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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?

There was one small problem. Though I had presented myself as an experienced backpacker to the group and to the editors who had blessed the expedition, the ‘experience’ I’d cited was mostly from a long, long time ago. And it had not all been good experience. There was the time I found myself hanging onto the red barky roots of a manzanita bush, my feet dangling thousands of feet over nothingness, after my foolish attempt to bushwhack down a sheer cliff into a hidden valley in Yosemite. (Bless you, Mary Ann Murphy, college sweetheart, daughter of Wyoming and challenger of my manhood, who’d proclaimed, “This mountain is not going to beat us,” until, in fact, it did.)

Then there was the time in California’s High Sierra, when I decided that rather than trudge a mile through deep snow to a deserted cabin, I would pile my pack and the packs of some other hikers onto a borrowed Sno-Cat and chance a run over a frozen lake. It sank. Then there was the time my then-brother-in-law and I trekked into a forbidding landscape called the No Name Wilderness high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, where late one night I became convinced that the local marmots – huge, misshapen beasts with monstrous, sharpened and yellowed teeth and heinously beady eyes and fur matted with gruesome, greenish slime – had learned to hunt in packs, might be carrying bubonic plague, and, driven mad by that summer’s drought, were coming after me because I tend to sweat excessively. We ended that trip a couple of days early.

But this was the East Coast. How difficult could it be? Surely, with millions of people nearby, well-marked trails, and reams of literature about the area readily available, there was no danger of getting lost, going hungry, or suffering in any way. Our destination was Harriman State Park, a hugely popular idyll less than 40 highway miles from Manhattan. So I reassured the group. And I did my homework. Weeks before our departure date, I dashed off comprehensive, authoritative e-mails, drew up packing lists, planned elaborate meals. When I sensed misgivings about my credentials, I invoked the forbidding words “No Name Wilderness” (without mentioning the mutant marmots). I knew what I was doing, I reassured them. I spent hours at the grocery and the camping store. I would take care of meals. I would take care of directions. I would take care of fire-building. I thought there were outhouses nearby. They would love it, I promised.

Sara returned from her trip into the woods ashen-faced and muttering: “Eww, eww, eww.” Steve the broadcasting agent was looking furtively down at something around his belt buckle. Had he been bitten by an exotic forest creature? I approached, and saw that he was fiddling with his BlackBerry – in defiance of my explicit orders concerning electronic devices. Jack complained that his tent didn’t have a rain fly, and when I explained that the tent was made of Gore-Tex and thus waterproof, he asked if I knew as much about tent materials as I did about cartography.

The skies continued to darken. I had snapped a pole setting up a tent (but I assured everyone it was still structurally sound). We were about out of water.

Group morale is a delicate thing, especially on camping trips. So I pulled Steve and Robbin and Missy aside under the guise of divvying up camp chores, and told them that Jack was having girlfriend problems, that he was in a delicate spot emotionally, that no one should take his constant, abrasive, infantile whining personally, that we should all try to be gentle. None of this was true, but it served a higher purpose. In the wilds, as on ships of war, strong, unquestioned power vested in the captain is an imperative of survival.

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