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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.

“If we were in our tent, would a mountain lion come in and attack us?” he asks.


“Why not?”

“This has just never happened. They fear tents. They dislike the smell. And tents look to them like bears.”

“Are you making this up?”


“I’m worried.”

We have 6 weeks to plan the trip. We resolve to allocate our time in the following way. Working out details: 20 percent. Coping with our free-floating anxiety: 80 percent.

It’s winter, and, after a little Internet research, I decide we’ll go to the Grand Canyon because it’s warm down on the floor, it’s easy to find (as opposed to the West Chicahuagua Southern New Mexico Watupaki Wilderness Preserve), and it’s well traveled–a comforting thought if you’re totally clueless.

What I miss in all my surfing is the cautionary line that says, “If you wish to camp in the Grand Canyon by the time you turn 40, you should fax in a permit request within 5 hours of your birth.” By the time I discover this secret, download the permit, and fax it in, there’s a little more than a week to spare, as opposed to the 4 months encouraged by the Park Service.

Meanwhile, I try to figure out what kind of gear we’ll need. First, I visit Eastern Mountain Sports, a local outdoors store, where I voice such penetrating inquiries as, “Help? Please?” When the staff pelts me with tricky follow-up questions like “What did you have in mind, sir?” I realize I need some kind of baseline knowledge before I can even begin nosing around. So I buy two books: Hiking and Backpacking, by Karen Berger, and Allen and Mike’s Really Cool Backpackin’ Book, by Allen O’Bannon and Mike Clelland.

I devour them. From Berger’s book, I conclude that I should stop fearing mountain lions and get worried about blisters. Everybody has something they worry about excessively. Berger’s book could reasonably be retitled Blisters: America’s Silent Killer (Backpacking Tips Included). Allen and Mike’s book is more concerned with pooping. The illustrations include no less than eight Kama Sutra-like positions and information about how to dig a “cathole.” I realize that, over the last 49 years, I’ve perfected a pooping style that can be best described as “toilet-driven” and that I’m unenthusiastic about digging a cathole and pooping under an unblinking sky.

There’s also much useful information about picking out gear. Almost too much. My head starts to clog with all of it, so I start making a lot of big decisions based on gut feelings. I order two sleeping bags from Big Agnes mainly because I like the name (also because a guy at EMS speaks approvingly about the way the pads slide into slots in the bag). The books are also full of tips about getting properly fitted boots and a properly fitted pack, but adhering to that advice would involve getting a sabbatical from work. Apart from having my torso measured with some kind of special Gregory spine checker, we ignore such sage counsel. We choose everything in the most harried and ill-considered manner possible. Joey then refuses to break in his boots because they don’t mesh with his “I am a chronic parole violator” school look. In a just universe, we will be dead from blisters and oozing back sores when this is over.

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