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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?

To distract them from their shivering and misery, I shared the secrets of the wilderness I had picked up over the years. I told them that the farther one walks into the woods, the safer one is from knife-wielding serial killers; that one should never look a rabid weasel in the eye; that having sex or chewing gum in grizzly country, while tempting, is usually a mistake; that the mighty crocodile employs a spinning and diving maneuver called “the death spiral” to drown its prey, and only dines after its catch has softened and putrefied. I told them that cougars will actually sit outside a tent and watch people moving inside for hours before going for the weakest and most tender. My little chat terrified Sara into a kind of teeth-chattering silence, for which I felt gratitude, along with a queasy guilt. Steve and Jack continued their mutinous muttering, though, until even the Duraflame gave it up for the night, and we slunk toward our tents.

And that’s when Genny, a heretofore unmentioned young magazine editor assigned to watch closely over the photographers and the rest of us, slipped something into my hand. Genny, life-saving, anthropologically pure Genny, had solemnly sworn to her bosses that she would be invisible, that she wouldn’t offer any help or answer any of our questions, that she would in no way infect the pure nature of this backcountry experiment, except in cases of extreme danger. “Don’t tell anyone,” she murmured. It was a BACKPACKER pamphlet titled “Get Out More,” and it had tips on things like cooking and setting up tents.

Later, as I fell into a cold, shivering, nightmare-racked slumber, the last thing I heard was Steve the sports broadcasting agent (who had insinuated himself into the girls’ tent) cracking jokes about Crash Bang. The BlackBerry bugged me and the guy was disobedient and prone to kvetching, but, I had to admit, he was cheerful and goal-oriented. “Come into my bag,” I heard him say to Sara. “You’ll be warmer.”

I woke early to prepare breakfast. Robbin also got up, to make coffee. I was glad I had invited at least one parent on the expedition.

An hour later, the rest of the bunch shuffled out of their tents into the morning chill. Robbin and I shouted to them from rocks 30 yards east. Sunlight flooded the spot.

I poured raisins and sliced bananas and water into the freeze-dried granola with blueberries and powdered milk. We were a bedraggled but sun-kissed group, slurping, sipping, shifting, and tilting toward the sun like gigantic flowers. We groaned and stretched. A few birds twittered. This was camping.

“I love this,” said Missy, which didn’t surprise me.

“Mmm, this is really fun,” said Sara, which made me so grateful I thought I might weep.
“Some oatmeal would have been nice,” said Jack. “At least one hot meal doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for.”

I clenched my teeth. I thought of the dayhike ahead. I tried to enjoy the cold air, the warm sun, and the hot coffee and to imagine Jack back in Manhattan, auditioning for a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial.

That’s when four expedition members announced they were leaving that day.

“But you signed up for two nights,” I reminded them. Perhaps I howled.

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