Between trying to finish one story and gearing up to travel for another, I seem to have run out of time (and energy). So, today brings the first installment of an occasional series I’ve decided to call “From the Archives:” aka unedited stories that never left my desktop.
This chestnut comes from a time when my physical prowess was … well, let’s just say, I was a little short for my weight. Nevertheless, I was determined to not let that stop me from discovering three National Parks in a week while pushing a few personal boundaries. I’m such a different person now – reading this was like running into an old classmate from grade school: you remember the name, and maybe a certain faraway closeness, but you barely – blessedly – recognize them.
The conceit of living in a tent, eating pit-fire meals and communing with nature is about as alien to me as anything that could visit from another planet. I am a city rat. I like day hikes from four star hotels and knowing a deep tissue massage awaits at the end of the day. I can enjoy the wilderness in measured doses, but I thrive on the little luxuries of an urban existence and the frenzied energy of a city that feeds then withers me hourly. In the wild I envision drum circles and group singing; an image which quickly degrades into a Lord of the Flies-style parody. Why would anyone put themselves through that? And in the guise of a vacation no less. Yet there are millions of devoted campers in this country who forswear regular showers and the joys of room service as they flood the National Parks like turtles, their worldly possessions strapped to their backs.
Turning thirty, it dawned on me that maybe it was I who was missing out on the life-altering experience that comes with shitting in a ditch you dig yourself. My superiority, my pecking order on the Darwinian scale suddenly seemed threatened and an Emersonian zeal for self-reliance kicked in. I inundated myself with a flurry of itineraries and purchased previously unknown necessities such as sock liners, quick-dry pants and gorp before hastily signing up for a week out west: Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon National Parks. I would conquer – or at least endure – the three big daddies.
I was mocked as I said good-bye to friends and family, all of whom openly chortled without hesitation. “It will be fun,” I insisted. “Like Survivor.”
Secretly I knew I was about to embark on my worst nightmare, but I now needed to prove to myself that I could do it. It became a mission. So armed with only a tent, a sleeping bag, a day pack, a rather large roller suitcase, 2 guides, a support van to carry the mountain bike, a trailer to carry the food and the portable kitchen, ten traveling companions, my cell phone and a Palm Pilot, I set out to discover the great outdoors and rough-it through terra incognita.
It’s not so bad, this camping thing. My tent provides a manageable Rubik’s Cube of a challenge. But once it is standing, I am proud. I’ve put it up backwards and the entrance is now in the middle of a pine tree – a Ponderosa Pine, I learn – but I have housing for the night and that qualifies as a success.
We are on the skirt of Red Canyon and the rocks are spectacular. The stars shine so brightly that you get a tangible sense of the Milky Way. It’s the kind of picture you see in science books. Looking up I feel all alone in the world – until headlights from the interstate blind me. For all its beauty, the reality is that we are set up on the skirt of the only road that goes along Red Canyon into the heavily trafficked Bryce. I feel not so much that we are out in the wilderness, but that we are homeless and living by the freeway.
9:30 PM Exhausted. Bed. Did we eat today? Did we hike today? I think so; I can’t remember. I feel as though I did a triathlon. Zipped into my sleeping bag, I feel like I am ten years old again: snug as a bug in a rug.
Midnight lesson #1: the aptly named rain fly is designed to help the rain “fly” off your tent. It’s purpose is to keep you dry. I realize the significance of this when it begins to drip in my tent.
Dawn breaks early over Red Canyon and my need to pee is held in check by the fact that I cannot move. My back has obviously done some heavy lifting during the night because I can feel the gnarled vertebrae in a state of shock. The most I can manage is rolling to my side and getting up on all fours. Coming out of my tent backwards, I am reminded of my sharp-needled friend Ponderosa.
Lesson learned the hard way #1: the sleeping bag pad is best utilized under your sleeping bag and not as a welcome mat outside your tent
Coffee is on the fire, so maybe this isn’t all bad. After a hot breakfast of eggs and home-fries, we are on our way to Bryce. I’m not prepared for how unnatural it is. A vision of science fiction from a movie set, Bryce looks otherworldly: magnificent spires of eroded rock fanning out in seemingly geometric patterns. Hiking into the pit of the canyon is almost unsettling: beautiful, yes; but as ominous as something out of a Greek myth. Hiking out is just a plain old bitch. For a slightly overweight chain-smoker, I consider myself in pretty good shape; I put in my time at the gym with weights and on the bike. But at this altitude – we are near the top of the Colorado Plateau’s Grand Staircase, I learn, some 11,000 feet – even mild exertion becomes arduous. Strangely, as my lungs near collapse, I dream of the cigarette I will have when I reach the top.
We lunch near the canyon, hoarding granola for later. Mule deer come within spitting distance, jay birds flutter above. “This is all so natural” I think; and I can see the same thought crossing the minds of everyone in the group simultaneously — beatific smiles spread across faces, dappled by sunlight. It is a Hallmark moment for which there is no card. However, closer inspection reveals that the deer are not like Bambi, they are covered with mange and sporting vacant stares. The huge birds suddenly boldly dive down for our leftovers. Nature is giving me the creeps.