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April 2005

Oy, Wilderness: First-Time New York Campers

Three days. Two nights. Five New Yorkers who had never slept outdoors. And a leader who has some issues with map and compass. What could go wrong?

They turned on me at the top of the first climb.

It had been a mistake, making them lug three bundles of wood and one Duraflame log up a steep one-and-a-half-mile hill. And getting lost less than 20 feet out of the parking lot had deflated the group’s initial good cheer. The gathering storm clouds and cutting wind didn’t help. Neither did my charges’ collective discovery that, contrary to my intentionally vague and completely deniable half-promises, there were no outhouses where we were going.

When a hiker coming down the hill told us that no, we weren’t anywhere near the Bald Rocks camping shelter I had previously announced we would sleep at; that in fact we were across the road on the other side of the valley, the group shrugged out of their 40-pound packs (crammed with sleeping bags, tents, pads, extra clothes, and a really cool camping stool that I thought would lend me an air of authority around the campfire) and glared in my direction.

They were looking to me for leadership. I knew I needed to pay special attention to group dynamics at this critical juncture. But I also knew that the correct map was still in the minivan, down the hill.

“Why doesn’t everyone take five,” I suggested. “This is a beautiful spot. And we’re doing fine.”

“I’m not doing fine,” said Steve, the 37-year-old sports broadcasting agent, who had not been without his BlackBerry in years, who was carrying a stack of wood in one hand, the Duraflame in the other. “I’m hungry, and we’re lost, and it’s gonna rain.”

“Look at the views,” I suggested. “Take some deep breaths. This is great.”

“While we look at the views, why don’t you play with your freaking compass,” said Jack, the 30-year-old actor and voice-over guy, who, although he’s one of my closest friends, tends to whine a lot. He had insisted, as I dithered and worried in the parking lot (and tried to make sense of what turned out to be the wrong topo map), “It’s East enough. Let’s go already. Just follow that band of Boy Scouts.” It was Jack who, in defiance of completely unambiguous orders to let me handle all of the group’s food needs, had insisted on buying chicken nuggets at a gas station and carrying them in. Jack liked to be in charge. Jack liked to be the center of attention. Jack was going to be a problem. Did Lewis and Clark have guys like Jack on their trip?

“I’m cold,” said Sara, the 24-year-old book editor. The Manhattan-born, privately schooled, Ivy-League-educated, pathologically afraid of insects, prone-to-saying “ewww, ewww, ewwww” when-bodily-functions-are-discussed, book editor. Sara, according to a friend of mine who happens to be her boss, “has been to Europe more times than she’s been inside a camping store.”
“I’m cold,” Sara repeated, in case no one heard her the first time. “And I’m tired.”

“The views are beautiful, and we’re all grateful to you for bringing us to this wonderful spot,” said Robbin, the 50-year-old art director and mother of two, who, even in her most desperate moments, refuses to be mean. Then she moved closer to me and whispered: “But are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Look, we gotta eat, we gotta get water, and we gotta have shelter. Steve says he’ll take care of it. Let’s trust him,” said Missy, the 36-year-old investment banker. Missy is tall and blond and comely, with strong shoulders and regal cheekbones. She had volunteered to take a bundle of wood and seemed to possess a hearty appetite for sacrifice and thankless labor. In the brief time I had known Missy, I had already reevaluated my reflexive distrust of investment bankers. Plus, I wondered if she had a boyfriend. Something about the way Jack stared at Missy made me think he wondered, too.

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