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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?

But Missy and Steve needed to get back for work, they said. Robbin was worried about her kids. Sara said her sleeping bag was soaked last night and she was cold, and she didn’t want to get sick, and besides, she still couldn’t accept that a United States government agency would name a place Bear Mountain if there weren’t large, occasionally carnivorous beasts lurking nearby. I sipped my coffee and considered their plight. As much as I resented the group’s longing for heat and hot food and a warm place to sleep, I could understand it. A strong leader, no matter how decisive and flinty-eyed, must also possess highly evolved empathic skills. I considered their feelings for three seconds or so.

“Okay,” I say. “It’s not a bad idea. Let’s head back today. Pack up.”

And that’s when Jack turned into John Muir. He was staying, he said. He signed on for a two-night trip. “You roped me into this and I don’t have anything going on in the city, and I already told my agent I won’t be back till Monday, so I’m staying. And you’re staying, too.”

And that’s how, after a four-hour dayhike with the group (air-sucking switchbacks, more hushed valleys, carpets of leaves, impossibly majestic views; avocado-and-cheese sandwiches, more cookies, more trail mix, more chocolate, affectionate goodbyes in the parking lot), Jack and I spent a relaxing and efficient 50 minutes at the minivan, arguing over which extra supplies to lug back up the Hillside of Tears.

We agreed on two more bundles of wood and the extra Duraflame we’d left behind, but I overruled Jack’s demand that we drive to town to pick up hot dogs. Somehow, I left in the minivan my carefully designed Night Number Two dinner of mac and cheese with tuna and peas. At my insistence, we grabbed an extra sleeping bag to use as a blanket. We argued over where to get more water: me suggesting a perky little waterfall at the top of a rise, Jack taking the position that the lower the water ran, the more filtered it was by nature, me taking the position that he was clinically insane and quite possibly a threat to others’ safety. Perhaps the words “You don’t even know which way East is,” and “Oh, yeah, Voice Over Boy? You’re the one who wanted to follow the Boy Scouts” were uttered.

Back at camp, while Jack moped and made a show of gathering wood, I sat on the cool camper’s stool. I wished I had more coffee. A shadow crossed my face, then two more. I looked up. There were three large vultures circling our camp. I’m not making this up.

We could see our breath that night, but the fire crackled, and even though Jack whined about hot dogs for a very long time, I thought our dinner of avocado and cheese, and trail mix, and apples, and crushed chocolate mint cookie bits, and some more cheese and a little beef jerky, then a few more handfuls of trail mix, and some pity chili from Genny, and a couple more crushed cookie bits, and an entire pound of chocolate, then-we-might-as-well-finish-the-jerky, and the last of the chocolate, was delicious and nutritious.

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