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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.

“Whose song is that?” asks the voice from the tent.

“James Taylor. He wrote it on the Mass Pike. But it has cowboys in it.”


Owing to the failure of Tupac Shakur to record “I’m Gonna #&*@ That @%&!$ Like a @**!%&*#in’ Dogie,” Joey does not appear to know any cowboy songs.

I hang our food bag in a nearby tree. We bed down in the tent, whose fly I had artfully guyed out to cut down on condensation.

“I’m putting myself to sleep by thinking about where I want to eat tomorrow,” Joey murmurs. “Let’s see. If we hike out early, we can make it to Javelina Cantina for lunch, and….”

But in the night, as we sleep, someone else has restaurant plans.

Rustle. Rustle. Rumble.

“What’s that?” asks Joey.

“Something is trying to get into our food,” I say, fumbling for a flashlight.

“Don’t go out.”

“We’re going to be pretty hungry in the morning if I let it eat everything.”

I poke my head out of the tent and point the flashlight at the noise. Two green catlike eyes glitter back at me from a small catlike face. A baby mountain lion? On a training run?

“Hey! Hey! Get outta here!” I yell at it.

It turns to leave and the beam catches its body, elongated and catlike.

“What was it?” Joey asks.

“Dunno. Looked too small to be a mountain lion. Back to sleep.”

This process recurs two more times. Rustle, rustle. Wake up to see a thing in a tree. Yell, “Hey! Hey! Get outta here!” Watch it leave. Somewhere in these visitations, I notice a ringed tail, and I half-remember–among the more or less Martian fauna of Arizona–something called a ring-tail cat. I ask a ranger the next day, and he confirms that such things exist and that they like to bust into your food. I look them up and they weigh 2 pounds. The one that woke me up was easily 27 pounds of man-eating fury. At least it didn’t get the food.

In the morning, we breakfast and strike camp, a process that requires 45 minutes to pack up everything and 45 minutes to get the air out of the sleeping pads. Joey amuses himself by shouting “Hey! Hey! Get outta here!” in perfect imitation of me.

Before we leave, I climb up in the hills, dig a cathole, and poop. I find I’m overweeningly proud of my aim.

We trundle back down the trail, and I muse about the whole experience. It’s been good for us. We mastered our own reluctance, our trepidation, our unfamiliarity with the equipment. We found a perfect campsite. The adventure helped us bond during a difficult transition. Sure, by BACKPACKER standards, we’re pathetic weenies, but this could be the start of a new phase. Maybe we’ll camp up in the New Hampshire White Mountains in May or….

“Explain this again,” Joey breaks in from up ahead on the trail. “Why do people do this when they can go for dayhikes and then go back to the hotel and use the Jacuzzi? Why do people sleep on the ground and eat horrible food and wake up cold? Why? Why? And why did you make me do this?”

On the other hand, I might enjoy camping alone.

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