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?

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

They turned on me at the top of the first climb.

It had been a mistake, making them lug three bundles of wood and one Duraflame log up a steep one-and-a-half-mile hill. And getting lost less than 20 feet out of the parking lot had deflated the group’s initial good cheer. The gathering storm clouds and cutting wind didn’t help. Neither did my charges’ collective discovery that, contrary to my intentionally vague and completely deniable half-promises, there were no outhouses where we were going.

When a hiker coming down the hill told us that no, we weren’t anywhere near the Bald Rocks camping shelter I had previously announced we would sleep at; that in fact we were across the road on the other side of the valley, the group shrugged out of their 40-pound packs (crammed with sleeping bags, tents, pads, extra clothes, and a really cool camping stool that I thought would lend me an air of authority around the campfire) and glared in my direction.

They were looking to me for leadership. I knew I needed to pay special attention to group dynamics at this critical juncture. But I also knew that the correct map was still in the minivan, down the hill.

“Why doesn’t everyone take five,” I suggested. “This is a beautiful spot. And we’re doing fine.”

“I’m not doing fine,” said Steve, the 37-year-old sports broadcasting agent, who had not been without his BlackBerry in years, who was carrying a stack of wood in one hand, the Duraflame in the other. “I’m hungry, and we’re lost, and it’s gonna rain.”

“Look at the views,” I suggested. “Take some deep breaths. This is great.”

“While we look at the views, why don’t you play with your freaking compass,” said Jack, the 30-year-old actor and voice-over guy, who, although he’s one of my closest friends, tends to whine a lot. He had insisted, as I dithered and worried in the parking lot (and tried to make sense of what turned out to be the wrong topo map), “It’s East enough. Let’s go already. Just follow that band of Boy Scouts.” It was Jack who, in defiance of completely unambiguous orders to let me handle all of the group’s food needs, had insisted on buying chicken nuggets at a gas station and carrying them in. Jack liked to be in charge. Jack liked to be the center of attention. Jack was going to be a problem. Did Lewis and Clark have guys like Jack on their trip?

“I’m cold,” said Sara, the 24-year-old book editor. The Manhattan-born, privately schooled, Ivy-League-educated, pathologically afraid of insects, prone-to-saying “ewww, ewww, ewwww” when-bodily-functions-are-discussed, book editor. Sara, according to a friend of mine who happens to be her boss, “has been to Europe more times than she’s been inside a camping store.”
“I’m cold,” Sara repeated, in case no one heard her the first time. “And I’m tired.”

“The views are beautiful, and we’re all grateful to you for bringing us to this wonderful spot,” said Robbin, the 50-year-old art director and mother of two, who, even in her most desperate moments, refuses to be mean. Then she moved closer to me and whispered: “But are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Look, we gotta eat, we gotta get water, and we gotta have shelter. Steve says he’ll take care of it. Let’s trust him,” said Missy, the 36-year-old investment banker. Missy is tall and blond and comely, with strong shoulders and regal cheekbones. She had volunteered to take a bundle of wood and seemed to possess a hearty appetite for sacrifice and thankless labor. In the brief time I had known Missy, I had already reevaluated my reflexive distrust of investment bankers. Plus, I wondered if she had a boyfriend. Something about the way Jack stared at Missy made me think he wondered, too.

I explained that I was going down the hill–maybe I said “mountain” – to fetch the right map, the one still in the minivan, and that I’d be right back, and the group should relax.

“Relax?” said Steve. “It’s freezing up here.”

“What about bears?” asked Sara.

“You sure you can find your way to the car and back, Magellan?” asked Jack.

I pulled Robbin and Missy aside and thrust a couple of giant chocolate bars into their hands. “You two are my rocks,” I said. “Feed the group and wait for me.”

Cresting the hill almost an hour later (I got lost on the way down and ended up having to climb out of a drainage ditch and jog up the road to the minivan), I spotted trouble. There were my charges, muttering, whispering, hugging each other, looking to my eyes disturbingly like the not-so-pious Israelites seconds before they decided that a Golden Calf would be a really swell idea.
I brandished the map, told the group all was well.

“We’re good. We’re good!” I exclaimed.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Sara announced.

“Do you have any idea where we are?” Jack asked.

“You said there were outhouses,” Sara continued. “Where are the outhouses?”

“No,” I replied, evenly. “I said I thought there might be outhouses. Now, why doesn’t everyone just…”

“You said there were outhouses!” Sara bleated. Finally, Steve the sports broadcasting agent put his arm around her shoulders, rubbed her back, whispered something to her. She edged away from him, looking at him as if he were a 5-foot-10-inch dung beetle.

I seized the Duraflame from Steve. In the wilderness, one cannot underestimate the significance and magical power of totems.

“C’mon,” I promised. “There are some great sites just around the bend.”

Twenty minutes later, the clouds fatter and darker, the wind colder, Sara’s soft little mewling sounds softer and littler (which seemed to have triggered a sort of predatory drooling and humming in Steve the broadcasting agent), I spotted a clearing with a fire ring, a little grove of trees, and a rocky meadow. The Promised Land.

“We make camp here!” I proclaimed with what I hoped was confidence and Mosesian brio.

“Here?” Robbin asked, looking fearfully at the rocky outcroppings.

“What about bears?” Sara wondered.

“There are rocks everywhere,” Steve said.

Then the words that every expedition leader fears–coming from…who else?

“Let’s take a vote,” Jack said.

“You want to take a vote?” I asked. Maybe I screeched.

“Or do you want to set up the tents now so we don’t get soaked by the big storm I just heard on the minivan radio down at the bottom of the hill is due to hit in the next ten minutes?” It was an utter lie, but the whole expedition was in jeopardy. I had to crush this Fletcher Christian of the forest by any means necessary. People looked at one another uneasily. Impending storm? Nascent revolution? A screeching leader?

I sensed the confusion and moved to exploit it. It was for their own good. “Here,” I said, reaching into my pack to throw more Cadbury bars at them with one hand, holding tight to the Duraflame with the other. “Use these for energy, set up camp, and everything will be fine. It’s gonna be great. I promise.”

They gnawed quietly – too quietly, I feared – and every few seconds, Sara eyeballed the shovel I brought for burying human waste and said, “Ewww, ewww, ewww.” I pretended to study the map and compass, desperately trying to remember how many chocolate bars I had carried in. Less than three hours into a three-day, two-night expedition, and already I was thinking Mutiny on the Bounty.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After all, my strategy was simple: An experienced backpacker – that would be me – was going to take a group of novices into the wilderness and expose them to the restorative balm of trees and woods and rolling hills. I would make them love backpacking.

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.

I coaxed Sara out of her tent, where I thought I had heard sniffling, sat her down on a rock, and, with the Duraflame between us, assured her that the woods weren’t dangerous, that there were no bears, that it was too cold for Lyme-disease-carrying ticks, that going to the bathroom in the outdoors would make some of her macho authors respect her even more.

Jack tightened the stakes on his tent, which he continued to complain about, and tightened everyone else’s, too, while he bitched and moaned about the rocks. He also gathered some wood. He also rigged a food-hanging spot. He also built some campfire seats out of rocks. He was a sulky bastard, but, I had to admit, a competent one.

We sat in a circle around the fire, and I broke out one of my meticulously planned meals – the ham-and-cheese, turkey, and chicken sandwiches I’d bought at the grocery store the night before, along with apples and mint chocolate chip cookies. We munched, and sucked down our dwindling water supply. A gust blew through camp, and we shivered a little as we watched a hillside of red and yellow and orange ripple in the breeze. But soon the skies cleared (I reminded everyone that weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable) and contentment reigned. Except: Sara wanted to know, if there were no bears in the nearby woods, how was it that we were camping next to a place called Bear Mountain? And Jack demanded to be told “if our leader’s so experienced, how come he brought a tent with no rain fly?” And Steve would not stop poking at his BlackBerry, announcing baseball scores.

And then two visitors entered our camp. Their names were Alice and Crash Bang. I’m not making that up.
They had some questions.

“Do you have whistles, in case you get lost?” Alice asked.

“Whistles?” Robbin whispered.

“Lost!?!!” Sara shrieked.

“We’re going everywhere together,” I said, reflexively patting the Duraflame and gazing into the mid-distance through eyes of pure flint. “No one’s going to get lost.”

“What about if someone has to go to the bathroom at night?” Crash Bang demanded. “And they can’t find their way back to the tent? Do you at least have an agreed-upon distress signal?”

You hike into the woods to relax, to get away from life’s petty and foolish concerns. You anticipate solitude, or, if you run into fellow outdoor enthusiasts, you figure they’ll be bighearted, mellow, liberal-Democrat, Grateful-Dead-loving, life-affirming folks. Then you meet a couple of fearmongers like Alice and Crash Bang. What was their problem?

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.

The rain beat down, the dark got darker, and the Duraflame fire continued to gutter and burn through the downpour, and I sat in a nylon shelter with Robbin and Missy and told psycho-killer-in-the-woods stories, which I personally believe are as central to the total wilderness experience as fiber-filled sleeping bags and padded hipbelts. I started with the Horrible Scraping on the Roof of the Car, followed up with the Hook in the Door. I switched gears with The Backbreaker of Minocqua, then built slowly and inexorably toward the I Want My Liver closer, the one where I turn on the headlamp at low beam and scary angle. Now this was camping. We screamed, we laughed, we gobbled the rapidly diminishing chocolate cache.

And then I heard something terrifying. I heard it through the patter of rain, which had slowed to a drizzle. Harsh, cranky grumbling from Steve and Jack.

I had planned a dinner of grilled chicken, rice, and vegetables; a hot, wonderful end to a day of effort and new experiences. I had even stuffed a bottle of olive oil in Jack’s pack when he wasn’t looking. But it was still raining. I didn’t see how we could cook tonight. And the gang was hungry. I rushed to the food bag, grabbed the next day’s lunch (individually wrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples, and mint chocolate chip cookies). “Enjoy dinner!” I exclaimed, throwing the plastic bags into tents. “Keep your spirits up.”

Twenty minutes later, the rain stopped.

From the tents they shuffled, cookie crumbs skittering down their rain shells, jelly smeared on their scowling faces. They huddled around the Duraflame, to which we added real logs. They stared at the fire. I studied their faces. It had been a long, exhausting day, I said, filled with adventure, marred by some setbacks, but as a group we had overcome it. Silence. I took that as a good sign.

In retrospect, I see now, it might have been a mistake to have brought the cool camping stool. And perhaps my packing instructions should have been more specific than “don’t forget fleece.” It was bitterly frigid. I sat comfortably on the stool in my long pants, long underwear, sweater, jacket, windshell, and stocking cap, while the group squatted, stood, and perched awkwardly on Jack’s rock seats, shivering underneath one or two layers, continuing to scowl.

Jack broke the silence. “Hey, Captain Cook, thanks for telling us to be sure to bring shorts. Don’t know what I’d do without my shorts.”

I ignored him and suggested that everyone move closer to the flames.

I knew it was cold, I said. I knew some of them might be feeling a little cranky. But this was all part of backpacking. “You all did a great job at the lake,” I said. Tomorrow, I promised, would be a good day. “And now,” I suggested, in what I hoped was a magisterial, wood-smoked growl, “it’s late and we should all try to get some sleep.”

I shifted and started to rise from the cool camping stool.

“It’s seven freaking o’clock,” said Jack.

“And we’re hungry,” said Steve.

“I hate peanut butter,” chimed in Sara.

“But we already had dinner!” I said. Maybe I bellowed. “Do you have any idea what real backpack…”

Robbin put her hand on my arm, squeezing it gently.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll cook. There’s nothing like a hot meal. I’ll cut it up and season it. It’ll be fine. It’ll all be fine. You tell some more of your haunted-house stories, and I’ll make dinner. Just show me where the frying pan is.”

There is something primal and ineffably comforting about sitting around a crackling campfire watching dinner simmer and sizzle over an open flame in a frying pan. Except when there is no frying pan. Except when the group leader has forgotten the frying pan.

“Nice work, Commander,” said Jack. “Really nice work. Who wants some chicken nuggets?”

It was a long night. Robbin and I roasted chunks of chicken flesh in the roaring Duraflame inferno until they were blackened and charred on the outside, completely raw on the inside. They looked just like skinned squirrels. We threw them into the blaze. Hating myself, I sucked down a few nuggets. I think I saw Jack smirk. I shoveled more chocolate bars at the group. Some trail mix, too.

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.

But Missy and Steve needed to get back for work, they said. Robbin was worried about her kids. Sara said her sleeping bag was soaked last night and she was cold, and she didn’t want to get sick, and besides, she still couldn’t accept that a United States government agency would name a place Bear Mountain if there weren’t large, occasionally carnivorous beasts lurking nearby. I sipped my coffee and considered their plight. As much as I resented the group’s longing for heat and hot food and a warm place to sleep, I could understand it. A strong leader, no matter how decisive and flinty-eyed, must also possess highly evolved empathic skills. I considered their feelings for three seconds or so.

“Okay,” I say. “It’s not a bad idea. Let’s head back today. Pack up.”

And that’s when Jack turned into John Muir. He was staying, he said. He signed on for a two-night trip. “You roped me into this and I don’t have anything going on in the city, and I already told my agent I won’t be back till Monday, so I’m staying. And you’re staying, too.”

And that’s how, after a four-hour dayhike with the group (air-sucking switchbacks, more hushed valleys, carpets of leaves, impossibly majestic views; avocado-and-cheese sandwiches, more cookies, more trail mix, more chocolate, affectionate goodbyes in the parking lot), Jack and I spent a relaxing and efficient 50 minutes at the minivan, arguing over which extra supplies to lug back up the Hillside of Tears.

We agreed on two more bundles of wood and the extra Duraflame we’d left behind, but I overruled Jack’s demand that we drive to town to pick up hot dogs. Somehow, I left in the minivan my carefully designed Night Number Two dinner of mac and cheese with tuna and peas. At my insistence, we grabbed an extra sleeping bag to use as a blanket. We argued over where to get more water: me suggesting a perky little waterfall at the top of a rise, Jack taking the position that the lower the water ran, the more filtered it was by nature, me taking the position that he was clinically insane and quite possibly a threat to others’ safety. Perhaps the words “You don’t even know which way East is,” and “Oh, yeah, Voice Over Boy? You’re the one who wanted to follow the Boy Scouts” were uttered.

Back at camp, while Jack moped and made a show of gathering wood, I sat on the cool camper’s stool. I wished I had more coffee. A shadow crossed my face, then two more. I looked up. There were three large vultures circling our camp. I’m not making this up.

We could see our breath that night, but the fire crackled, and even though Jack whined about hot dogs for a very long time, I thought our dinner of avocado and cheese, and trail mix, and apples, and crushed chocolate mint cookie bits, and some more cheese and a little beef jerky, then a few more handfuls of trail mix, and some pity chili from Genny, and a couple more crushed cookie bits, and an entire pound of chocolate, then-we-might-as-well-finish-the-jerky, and the last of the chocolate, was delicious and nutritious.

Eventually, the Duraflame died. Eventually, Jack and I stopped debating whether a cluster of stars was Orion’s Belt or Cassiopeia. Eventually, I discovered that the sleeping bag I had grabbed from the minivan was Sara’s, still soaking wet.

We hiked out the next morning through piercingly vivid red and yellow foliage, and Jack and I bickered for about 15 minutes about whether it was peak season or not.

Back home, I opened e-mail.

From the comely Missy: “I woke up giggling on Monday morning and felt invigorated by the laughter and the memories of the weekend.”

From wondrous, generous Robbin: “I have told everyone who has asked, ‘it was cold and miserable in the rain and I wasn’t dressed warmly enough and I was challenged physically and it made me so happy…I wish I had stayed.'”

From Sara: “Despite the soaking wet sleeping bag, soggy pb&j sandwiches and the subarctic temperatures, I had an amazing weekend…I’m not sure I’m a convert, but the wilderness definitely had its moments.”

From Steve the broadcasting agent: “Dude, next time bring a friggin’ frying pan. What’s Sara’s phone number?”

There was no e-mail message from Jack. But he telephoned. He suggested we meet for coffee.

There, he told me he’d hated the cold and the wet and “what you called food.”

“Yeah, well,” I retorted – but he was not finished.

“But I realized,” he said, “I didn’t think about my girlfriend, or my work, or my apartment, or any of the other little things that seem so big, for three days and two nights.”

“Yeah, well, that’s bec…”

“Little things don’t bother me so much anymore,” he said. “Of course, I already hate everyone in Starbucks, and resent taxi drivers, and pretty much detest the city, and I can’t believe you didn’t bring a frying pan. But you know what? I want to thank you for asking me, for including me in the trip. You made my life larger.”

And that’s when I admitted he was a better fire-builder than me, and a better tent-putter-upper, and a better food-hanger, and that maybe my compass issues and testosterone-fueled paranoia about his designs on Missy had prompted some regrettable, childish remarks from me, and that, actually, a couple wieners that last night would have been pretty tasty and I hoped I didn’t spoil the idea of camping for him forever.

We didn’t hug or anything, but we had a moment.

Almost a month later, and Steve and Sara are dating. Robbin says she’s going to take her husband out on the Appalachian Trail next week. Missy is seeing someone other than me, or Jack. Jack and I are buddies again, though we avoid discussions that involve campfires and directions.

Did the rookies learn to love backpacking? I’m not sure. But I do know what I learned. I discovered how to read a compass better, how to read trail markers. Probably not the best situation to study up on that stuff, with five novices in the woods – but still, I learned. And I learned, once again, the remarkably timeless appeal of the “I Want My Liver” tale, especially in the cold and the dark, with a headlamp set at a scary angle. And the wonder of Duraflame. And how to work a BlackBerry. Mostly, I learned that the wilderness, even the semi-wilderness, exerts a positively gravitational pull on the soul, that just a couple days in the woods – even with a merely semi-competent and semi-prepared leader, and a squabbling bunch of wet and cold friends, and a rain-flyless tent, and no frying pan–can make people very, very happy. If I weren’t so flinty-eyed, I might even say it can restore the soul.

We’re planning to go again.

Writer-at-large Steve Friedman would like to publish a book containing all of his favorite scary campfire stories.