With Eric, the Trailer Was the Real Show
Eric Bjørnstad (1934–2014)
Cameron M. Burns
We first met Eric Bjørnstad in 1987, after Benny Bach and I had spent a night out on Big Bend Butte. We were driving back into Moab—tired, dehydrated, hungry, and generally frazzled—when we passed a huge rock shop of the north end of town (no longer there). We decided to stop and look around. Inside, rocks were stacked every which way on dozens of shelves, tables, and racks. Hundreds of thousands of rocks. Enough to rebuild the earth.
There was an old guy behind the counter (Lin Ottinger) and we got to chatting (after he asked why we looked like used dish towels on an Alaskan crab boat).
“If you boys have been climbing, you ought to talk to my roommate Eric.”
“Yeah, he’s writing something about desert climbing.”
With directions from Lin, we found Eric and Lin’s trailer a block west of Main Street in Moab, nearly opposite a well-known eatery called the Poplar Place. We knocked on the door and a gruff voice commanded, “Come in.”
We opened the thin metal door and stepped inside.
If you’ve ever seen the television show Sanford and Son, then consider this: Sanford and his young spawn Lamont had the neatest, cleanest establishment for the commerce of junk that the world has ever seen. That is, if you’re standing in Eric and Lin’s mid-1980s trailer.
Inside were books, clothing, blankets, appliances, and a huge range of weird … um, I guess you’d call them “collectibles”—stuff like deer antlers, china tea sets, a javalina skull, a leather-bound flask, a brass trumpet, insulators from electric lines, and a 1930s box camera. You name it, it was there. Plus a few dogs.
And, apparently, a middle-aged man in the back, behind a desk piled high with books. Eric Bjørnstad was coming off a ten-year stint working for Harvard University on an air quality study, and he was busy lacing up a few reports.
We told him Lin had sent us, and we got to talking about climbing, even though we had no idea who he was or what he was doing. After an hour, we left with a promise to meet him—after we’d set up a camp—at the Poplar Place.
We showed up a few hours later.
Eric was at a table in the middle of the room. We immediately recognized the guy sitting to his right as Charlie Fowler (over the years, one of Eric’s closest friends) because we knew Charlie from the People’s Fake Left-wing Republic (Boulder). The other two we didn’t know, but we were soon introduced to Jimmy Dunn and Maureen Gallagher.
Then we started drinking beer. There’s not really much else to report from that evening because—as far as we know—nothing else happened. I do recall that no climbing got done the following day. In fact, no sitting up in the sleeping bags got done….
Then it started.
Dozens and dozens of, maybe more than a hundred, trips to the desert, nearly all of which involved a visit to Eric’s in one of the five or six places he lived during the last 30-odd years—with Luke, Jon, Jesse, James, Benny, Baker, Takei, Sugarbush (Ann), Leslie, Mel, Bryan, Smith, El Jefe (Widen), Deucey, Singer, Schillaci, Fehlau, Ramro the Skiing Action Figure (JC), Porchdawg (Steve), Rab, Doorish, The Fred, and Charlie and Wee “Jumar” Joe (so called not because he was good with jumars). And a guy we called “Tourist Meat” because he wasn’t a climber (but every trip needs a non-climber to push the action toward the edge).
The best visits came once he got the trailer down on Powerhouse Lane, in which he lived for about 18 years. It was the bomb. The times in it were the bomb. And, in reality, it looked as if someone had bombed it. Sorry to say, when we arrived each weekend, it was basically the same thing.
The trailer, a long, full-sized job, was pure Eric. The front “room,” so to speak, was lined on both sides with shelves and books. The middle of the front room was a square area covered with vomit-yellow shag carpet. In the middle of the shag was a wood-burning fireplace—which in winter was always cranked to a level that would’ve put Guy Fawkes to shame. Windows on that end were those slatted rectangular things, which you can crank open and closed. The glass was, of course, that weird translucent stuff you can’t quite see through.
Step a few feet back, towards the middle of the trailer, and you’d enter Eric’s office. He had a desk propped up against the wall, stacked high with a classic Mac computer (at least 25 years out of date) and dozens of books and articles about desert flora and fauna, desert soils, desert history, Native American beliefs and traditions, poetry, 4WD trails (yup, he consulted a lot of those books because motorheads really do get around), geology, music, and philosophy—there were even a few books about climbing.
To the right of his desk was a two-seater couch (my back told me it was a two-seater after the first of dozens of nights on it). On a ledge above said couch was the TV, a 19-inch color job, continually cranked to Channel 39, also known as the Playboy Channel. (I’d never seen that channel before and after a few visits became convinced that I was a lesbian.)
That was the main front room (about half the trailer).
Walk down the hall going the other way and on your right you’d pass a bathroom, a bedroom that looked like it had been in an avalanche (there was a huge poster in there of a woman’s naked chest with a hexcentric nut holding fast against the cleavage), then the final room, Eric’s, which wasn’t anything to write home about (…but maybe a quick note to OSHA might’ve been in order).
Eric wouldn’t mind me giving him a bit of a hard time about his quarters. He and I were tight. Over the past 25 years, we’d nearly always call each other before a Mountainfilm or an AAC meeting or an OR Show, just to see if the other was going. “I know who my allies are,” he used say, followed by a small chuckle.
Truth is, Eric was one of the shyest people you could ever meet. It took him 15 years before he started offering a few quips on the idiotic route names I’d come up with. And as we knew each other longer, the franker we became with each other. We knew our own faults, but backed up by observations from the other, it was a good dressing down into an honest state of humility. I lay prostrate in the desert.
The funny thing about Eric and his trailers (and other homes) was this: they might’ve seemed like the lairs of deranged hermits, and they might’ve needed a good cleaning, but Eric’s ideals and values were anything but aligned with his housing units.
Sure, he had the Playboy Channel on 99 percent of the time, but I rarely saw him look at it (a few buddies and I would stare for days on end—many climbing objectives dropped for a few hours of sun-tanned exercise on the tube). Rather, when interesting sounds issued forth from said device, Eric would crank up the classical music on his Bose radio to try and drown out the heavy breathing. Then he’d dig out a quote by Goethe or Rilke or Heidegger to stick in the end of a chapter on some area of the desert.
I must’ve camped outside the Powerhouse Lane trailer 30 times. Another 20 nights or so were spent on the couch or the shag carpet inside, in a sleeping bag (the shag carpet was filled with slivers of glass from the ornaments Eric used to make; one night, a couple I know even skronked on that carpet!).
Often, on the coldest nights, with the stove blaring heat, Eric would start chopping wood on the carpet next to the stove. It was a sight to behold. Wood chips flying every which way, snapping into old European climbing books worth, I’m guessing, hundreds of dollars.
One day, in about 1992, Eric pulled out a huge collection of aluminum bongs. He handed them to me: “Here. We used these for the Eiger Sanction.”
Eric and Ken Wyrick had rigged the Totem Pole in Monument Valley for the filming of the Eiger Sanction with Clint Eastwood. He told me the story several times.
I had two take aways: one, Eric and Ken were hanging just out of sight (i.e., over the edge of the summit) during the summit scene with Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy sharing beer, and, two, Clint apparently did most of his own stunts. “If I had $10 million in the bank, I probably wouldn’t have,” Eric noted.
I had no idea what to do with the bongs, but I think they’ll make nice earrings for my youngest daughter when her ears get big enough to support two pounds of aluminum.
Eric might’ve have spent a few nights in his trailer, but his heart and soul were on the road. During the nearly three decades I knew him, he went through a series of vehicles (anyone remember the gray VW truck in the 1980s?), all of which had a common denominator: enough room to kip in the back.
We’d meet him in Arches and camp. Canyonlands, and camp. Mexican Hat, and camp. The Swell. The Fishers. Rover Road. Indian Creek. Colorado National Monument (not to be confused the un-national monument).
Sometimes he’d be making notes for one of his books on desert climbing. Other times he was just looking for company.
When he came to my and Ann’s Boulder wedding in 1994, he slept in the back of his truck, in the Boulderado parking garage. In the morning, he combed his hair, washed his face, and was ready to dance all day with Ann’s Aunt Dolores. They both had shock white hair and made a terrific sight, wheeling about the dance floor like two powdered figures from Marie Antoinette’s court. (Eric never commented on the fact that we’d hired an Elvis impersonator for the gig, but he did smile when I pointed that out.)
In the mid-2000s, Eric moved again, to a pretty bland house in the middle of Moab. He was slowing down, that was obvious. I made several visits to him there, to try and interview him, but the interviews became more and more jumbled, more and more confusing.
Most afternoons he’d drive out to the Colorado River and take up a space on the north side of the river (east of the bridge) on his folding lawn chair while his dogs went swimming. A few years ago, he was taken to a hospice in Moab. He called me several times, and made plans with James Garrett to go visit him, but work and family cancelled those plans. We talked a few times, and just a few days ago, I learned he’d passed.
A lot will be written about Eric in the coming weeks and months. And yes, he was one of the most amazing record-keepers the U.S. climbing scene will likely ever see (Roper was pretty unbelievable, too). And, yes, his climbs were impressive: Mt Seattle first ascent, Mt Robson first winter ascent, all sorts of interesting routes in the PacNW, and, of course, a dozen big, very cool towers in the desert southwest.
But I submit that a man should be judged by the dogs he keeps.
And Eric always had a dog with him. Often two. Often others, loaners or dogs that needed sitting. I got to know many of them. They had names like Harvard, Queequeg, and Rilke. Thoughtful names, colorful names. Names that had meaning, like Eric himself.
His dogs were all very friendly and all, generally, well behaved. Not one of them ever snarled at a visitor (that I saw), and not one of them barked incessantly. And certainly, none of them ever coiled down a turtle-head indoors.
Eric didn’t feed them exactly the best diet, but they were all clearly happy and healthy, and very well adjusted. I remember using Rilke as a pillow one night at Powerhouse Lane. She didn’t budge all night.
I like to think Eric is with his dogs now, especially Rilke. She seemed to go everywhere with him for years and years, including our wedding. I miss seeing her jump up on the couch next to Eric, get a good scratch behind the ears, then flop down in his lap, totally contented.
Simply put, they are the most fabulous Moab couple I’ve ever known.
Cam Burns is a Colorado-based writer and editor. His latest book is Adventure at High Risk (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). He is currently working on several other books, including a record of his father’s five traverses of the Andes between latitudes 50 and 56 during 1967–68.