An Overnight Success?

Need a crash course in backpacking? Join our newbie and his brooding teenager as they fend off mountain lions, overzealous retail clerks, and other beginner hazards.
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Need a crash course in backpacking? Join our newbie and his brooding teenager as they fend off mountain lions, overzealous retail clerks, and other beginner hazards.

Rustle. Rustle. Rumble. It's 3 a.m. My 14-year-old son and I lie quietly in a tent, pitched on a lip of red rock in the Arizona wilderness, 3.3 miles from the nearest human being.

Rustle.

"What's that?" Joey asks.

"An animal is trying to get into our food."

I can feel Joey tensing up. This is going to require all the skills and experience we have accumulated as backpackers. Unfortunately, we haven't accumulated any. We're total rookies, alone in the desert. And some beast is tearing into our trail mix. In other words, the kind of thing that never happens at a Holiday Inn.

The last time I packed in anywhere was in 1986, when I was finishing a book called Swimming Chickens and felt the need, for reasons that now seem elusive, to trek with llamas.

The woman who was, until recently, my wife accompanied me into the wilds of western Maine, but then so did two guides and six llamas. The llamas carried everything, including champagne. The guides set up everything and cooked everything. Our chief job was to help wrangle llamas and try not to do anything that would make them spit on us.

Since then, I have preferred to believe that if God had wanted humans to camp, he would not have made hotels. If God had wanted us to sleep on the ground, he would not have made the Tempur-Pedic mattress, the Swedish pillow, the down-filled comforter. If God had wanted us to carry everything on our backs, he would not have made llamas.

But now, I'm ready for a new adventure. My wife and I have separated and are, very amicably, working our way through a divorce. My son is a warm and spirited person, but, as an angry 14-year-old enduring a split, he blames me for most of his problems. As a Mexican-American adopted at infancy, he also currently blames me for things like the destruction of Aztec civilization. A backpacking trip seems like it'll be a surefire way to bond, to work through our baggage. Either that or we'll die in the wilderness, in which case some of these other issues, like the lack of a PlayStation in my new apartment, will kind of fade into the background.

Just as we settle on this, America's mountain lions seem to go on a special version of the Atkins diet where they're allowed to eat only people. Every day, I pick up the paper and read a new account of a formerly reclusive puma dragging someone off as a midday snack.

Whenever I mention my plans to anyone here in Connecticut, the reply is instant: "Aren't you worried about mountain lions?" After a while, I am. But not as worried as Joey. He has done lots of dayhikes in his life, but he prefers to end them with a dip in a hotel Jacuzzi and a lavish meal. The idea of sleeping where snakes and scorpions and you-know-whats roam is stomach churning.

"If we were in our tent, would a mountain lion come in and attack us?" he asks.

"No."

"Why not?"

"This has just never happened. They fear tents. They dislike the smell. And tents look to them like bears."

"Are you making this up?"

"Yes."

"I'm worried."

We have 6 weeks to plan the trip. We resolve to allocate our time in the following way. Working out details: 20 percent. Coping with our free-floating anxiety: 80 percent.

It's winter, and, after a little Internet research, I decide we'll go to the Grand Canyon because it's warm down on the floor, it's easy to find (as opposed to the West Chicahuagua Southern New Mexico Watupaki Wilderness Preserve), and it's well traveled--a comforting thought if you're totally clueless.

What I miss in all my surfing is the cautionary line that says, "If you wish to camp in the Grand Canyon by the time you turn 40, you should fax in a permit request within 5 hours of your birth." By the time I discover this secret, download the permit, and fax it in, there's a little more than a week to spare, as opposed to the 4 months encouraged by the Park Service.

Meanwhile, I try to figure out what kind of gear we'll need. First, I visit Eastern Mountain Sports, a local outdoors store, where I voice such penetrating inquiries as, "Help? Please?" When the staff pelts me with tricky follow-up questions like "What did you have in mind, sir?" I realize I need some kind of baseline knowledge before I can even begin nosing around. So I buy two books: Hiking and Backpacking, by Karen Berger, and Allen and Mike's Really Cool Backpackin' Book, by Allen O'Bannon and Mike Clelland.

I devour them. From Berger's book, I conclude that I should stop fearing mountain lions and get worried about blisters. Everybody has something they worry about excessively. Berger's book could reasonably be retitled Blisters: America's Silent Killer (Backpacking Tips Included). Allen and Mike's book is more concerned with pooping. The illustrations include no less than eight Kama Sutra-like positions and information about how to dig a "cathole." I realize that, over the last 49 years, I've perfected a pooping style that can be best described as "toilet-driven" and that I'm unenthusiastic about digging a cathole and pooping under an unblinking sky.

There's also much useful information about picking out gear. Almost too much. My head starts to clog with all of it, so I start making a lot of big decisions based on gut feelings. I order two sleeping bags from Big Agnes mainly because I like the name (also because a guy at EMS speaks approvingly about the way the pads slide into slots in the bag). The books are also full of tips about getting properly fitted boots and a properly fitted pack, but adhering to that advice would involve getting a sabbatical from work. Apart from having my torso measured with some kind of special Gregory spine checker, we ignore such sage counsel. We choose everything in the most harried and ill-considered manner possible. Joey then refuses to break in his boots because they don't mesh with his "I am a chronic parole violator" school look. In a just universe, we will be dead from blisters and oozing back sores when this is over.

All that's left is little stuff. I know I need clothes that "wick." I am not sure exactly why, but it is clear, from my immersion in outdoor gear think, that the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition, without wicking fabrics, was nothing short of a miracle.

I've been hanging out at EMS and decide, just for variety, to try a mom-and-pop store. Joey and I head off to Country Sports in Canton, CT. There, we are assisted by Greg Blair, a ponytailed store manager with an infectiously spacey enthusiasm. Every time we bring anything to the register--a headlamp, a cookset, even some freeze-dried Chicken Teriyaki--Greg picks it up and beholds it, as if he can't quite believe something this wonderful is for sale in his store. "These are great," he enthuses.

Soon we have Nalgene bottles and a first-aid kit and water purifiers and a Buck knife. Greg helps us pick out clothes--fleece vests, convertible wicking pants, and Capilene long underwear and...and...more stuff begins to pile up on the counter. I had settled on a budget of $1,500. Without really adding everything up, I'm certain we're cresting above that mark. Yet I can't seem to stop. I brought a list, and Greg keeps saying everything I pick out is great.

The register is printing out a receipt that keeps getting longer, longer, until the paper strip is roughly the length of an adolescent condor's wingspan. $721.80. For little stuff. Wicking sock liners and flatware sets on rings. Flush with consumer fever, I've bought several things that already strike me as absurd, including a titanium coffee mug. As I drive my overloaded Outback wagon home, I'm dimly aware that:

>> I forgot to buy trekking poles and a compass.

>> I'm likely not going to get a Grand Canyon permit in time, so I am now the world's most over-outfitted camper with no actual destination. (Postscript: The permit was waiting in my mailbox--the day we came back from Arizona.)

We fly to Phoenix on a Friday, drive to Sedona, spend Friday night at the lovely Poco Diablo Resort, awaken late, drop in at Canyon Outfitters, explain our little mission to Giuseppe Medlin, and ask for recommendations on where to go. Giuseppe talks us through several options, but the one he likes the most is the West Fork Trail. We'll have to hike about 3 miles, with canyon walls rising on either side of us. At one point, we'll slosh through some water for about 60 feet. It will be ankle deep. A great place to camp is a few miles farther.

We vote to try it. We load our stuff in the rented SUV and cruise to the trailhead, where we're met by a gloomy park service guy who regards us doubtfully.

"You'll have to wade through water," he says. "It's knee deep."

"We were told ankle."

"Knee."

"Split the difference? Shin?"

In the parking lot, for the first time ever, I put Joey's full pack on his back.

"You know how it feels when somebody jumps on your back?" he grunts.

We totter for perhaps a quarter of a mile. It's dark inside the canyon and there is an ominous patina of snow on the ground.

"I need to stop," moans Joey. "It feels like there's an SUV on my back."

"Keep in mind we have 5 or 6 miles to go today," I say. "If we stop every quarter-mile...."

But that is exactly what we do, and, at every stop, Joey's protestations grow louder. The pack is too heavy. He never wanted to do this in the first place. I'm an idiot for getting him into this. That kind of thing.

Finally, he sits down and announces he cannot go one more step. I calculate that with carefully applied parental bullying, I can maybe get him another .75 mile, but that won't do us much good. We've gone only a mile.

I agree to retreat. This is especially mortifying because the first part of the trail is heavily touristed by dayhikers, including 4-year-olds and old ladies. Many of them conclude we're on our way back from some kind of "Lord of the Rings" adventure or ask if we are training for the Grand Canyon, when in fact we're the lowliest of the low-the incompetent hobbits who collapse after a mile and let Sauron have dominion over Middle Earth. Many of the toddlers and biddies are actually going farther down the trail than we are.

We keep our heads low, mutter terse explanations, and zip out of the parking lot before the doleful park service guy can ask us what happened.

Since we no longer have any time to regroup, we decide to at least seek out a campground, where we can use our gear and kind of work the bugs out. The next day, we'll start out again. And miraculously things will be better.

I motor to the unfortunately named Wet Beaver Creek campground. The campground has only 13 sites, most of which are occupied by people carrying "comforts." One family travels towing a camper, which in turn tows a little trailer that carries firewood.

We set up the tent and get the pads into the sleeping bags. Then, I fire up our stove and start dinner. We can see that everyone else is more prepared to be comfortable. They have nicer food, chairs to sit on, and portable lamps. We have the worst of both worlds: We're equipped starkly so we can travel light, but we aren't in the wilderness. Darkness is closing in. We sit at a picnic table gnawing on freeze-dried teriyaki chicken. It's enough to push us to swallow our pride.

"You know," Joey begins, "the best Thai restaurant in just about the whole world..."

"...is about 15 minutes away," I continue.

"...and our SUV is sitting right here," Joey adds.

Screeching with laughter, we speed off to town.

"We're supposed to be roughing it," Joey snorts. "You're drinking chardonnay!"

"You're eating pad Thai!"

What can I say? We are weak.

Back at the campground, I wake up repeatedly in the night, mainly because a small weather system is building up inside our tent. Vapor rises from our bodies and condenses on the nylon walls, forming disconcerting little areas of chilly water right next to our bags.

In the frosty morning, I arise and go out to gather more deadfall for a little fire. Due to bad clothes planning, I'm wearing a black knit hat, a blue vest, and beige shorts over black long underwear.

"You look like a crazy person," Joey tells me, when he emerges to find me making a breakfast of squeezable peanut butter on semicold bagels.

"Thank you."

"You have snot dripping out of your nose."

"Thank you."

"Let's stay here again tonight. Why should we hike out into the desert?"

"Forget about it. We have to prove we can do this."

We head back into town and get some directions from a forest ranger, a doughty gray-haired woman who, like everybody else we encounter, overestimates our worthiness and need for real adventure.

"We can just hike out on the Bell Trail and camp, right?" I inquire.

"Yep. But it's gonna be busier'n a peapicker. Now I can guide you to places folks don't know about." Then she starts drawing crooked lines on a map and talking about "steep grades."

"Look," I interrupt. "We want the easy thing. And we don't mind seeing other people.

We're incompetent."

She shrugs.

We stop in at the juice bar next door where we can plop down on a couch, enjoy a smoothie and a dark-roast coffee, and reread the chapters about pitching tents so they don't contain tropical storm systems.

"We're going to start roughing it any time now, right?" Joey asks, sipping his smoothie.

We arrive at the promising new trailhead. I've repacked our loads with a simple strategy. I'll carry everything, except Joey's sleeping bag, his clothes, and the first-aid kit.

I have so much in my pack, the weight of it is making me mildly dizzy.

We set out on the Bell Trail, which turns out to be beautiful and not really all that busy. Just a few dayhikers as we move from high desert to a red-rock trail that lips out over a canyon. Joey's load is lighter, which frees him up to complain about other things, such as my impending divorce, my failures as a father, husband, and human being, the death of Mayans from diseases borne by the white devils, etc.

We hike 3.3 miles out and, behold, we find a stellar campsite, wedged up against a huge rock, which in turn sits at the top of the canyon wall. I'm ready to take it, but Joey objects.

"Let's keep looking," he says. "Even with that rock there, you could get up to pee in the middle of the night and fall into the canyon."

I trudge a few steps forward and then stare back at him.

"Did you just make a useful suggestion?" I ask.

"I think so."

"Don't let it happen again."

We discover an even better site up ahead, where the red rock juts out to form a half-cave. We can hear the creek gushing through the canyon 50 feet below. As we pitch the tent, a sinewy woman passes by and tells us we'll be sleeping right next to a spot where Native Americans formerly roasted agave, a plant that apparently can be consumed, although, to look at it, you'd probably want to slow-roast it a long time and then dip it in blue cheese dressing. The woman, I might add, is a dayhiker. When she leaves, it becomes clear that we're the only people out here, that far from being busier'n a peapicker, the area is clear of human beings, the nearest of whom is now 3.3 miles away, which probably fails to impress you BACKPACKER readers, but for us greenhorns, it's a new frontier.

We rest on some flat, red rocks. The walls rise high above us. The creek swirls below us. The last light of day slides across the hills.

Somehow, without having done anything right, we've blundered into the most beautiful place in the universe, and it's ours and ours alone.

"This is cool," I say.

Joey nods.

"This is incredible," I say.

"Yeah, it's pretty cool," he says, softly.

We cook a freeze-dried mesquite barbecued chicken casserole meal. It is...well...unpleasant.

"They make it too elaborate," Joey remarks. This is true. We have ramen for breakfast the next day and it's far better.

After dinner, I build a little fire as the darkness closes in. Joey crawls inside his sleeping bag. Sitting before the fire, camping out in the high, lonesome desert of Arizona, I feel an urge to sing cowboy songs. I mean, you can't just belt out Sondheim, right? But I also wish I had brushed up on my lyrics a bit. It's embarrassing to sing, "Something something something 'til I lose my senses! Something something something and I can't stand fences! Don't fence me in." I try to sneak "Sweet Baby James" in there, but Joey smells a fake.

"Whose song is that?" asks the voice from the tent.

"James Taylor. He wrote it on the Mass Pike. But it has cowboys in it."

"Hmmmph."

Owing to the failure of Tupac Shakur to record "I'm Gonna #&*@ That @%&!$ Like a @**!%&*#in' Dogie," Joey does not appear to know any cowboy songs.

I hang our food bag in a nearby tree. We bed down in the tent, whose fly I had artfully guyed out to cut down on condensation.

"I'm putting myself to sleep by thinking about where I want to eat tomorrow," Joey murmurs. "Let's see. If we hike out early, we can make it to Javelina Cantina for lunch, and...."

But in the night, as we sleep, someone else has restaurant plans.

Rustle. Rustle. Rumble.

"What's that?" asks Joey.

"Something is trying to get into our food," I say, fumbling for a flashlight.

"Don't go out."

"We're going to be pretty hungry in the morning if I let it eat everything."

I poke my head out of the tent and point the flashlight at the noise. Two green catlike eyes glitter back at me from a small catlike face. A baby mountain lion? On a training run?

"Hey! Hey! Get outta here!" I yell at it.

It turns to leave and the beam catches its body, elongated and catlike.

"What was it?" Joey asks.

"Dunno. Looked too small to be a mountain lion. Back to sleep."

This process recurs two more times. Rustle, rustle. Wake up to see a thing in a tree. Yell, "Hey! Hey! Get outta here!" Watch it leave. Somewhere in these visitations, I notice a ringed tail, and I half-remember--among the more or less Martian fauna of Arizona--something called a ring-tail cat. I ask a ranger the next day, and he confirms that such things exist and that they like to bust into your food. I look them up and they weigh 2 pounds. The one that woke me up was easily 27 pounds of man-eating fury. At least it didn't get the food.

In the morning, we breakfast and strike camp, a process that requires 45 minutes to pack up everything and 45 minutes to get the air out of the sleeping pads. Joey amuses himself by shouting "Hey! Hey! Get outta here!" in perfect imitation of me.

Before we leave, I climb up in the hills, dig a cathole, and poop. I find I'm overweeningly proud of my aim.

We trundle back down the trail, and I muse about the whole experience. It's been good for us. We mastered our own reluctance, our trepidation, our unfamiliarity with the equipment. We found a perfect campsite. The adventure helped us bond during a difficult transition. Sure, by BACKPACKER standards, we're pathetic weenies, but this could be the start of a new phase. Maybe we'll camp up in the New Hampshire White Mountains in May or....

"Explain this again," Joey breaks in from up ahead on the trail. "Why do people do this when they can go for dayhikes and then go back to the hotel and use the Jacuzzi? Why do people sleep on the ground and eat horrible food and wake up cold? Why? Why? And why did you make me do this?"

On the other hand, I might enjoy camping alone.