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Mutiny on the Backcountry

Read this classic story from the December/January 1981 issue of BACKPACKER.

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The other day I was sitting in a horners’ bar just outside the gates of Yellowstone Park, sipping on bourbon and listening to a familiar-looking fellow try to put together a three-month expedition consisting of five people, any age, either sex, who were possessed of four hundred dollars apiece. The horners were listening to this spiel without much enthusiasm.

Most of them were experienced woodsmen and campers–horning is a good national park job: It consists of humping around the mountains and meadows in search of shed elk horns that are then sold through an intermediary to various Korean pharmaceutical companies, which in turn sell the powdered horn to certain oriental gentlemen who fear they are not as sexually potent as they might be. Horning is not an especially lucrative job, but it is a way to visit the more remote corners of the wilderness while incidentally providing the hope of delight to some Korean, Japanese and Chinese wives.

This was the third or fourth year in the elk-horn business for many of the people at that bar. They tended to be solitary types, not much given to excessive use of language except when drinking, and they listened to the prospective expedition leader with a degree of visible dubiousness, all the while injecting such polite comments as “the hell you say,” and “get out of here.”

I suspect that the doubt these experienced woodsmen and women felt had less to do with the expedition plan–a trek up through the Bob Marshall Wilderness and into the Canadian Rockies–than with the idea that, aside from providing their own gear, they were expected to fork over four bills. Quite clearly that money was to go to this prospective expedition leader for his entirely superfluous services. It was a four-hundred-dollar insult, and since this fellow wouldn’t take no for an answer, since he didn’t seem to feel the collective mood darken like thunderheads gathering over the Absarokas, I began to fear for the shape of his nose, which I suspected would be broken at any moment.

Quite the same thing–a sense of impending violence–sometimes colors loosely organized expeditions, and fistfights in the brush a five-day walk from anywhere tend to sour even the most spectacular views. Expedition leaders are, of course, a necessity in such technically demanding sports as mountaineering, rock climbing or caving. But they can be a source of friction on simple treks when everyone in the expedition has a number of years of backpacking experience.

The problem is simple enough: Woodsmanship–bushcraft–is not quantitative, which is to say there is no simple method of measuring skill. And since most backpackers tend toward self-sufficiency and a healthy distrust of authority, when some arrogant bozo with imperfect skills appoints himself leader, he risks mutiny.

My last woodsy confrontation took place about three days out of Tingo, in the state of Chachapoyas, where the Peruvian Andes fall off into the choking jungles of the Amazon basin. Three of us were searching for undiscovered pre-Inca ruins in this area known as ceja de selva, the eyebrow of the jungle. The man who proposed the expedition, a fellow I’ll call Miller, was an ex-Marine who clearly felt himself to be a leader of men.

Miller was an expert kayaker, but river skills are not always those of the mountains and jungles, and the final shouting match had to do with washing the dishes. Miller had an obsessive fear of germs. The dishes were to be washed with plenty of soap and water. The problem was that we were regularly camping at about 9000 feet, well above the rivers and springs. Water was scarce. Miller used so much soap that it required all our drinking water to rinse them, and even then we didn’t get all the soap off. The situation was abominable. There was no coffee in the morning, for one thing, and, worse, we were all beginning to have trouble with diarrhea.

I was coming out of the bush one morning, a roll of toilet paper in my hand, when Miller sternly reminded me to wash my hands. “Very important out here,” he said. “Even now we are all sick from germs because we are not washing the dishes properly.”

“Miller,” I said, “we are sick because we are eating all that soap.

“Wrong. Besides, how would you wash the dishes without soap?”

“You use a little water and scour them with course grasses, you moronic twit.”

“There will be germs…”

“I’m not eating any more soap.”

“You will do what I tell you.”

Diarrhea is a real temper shortener. I had Miller by the shirt-front and was banging him against a tree–certainly not exemplary expedition behavior–and I was shouting something about how he was going to drink all five bottles of liquid soap he had in his backpack. “So you are stronger than me,” Miller screamed. “I will kill you in your sleep.”

We spent another month together out in those steaming jungles. Miller hid his soap and I never slept very well. We argued about money in the end, Miller asserting that he shouldn’t have to pay his share of the expenses because he had been “the leader.”

I had spent two years thinking about banging Miller up against that tree and wondering if I had done the right thing. Now, watching this poor geek trying to con the horners out of four hundred dollars, I began to feel very good about that confrontation. I called the fellow over to my table.

“Hey Miller,” I said, “looks like you need a drink.”

Tim Cahill is a former contributing editor of Rolling Stone whose stories have apppeared in Geo, Outside, Sport Diver and other national outdoor publications.

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