The art of not falling hard

Jan 17, 2024 | Spotlight

By Michael Collins

(Editor’s note: Unsplash photo by yns plt.)

In the woods of North Carolina sits the Gen Z climber. 

Noah Namvong is perched on a wood log bench next to a campfire, leaning back into his arms stretched behind him. Next to him on the bench’s edge is young Abi, a preacher’s daughter. She leans forward away from him. 

They’re nearly hip-to-hip, despite plenty of space available. Noah is dressed in sweatpants and a red rainproof pullover, the kind you find with “Sale” signs at the outfitter store. This 19-year-old has spent the last three days on a camping trip to North Carolina through his university’s outdoor program. Patchy brown stubble has emerged from his face, and the brown roots of his bleached hair have grown longer. 

He’s got a contagious smile and a childlike disposition. He is the Gen Z climber, a new breed spreading through young America. In the year 2000, the United States had 154 climbing gyms throughout the country, mostly out West. In 2020, the number grew to 537. 

“Vertical eXcape” climbing gym (or “VX” as its climbers call it), opened in 2017 in Bowling Green. 

Noah is in his freshman year of college and works at the gym several times a week. The crowd of gym-goers is not your typical bunch — middle aged men and women climb next to middle schoolers, and long-haired hippies cheer on clean-cut Army soldiers as they traverse the walls. The primal thrill in rock climbing seems to appeal to just about anyone with two arms. It’s as if our ape ancestors are rattling their cages in our minds, aching for the chance to swing from tree limb to limb once again. 

Many climbers share a similar affinity for nature, seeking peace and cohesion away from the constant stress of American society — the politics, the pandemic, the protocol.

Noah is no different.

Back at the campfire, Noah seems carefree far away from the classes and assignments. 

He’s got a girl next to him, and he’s spent the last four days scaling every rock wall he’s come across. 

“You see those white marks?” he said, pointing above to a rock overhang roughly 60 feet in the air, nearly parallel to the ground below. “Those are chalk spots. It’s what gets left from climber’s hands when they scale routes.” 

Not 10 minutes later, a family taught elementary-aged children how to climb. Thankfully, the wall they scaled was perpendicular to the earth.

Noah free-scaled rock faces in hiking boots, to the awe of his fellow campers. 

He’s young, with a naive charm that has not yet been subdued by the college world he was entering. 

Among these campers, he traveled from moment to moment with a bright smile, an eager hope that the peace and purpose he felt was building to — something.

He is the center of his world, of course something must come. 

Like most 19-year-old boys, he assumed that “something” was a girl, in this case a girl named Abi. They had become close friends, but she had not yet told him of the guy she liked back home. He inches closer, talking to her with a low voice that cracks to his embarrassment. She is kind, but shy, and tries to signal her disinterest. 

Noah has not yet mastered the craft of identifying subtle rejection and keeps his arm just almost around her. Abi finds an excuse to stand when her friend comes over to talk to her. Perhaps she had noticed Abi’s predicament and came to her aid, or perhaps it was just good timing. 

They begin talking and leave Noah to the company of the fire. 

He is leaning forward now, chin resting against his hands, an elbow on each knee. His sits quietly, eyes fixed on the fire while campers converse and laugh around him.

He seems to be looking for something.

But he can’t seem to place what it is.

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