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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?

Twenty minutes later, the clouds fatter and darker, the wind colder, Sara’s soft little mewling sounds softer and littler (which seemed to have triggered a sort of predatory drooling and humming in Steve the broadcasting agent), I spotted a clearing with a fire ring, a little grove of trees, and a rocky meadow. The Promised Land.

“We make camp here!” I proclaimed with what I hoped was confidence and Mosesian brio.

“Here?” Robbin asked, looking fearfully at the rocky outcroppings.

“What about bears?” Sara wondered.

“There are rocks everywhere,” Steve said.

Then the words that every expedition leader fears–coming from…who else?

“Let’s take a vote,” Jack said.

“You want to take a vote?” I asked. Maybe I screeched.

“Or do you want to set up the tents now so we don’t get soaked by the big storm I just heard on the minivan radio down at the bottom of the hill is due to hit in the next ten minutes?” It was an utter lie, but the whole expedition was in jeopardy. I had to crush this Fletcher Christian of the forest by any means necessary. People looked at one another uneasily. Impending storm? Nascent revolution? A screeching leader?

I sensed the confusion and moved to exploit it. It was for their own good. “Here,” I said, reaching into my pack to throw more Cadbury bars at them with one hand, holding tight to the Duraflame with the other. “Use these for energy, set up camp, and everything will be fine. It’s gonna be great. I promise.”

They gnawed quietly – too quietly, I feared – and every few seconds, Sara eyeballed the shovel I brought for burying human waste and said, “Ewww, ewww, ewww.” I pretended to study the map and compass, desperately trying to remember how many chocolate bars I had carried in. Less than three hours into a three-day, two-night expedition, and already I was thinking Mutiny on the Bounty.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After all, my strategy was simple: An experienced backpacker – that would be me – was going to take a group of novices into the wilderness and expose them to the restorative balm of trees and woods and rolling hills. I would make them love backpacking.

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