outfitted in what looked to be expensive outdoor gear.
“No,” she said, “but I’ve done some rock-climbing — me and my husband.” She glanced over at him. He had his arms crossed over his chest standing by himself, looking in the direction of the ice silo. A northerly breeze created a kind of mini-snow devil, a whirling combination of the snow that was now falling and loose stuff from the ground.
“You look pretty fit,” I said. “I can tell you work out.”
She smirked. “Thanks,” she said. “I think.”
“I mean, even with those heavy snow clothes on I can imagine underneath you’re really something.”
“That might be taking it too far.”
Inside the log cabin outpost I walked around looking at all the climbing gear: shoe spikes, gloves, goggles, ice picks, ropes, helmets, and carabineers. They also sold outdoor gear a person might find at some high-end clothing store, stuff I wouldn’t wear until after it had passed one round of use.
All the adults from the suburban were gathered together near one corner of the outpost. A fire flickered inside a woodstove and a stainless tea pot sat on top, steam swirling from the spout. The place smelled of sweaty wool socks and spiced apple cider. I inched my way toward the group. They were listening to some young fella — maybe a college student — with a burly beard and colorful stocking cap giving instructions. He was slender with a red and black lumberjack flannel and black snow pants. He enunciated words carefully while his hands were stuffed in his pockets. He reminded me of one of those silver-spoon trust-fund kids who had money to maintain some outdoorsy image. Plus I’ve always felt mildly jealous of articulate people and couldn’t help but feel a pang of envy as he commanded the attention of all the adults in the room. I imagined his name was something fancy like Emerson or Gilchrist. In my mind I settled on the latter.
He said to the group: “When you’re climbing the silo, just remember that I’ll have a good hold of you. You can take your time, but don’t be paralyzed up there. Take risks. I’ve got you.”
I sat on a wooden bench next to the fit woman who I almost offended. She was pulling a harness over her snow pants. “You climbing?” she said.
“Most likely not,” I said.
“Oh, come on,” the driver said to me. “We got the group rate and you’re part of our group.” He was standing next to the fit woman, already equipped with everything: harness, helmet, two ice picks, and ice cleats. Underneath us, on the floor, was a rubbery mat that led from here to outside. “Take it,” he said, handing me a harness.
“I’m just wearing jeans,” I said.
“Oh, hell, that doesn’t matter,” he said. “Give it a whirl.”
The snow had started coming down at a good clip. Giant, multi-dimensional shapes that landed on our jackets and stocking caps, collecting quickly. As we moved from the log cabin outpost to the actual silo we passed the herd of teenage girls who’d just completed the ice-climb. They were all smiles and light-hearted laughter. They were being escorted by a group of older women, moms I suspected, and into the outpost. Even after they shut the door, I could hear their flurry of conversation, and I imagined after this they’d go home tired and proud of their accomplishments and enjoy a warm house, dinner, and Christmas Eve presents.
I caught up with the people in my group who were still in their own jolly way, back-slapping and laughing, telling inside jokes. I figured they were from the new part of Peosta but I didn’t inquire. I suppose I didn’t want to know. We stood at the base of the silo. I felt a surge of nervous energy fill my stomach, and I realized then that this was going to be quite the challenge. Gilchrist, the articulate one, gave more instructions, but I was too jittery to listen. Around us were flat, harvested agricultural fields, and a few tree-lines stretched across the horizon. The snow was coming down, steady and consistent, and it felt quieter in the way falling snow seems to silence things. For a moment, I considered that we could be in Russia.
“You, our new friend,” the driver said. He parted through the crowd of other adults and put his arm around me and pulled me up to the front. “You have the honor of going first,” he said. Then he turned to the others and said, “And being our guinea pig.” Laughter all around. Everyone except Gilchrist. He kept a straight face the entire time, and I thought maybe I had an ally here.
“Ever do this?” Gilchrist said.
“Never,” I said. I looked up. “How do you get this ice to form anyway?”
“Stick some hoses at the top, let it slow drip starting in mid-November, and it looks like this a month later.”
Gilchrist clipped me into the rope with a carabineer. He pulled the rope, which was hooked up by a pulley at the top, and I could feel it tug my hip harness.
We went through the proper belay channels and then I swung my pick into the ice and it made a sinking crack. I pulled on the pick and it felt sturdy.
“Use your legs more than your arms,” Gilchrist instructed.
The rope around my wrists to help secure the ice picks felt as if it were choking off circulation, and I wondered if I had missed some important piece of information while staring off at the Russian landscape.
I engaged my ice cleats while swinging the pick high above my head. “Good,” Gilchrist said. He pulled the rope tight, taking away any slack. I could feel him lifting the harness and relieving me of some of my own weight. “Push up with your legs, nice, you got this.” His encouragement was uplifting, and soon, the others, the van full of adults, my new friends, hollered at me: “nice job,” “keep going,” “you can do it.”
Their encouragements were foreign words and I felt a sudden urge to giggle which caused me to lose focus. Gilchrist must’ve felt me lean back, which would’ve put more of my weight on him. He said, “Stay focused, man. You got this.”
There was a time once when I brought my son out to a set of cliffs near the Wapsipinicon River, in this little village called Stone City — a place where me and my buddies used to repel. We used to tie ropes around strong trees at the top of the cliff and jump off, sometimes head first. We wore the same kind of harnesses, used the same carabineers, wore repelling gloves, but never wore helmets like we did for the ice-climb. My son used to hike through the trails, near the river, or sit on the boulders below while we repelled. The first time I brought him out he asked if I was scared. Up until then, it had never occurred to me that my life mattered enough to anyone else that I ought to consider what being scared meant.
“No,” I told him. “Not too scared. The rope’s strong.” He was young at the time, maybe five or six. “Are you?”
He pushed his lips out, shook his head. He had fair skin and hair, like his mother. Not anymore,” he said.
“That’s good,” I said. “No need to be.”
I climbed steadily up the ice silo, finding a rhythm: digging my cleats, pounding my picks, pulling and pushing myself higher, until I finally reached the top. There was a bell I got to tap with the tip of my ice pick which indicated to everyone around that I had in fact accomplished what I’d set out to do. When I rang the bell the onlookers below clapped and celebrated. Gilchrist instructed me to sit back and walk myself backward down the silo, and this was the part I was most familiar with since it was almost identical to repelling. I leaned way back, taking Gilchrist off guard, I think, because he said, “Easy now.”
I pushed off the ice with my cleats so that I swung wide and away from the silo, only to come back again, absorb the impact with my legs, and kick back out. When I was close to the ground I looked down, made sure it was clear, and dropped my ice picks.
Gilchrist made a big deal of it. “Dude,” he said. Then he turned back to the group. “An example here of what not to do.”
“Looked like fun, though,” someone said. Everyone laughed and agreed.
“It was,” I said.
I walked through the crowd and felt the back-slaps and heard the “good jobs” from the suburban-load of adults now poised to climb on their own. I stood in the back and watched as each person took their turn, doing their best to reach the bell. A few made it, others didn’t. The fit woman made it in record time, and when she came back down I congratulated her.
“Oh, it was nothing,” she said. “Not too bad.”
“You made it look that way,” I said.
She turned her focus to the next person climbing, and without much to do or say I scooted toward the back while they cheered on their friend.
“Hey man,” I said to the fit woman’s husband. He was acting like a gentleman, waiting for everyone else to climb. His arms were still crossed over his chest and he simply nodded. “You nervous about climbing?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. Then he moved away from me.
Finding the right things to talk about has never been my strong suit, but here, with these people, I found it even more difficult. We couldn’t have been further apart in every aspect of life, and after I was done climbing and they were done patting me on the back, they pretty much ignored me, as did Gilchrist, and I couldn’t have felt more removed. I wondered at the time why it was like that. Now it all seems obvious in the way everything seems obvious with the proper amount of distance.
I’ve come to conclude that there was this sense of shallow contentment there amongst those people that I’ve simply never had or identified with, which made things impossible between us. I could never imagine a scenario in which we all stood around back-slapping and laughing at a shared memory. But maybe that’s not fair; maybe that sentiment is off-base or wrong; maybe it was just me; maybe I was the problem. I’m not so dense as to rule out that possibility.
After my climb, and being ignored by the fit woman’s husband, I went back to the warming house and returned my ice picks and harness, but I left my own worn out snow boots and snuck off with the ice cleats. They really dug into the snow and I thought they might be useful to me as I wandered country roads in the dark, searching for a way home. I also kept both carabineers, and while I understood they held no practical value, I thought my kids might enjoy flipping them open and shut, keeping them around as a souvenir from when their dad finally accomplished something — finally reached the top and rang that victory bell. Of course, they weren’t there to hear it. But when I think back on that time, I see them there, my kids, below me, standing next to Gilchrist, cheering me on, catching snowflakes with their tongues. My kids — clutching the rope that supported me throughout — saving me from a free fall.