"You take the Silver Surfer," Rob says. "The Secret Garden‚" - pointing now to a pair of brief briefs with a synthetic fig leaf in front‚ - "is mine."
These spare garments, he explains, are "Speedinis," and leaving them in the car is not an option. Recently, the jungle-patterned Secret Garden has been a boon to his love life.
"It's also the best way to prevent chafing," he says. "Chafing is my chief concern." Huh. Never mind the fact that 20-mile stretches of trail are bone dry by early August - this is late August - and we have no sunblock.
Our first steps trace Lower Echo Lake, around granite boulders, pine trees, and cabins. We're rushing. As kids, we raced through the woods of Georgia and North Carolina this way. We hike single file, side-by-side, spread slightly apart. We sing, talk, and rap. We walk silently, then discuss silence. Through Sierra larkspur and western columbine and the rest of Haypress Meadows' wildflowers, at 8,400 feet, we stride by the cauldron of Lake Aloha with its Prius-size granite rocks, below 10,000-foot Pyramid Peak, to Mosquito Pass, blessedly bug-free in late summer. All told, we cover 12 miles through Desolation's alpine grandeur - without dredging up the old sibling power struggle. It feels like an auspicious beginning.
That night, we lie in a tent we last shared in Montana's Bitterroots, 15 years earlier, on a family trip. Its smell conjures memories of our parents. They had their problems, strange to a child's eyes - their marriage unwound in a cabin in the woods - but they loved camping, and taught us to love it, too. It was assumed, of course, that eventually we would love it together.
Day two begins promisingly. The bear pinata hung five feet off the ground has not been disturbed, the sky is perfectly blue, and Rob bounces up the rocky trail, talkative and energetic. He's full of fun facts ("Humans have many sphincters, not just one") and earnest questions ("Why didn't Native Americans get Giardia?"). By noon, we reach Dick's Saddle, just below 9,974-foot Dick's Peak. Lakes shimmer to the north. Having finished what the cheery author of our guidebook, Tim Hauserman, claims is the worst of today's climbing, Rob uncorks a bottle of cheap wine - a glass bottle that weighs at least two pounds and somehow snuck past my pack check. Then down we go, past more shimmering lakes where we can see the trout but not catch them. Instead, and repeatedly, Rob calls for a semi-nude
dip-and-celebration. A serious thru-hiker wouldn't be so distracted; I may have lost my edge, but I see an opportunity to casually broach a touchy subject: What should Rob do for a living? As a trail game, it's more about entertainment than advice.
"What about a storm chaser?"
"I'd rather be a hip-hop jeweler."
"Rodeo clown, maybe?"
"Shaman," he counters. And so on.