I’ve always loved camping. Particularly backpacking. Putting everything you need to survive on your back and walking into the wilderness for days or weeks at a time is tremendously freeing. You’re no longer bound by calendars and emails and due dates; when your next food and shelter are not guaranteed the volume on those alarms and LED notifications is turned down considerably. And few things bring me the same joy as the horrified look on the faces of people I encounter after walking out of the woods, my unwashed state being evident to them long before they make visual contact. It’s actually one of the few times I will go out of my way to talk to strangers. Watching them have the internal debate on whether I’m a murderous hobo or harmless vagrant tripping balls while fighting to suppress their gag reflex is the highlight of rejoining decent society after a week of digging tiny holes in the ground to poop into.
I never thought I’d get The Wife camping. Any time I would raise the prospect of a trip she would voice concerns about the lack of showers and indoor plumbing. It wasn’t until our trip to Grand Teton National Park that her views began to change. We were deep into Cascade Canyon, just after a pop up storm had rolled through and the concussive force of the thunder ricocheting off the canyon walls had loosened some fillings. She was peeing under a tree while I kept a lookout for the bear whose scat was still steaming just a few yards away.
“It that rain or piss on your pants there?”
“Not sure. If it’s piss does that mean it’ll keep the bear away?”
Now I wasn’t sure. I checked my watch and knew it was getting close to the time we had to turn back to the trail head, and figured her patience for urinating on herself would become a more limiting factor than impending darkness. Yet when I turned back to make this suggestion, she was already heading further up the trail, deeper into the canyon.
Later, over beer and nachos we happily recounted the day’s highlights. Despite the shared awe at the experience, there was a hint of lament in her voice.
“I wish we could have made it to Lake Solitude. Or at least seen the backside of The Grand.”
I resisted the urge to make inappropriate grand backside jokes. It was a family bar, after all.
“I think we need a tent if you want to do that.”
“So maybe next time we bring one.”
Our first camping trip was a single night at a state park in Georgia. We planned a little 7-8 mile out and back hike to our campsite as an intro to backpacking. The forecast called for overnight temps in the 50s, however it was already below freezing by the time we finished dinner. The snow started just as I’d finished gathering firewood, which drove The Wife from the fire ring to her sleeping bag before I finished the kindling teepee. So I refilled our water bottles from the creek, filtering it obviously because safety first, and joined her and The Dog in the tent.
“This water smells like someone farted in it.”
“Well, I did see a guy hiding behind a tree and laughing at me as I was filling the bottles.”
“Screw you. It stinks, I’m freezing, and it’s snowing. You told me it would be warm.”
“It could be worse, there could be bears. You have a warm dry sleeping bag. Dog is clearly happy.”
“She just farted.”
“You sure it’s her and not the water? And at least there’s no bears.”
“Maybe it was bears farting in the water.”
Before I could answer, I heard something outside. We both paused for a moment, until we realized that the snow was now rain. Cold rain.
“Well if it’s raining that means it’s getting warmer, right?” Silver linings, my friends, silver linings.
We played rummy 500 in the tent for a bit, and I resigned myself to the fact that this would be our last camping trip.
Amazingly, when we planned our next big vacation to the Grand Canyon, The Wife wanted to backpack rim to rim to rim and hit part of the Tonto trail through the Canyon’s interior. Our itinerary included about 50 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing with a pack, plus another 40 miles of day hiking excursions. To get into backpacking shape, we made a few more trips to the local wilderness, stretching out our mileage and nights each time. And each time, and I mean every single time, it rained. We had everything from the kind of light mist you can never wipe off your glasses to “why are those animals pairing up” levels of rain. The ever present stink of wet dog made us long for mere fart water, and we took to viewing mud as a condiment at mealtime.
Our last shakeout trip was to be a 4 day, 3 night trip to the Smokies with some serious climbing. The only moisture we encountered on day 1 was from the streams we crossed climbing our first peak, and the clear sky and elevation gave us the kind of sunset that makes you think there’s no way random collections of atoms could have assembled in this beautiful an arrangement on their own. We went to bed happy and optimistic, and awoke in a heart pounding panic as the inevitable thunderstorm rolled over the mountains. Somewhat deflated, we went through the well practiced routine of dodging raindrops while making breakfast and packing up camp and hit the trails. As we traversed the rolling terrain of the Smokies our comfort was soon being challenged by both precipitation and perspiration, and it wasn’t long before everything we carried was soaked. We stopped for lunch only after we realized the rain was never going to let up enough to not have soggy peanut butter and nutella tortillas.
“Well, it probably won’t rain in the desert, right?”
“If it does they get flash floods and we’ll die. So with our luck, it’ll fucking rain.”
The Wife wasn’t in the mood for light-hearted banter. We were sitting on a downed tree at the junction of 2 trails, and as I tried to think of something encouraging to offer my eyes absentmindedly scanned the surroundings. My train of thought soon followed my gaze, wandering off track and getting lost in the forest. I had spent most of the day trying to keep dry as much gear and clothing as I could and worrying The Wife was going to have a breakdown on her umpteenth day of mother nature’s waterboarding 20 miles from the nearest roof. So this was the first time I was noticing the beauty of the lush deciduous rain forest, from the smokey fog (ooooohhhhh NOW I get it) blanketing the peaks to the prehistoric sized ferns to the rainbow of caterpillars and salamanders and flowers. I’d never seen snails the size of a fist before, and I had forgotten how soothing the fat pit pats of monsoon raindrops hitting millions of leaves could be if you just listened to it. The Wife, meanwhile, had yet to notice any of this as she tended to blisters from where her socks had filled with silt through her “waterproof” boots.
We continued on, hiking up the stream where the trail used to be, towards Mount Cammerer. I had stopped trying to avoid big puddles and continuously fussing with pack covers. Those efforts were as futile at trying to light a cigarette in a hurricane at the bottom of a pool. I was focused on the bears and the wild turkeys and the dozens of temporary waterfalls and cascades we now had the opportunity to hike past. I didn’t even mind that I had to slurp most of my lunch tortilla. The Wife was pretty pissed about it though, since she’d somehow gotten nutella smeared on her glasses when her tortilla disintegrated and couldn’t wash it off.
One of our favorite backpacking rituals is afternoon coffee. We pick a scenic spot to stop, I whip out the camp stove and we brew up some thoroughly shitty instant coffee which is usually improved orders of magnitude by the setting. At the top of Cammerer is an old fire lookout tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps which we had picked as our afternoon coffee stop. But I wasn’t sure we were going to make it. As we made our way to the summit ridge, we were more and more exposed to the wind, which allowed the rain a better angle to get under our hoods and sleeves and make sure we stayed well hydrated. It also didn’t help with stability as we had to scramble over the slick boulders which now constituted the trail. But The Wife is just about the most stubborn living creature on the face of the Earth, and she had made her mind up that she was getting to the top of this damn mountain. So we did.
To our expected disappointment the lookout tower was locked, and while I was pretty sure I could break off the rusty padlock with no more than a heavy lean I was also sure, being in a National Park, that would be some kind of Federal crime. Not that I expected surrounding rocks and trees to turn into Federal agents and haul my ass off the mountain in an incredible waste of resources, but in these Orwellian times I didn’t feel like tempting fate. So we sat on an exposed rocky ledge and caught our breath from the climb.
“I don’t think I can light the stove in this” I said, half expecting her to start sobbing. Instead, she started taking off her raincoat, which was even more alarming.
“Make the coffee.”
The calmness with which she delivered this direction, standing at the top of a mountain in a monsoon holding her raincoat in an outstretched hand, was absolutely terrifying. It was like when little Danny rounds the corner on his Big Wheel and sees the twin girls in The Shining.
“Make a shelter with this and the rocks and make the coffee.”
“But its pouring, put the coat back-”
“I’m already soaked, what the hell’s the difference?”
She had a point. So I fashioned a little shelter and lit the stove to make our afternoon coffee. The black gold did wonders for body and soul, and we began laughing to ourselves at the absurdity of our situation. The lower level clouds had thinned just enough to give us a view of the neighboring peaks, and we had fun retracing our path up and over the distant trails. We decided to make a second cup, and while the water was boiling we heard some other hikers making their way to the summit. As they approached we could hear them complaining about the rain and the wet rocks and the wind. So I shouted over to them asking if they wanted a cup of coffee. This stopped them in their tracks, and the looks on their faces made it clear they had thought they were alone.
“Wha… what are you guys doing up here?”
“Having coffee. Want a cup? We have plenty.”
They looked at each other as if I had asked in Aramaic, then back at us.
“Reeeeeeeally warms you up!” I prodded. Still nothing as they tried to retreat as far under their hoods and rain suits as possible.
“Dude, it’s a monsoon, you’re gonna get wet. Have a cup of coffee!” The Wife likes to call dumbstruck strangers dude for some reason.
They finally gave a feeble “no thanks” and retreated down the mountain, glancing back at us as though we were the hypothermic phantasm of some CCC workers who died building the lookout tower back in the ‘30s.
Rejuvenated, we continued to brave sideways rain, what we later learned were hurricane force winds, a change in campsite due to bears ransacking some tents, and rodents getting into our bear bag and eating our final day’s breakfast. No one tells you the mice are way worse than the bears, but they are. Our last morning hiking down off Mount Sterling we passed through more lush rainforest, this time accented with countless rainbows from the beams of sunlight finally breaking through the dewy canopy as we raced towards sustenance. We stopped at the first place we came to, which unfortunately was a McDonald’s, and ordered half the menu. We apologized for paying with the damp crumpled legal tender we pulled from muddy cargo pockets and sat in the puddles we were making in our booth to wait for our food. After a couple of minutes, the cashier came over with a cookie and an apple pie and asked if we wanted them. We politely declined, but she insisted.
“We got these ready by mistake ‘cause we screwed up another order, they’re just gonna go to waste. They’re free, y’all sure you don’t want ‘em?”
We were starving since a squirrel had pilfered our oatmeal, so we shrugged and accepted. A few minutes later, she came back.
“We also got a coffee order wrong, y’all want these coffees too?”
We were in the middle of a sugar high, so we again shrugged and thanked her for screwing up. After devouring our golden arched cornucopia of saturated fats, we sat back, slightly ashamed at the calorie count, and joked about how many years we’d just taken off our lives. We were getting ready to leave when the cashier came over once again.
“Man, it is just not our day. Made these two ice creams by mistake, y’all want ‘em?”
We tried to decline, but she insisted they were going to be trashed anyway and left them on the table, telling us to chuck them if we didn’t want them. After the requisite “well if they’re just going to go to waste” justification, The Wife started in on the chocolate cup as we made our way out to the car.
“Ugh, it’s like I’m eating all my calories for the month in one sitting.”
That’s when it hit me. I looked at The Wife’s nutella smeared glasses. I picked at the dried mud crusted in my beard and for the first time was aware of just how bad we smelled sitting in the confined space of the car.
“She thought we were homeless.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full. The cashier, she thinks we’re homeless, that’s why she kept bringing us food.”
The Wife looked back into the store, and it dawned on her too that we were and had been alone since we arrived. There were no other orders to screw up.
Touched by her kindness and embarrassed that we were sitting in a car that still had a temporary license plate and an REI warehouse of new(ish) camping gear in the trunk while accepting free food, The Wife ran back in to stuff the Ronald McDonald House collection box with whatever money we had on us. Sated, amused, pruned from head to toe, and with a tiny measure of faith in humanity we hit the road.
“So what’d you think? You ready for the Grand Canyon?”
"Only if it rains."