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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.

We cannot be lost.

We have ridden on horseback into the mountains only a few miles from the school. Pikes Peak, one of the continent’s signature summits, looms directly ahead, and to the west we can see a distinctive, azure lake. And yet here we are – Becky, Billy, Sam, Danny, and me – on our stomachs in a meadow, drawing lines all over a map, not even remotely certain of our precise whereabouts.

“God, we suck,” says Becky.

Today we are putting our new orienteering skills to the test. Now frustration is building, as are the afternoon thunderheads.
Jeff lowers the binoculars he’s been using to spy for elk. “Sight something closer, not the peak, not so far away,” he advises. “And what’s the first thing we do? We orient ourselves.”

Our map, it appears, is not even positioned correctly on the ground, and we cannot decide how to triangulate our position without the peak. “Just look at where you are,” says Jeff, exasperated. “You’re in a saddle, near a lake, there’s a butte at one end.”

Sam points to the map. “The butte is here?”

“No,” sighs Jeff. “That’s a cliff.”

Now Sam is annoyed. As the rest of us continue to take sightings, he quietly pulls a GPS out of his pocket and activates it. “Keep him busy,” he whispers.

There’s no need. Billy has figured out what we’re doing wrong (a declination slip-up, naturally), and after some hasty recalculation, locates us on the map. We look at one another, relieved but sobered. Team COAGS was beginning to look like bear bait.

After a quick lunch, we check to see that the horses are still tethered, then strike out into the backcountry on foot. The day has turned gray and misty, and the forest we enter feels like a congregation of unhappy ghosts. Not far into the trees, we pass a collapsed mine shaft. Prospectors discovered gold in this area in 1890, and at one time 500 mines were in operation. Some 21 million ounces were extracted, an unearthly amount exceeding the yields of the California and Alaska gold rushes combined. Many men became wealthy, but many more died out here, in the wild. The very outdoor skills I am trying to learn are a legacy from them, and from hunters and loggers and legions of others who came unapologetically to exploit the land. Hikers like me could not be in the backcountry without the knowledge they accumulated.

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