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June 2003

The Seven Deadly Sins (And Why We Love Them)

This classic roundup appeared in the June 2003 issue of BACKPACKER
seven deadly sins"The Seven Deadly Sins" from the June 2003 issue of Backpacker.

Mortality can be a touchy subject. Of course, we remain steadfast advocates of humility, self-control, and equanimity; we urge you to recycle and pursue inner peace. Yet, truth be told, we’re will to excuse occasional transgressions, especially those degenerate behaviors that surface when good people head off into the wilderness. In the confessions that follow, seven wickedly honest writers recall their sharpest encounters with lust, greed, and the rest of that merry band. (And you thought you were bad?) In the end, it’s up to you to decide whether going to far is a sign of our depravity–or a celebration of our humanity.

By Michael Perry
Should I survive to senescence, I reckon I’ll wind up raving and cussing like Ozzy Osbourne doing a Mamet play. This will unnerve those who love me, as I am characteristically easygoing and prone to utterances no more scabrous than jeepers or dang it. Poll my acquaintances, and I will rank as the least wrathful of men. And yet, there is within me a seething rage. A vexatious little ball of compressed propane, spritzed with paint thinner, lashed to the tip of a sulfur match, and hidden beneath a pile of oily rags just to the left of my spleen. When specific triggers are tripped, I fly apart like a cheap watch. Specifically, the digital trinket I slam-dunked last Wednesday after 16 failed attempts to make the bleeping stop.

Excepting the tantrums of childhood, and an incident in Wyoming in which I was caught barking at a rototiller, I have remained a closeted rager. Around humans I am pathologically self-contained. Oh, I can be grumpy, and scowly, and–as my mother used to say–a little snippy, but my biggest blowups, the real shrapnel-flingers, occur when I am alone. Some say I repress my anger, and I reply, You betcha. I have never had much patience for the "let-it-all-out" theory. I know several people who are forever letting it all out, and their spirits remain consistently unimproved. I prefer to keep a cork in it. But absent witnesses, I will let fly like a goose exiting a turboprop.

Some of my most vicious unhingements have erupted during solitary forest strolls. Seems counterintuitive, I know. After all, the usual trip wires–busy signals, dropped Internet connections, bookshelf kits short one screw–are products of civilization. Is not nature a source of composure? Consider a winter hike: Your are toddling along, bundled against the elements, your cheeks stiff as lard in the cold, but your are invigorated, you are alive, you are absorbing the ballast of the earth and applying it to your own equilibrium, you are reclaiming your soot-addled soul one clear, clear breath at a time, when smacko!–a sapling switch, right across the kisser. I go from Jekyll to Hyde in a nanosecond, provoked by the stroke of a branch no bigger than a fly rod tippet. Why?

I believe it is the nature of the strike. Were I to get clunked by a log, I would grunt and press on. But this is an impudent, stinging little flick, akin to some ruffle-throated dandy darting out to give you a slap with his doeskin glove. It is a wee wannabee tree, but my brain construes intent, and I go weaselnuts. I’m glad you didn’t see me last fall, one watery eye clamped shut, in a full-out root-hog flail, warning the remains of a birch sapling with spittle and curses. Far above, from the safety of a sturdy oak, a squirrel chittered and wheezed, quite rightly perturbed at the presence of a sinner in the forest.

Hard to ruffle Michael Perry, author of the memoir Population 485, used to man a suicide hotline.

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