from the archives: camping for dummies, part two

DAY THREE

Some days are all about food and this is one of them.  We hiked through uncharted Red Canyon without a soul in sight.  To a high trail that mixed the intense vistas of both expanding desert and encroaching forest, we soldiered on like intrepid settlers.  But tonight was all about chicken.

We all think we know how to cook on a campfire and dinner by committee is taking forever.  We are starving.  Finally an executive decision: cook the chicken on top and lower the grill closer to the fire, in the pit around the edges, toss in the corn and turn it constantly.  Bread goes into the pit for warming at the last minute, on top of the corn – which is a challenge what with the corn-turning and all.  The result: dinner is revolting. The chicken is still pink, the bread is burned and tastes like wood, yet the corn tastes good even though it’s now “smoked.”  I have been game up to this point, but I am thinking a martini would be good right about now and some of the gorgeous finger sandwiches they serve back home at Morton’s during happy hour.  I would kill for one of those little steak sandwiches.  My reality is that I am lucky to have some granola bars squirreled away back in the tent.  But when ‘smores are announced for dessert, dinner fades quickly into memory as we huddle around the fire, marshmallows poised on twigs, and jockeying for position: each with his own style, her own technique for toasting the perfect marshmallow that will melt the chocolate that sits on the graham cracker that makes for a perfect ‘smore.  It’s all good again.  And gooey.

Midnight lesson #2: Sugar attracts insects.  Saving a half-eaten ‘smore for breakfast atop the luggage inside your tent is tantamount to ringing a dinner bell.  Infestation is ugly.

Grand Canyon, North Rim_DAY FOUR

Sitting on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon with your feet dangling over the edge is awesome. The Canyon appears from out of nowhere, like a smack to the face:  an expanse that extends for miles and goes so deep that you cannot see the bottom.  It’s a hell of a ditch.

Naturally every day tripper wants to see the bottom and touch the stones that are thought to be 2 billion years old, as old as the planet itself.  Fools.  Two hours down, I can’t imagine getting back to camp without the aid of machinery.  Surely there is a hidden checkpoint somewhere with a tram or a lift for emergencies.  If there were, the owner would make a fortune.  But alas, there is only the occasional mule.

Down, down, down, down, down, it’s easy.  The sun is hot and I am thirsty, but I lope along.  The switchbacks provide a continually changing landscape of natural wonder.  Eventually the urge to peer up becomes too much and I can no longer see the point at which I started.  Canyon Blues sets in: it will be hours before I reach the bottom, even longer to get back up.  And  I’ve yet to get the money shot – the photo that can hang on the wall.  The best I can manage is getting out before dark.

Defeated, overheated, I head back up the way I came in — the only way out.  Hour after hour, up, up, up.  Choking with red clay dust and the stench of the mule train – they leave convenient reminders every few feet – I pant and climb and rest and climb and pant and pant and pant like a dog.  I have easily consumed a gallon of water today.  Finally I reach the top: four hours to get down, almost seven to get back up.  I notice a sign at the trailhead, written in big letters: “DANGER (in six languages) PEOPLE DIE HERE.  Drink lots, eat lots; respect the power of the Canyon.”  Indeed.

Back at camp I am grateful for my tent.  I may have to set it up in the dark, but somehow it is perfectly positioned just off the canyon’s rim, nestled among a trio fluttering aspens.  It’s on a slight slope, but who cares, this will have to be my money shot.

DAY FIVE

For the uninitiated, a singletrack challenge is a haphazard path through thorn bushes, designed just wide enough for a single bike at a time.  Not needing a great deal of space allows you to take a more interesting path, up steeper inclines, or along the sheer drop-edge of a canyon.  It is exhilarating stuff if you don’t get killed in the process.

The morning ride provided me with enough thorn scratches to last a lifetime, but I cannot hide the smirk on my face that can clearly be read as “I didn’t wipeout!”  I want to sing a song, but hold out for fear of humiliating my companions. (Most of them fell down, by the way). I am braced and ready for more.  But the riding is rough and my legs ache.  When I stop for a drink I realize that I’ve been riding on a flat.  Our rear guide comes from behind to patch up my tire, but there are too many holes in the tube.  The threatening storm clouds don’t ease the tension, but I do not panic: my guide will make it all work out.  Having forgotten their two-way radios, the fore guide cannot talk to the aft guide, so we are hoping that a message relayed through another biker gets passed on at the final check point and he can bike back to us with a new tube.  We wait; I smoke and ask dumb questions about bicycle mechanics, assured finally of her bicycle expertise.  We wait some more. She then slips her tire into my bike and urges me to go on.  So off I go, by now an old hand at how to avoid the rocks that creep up, the sandy patches and all the bastard thorns.  Down a huge steep hill, a veritable duplicate of one we hit this morning: one in which I needed to ride the brake down in hopes of thwarting the unenviable ass-over-the-handlebars posture,  I let the bike guide me. Comforted by the giant shock-absorbers, I pop into the air and slam downhill, picking up speed and feeling faster than any superhero.  It is a rush to be going so fast on something so small; it’s an absolute hallucination of hell when you lose control — as I can attest, discovering a distinct lack of brakes midway down.  It’s one thing to come to a stop by running into a thicket of shrubs, it’s entirely another to willingly slam your body into the side of a hill while traveling at least 30 mile an hour and getting your feet out of toe clips.  You don’t come to a stop simply.  It’s only after a delayed agony of jerking and halting and twisting and sliding and eating dirt that you come to a halt and can quietly cry for your mommy.  The fore guide comes racing up to me and wonders why my brakes have been disconnected.  Did I attempt to remove my tire, he asks me?  You need to remember to reattach the brake lines, he says without irony and I haven’t the heart to blame the aft guide at this point.  At least I can walk my bike the rest of the way.  At the checkpoint I am cheered like a returning hero. The ten of us ponder our guides, both deep in the woods in search of each other.  We curse them for taking the keys that unlock the beer cooler while noticing that our trailer has a flat.

hiking-narrows-zion-national-parkDAY SIX

So we get to Zion a little late, what with the flat and all.  The excitement of yesterday’s triumph over adversity is waning.  The group dynamic is growing oppressive; I want off the island.  Another series of mishaps lead to a delayed morning hike and I decide I cannot face people today.  I want space, I want solitude, which you discover is virtually impossible to find in a National Park unless you go far off the beaten path.  I hike the Narrows, wading up the Virgin River to a point where the walls of Zion are only about 15 feet apart and I am the speck in the water 300 feet below the rim.  The words don’t come very easily, trying to describe the feeling of one-ness, or connection with the planet that you feel at moments like this.  If I have discovered anything on this trip, it is that such quiet moments are worth waiting for.

DAY SEVEN

Could this really be the end?  I am just starting to get the hang of things.  I am almost liking this, I think. Or perhaps it is the bath my private parts enjoyed while hiking up the river yesterday  Or perhaps my joy is misplaced and my happiness is directed at the prospect of returning home to a cushy bed, regular take-out and dry cleaning.

Either way, I am determined to make this final day a festive one.  Then the roof rack securing 13 mountain bikes breaks and there are more flat tires, but I won’t even get to that. We are going to try slick rock, a biking experience that can only be found in the Four Corners area of Utah/Arizona/New Mexico/Colorado.  Up on Gooseberry Mesa lies one of the best places to try your hand at slick rock:  a singletrack trail that is almost exclusively made up of sandstone rocks.  The porous rock treats your tires like suction cups, allowing you to inject an otherwise unimaginable degree of difficulty.  Your bike glides over rocks like an all-terrain vehicle.  Hitting the practice loop, my wheels magically churn over stones and up steep rocky inclines. From atop the flat-top mesa, the views are panoramic and humbling.  My chest expands like a he-man.  As clouds roll in, the mesa is framed like an angels perch.  The rains hit, but it doesn’t seem to matter, the terrain stays slick as I race along cliff edges and up hills as smoothly as a monorail.  Cycling back to base is like a victory lap, until a trio of children – lacking helmets or pads – go speeding by.

I’ve had enough adventure.  Time to go home.

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from the archives: camping for dummies, part one

21_183Between 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.

red_canyon2DAY ONE

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.

DAY TWO

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.

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