Elvis and the Backwoods of the SE
Trip Start Mar 21, 2012
24Trip End Mar 25, 2013
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Where I stayed
Horse Pens 40
What I did
Climbing beholds so many more benefits than the obvious ones of adventure and exercise. It brings old friends together from all corners of the Earth. It even allows you to be a tourist in your own country, to explore those areas and things you might not have otherwise were it not for "being in the area" and needing to take rest days. This is how Elvis, Big Sexy, and Horse Pens 40 ("HP 40") all come together; in that rhythmical balance that makes up a climbing trip.
Months ago, our dear and long-time friend Jim, aka “Big Sexy,” threw out the idea to a number of us to meet up in HP 40, Alabama, for a pre-Thanksgiving getaway from Seattle's rain. Reasons of doggy-sitting, money, lack of time off and the like kept others from joining, but we decided to take Big Sexy up on the offer.
And we're not really even “boulderers.” I think you're either a boulderer or you're not. It's like snowboarding vs. skiing. Or maybe more lift skiing vs. backcountry. Two people can share a love for the outdoors in what an outsider would think is the same way, yet these two people can have such opposing tastes, perspectives and ideals even on what the sport actually is or what they prefer—and they're not afraid to associate and even label themselves as one or the other. Lindsey used to boulder more back when she first met Big Sexy nearly a decade ago. But time and adventure tied to the other end of Ben's rope have changed her preferences for climbing.
But despite all this, it's still climbing. And we wanted to take Big Sexy up on the opportunity to share in an adventure his way. Plus, climbing movies put out by Dave Graham and others touting the area as a “world-class bouldering destination” meant guaranteed fun. So why not?
A little diversion about HP 40 and the people that inhabit the backwoods corners of the SE. Weeks prior to arriving, people from all over warned us of the man who owns and runs HP 40. “He's a little crazy,” or “He'll talk your ear off if you're not careful,” or our favorite, “Don't piss him off because he carries guns,” were just some of the flavorful comments and warnings echoed by other climbers. To our surprise, when we arrived, even the owner's son who was running the general store and checking us in gave us similar warnings.
Welcome to HP 40!
Big Sexy posing as “Team Rental Shit Box,” his self-proclaimed name for the trip given his disapproval of his rental car
HP 40 felt more like an amusement park than a climbing destination, and perched in the most peculiar and unlikely of places. The rock formations are other worldly and densely scattered in an alcove atop Alabama's highest formation. Signs and rules educate climbers, sightseers and campers on the most basic of behaviors, leaving one wondering about the IQ of the average visitor. But when you hear the story of how the current owners came upon “drug users” and “group sex addicts” claiming to be climbers—and if you choose to believe the stories—you can probably understand why they are so strict. Follow the rules at HP 40, whether you like them or not, and there will be no problems. Choose to disregard the rules, or fail to pay the hefty $15/day camping fees, and you'll be sure the owner will come after you with his gun and make sure you never return. At least that's what others have told us!
This wasn't Big Sexy's first trip to HP 40. About 5 years ago, he made such fond memories of the place that he had to return. But last trip was so cold and windy that he opted for more cush digs than the primitive camping and stepped it up to the primitive cabin at a whopping $50/night.
Where the magic happens...Big Sexy's digs
The climbing. After weeks of pulling steep roofs and stepping up the grades, we thought we'd slay HP 40. Unfortunately, not so. Save for a couple boulder problems, our skills were rendered useless at an area that's known for its slopers. You know it's going to be slopey when the most popular climb in the area is called “Bum Boy,” named for the butt-cheek slapping crux required to top out the problem.
Ben on Bum Boy, V3/4
Ben slapping the butt cheeks of Bum Boy
We did do some sending in our four days of climbing at HP 40, but most of them received the abhorrent grade of V0-. This also became a hated grade for us. “Since when do you need a spotter and a bouldering pad to climb V0-?” we'd ask ourselves. Over the years, many of the climbs have been downgraded, perhaps as frequenters grew more familiar with the gritty-yet-slopey climbing style. We were starting to grow tired of sussing out a climb, sending it, and coming down to find out we sent yet another “V0-.” At first, it was a bit of a slap in the face. We've all been down-graded to beginner climber status. Our mediocrity was getting the better of us. But then again, we asked ourselves, “Do we really care?” As long as the movement was fun, it didn't matter if we were climbing a V2 or a V0-.
Part of the allure of climbing trips is what you do when you're not climbing. Climbing can take you to some of the most interesting places. Part of the allure for Big Sexy on this trip was to sample some of the SE's renowned BBQ and visit the King of Pop, Elvis Presley. We weren’t looking forward to driving 5 hours to the town of Memphis for these treats from a time and gas consumption perspective, but Big Sexy was determined, so we went along with the plan and were psyched we did!
Big Sexy generously carting all of us to Memphis
Different parts of the South are known for different styles of BBQ. Memphis BBQ is known for its ribs, specifically pork ribs! We went to a newer BBQ place called “Memphis BBQ Co.” that has been receiving lots of hype lately and were tantalized by the dry-rub ribs! Tasty sauce too!
As Big Sexy calls it, “The Blue Lights of Justice” were everywhere! In fact, there seemed to be more police in Memphis than civilians!
Elvis lives! Or rather, he’s omnipresent in parts of Memphis near Graceland. He’s even painted on the sidewalks!
The famous Heartbreak Hotel
The musical gates that separate Graceland for the outside world
Memphis was once known for its music scene, in particular soul, blues and rock 'n’ roll. This site helped bring equality amongst black Americans through a shared love of music.
This was also the site for the budding careers of many of today’s well-known megastars of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Chester Burnett (aka the “Howlin’ Wolf”), just to name a few. And many, if not all of these stars, started their budding careers in the recording studios of Sun Studios.
The Kunz family outside Sun Studios
We took a tour of Sun Studios while there and learned a ton about Elvis’ career, the progress of the recording devices, and more! What a great little tour!
Bet you bottom dollar Elvis’ lips have touched this very mic numerous times!
We headed into the famous Beale Street for sunset, poisoning ourselves on the street liquor and beer you can purchase from any number of stands and drink within the confines of the quartered-off walking streets.
Ben wishing he hadn’t posed for the “Wet Willies” photo outside of the bar, Wet Willies
While the city of Memphis, the largest city in Tennessee, has its gentrifying parts, not far from the downtown metropolis lies large sections of depressed, ghost-town streets overrun by bums and gangs. It’s sad to see in a relatively new city that holds so much lively history. Hopefully, in time, the Blue Lights of Justice will clean up the streets and restore this beautiful town into the lively cultural mecca it once was and deserves to be.
Back to HP 40, we return for another 24 hours to hopefully send a few projects and work of the gluttony from Memphis.
We celebrated our final night with Big Sexy learning from the grill master how to cook the perfect steak, enjoying our meat sweats in the glow of a crackling campfire.
Thanks for the memories, Jim!
More pics can be found here:
Horse Pens 40