The pros and cons of backpacking, Part 3

10-8-2006

It’s 2:00 in the afternoon, and these guys all have their cookstoves out: three stoves, for five guys. The sign on the shelter indicates that no food is to be prepared or consumed inside for any reason, but someone has managed to move the picnic table in through the gate in the chain-link fence, and there they are, cooking away. As one guy chokes down an immense plate of Top Ramen, we introduce ourselves.

I don’t remember any of their names, but they are all from either Paducah or Louisville. The biggest fellow, we are told, has been exiled to the far end of the shelter due to a propensity to emit tremendous volumes of gas.

“It’s okay,” he tells me, “I’ll move my stuff so you guys will have a place to sleep.”

Though the shelter is designed to house up to sixteen, it’s already feeling crowded with just seven of us.

Mauro and I dump our packs on one of the hard, wooden bunks, then follow the signs a quarter-mile to the water source. When we return, the oldest member of the group, who looks like a cross between Ronald Reagan and John Wayne, starts barking orders. The younger men, all between 25 and 40 years old, leap into action like so many Boy Scouts.

“Let’s get a fire going,” the Scoutmaster says. “Did you fellas see that downed tree up the trail? Let’s get that wood down here!”

Within minutes, the boy scouts start dumping the wood in front of the shelter. Not small branches, either, but logs, six inches or more in diameter and 12 feet long. Mauro and I laugh at the absurdity of it, but then the old guy starts yelling at them to bring more. “There’s still more wood up there. Let’s get it all down here. We’re doing a service, getting it off the trail.”

I wonder if Mauro, like me, is thinking about global warming. Log after log gets piled outside the shelter, until it seems there’s enough to build a small cabin. Then the Scoutmaster whips out an 18-inch saw and begins ripping the logs into 2-foot lengths, while two boy scouts start working on the fire. The level of industry is simply astonishing.

Mauro and I sit on our bunks watching the hubbub as if it’s a sporting event. The big guy is the only one not helping, and he gets ragged mercilessly by the rest. He tells us he’s got some big blisters, and he really doesn’t look well. Later, we’ll see those blisters, easily the size of half-dollars. Apparently that doesn’t excuse you from fire duty.

It doesn’t occur to Mauro or me to take a picture of their woodpile until it’s more than halfway consumed. Eventually all this wood gets burned:

At five, when the skies begin to darken, I decide it’s time to start dinner. The Boy Scouts are impressed that I’m making chili from scratch, and I share my onion and chili powder with one of them, who’s feeling rather Spartan with his freeze-dried chili-mac. They’re also intrigued by the eating paddle. “You made that?” one of them asks me, with considerable awe.

You cut down half the forest in about 45 minutes, I think but don’t say.

Eventually the whole story of the forgotten eating utensils comes out, and there is much good-natured ribbing at my expense.

After dinner, Mauro and I sip Scotch from our shared cup while the boy scouts trade stories with the Scoutmaster. Many of the stories involve defecation. “Isn’t it great that there aren’t any women in this shelter,” the Scoutmaster asks no one in particular. “It just changes the whole tenor of the trip, doesn’t it?”

Then the Scoutmaster tells a story about a Marine they met on the trail a few years back. This guy apparently carried an 80-pound pack and was so well-stocked he had a cappucino machine. He shared coffee — and Bailey’s Irish Cream — liberally with the entire shelter.

Not long afterward, the Scoutmaster announces that he smells whiskey, and looks in our direction. We smile, but neither of us is in a giving mood. The disingenuity of the story about the Marine astonishes us both.

Soon it gets dark, and we all crawl into sleeping bags on the hard, wooden bunks. One of the Boy Scouts proceeds to let off the loudest, stinkiest set of farts I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing. We all guffaw mightily, the “scouts” apparently treasuring this moment like none they’ve ever experienced with a woman. Here’s Mauro in his bunk:

Somehow, we all eventually manage to get to sleep.

10-9-2006

I wake up first. It’s a beautiful, clear morning with a fantastic moon peeking through one of the few gaps between the trees.

Mauro and I prepare breakfast and are getting our packs ready to go. I mention to the Big Guy that today we might finally get some decent photos, and a look of despair crosses his face:

“I’m not going to get any pictures on this trip. No batteries. I brought three sets, but they were all dead.”

“I’ve got tons of batteries,” I say. “Double-A, right? How many do you need?”

“Oh, no, you don’t need to do that,” he says.

“It’s no problem at all,” I say, and in thirty seconds I’m handing him a pair. He appears truly moved by my “generosity.”

As I’m strapping my pack back together, I don’t notice him heading back into the shelter. When he emerges, he’s cradling a small tin cup. “Here,” he says.

“Oh, no, I –”

“–it’s fine; today’s our last day anyway, and you did give me those batteries. It’s a trade.”

I take the cup, and accept another guy’s offer of a plastic spoon, even though the eating paddle really did work fine. They snap a picture of us just before we head off down the trail:

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