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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.

In the parking lot, for the first time ever, I put Joey’s full pack on his back.

“You know how it feels when somebody jumps on your back?” he grunts.

We totter for perhaps a quarter of a mile. It’s dark inside the canyon and there is an ominous patina of snow on the ground.

“I need to stop,” moans Joey. “It feels like there’s an SUV on my back.”

“Keep in mind we have 5 or 6 miles to go today,” I say. “If we stop every quarter-mile….”

But that is exactly what we do, and, at every stop, Joey’s protestations grow louder. The pack is too heavy. He never wanted to do this in the first place. I’m an idiot for getting him into this. That kind of thing.

Finally, he sits down and announces he cannot go one more step. I calculate that with carefully applied parental bullying, I can maybe get him another .75 mile, but that won’t do us much good. We’ve gone only a mile.

I agree to retreat. This is especially mortifying because the first part of the trail is heavily touristed by dayhikers, including 4-year-olds and old ladies. Many of them conclude we’re on our way back from some kind of “Lord of the Rings” adventure or ask if we are training for the Grand Canyon, when in fact we’re the lowliest of the low-the incompetent hobbits who collapse after a mile and let Sauron have dominion over Middle Earth. Many of the toddlers and biddies are actually going farther down the trail than we are.

We keep our heads low, mutter terse explanations, and zip out of the parking lot before the doleful park service guy can ask us what happened.

Since we no longer have any time to regroup, we decide to at least seek out a campground, where we can use our gear and kind of work the bugs out. The next day, we’ll start out again. And miraculously things will be better.

I motor to the unfortunately named Wet Beaver Creek campground. The campground has only 13 sites, most of which are occupied by people carrying “comforts.” One family travels towing a camper, which in turn tows a little trailer that carries firewood.

We set up the tent and get the pads into the sleeping bags. Then, I fire up our stove and start dinner. We can see that everyone else is more prepared to be comfortable. They have nicer food, chairs to sit on, and portable lamps. We have the worst of both worlds: We’re equipped starkly so we can travel light, but we aren’t in the wilderness. Darkness is closing in. We sit at a picnic table gnawing on freeze-dried teriyaki chicken. It’s enough to push us to swallow our pride.

“You know,” Joey begins, “the best Thai restaurant in just about the whole world…”

“…is about 15 minutes away,” I continue.

“…and our SUV is sitting right here,” Joey adds.

Screeching with laughter, we speed off to town.

“We’re supposed to be roughing it,” Joey snorts. “You’re drinking chardonnay!”

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