The Seven Deadly Sins (And Why We Love Them)

This classic roundup appeared in the June 2003 issue of BACKPACKER
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This classic roundup appeared in 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.

Wrath

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.

Sloth

By Michael Mason

MEMO To: Hyperactive adventurers
From: Those of us lollygagging by the fire
Re: Your insufferable ways

It's never enough for you, is it? The campfire glows orange, cobalt smoke curls into the morning sky, the smell of brewing coffee steals from tent to tent. We've escaped the mania of the mundane; we wake now in the dappled forest, serenaded by God's creatures.

But this is not enough for you. Barely out of the sleeping bag, you survey the campsite, and instead of nature's loveliness you see only Challenges To Be Met. Perhaps today, you think, I'll macrame a tarp from pine needles. Among the many types of outdoorsmen, I know your kind too well: You are one of the industrious ones, the outdoor achievers, and there will be no rest until you have wrung every possibility for self-improvement from our surroundings. Before the hour is out, you will be organizing a dayhike-cum-27-mile death march.

Somebody needs to talk to you and your tribe, and I've been elected. Look, if you guys want to tackle the John Muir Trail without a tent and toilet paper, go right ahead. Determined to throttle and elk with your bare hand and serve it for dinner? Be by guest. But please, leave the rest of us alone. We're here to relax.

For us, the outdoor indolent, the only essential piece of camp equipment is the hammock. We don't prepare five-star meals by firelight, and we refuse to construct Taj Mahal-in-the-woods. Unless there's something spectacular to see--say, an erupting volcano--do not ask us to hike waaay over there just so we can trudge waaay back here. I repeat: We are here to relax.

Call it laziness--even sloth, if your diction runs to anachronisms--but some of us learned to appreciate nature the hard way. Growing up in Atlanta, I belonged to a kind of fundamentalist Boy Scout troop. Monthly campouts took us to places with names like Blood Mountain, where we packed in every can of food, every steel pot and pan, every 30-pound canvas tent we would need. Modern conveniences, like canister stoves or fleece, were forbidden. Duties were assigned. Meals were scheduled. Inspections were frequent, and demerits were issued, liberally, by grown men in knee socks. There was camaraderie, but it was the sort shared by soldiers under fire. And because we were so busy, so distracted by pointless diktats, the beauty of the outdoors escaped us.

Years later, in California, I rediscovered the mountains, this time with a tiny stove, fleece, a lightweight tent, a self-inflating pad, and an array of other comforts that will see me in Boy Scout Hell. But for now, I'm issuing the demerits. You get one for interrupting me while reading. You got two for misplacing the corkscrew, three if it happens around cocktail time.

"Adopt the pace of nature," says Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Her secret is patience." Slow down, my frenetic friends. Fall in the campsite hammock, stare up into the trees, and remember why you wanted to be outdoors: Not to prove something, but to feel something.

Michael Mason, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, likes to eat deviled ham when he camps.

Lust

By Kira Salak

Two things about me. The first is that I believe in the Perfect Camping Spot. I know I've found it, that the universe has brought us together when I say, "I must camp here." The second thing is that I'm incorrigibly stubborn about my infatuations. If I see an ideal place to camp, I can't get that spot out of my mind. It's a desire that can't be bridled: I simply need to get there.

I was on the lookout for such a place as I traveled through south-central Madagascar, crammed into an ancient minibus next to a boy who had twice vomited on my hiking boots. I had been in this vehicle for nearly 36 hours and was convinced I would find no spot at all, the road fast degenerating into a boulder-strewn mud track. So far: two flat tires, an overheated engine, and a near-collision with a herd of zebu.

Then I saw it--the most perfect spot ever. It was a beautiful little ledge high up on a plateau above the scrub brush plains. It faced west, perfect for sunsets, reveling in rare, unobstructed view of the world. As our bus stopped at a small village, I squeezed out and put on my backpack. Locals crowded around, asking where I was going. When I pointed to the ledge, this seemed to displease them; they scoffed and waved their hands, acting like jealous lovers. But I rushed past them into the savanna, too enamored of my goal to stop and translate their cries.

It wasn't easy going. The plateau stood before me like an ancient rampart, with no apparent way up. I spent an hour scrambling along its base, finally finding a narrow cleft with handholds carved into the rock. I climbed carefully, topping out just after the sun had set. And there it was: my spot. All mine. I could barely see anything in the dim except some boulders, but I was still heady and love-struck by the place. Spreading out my sleeping bag, I lay down to enjoy the enormity of the sky, the hazy landscape unfurling on all sides. I started to drift to sleep.

That's when the stick-banging began. And the chanting. Panicky, I crept to the edge. Below, several Mahafaly tribesmen were engaged in frenetic dance, their bodies writhing like shadows in the torch light. At time, individuals came close to the cleft, and I was convinced they would come up. I spent the night in terrified anticipation, the hours creeping by like centuries. As dawn came, I expected the men to climb after me, but they simply put out their torches and went home.

It was then, in the light of morning, that I looked around and saw that nearby boulders were graves. My perfect spot revealed itself as a cemetery; the dancers, no doubt, had been trying to appease the ancestors' spirits. Hard to say what was worse that moment--the betrayal I felt, or the rejection. I sunk down on my cold, dusty ledge, sick with heartache, yet knowing all the while I'd go after the perfect spot again. Some of us never find enough love.

Kira Salak is the author of Four Courners, an account of her wayward, solo crossing of Papua New Guinea.

Envy

By Jonathan Miles

First, I tried to ignore him. He was an old man, maybe 70, wearing warparound black shades and what appeared to be a homemade denim fishing vest or else the unholy product of an Orvis/Harley-Davidson merger. He was fishing 40 or so yards downstream from me on the Tellico River, a trout stream in eastern Tennessee where, as a neophyte angler, I'd come seeking solace and rainbow trout--and where, to my grating dismay, I was finding neither. The old man, on the other hand, was catching plenty. I don't wish to exaggerate here, at least not much, but the old fart was like a stream-side ticket-taker: Every passing trout seemed to be paying him--lip service, one might say, in a punning mood--to continue on their way downstream.

But I was hardly in a punning mood on that sunshiny morn. No, my moon that morning was bleak, even blackly murderous, and though I tried to ignore the old man an dhis catches, tried to pretend he wasn't there, tried to imagine it was just me and the river, man and nature and birdsong and solitude blah blah chirp chirp--nope. With every tenth cast, I tired on a new fly, and when I'd exhausted my inventory, I would start over, whipping the water as if struggling to giddy-up a recalcitrant mule--all the while seething at the old man's zip-a-dee-doo-day ease. Citizens, I confess: I was boiling in a hot cauldron of envy. At some low point, I actually prayed--as in, Dear God--that a black bear would tromp down the riverbank and pummel the old man into the water. I envisioned the bear donning the old man's wraparound shades and signaling me that all was clear, that the trout were all mine.

After a while, when it was too painful for me to continue, I reeled in my line and wandered down to where the old man was fishing. "Hidy," he said. He had a harelip.

"Hidy," I replied. Three dead trout were piled up inside a bucket near his feet; it was catch-and-release season, so this was a no-no. "Couldn't help but notice you were having a pretty good time of it down here."

"Secret's in the can," the old man said, plucking an open container of Green Giant corn niblets from beside the bucket. "Kern," he said. "For trout, it's like that crack cocaine."

I nodded dimly. The old man was fishing, and grinning, just spitting distance from a sign that read: Use or possession of any bait is prohibited. On my slow walk down, I'd been feeling pangs of guilt about my fish-envy--about that bear thing, mostly. But now I didn't know what to think. Do the laws of the soul--specifically the ones that say not to covet your neighbor's wife, ass, or trout--trump those of the Tennessee Game & Fish Department? Friends, I could not say. Politely, I refused the old man's offer of niblets and headed back upstream, reveling in my newfound virtue.

Jonathan Miles writes, fishes, and almost always released in New York's Hudson Valley.

Gluttony

By Peter Moore

Backpacking is the perfect sport for the hungry man. Just do the numbers: A 150-pound man (me) struggling uphill (the Rockies) with a heavy burden (I can't believe those bastards made me carry a waffle iron!) burns 876 calories an hour. If that man considers the map yet another tedious instruction booklet to be ignored, the trail-bound hours can accumulate--along with a sumo-size caloric debt. There's simply no better way to build, and then utterly yield to, huge appetites. While the fast-packers are reconstituting their soy mush with iodine-scented water, I'm sawing my T-bone and tipping a Nalgene filled with Valpolicella. The journey is important, but the arrival--if planned right--can be pretty sweet, too.

My training for excess came early, as my dad marched me and my three brothers up to all of the White Mountain huts. Many times we were overtaken by hut porters carrying towering stacks of canned yams, suckling pigs, and Hershey bars. We'd ride their slipstream up to Mizpah or Lakes of The Clouds, collapse for an hour, and then assault the family-style dinner like hyenas at a wildebeest buffet.

As an adult, I have sought out hiking partners who share my belief that eating well is the best revenge. On our big trips, Bacchus is our god and guide (and he always carries his weight). that's why one of our cherished rituals is the parking-lot shakedown, during which we a) carefully review our emergency equipment, and b) throw it back in the trunk in favor of marinating flank steaks, exotic sauces of the Orient, and enough hooch to dully any pain we'll feel after hoisting it all into the clouds. We empty our hydration bladders and refill them with fermented beverages, figuring that nobody got schistosomiasis from Jack Daniel's. Inevitably during our dinners, some poor emaciated guy from the next tent site will materialize, and say something like, "Dude, where'd you get that rack of lamb?" We'll invite him into our aromatic circle--another ultralighter won over by Team Heavy Cream.

My peak of overindulgence came in Colorado's Holy Cross Wilderness. During the prehike shakedown, my friend Dave slipped a black tubelike object under a side pocket; I figured he was carrying extra-long skewers for shishkebab a la montagne. But it was better than that. At Fancy Lake that afternoon, he assembled a fly rod and was soon whipping the water with his leaders. It was like taking drunken Catholic-school girls at a freshman mixer: Every cast yielded a trout. In a flash, the chardonnay was flowing, the olive oil and garlic were sizzling in a pan, and the all-you-can-eat fish fry was on. We chowed for hours, then played our Martin backpacker guitars late into the evening. This was gluttony on all fronts, a life philosophy if you will: Trying to cram in as many experiences, as much pleasure, as many mountain-lake trout, as your possibly can before you push back from life's great banquet table. Eat, eat.

Peter Moore, executive editor of Men's Health, packed an onion "as big as a baby's head" on a recent hiking trip in Colorado's Gore Range.

Greed

By Mary Roach

When I was 9, I fell for a very old rock. My dad had taken me to the local natural history museum and spun me a tale about a meteorite as old as the universe. As I gaze at the pockmarked lump in an old glass case and try to wrap my mind around the idea of four and a half billion years. In my scrappy, science-besotted way, I became obsessed with space rocks. But unlike the dinosaur fixation and the crush on Jacques Cousteau, the meteorite obsession did not fade. Since then I have coveted a space rock--and been too cheap to buy one.

There is one way to nab a free meteorite, and some years ago I found myself in a position to do so. I was in Antarctica, working on an article about the Antarctic Search for Meteorites. If you see a rock sitting on the ice in the middle of Antarctica, you can be pretty sure it dropped from space; this is why geologists go there to hunt for them. The Barbados Search for Meteorites would be cheaper and more pleasant but ultimately not very fruitful. Every year, hundreds of meteorites are found on the ice and loaned out to geologists for study. I figured one less wouldn't matter.

I arrived by Twin Otter on a sunny night in December. Ralph Harvey, the program's affable director, was cooking a batch of General Ralph's Chicken (secret ingredient: Tang) and welcomed me inside his cluttered tent. When the rest of the team had departed, Ralph became quiet. "it's time I give you my No Souvenirs speech," he said. Apparently he could see through layers of fleece and Capilene to the greed in my soul. Ralph talked about the importance of meteorites, about their role in science's understanding of the formation of the universe, and about the code of honor that exists among the scientists whose jobs put them in a position to pocket really nifty artifacts. "You just don't do it." I nodded solemnly: Of course, you don't.

But maybe I do.

Over the next few days, driving my Ski-Doo across the ice with the rest of the team, I pondered my situation. I like Ralph, and I wanted to be good. I wanted to behave like a moral person. But it was possible that even more than that, I wanted a space rock.

And I knew where the meteorites were stored--in a pink sled behind Ralph's tent. All I'd have to do is sneak out there one night and pocket one. There were two drawbacks to this plan. First, there is no cover of darkness in Antarctica in December. Second, all the meteorites were logged and labeled, so the theft--and thief--would be obvious. No, if I was going to swipe one, I'd have to find it myself.

So late one afternoon, I went out for a walk alone. I told myself that if I happened to find one, it would be fate's way of telling me I was meant to have a meteorite. Then I'd do it. I'd bend down an palm it (no mean feat in three layers of mittens.)

I walked and saw nothing, just the blue of the ice, rising and dipping like some vast frozen sea. After 5 minutes--partly because of the cold, partly because of the guilt--I turned back. I did not feel disappointed. I felt relieved. It was like I'd been walking around with rocks in my pocket.

Apparently drawn to relics, Mary Roach is the author of Stiff, an investigation of the strange lives of human cadavers.

Pride

By Jeff Rennicke

Pride may go before the fall, but it can also be tangled in a current. We were young then, optimistic dreamers and drinkers of Rhinelander beer. One night in our dorm room around a case of the stuff, we put a compass to a map. Where in North America could we get farthest from a road? All fingers pointed to the Yukon.

A few months and many Rhinelanders later, a busted-up VW bus pulling a homemade canoe trailer skidded to a stop on the streets of Mayo, Yukon. In those days, Mayo was it--as far north as you could go by road, a ramshackle collection of rusty chainsaws, toothless miners, and lost hopes. And through it all flowed the Stewart River.

On the map, the Stewart was a blue line meandering as easily as our dreams. In the harsh light of an Arctic spring day, it was a torrent, a mud-colored muscle. We planned to paddle upstream 250 miles, portage the Arctic Divide, then drive 500 miles downstream to the Beaufort Sea. Through the misty beer haze of a dorm room, it had all seemed like wild adventure. From the streets of Mayo, it looked stupid. A drift log the size of our van swept by in the current. We should have laughed and left. Instead, we began unloading gear.

Six skinny college boys and their canoes caused quite a stir among the citizens of Mayo. The entire populace--35 humans and 367 sled dogs--gathered at the river to watch. Now it was a challenge. With the over-the-top ceremonial bravado that only slightly intoxicated college boys can muster, we drank a final toast from a bottle we found rolling around under the seats, blew the whistle, and we were off.

All of us had canoe experience, but none of use had ever paddled a canoe upstream. After a few strokes, we understood why. It was unnatural, like pissing into the wind. But pumped full of machismo and stale beer, we dug in, foaming the water with our paddles.

That's when I heard the laughter. We had not moved an inch upstream. We were, in fact, losing ground. To the locals it was the funniest thing since Old Red fell asleep in the outhouse and froze to the seat. Even the dogs were laughing.

We pulled harder and managed to round the bend, out of sight and earshot. There we camped. Day One of a 750-mile trip, and we'd made less than a mile. At this rate, it would take several years to finish the expedition.

Slowly, we discovered ways to negotiate the river. We gave up trying to overpower the current, learned how to exploit eddies, how to use slack water to slip ahead, and we began to cover good distances. But it took that long first mile from Mayo and a crowd of laughing onlookers to get use beyond the tight horizon of our own arrogance and into the rhythms of the river.

Back in Mayo, I bet they still talk about those tenderfeet who went upstream and never came back. They probably think we are still up there, nose to the current, still padding hard and going nowhere.

Midwest Editor Jeff Rennicke, a former rafting guide and author of two books on rivers, swore off cheap beer long ago.