When Jeff crawls out of his tent the next morning, it’s almost 9 a.m. Mad Dog is nowhere to be seen, but his loaded pack is propped against a tree near the trail. Jeff stretches for a few minutes, rubs his shoulders, then fires up his stove for breakfast: coffee with cream and sugar, two packets of instant oatmeal, and a chopped green apple. He’s wiping out his bowl when Mad Dog returns from his morning hike.
Half an hour passes as Jeff takes down the tent, packs up his bag, rolls his mattress, loads his pack, and changes into hiking clothes, pausing every so often to savor a sip of coffee. Mad Dog waits by the trail, chewing a long blade of yellow grass. He restlessly plays bongo against a tree, then kneels down to inspect the innards of a decaying log.
Soon we’re heading north along the rolling ridge, and the day is heating up. Mad Dog is out in front, humming a dramatic tune, his arms waving as he plays air piano. After a few climbs, Jeff’s pack takes its toll and he falls back. I stop to wait for him at a shelf overlooking the eastern canyons of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. After a few minutes, Jeff lumbers up the trail, his pack towering over him. “I’m definitely feeling the altitude,” he admits. “But I like taking up the rear. Gives me time to zone out, stop at the vistas, and soak in the landscape without the distraction of conversation.”
After walking 9 miles we drop down off the ridge to our next camp. Jeff lets his pack fall with a thud and stretches his arms, obviously happy to be free of the weight. “A solid day,” he proclaims, looking over at a skeptical Mad Dog. “Well, I definitely got my exercise,” he says.
Once again, Jeff goes through the familiar process of making camp. Set up the tent, fluff the bag…. He says he doesn’t mind the repetitiveness of it all.
“My feet are hurtin’,” he says. “Heels feel like they’ve been through a sausage grinder. Time to fix ’em up.” He climbs into the tent and breaks out the first-aid kit. Ten minutes later he’s back, dressed in warm clothes and sandals with neat square bandages on both heels.
Our camp is a flat spot on the fringe of a sloping meadow. It feels like the animals’ secret place. As we sit looking out across the field, a pair of elk slip from the woods to drink at a spring just down the hill. Turkeys are gobbling somewhere in the distance.
Twilight lingers for an hour or so. Jeff is sore and fidgety, so I give him a backrub. His shoulders are as hard as wood, and he groans with gratitude. Once he collapses into a heap on the grass, Mad Dog and I wander off to explore.
A quarter mile from camp we find an adjoining finger of pasture. In the center, grazing side by side, are a black cow and a black bear. A strange, unlikely pair-the epitome of domestic and wild-sharing the same table, so to speak. We watch from behind a tree for a while, then jog back to tell Jeff.
“I’ll show you where they are,” the Dog offers.