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May 2004

An Overnight Success?

Need a crash course in backpacking? Join our newbie and his brooding teenager as they fend off mountain lions, overzealous retail clerks, and other beginner hazards.

Rustle. Rustle. Rumble. It’s 3 a.m. My 14-year-old son and I lie quietly in a tent, pitched on a lip of red rock in the Arizona wilderness, 3.3 miles from the nearest human being.


“What’s that?” Joey asks.

“An animal is trying to get into our food.”

I can feel Joey tensing up. This is going to require all the skills and experience we have accumulated as backpackers. Unfortunately, we haven’t accumulated any. We’re total rookies, alone in the desert. And some beast is tearing into our trail mix. In other words, the kind of thing that never happens at a Holiday Inn.

The last time I packed in anywhere was in 1986, when I was finishing a book called Swimming Chickens and felt the need, for reasons that now seem elusive, to trek with llamas.

The woman who was, until recently, my wife accompanied me into the wilds of western Maine, but then so did two guides and six llamas. The llamas carried everything, including champagne. The guides set up everything and cooked everything. Our chief job was to help wrangle llamas and try not to do anything that would make them spit on us.

Since then, I have preferred to believe that if God had wanted humans to camp, he would not have made hotels. If God had wanted us to sleep on the ground, he would not have made the Tempur-Pedic mattress, the Swedish pillow, the down-filled comforter. If God had wanted us to carry everything on our backs, he would not have made llamas.

But now, I’m ready for a new adventure. My wife and I have separated and are, very amicably, working our way through a divorce. My son is a warm and spirited person, but, as an angry 14-year-old enduring a split, he blames me for most of his problems. As a Mexican-American adopted at infancy, he also currently blames me for things like the destruction of Aztec civilization. A backpacking trip seems like it’ll be a surefire way to bond, to work through our baggage. Either that or we’ll die in the wilderness, in which case some of these other issues, like the lack of a PlayStation in my new apartment, will kind of fade into the background.

Just as we settle on this, America’s mountain lions seem to go on a special version of the Atkins diet where they’re allowed to eat only people. Every day, I pick up the paper and read a new account of a formerly reclusive puma dragging someone off as a midday snack.

Whenever I mention my plans to anyone here in Connecticut, the reply is instant: “Aren’t you worried about mountain lions?” After a while, I am. But not as worried as Joey. He has done lots of dayhikes in his life, but he prefers to end them with a dip in a hotel Jacuzzi and a lavish meal. The idea of sleeping where snakes and scorpions and you-know-whats roam is stomach churning.

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