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September 2005

What Would Davy Crockett Do?

He'd toss the titanium stove and build a big fire. Our man enrolls in a traditional guide school and learns how to survive - and think - like an American original.

Perhaps you know me. I am a latte-sippin’, digicam-totin’, cubicle-escapin’, REI-shoppin’ lover of the outdoors. I can light a campfire, I can pitch a tent, and in bear country I know better than to sleep with the Oreos next to my head.

But Daniel Boone I am not – and the older I get, the more that bothers me.

Admit it: This country was built by folks who had serious outdoor chops, and we backpacking suburbanites are ill-equipped to follow their lead. We may be environmentally conscious in ways our forebears were not, but we will never be the bare-knuckled mountain-tamers they were. Whereas they laid hands on the wilderness, we experience it as if through a veil, and with every year that goes by, the veil becomes more opaque. On weekends, as I wander the well-trod trails to which my kind are increasingly confined, I wonder whether I’m really connecting to the outdoors at all. In it, but not of it – you know the feeling?

There should be an official diagnosis for the midlife malaise of the weekend hiker. Fanny Pack Syndrome? Protein Bar Dependency? Whatever, I’m not waiting for the docs to find a cure. Recently, I decided it was time to find my own way back to the wilderness, to make a serious effort to be the kind of guy who feels at home in any forest, in any circumstance. So I enrolled in a course in basic wilderness skills at the Colorado Outdoor Adventure Guide School, where middle-of-the-road campers like me learn from superoutdoorsmen like Jeff Miner, one of the school’s top instructors for the last decade. The man has traversed some of the nation’s toughest backcountry terrain, guiding – and occasionally rescuing – sportsmen lucky enough to have him along. What Jeff knows, he knows from experience. But his credentials would come later. When he introduces himself as I step from my rental car, all I know is that a sandy-haired man dressed in jeans and a camouflage shirt is shaking my hand and, without saying a word, conveying the distinct impression I should just leave my laptop and iPod in the trunk.

COAGS is no namby-pamby gold-faucet operation. On a private ranch about 50 miles from Colorado Springs, the school sits on the south side of Pikes Peak, a few rustic buildings in a clearing surrounded by aspen, pine, and fir. In the center is a lodge bisected into a meeting room and dining room, plus a ramshackle add-on kitchen in which Jeff’s wife, Theresa, somehow manages to crank out the kind of wonderful Western meals you haven’t seen since Bonanza.

My cabin sits to one side of the lodge with a handful of others. There’s no running water – a row of portable outhouses sits a few yards away, while showers are located in a building by the horse stables. But there are bunk beds, a couple of tables and chairs, and most thoughtfully, a mousetrap.

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