First Night Out: Essays

Three authors write about the moments that changed their impressions of the backcountry forever.
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Three authors write about the moments that changed their impressions of the backcountry forever.

Mother Nature
By Tracy Ross

Dear Scout, You won’t remember your first time backpacking. But I sure do. You were intolerable. Whining in the kid carrier like some kind of wounded puppy. Wiggling against my shoulder straps as if you wanted to break my collarbones. You devoured a day’s supply of vegetable puffs within the first two hours of hiking. We nearly abandoned our first family overnight after that. But both your dad and I knew the power of wilderness to make us happier, more observant people. So on we hiked, down the snowmelt-soaked trail, over the moss-draped rocks, into Colorado’s Mt. Zirkel Wilderness. It’s a wonder you nap now, Scout, because 11 years ago, you didn’t. Not in your crib, not in my arms, not in your car seat on a rumbling dryer. But I’m happy to report that by hour three, I heard your snores mingling with the trilling of the marsh wrens. I picked up the pace, using your dozing as an opportunity to cover distance. Only now do I realize I didn’t need to. Because when you awoke, you were a different baby. I know: All babies are sweeter after a nap. But you weren’t sweet so much as present when you woke up. At a shimmering pond we stopped for lunch, and you sat in the dirt, staring at the water. When a beaver slapped its tail on the surface, your shriek sounded like amazement. As the afternoon warmed, we took off your shorts and stood you in the water. More shrieking, followed by a full-body tremble. Back on shore you touched stones, lay your cheek on the dirt, ate some mud. Then you held up your arms, signaling for me to hold you. Gently, I put you back in the pack, and we hiked on to our campsite. You didn’t grouse again until after the tent was up, dinner was cooked, and the stars were shining. That night, you slept soundly in the crook of my arm until morning. Because of this, I can’t claim that the wilderness alone soothed you through your first full night of slumber. But that’s the way I like to tell it.

Cold Comfort
By Bruce Barcott

As a child, camping meant staking out a luxurious acre inside the Ted Shed: my family’s Sears & Roebuck “Ted Williams Signature” tent, a Taj Mahal of canvas that could have sheltered a football team. When I fled the nest after college, I left behind the massive tarp and bought myself a real backpacking tent: A four-person, three-season REI dome that weighed five times what any experienced adventurer would have considered. To me, after the Shed’s heft of two-stone-eleven, it seemed feather-light. For its first real test, I shouldered it on a September trek around Mt. Rainier on the Wonderland Trail. After I set off alone into the forest, it began to rain. And rain. And then it poured. By the time I reached my first campsite, the properly christened Devil’s Dream, I was soaked. Worry and fear set in. My cold fingers fumbled with the grommets and poles. An hour was lost in the simple act of stove ignition. Dinner was freeze-dried and tasted it. Pooling water lapped at the edges of my tent. I tried to read my book. It was one I’d always meant to get to: Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It sucked. Capsuled inside a teddy-thin sleeping bag, I passed the night slowly in a wakeful shiver. And then finally, blessedly, dawn and a few rays of sun arrived. I had survived. Looking back now, after 20 years of adventures to the far north, to the South Pacific, to Central America, I realize I did nearly everything wrong that night at Devil’s Dream. But I have no regrets. Your first night doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it rarely is, but how else will you learn? Long ago, I rubbished that sheer sleeping bag in favor of a superwarm fatty. My tent now weighs less than my shoes. I carry food that’s real and delicious. My only books are old favorites—James Ellroy’s my go-to guy. Nowadays, when I hunker down in a tent, I’m warm and dry and home—and that awful night at Devil’s Dream was the first step to getting there.

Catch Fire
by Jim Whittaker

I spent my first night in the wilderness in November 1941. I was a 12-year-old Tenderfoot Scout in West Seattle’s Troop 272. Scoutmaster Ray Meyers organized a camping trip to the base of Mt. Si in the Cascade foothills, 30 miles east of the city. The mountain loomed over our campsite as we cleared away leaves, staked down tents, blew up air mattresses, and shook sleeping bags out. We peered into the woods and wondered, half scared and half curious, what was out there to “get us.” We told ghost stories around the fire. A classic scout’s poem recalls that night: “Have you ever watched a campfire when the wood has fallen low And the ashes start to whiten round the embers’ crimson glow. With the night sounds all around you making silence doubly sweet And a full moon high above so that the spell may be complete. Tell me, were you ever nearer to your land of heart’s desire Than when you sat there thinking with your feet before the fire.” The next morning, we explored the trails and terrain around camp. It was a glorious adventure. We discovered crisp ferns, rough Douglas fir bark, and tiny mushrooms protruding from dark humus—the newness and purity of nature. And that was just the start. I climbed Mt. Olympus in 1945, and five years later began guiding on Mt. Rainier. In 1963, with my Sherpa partner, Nawang Gombu, I became the first American to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. I have seen the teeming beaches of the Antarctic Peninsula; I have tasted the thin air of the Himalaya; I have smelled the richness of the Serengeti. But I will never forget that first night, nestled into the foothills of the Cascades, listening intently to the deep silence of the forest. So go ahead, take your first overnight. Who knows where it might lead?

Whittaker has just released a special edition of his book, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of Everest. Get a signed copy ($25) at jimwhittaker.com.