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The clouds and the dirt
Plus: the Siurana Climbing Festival and demolition time at my Spain property
I had a week to myself this month to work on my property in Cornudella de Montsant—and on day three, the electricity suddenly went out.
No lights overhead, no charging of devices, no hot water in the shower, and sunset at close to 6 pm. I could see my neighbors had lights on, but for me, nothing. I walked over to my ancient electric panel (the handyman I’d hired for a day in April said he thought it was more than 60 years old) and switched the breaker on and off.
Nothing. There was a red light blinking, but I couldn’t figure out what it meant, and the translations from Catalan were no help.
I had my headlamp, but the thought of spending a night at the property with only the headlamp from dusk to dawn was quite depressing. I took some pictures of the panel, then did some preliminary packing. Then I walked down to the climber bar to get a beer and a pizza and take advantage of the wifi to do some client work.
If I couldn’t figure out the electricity by the time I’d finished, I’d drive back to Barcelona.
I. The Siurana Climbing Festival
The first night in Siurana, we were right on time for the film premieres. The entire theatre was packed. Climbers standing in the back. Climbers tucked onto the floor in the aisle. Climbers in the balconies.
I didn’t even know Cornudella de Montsant had a theatre. But it does. It’s the old building directly next to the cafe that’s always closed. Except now.
Maybe five or six hundred of us were crammed in to see the Siurana Climbing Festival’s main event, a new film premiere starring Chris Sharma. I’d run into him once before, last year at the cliffs during the climbing trip which made me fall in love with Cornudella in the first place.
One of the things about Sharma: he’s exactly my age. I’ve grown up with him. When I was 16 and watching climbing videos, he was the one in the videos, climbing the hardest boulders in the world at the time in shaky, grainy videos you can now find on YouTube (now he’s co-producing stuff with HBO).
He’s also now a father to two young kids. And owns a chain of climbing gyms in Spain. And, he’s still climbing the hardest stuff in the world. And did I mention he’s 41 years old?
When we ran into him last year, he was projecting some ridiculously hard route, his characteristic try-hard screams being heard echoing against the limestone cliffs. My son ran up to him and asked for a selfie, and the resulting photo is one of my favorites ever.
Sharma eventually sent the climb, which he named Sleeping Lion, and now here at the Siurana Climbing Festival to premiere the film about it.
I and the friends I’d met up with took seats on the floor in the middle of the aisle, along with the other just-on-timers. I looked all around at the packed crowd, up to the balconies, then straight ahead—Stefano Ghisolfi (one of the absolute strongest climbers in the world) was sitting just in front of me.
I looked at my friend, and he looked back, eyes wide like a giddy kid. Stefano Ghisolfi!
First up was the new film from Angie Scarth-Johnson, a 19-year-old Australian who is climbing some of the world’s hardest sport routes. After her, Ghisolfi got up and gave a very funny tour of his storied career combined with a series of one-word lessons he’s learned to embrace along the way (the next day I kept urging my friends to “Dare,” “Believe,” and “Fight” as Ghisolfi had urged the night before).
Sharma’s film and his Q&A were up next.
Sleeping Lion is about a climb, but it’s also about Sharma balancing his responsibilities as a father and business owner with being what he calls “an extreme weekend warrior.” After the movie, people asked him about this and he got a little philosophical in his answers. It was super gratifying to hear the legend grappling with the same fundamental questions as many of us.
Why are we up there on the side of a cliff when we have other things we could be doing with our day? How can we reconcile the inherent selfishness of the pursuit with our responsibilities to others? Why do we do this thing?
It’s one thing for me to watch a 19-year-old crusher knocking down hard climbs left and right. Or another to see a 28-year-old devoting their entire life to the sport, living out of their van, no kids, no work or responsibilities other than to pursue the one dream.
But it’s entirely another to see a father of young kids, running a stressful business, and someone my age who is still doing this, and doing it so well so hard, and with such grace and intention.
I hadn't planned to climb the next day, but so inspired I took to the crags anyway. There we saw Ghisolfi, up on Sleeping Lion, working out the beta and seeking to become perhaps the second person in the world to climb the route, after Sharma.
There were the high-liners with a slack line strung hundreds of feet off the ground between the two cliffs, balancing their way across the tightrope.
And there was the 6c+ project I’d left a few weeks ago at Siuranella Est, with the roof and the crimpy crux sequence. I was ready to try hard. And there were other routes I was ready to Dream, Believe, and Fight on.
II. Cleaning the terrace
The day after climbing, the three friends I’d climbed with offered to come help at the property for an hour or so. It was amazing—four able-bodied dudes can get a ton of shit done in a very short time.
We cleared the random clutter from the top floor, carrying old wood furniture down three flights to the ground level. It was all covered in decades of grime and dust, but some of it looks quite cool.
Old, classic Estrella beer bottles you don’t see anymore, various crystal dishware, an old wooden trunk, something that looks like a wood wash basin.
Then we moved to the back terrace. We finished demolishing the old chicken coop and began to bag up old rusted metal, chicken wire, and random debris. A television from the 70s. Broken plastic jugs. Rotten wood.
I’d purchased a pack of 20 heavy-duty trash bags for the task and we filled each one. I brought the van around the corner and loaded in the trash, doing two runs to the Cornudella dump up the hill.
Later, I met with two guys from a company that removes fibrocemento, which is the fireproof, waterproof, and virtually indestructible material that half my roof and all the rain gutters are made of—and which also contains asbestos and is required to be disposed of in a renovation. They came to take pictures to give me a quote and a plan for removal.
One of them explained the process, which quickly devolved into talk of mandatory waiting periods, regional offices, and other quirks of Spanish bureaucracy.
It’s ok, I told them. I have time.
One of the guys looked around at the state of the property. Yes, he said with a smile. You have lots of other things to do here.
The next day I took the small sledgehammer to see if I could maybe knock down an interior wall on the third level. While I’d colonized the second level, with the working bathroom and kitchen area, I have yet to touch the two levels above. One of them has interior walls marking off two small bedrooms. They needed to go.
I banged once, but there was nothing but a very loud noise that reverberated through the small space. Then I banged harder. I didn’t even really know how these walls were built. It looked like standard plaster on the outside, but they were too thin to be wood framing (almost no one builds with wood here).
I banged harder still, and a big chunk of brick flew out from the wall. My childhood heart quickened. I really would get to swing a hammer and take down a bunch of walls today. Chunk after chunk, each bigger and more satisfying than the next. I swung and banged and wished apologies to my old Catalan neighbors for the noise.
An hour and a half later it was done, a pile of thin brick and plaster covering the entire floor, and a newly opened level that let my imagination as to what would come run even more wild.
III. The Clouds and the Dirt
In three days, I made enormous progress. Poco a poco.
I do have an overall strategy for the renovation in my mind, but as far as all the steps in between, my plan really is to figure it out as I go along.
What I’ve been doing reminds me of something Gary Vaynerchuk (oh fount of cookie-cutter business wisdom) once said about the clouds and the dirt:
The clouds are the “high-end philosophy of what you believe.”
The dirt is the “low-down subject matter expertise that allows you to execute against it.”
Forget about everything in between, says Gary V.
Everything else, other than the clouds and the dirt, is just a distraction.
Gary’s advice has always resonated with me. Maybe that’s because I’m not so good at those in-between things. I’m bad at delegating, managing people, and attending pointless meetings to plan stuff when I could be getting shit done. I have a negative visceral reaction to anyone who tells me to “outline,” and it’s been that way ever since Mrs. Weiss told me to do it in fifth-grade writing class.
Meanwhile, I love top-level strategy. I studied philosophy. I aim to work from first principles. And meanwhile, I like just getting to work. The kind of get-your-hands-dirty, sweat-caked all over, construction debris littering the ground, hard, back-aching, just get-it-done in-the-dirt kind of work.
I remember once I dug a trench three feet deep to bury a water line on its way to the garage renovation at my property in New Hampshire. Only, in order to get the line under the concrete footing on its way in, I had to lay down on my side in the trench, which was at a depth near the water table, and reach my hand into this small opening three feet underground. I came up caked in mud nearly head to toe—but there is also now water running to the garage.
I’m sure someone could write a book about a life lived only in the clouds and the dirt, but for my part, I feel I’m living that life right now.
(Not to mention the literal dirt I have often had covering me nearly head to toe.)
The clouds are my dreams: buying and renovating this property in Spain (and my New Hampshire homestead before it), investing in people and places, giving my son a childhood of adventure and joy, striving to be a better climber, and all that stuff. The dirt is the subject-matter expertise that lets me move the ball forward, step-by-step.
There’s this guy Martijn Doolaard who is renovating an old Italian homestead in the mountains. He’s a total workhorse with a clear vision, and he’s recreated his entire property in Sketchup, the modeling software. He’s visualized every step of the renovation, and its future state, and meanwhile, he’s also filming everything.
I really admire Doolaard, and I highly recommend his YouTube channel if you’re into renovating-old-Italian-homes-in-the-mountains-porn. But I’m not like him. I don’t have his planning and outlining skills or the inclination to film, which would feel pretty extraneous to the task at hand (although I occasionally cannot resist an Instagram story, so if you’re into that kind of thing by all means).
I have yet to learn Sketchup, even if I should, even if it would help. And I’m embarrassed to say I don’t even have a drawing of the floor plan yet. It’s all in my head.
What I do have is a cleared outdoor terrace, a working bathroom, the hammock hung, a new cooking setup, and a loose plan for getting the roof redone and the upper studio apartment started. And every day I’m actually working (as opposed to thinking or planning), the path forward becomes more and more clear.
I haven’t thought through every problem—If I did, I’d get quickly overwhelmed. So I go one step at a time.
And it’s working for me.