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Albuquerque Airport. They flow down the escalator together, looking like Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. Jeff, 29, is neat, pressed, and looks the part of a hip young backpacker on his way to work at an outdoors shop. His carry-on is an expensive daypack, bulging with notebooks, reading material, snacks, and a water bottle. The rest of his gear is neatly organized inside a duffel bag the size of a black bear.
Mad Dog, 43, looks like the eccentric college professor that he is. A bit disheveled, he wears a fraying white dress shirt, brown tweed blazer, and part of his hiking outfit: rumpled gray wool dress pants and sneakers. His real name is Mark, but he prefers Mad Dog, a moniker he’s had printed on his credit cards and personal checks. The Dog carries his entire backpacking ensemble in two small knapsacks, one with a tattered $3 price tag still attached Minnie Pearl style.
“Want some help with that?” Mad Dog asks as Jeff drags his leaden bag to the rental car.
“Nope, all set,” says Jeff, heaving the duffel into the trunk with a groan.
This is the tale of two backpackers. Both love the outdoors with a passion. Both are fanatical, almost obsessive about their gear. Both live in the outdoorsy state of Maine. Both are also very set in their ways when it comes to enjoying the great outdoors. For instance, Mad Dog carries a bookbag full of second-hand clothing, a bivy sack, and lots of Carnation Instant Breakfast, his dietary mainstay on the trail. Travel Dog-style and you’ll cover lots of miles, pack in minutes, and be able to head out early to find silvery cobwebs strung across the morning trail. You won’t get blisters or sore shoulders, and you won’t waste time washing dishes or fiddling with a tent.
Jeff, on the other hand, hauls a 60-pound pack crammed with the best gear and gourmet food money can buy. Travel his way and you’ll be prepared for any weather, any injury, any fix-it need. You’ll eat first-class meals, and if you get stuck out there for a few extra days, no sweat. You’ve got plenty of stuff, so you’re covered.
The question is, who has more fun? Does gear, or the lack of it, make or break an adventure? More to the point, does it matter at all?
For most backpackers, equipment is a hot topic of debate. We speak proudly and passionately about our boots and packs as if they were offspring. We recount stormy nights when a tent kept us dry and safe, and offer up tales of how a prized Gore-Tex rainsuit withstood a downpour of biblical proportions.
But there are those curmudgeons among us who are irritated-insulted, actually-with how high-tech the backpacking experience has become. All the fancy gear, they contend, insulates and distracts you from the purity of nature. In a nutshell, they believe the gearheads are missing the point.
Which brings us back to our high-end/low-end boys, Jeff and Mad Dog. I invited them on a 4-day trip into New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness because of their extreme backpacking beliefs. In a sense, they were trying to convert the other (and me) to their side of the philosophical fence. It must be pointed out that they were far from cutthroat toward one another. “Modern Man” Jeff sympathized over Mad Dog’s stoveless lunch of cold, gray turkey tetrazzini. And Mad Dog felt bad about Jeff’s load-induced blisters. But mostly they taunted and teased and took notes about the other’s trials and tribulations. Somewhere along the way, we all learned a little something.
In a meadow at the trailhead Mad Dog is reclining in the midday sun, humming to himself. He has consolidated his two packs into one, which sits beside him ready to go. Every now and then he glances at Jeff with an expression that’s two parts amusement, one part curiosity. Jeff hovers around his huge pile of gear, methodically sorting it into stuff sacks, zippered pouches, pockets, and zipper-lock bags. Every item has its place. He stands up, rain pants in one hand, rain jacket in the other. He looks at the sky with a quizzical expression. It’s painfully blue. “You never know,” he shrugs, then stuffs the raingear in his pack.
About half an hour and 60 pounds later, Jeff is ready. We roust Mad Dog from his nap.
The two shoulder packs and pose for a trailhead photo. Little guy with big pack. Big guy with little pack. Both smile.
Jeff comes out of the blocks fast. With long strides and hiking poles flailing, he motors up the trail. Mad Dog saunters along at a good comfortable pace, his bookbag thumping softly against his back with each step. He unbuttons his red plaid shirt as he walks, exposing his soft, white belly. The Dog isn’t shy but he pretends to be. “I’m not in shape like you guys,” he claims. “Even if for some bizarre reason I wanted to carry a big pack, I couldn’t. I’d crumble.”
When it comes to gear, Mad Dog is obsessed with numbers. For instance, in the pounds-and-ounces category, “Everything’s gotta be light. I hike to feel my body move, to feel the Earth and forest surge through legs, belly, chest, brain. To feel all this, I have to be comfortable on the trail, and this means going light.”
Price is almost as critical. “Why spend 150 bucks on a fancy synthetic fleece jacket, when you can get a thick, tough, pre-owned wool sweater for $3?” As a matter of principle, the Dog buys his gear at a local Goodwill store. The store’s proximity to L.L. Bean headquarters means he scores some pretty decent stuff.
After 4 miles, we arrive at Mimbres Lake, a small, stagnant, murky pool that gets smaller each day under the summer sun. Since water is scarce up on the arid spine of the Black Range where we’re headed, we stop-much to Mad Dog’s surprise-and settle in for the night. The Dog sets up fast: picks a spot, unrolls his pad and bag, props his satchel against a tree, brews a Carnation Instant Breakfast, then looks around for something to do. All in 5 minutes flat.
“You look bored,” I say to Mad Dog.
“Well, this is strange for me,” he confesses. “I almost always travel by myself. I hike from sunup to sundown. When it’s too dark to hike anymore, I stop and sleep. Then I get up and do it again. I don’t move fast. I take my time. But without so much gear or an elaborate camp to make and unmake, I’m free just to walk.”
The Dog wanders off to wade in the lake, while Jeff continues setting up camp. Once he erects his tent and fluffs up his down bag, Jeff has a snack (cheddar and salami slices, pita bread, with Grey Poupon spooned out of a little plastic bottle). He settles into a shady spot and starts dissecting his stove. Jeff is measured and methodical in everything he does. He sets things down instead of dropping them. He buckles all buckles and tightens all straps. He knows where everything is at all times.
“I like to tinker with gear, make repairs, figure things out,” he says, unfolding the screwdriver from his multitool. “My friends call me MacGyver because I can fix just about anything. And I always have the right tools on hand.”
Once the stove is clean, he carefully puts it back together and organizes his dinner things. He notices the knob from his pot lid is missing, so he digs back into his repair kit. Within minutes, the lid sports a neat wire grab loop.
As the sun starts to drop, the air takes on a chill. Jeff changes into a pair of thick polyester tights, turtleneck, and puffy insulated jacket. The Dog, back from a short reconnaissance around the lake, gets into his nighttime garb: baggy, pilling wool dress pants that probably once belonged to a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman; a moth-eaten, butter-colored sweater with a gaping rip at the neck; a brown tweed, grandpa-style porkpie hat with a band that hangs down like the floppy ear of a basset hound. We don’t laugh at him for too long.
Jeff starts his stove with a poof. “Sounds like a blowtorch,” says the Dog, lighting his can of silent Sterno.
“Yeah, but it’s fast,” says Jeff. “I’ll be fed, cleaned up, and counting sheep by the time that thing reaches a boil.” Within minutes, Jeff’s bubbling water is full of rotini. The Dog patiently watches his pot. He’s in no hurry.
Jeff is swirling one last noodle in a bit of pesto sauce by the time the Dog’s water has started to steam. Mad Dog takes a peak under the dented lid. “Hot enough for me,” he says. He unties his shoe, removes his sock, and uses it as a potholder, pouring the lukewarm water into the pouch of sweet and sour pork. Mad Dog doesn’t worry about microscopic bugs that might be in the water. “I don’t filter. I don’t iodine. I don’t boil. I just drink. And I haven’t gotten sick yet,” he claims proudly. Jeff has had beaver fever. “It wasn’t pretty,” he recalls. Jeff filters or boils every drop.
When Jeff crawls out of his tent the next morning, it’s almost 9 a.m. Mad Dog is nowhere to be seen, but his loaded pack is propped against a tree near the trail. Jeff stretches for a few minutes, rubs his shoulders, then fires up his stove for breakfast: coffee with cream and sugar, two packets of instant oatmeal, and a chopped green apple. He’s wiping out his bowl when Mad Dog returns from his morning hike.
Half an hour passes as Jeff takes down the tent, packs up his bag, rolls his mattress, loads his pack, and changes into hiking clothes, pausing every so often to savor a sip of coffee. Mad Dog waits by the trail, chewing a long blade of yellow grass. He restlessly plays bongo against a tree, then kneels down to inspect the innards of a decaying log.
Soon we’re heading north along the rolling ridge, and the day is heating up. Mad Dog is out in front, humming a dramatic tune, his arms waving as he plays air piano. After a few climbs, Jeff’s pack takes its toll and he falls back. I stop to wait for him at a shelf overlooking the eastern canyons of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. After a few minutes, Jeff lumbers up the trail, his pack towering over him. “I’m definitely feeling the altitude,” he admits. “But I like taking up the rear. Gives me time to zone out, stop at the vistas, and soak in the landscape without the distraction of conversation.”
After walking 9 miles we drop down off the ridge to our next camp. Jeff lets his pack fall with a thud and stretches his arms, obviously happy to be free of the weight. “A solid day,” he proclaims, looking over at a skeptical Mad Dog. “Well, I definitely got my exercise,” he says.
Once again, Jeff goes through the familiar process of making camp. Set up the tent, fluff the bag…. He says he doesn’t mind the repetitiveness of it all.
“My feet are hurtin’,” he says. “Heels feel like they’ve been through a sausage grinder. Time to fix ’em up.” He climbs into the tent and breaks out the first-aid kit. Ten minutes later he’s back, dressed in warm clothes and sandals with neat square bandages on both heels.
Our camp is a flat spot on the fringe of a sloping meadow. It feels like the animals’ secret place. As we sit looking out across the field, a pair of elk slip from the woods to drink at a spring just down the hill. Turkeys are gobbling somewhere in the distance.
Twilight lingers for an hour or so. Jeff is sore and fidgety, so I give him a backrub. His shoulders are as hard as wood, and he groans with gratitude. Once he collapses into a heap on the grass, Mad Dog and I wander off to explore.
A quarter mile from camp we find an adjoining finger of pasture. In the center, grazing side by side, are a black cow and a black bear. A strange, unlikely pair-the epitome of domestic and wild-sharing the same table, so to speak. We watch from behind a tree for a while, then jog back to tell Jeff.
“I’ll show you where they are,” the Dog offers.
“No thanks,” Jeff responds. His stove and repair kit are spread on the ground in front of him. “I left the pot supports back at the last camp, so I’m trying to rig something up.” Using an awl, he pokes ventilation holes in an old tin cup he picked up along the trail. He slips the cup over the burner, and holds it up to admire his work.
Over his dinner of freeze-dried shepherd’s pie, Mad Dog admits, “I’m glad we stopped here. Normally I would have passed right through this place because it wasn’t dark yet.”
Jeff, supping on penne with a sun-dried tomato sauce, is incredulous. “You mean to say that even if you came across an absolutely perfect campsite and it was late in the day but not quite dark, you’d pass it by?”
“You’re insane,” Jeff laughs. “Kicking back to enjoy the view after a hard day is half the fun!”
“You might be right,” says the Dog, looking off in the direction of the bear.
Thenext day we bushwhack up a steep drainage to avoid retracing yesterday’s trail. Jeff’s heels are killing him on the climb, but blisters are his fate and he’s used to coping with them. We gain the ridge again and the trail levels out. Just for sport, I ask the Dog and Jeff to switch packs, to see how the other half lives. They hesitate but finally agree. They look odd and uncomfortable, as if they’re wearing ill-fitting clothes.
We hike in silence for a while. Mad Dog is concentrating. “I can see why you need stronger, heavier boots when your pack is this big,” he says. “If you put your foot down wrong with the weight of this monster pack driving it, you could break an ankle. With my pack, it’s just a twist. I’d rather pack light to prevent injury than carry 65 pounds of cure any day.”
Nor is Jeff too thrilled with the knapsack. “It’s light, all right, but I hate not having a hipbelt. The thing swings and thumps all over the place. I guess I’m just used to carrying big loads. I admit I’m anal about my gear, but it’s all because of my photography background. In the darkroom you have to be neat and systematic. You have to know all your tools intimately, by touch. Top that training off with the fact that I tend to overthink things, and you’ve got a chronic overpacker.”
“You’re probably the type of guy who has all his socks organized by color and his underwear folded, right?” Mad Dog teases. “Just remember, the more gear you have, the more chance that something will go wrong with it.”
“True, but the less you have, the less equipped you are for the unexpected,” Jeff retorts. “I feel naked in this pack! I may be a bit overboard but that’s just who I am. I like my gear. Carrying it isn’t always fun but once I get where I’m going, I’m glad I have it all. I guess I like decadence.”
After a few miles they switch back to their own familiar loads. If Jeff is wistful, he doesn’t show it.
It’s our last night out and Jeff, once again, is performing his predinner ritual on the stove. He’s decided to improve the contraption by bending a piece of scavenged fencing wire into a burner-like spiral. Mad Dog chews a twig, watching.
Jeff puts down his tools and makes what most would consider a tempting offer. “Gorp?” Dog shakes his head. “Hot chocolate?” Another shake. “Herbal tea?”
“No thanks.” Hell-bent on self-denial, Mad instead mixes an envelope of Instant Breakfast, always vanilla, always cold. Like Jeff with his stove, Mad Dog is precise and systematic in his Instant Breakfast preparation. He sets his tin cup and spoon down, then shakes the packet of powder. He carefully rips it open, pours the contents into his cup, then adds 1/3 of an envelope of dried milk. He fills the cup with water from his canteen and slowly stirs for a few minutes, watching the particles dissolve. “I like to let some of it stay in clumps. It’s like sustenance,” he explains as the spoon steadily chinks against the cup. “In winter, when I need the extra fuel, I add peanuts. Mmmmmmm.” He leans back and slowly spoons each mouthful of the white stuff into his mouth as if it were a thick, hearty stew.
Backat the car, the prospect of beers and burgers has Jeff almost giddy as he removes his stiff, sweaty boots. We gather round to examine his heels-the worst blisters any of us have ever seen, craters the size of quarters, each the color of molten lava.
Slipping into his sandals, Jeff says, “Well, Dog, your feet may have fared better, but we lucked out with perfect weather. What would have happened if it’d snowed? Or if it rained four days straight? Or if you snapped your ankle and got stuck out there?”
“I would’ve been screwed,” laughs the Dog. “On my first 20 trips or so I practically carried a gear superstore with me. But I never touched half the things in my pack, so I started paring down with each trip. Sure, someday I’ll have to turn back because I don’t have an Ace bandage or a shoe repair kit. But it’s been 40 lean, mean trips so far without any real problems.”
Like most extremists, Mad Dog and Jeff are stubborn in their beliefs. All things considered, neither would trade places with the other. But since our trip, Mad Dog says he’s been checking regularly at Goodwill for a pair of lightweight hiking boots. “I worry about twisting an ankle and getting marooned somewhere, and boots seem like the weakest link in my system. I don’t want a heavy pair like Jeff’s, just something with a little more support.
“I’ve also started carrying iodine tablets for my water because I came down with a case of giardiasis.”
Jeff is hard-pressed to think of something specific that he’d leave behind, but he told me he admires Mad Dog’s ability to rough it. “I like my fancy dinners and clean T-shirts. And I need to know that I can handle any situation that comes up. But I do realize I need to be more militant about each item that goes into my pack.”
And so the debate rolls on. But one thing did become crystal clear during our little New Mexico experiment: Gear does not make or break a trip. Attitude does. Whether you’re the laid back Oscar Madison-type, or tidy and punctilious like Felix Unger, you venture into the wilds because you love being out there. The gear is nothing more than a means to the end.