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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?

Steve looked up from his BlackBerry. “Yeah, Crash Bang, we have a distress signal. It sounds like this. ‘HELP!!!'”

Steve was kind of a troublemaker, but, I had to admit, he had wit.

Our campsite secure, our tents in good shape, I decided the group needed a hike. Plus, we needed to find water. The hike to the lake was everything a hike to a lake should be. We shuffled through a hushed, hidden valley thick with fallen leaves. We saw a frog. We breathed deeply, sweated profusely, smiled (I know this because I checked a few times). We walked for more than an hour up and down hills, across an old Jeep trail, through golden woods. It was silent, except for the time I heard Steve the sports broadcasting agent murmur to Sara, a Baltimore native: “I have always thought Maryland was really an excellent state.”

On the grassy shore of a windswept loch, we sat, listening to the wind. It was a tiny patch of grass, just big enough for a few tents. We studied tiny, delicate whitecaps, saw trees rustling on the distant shore. Behind us, thick woods. Tucked in a corner, a cozy fire ring. It was the camping scene you see in movies, or in dreams. We all knew it. Next time, we agreed, we would go the extra hour, bring extra supplies, hide out from civilization right here, watch the sun rise over deep blue liquid. I pulled out the filter, and Jack and I pumped. We filled our water bottles and the big collapsible container I had brought. We all gulped huge draughts, and filtered some more. “This is unbelievable,” Sara said, and then, to Steve the sports broadcasting agent, “Put away your BlackBerry and feel nature.” Sara was all right. We laughed about silly things and we loved being backpackers.

On the hike back, we got lost. Profoundly lost. No trail markers. Lengthening shadows. Deep in the woods. An hour of sunlight left.

“Another bold move, Descartes,” Jack said. “Good thing you brought the magic compass.”

“Maybe we can eat frogs,” joked Steve the sports broadcasting agent. Then he yelled, laughing some more. “HELP!!!”

Somehow we made it to camp. Back at our little homestead, as the wind kicked up again, and as Jack sulked and complained about rocks and Gore-Tex and “our Shackleton of the Pines,” as Sara called her mother from her cell phone (did no one read my e-mail instructions about leaving the electronic devices at home?), as Steve lay in his tent studying The New York Times and probably negotiating a contract for the next NBC sports anchor in Des Moines, and as Missy sighed and smiled and tilted her comely head to the purpling sky and seemed to drink in the gathering dusk, I lit the Duraflame log, and I asked Robbin, who had volunteered to assist with meals, if she was ready to get dinner started.

And then it started to pour.

Time for another bold leadership move. “Everyone to their tents,” I commanded. Maybe I squealed. “Stay dry.”

There is something primal and ineffably comforting about sitting inside a dry tent as rain beats a relentless and ancient staccato above. It’s more comforting if you aren’t cold and hungry and pissed at your friend who’s trying to undercut your already-shaky authority and worried about the people you had promised joy and delight and a life-altering experience. But still, it’s comforting.

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