35 There was a time when I could start a fire in the rain, tie a stevedore knot, and chop down a small tree, lash its branches together, and turn it into a table and chair. But sometime in my late twenties, I traded in my wilderness skills for hotel points, and camp became a word that evoked John Waters movies, not the outdoors.
Yet in the past couple of years, my nostalgia for those backpacking trips has grown. Perhaps it's a result of wanting to stay closer to home, coupled with a desire to explore the vastness of America. Or maybe it's simply a matter of keeping up with the Joneses: in my research on-line, I came upon a range of high-end camping options, from luxury trips with symphony orchestras and imported cheeses to upscale campgrounds with resort amenities like four-poster beds and yoga classes (see below). I found outfitters such as Sierra Club, O.A.R.S., and REI that teach campers not only how to kayak but also how to pitch a tent, start a fire, and all the other tricks of the wilderness trade most of us mastered as kids (and forgot as adults).
I realized it was time to relearn the outdoor skills I'd lost along with my youth, and for that I needed a teacher. Rather than forking over a small fortune for a guided camping trip—being more of a do-it-yourselfer—I called my pal Nathan, who has taught backpacking in national parks. He recruitedanother friend, David, a former Outward Bound instructor. I also enlisted my buddy Brown, a photographer who grew up backpacking in Colorado.
The four of us consulted maps and park rangers, then worked out a five-day, 45-mile loop. We'd be hiking in high country through Yosemite National Park and Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, staying close to lakes and streams for water. The route would be difficult and varied enough to satisfy my athletic companions, but not so impossible as to break my spirit.
Before guiding us into the Sierras, Nathan armed us with his essential rules for camping survival: (1) Carefully preplan your route and all meals, to avoid surprises (and starvation). (2) Go light—just one change of clothes (which you can wash out on the trail) and multipurpose gear (a cooking pot that doubles as a dinner bowl, for example). Distribute all shared materials evenly by weight into backpacks. (3) Register with the park ranger's office, and leave a copy of your itinerary with someone back home, including instructions to alert park officials if you haven't made contact within 24 hours of a prearranged calling time. (4) Stay on the trail; stick with the group. (5) Follow the Leave No Trace school of camping, removing everything you've brought with you.
Gear in place, we headed for the hills.
DAY ONE Despite David's ruthless paring down—just one tube of toothpaste for the four of us!—our packs weighed about 35 pounds apiece when we hit the trail. Decked out in Gore-Tex hiking boots, a golf hat (my version of sun protection), and my sweat-wicking, lightweight T-shirt and hiking shorts, I took my first tentative steps along the Tuolumne River. The path meandered through nine miles of meadowland studded with wild marigolds, lilies, and lupine. Even in midsummer, the towering granite peaks were topped with snow and glowed red as the sun dropped.
Before dusk, we settled on a campsite near a fork in the river. David took out his blister kit and directed us through the minor surgery of treating our foot sores, as well as other basic first aid. Nathan and I, meanwhile, were trekking to and from the river. He'd built his own ingenious water-filtering system for the trip; hung from a branch, the device let gravity pull the water down through a tube and a filter, then into a bottle. It was slow but effective. David prepared our first dinner, an Indian curry dish that wasn't half bad but was hell to clean up. (Being low man on the totem pole, I got stuck with the dishes.) Before bedtime, I carried our food, securely locked in bear-proof plastic canisters, a good 20 yards from our site—the bears couldn't open them, but that didn't mean they wouldn't try. Then I crawled into my sleeping bag, packed my clothes into its empty stuff sack to create a pillow, and promptly passed out.
DAY TWO I woke up with a headache from the altitude (8,500 feet), and the bland instant-oatmeal breakfast didn't help my mood. I found myself struggling as we climbed over the 11,000-foot-high Donohue Pass. Irrationally, I blamed my hiking partners for the steepness of the trail, our meager meal, the weight of my pack. At lunch, David's filtering system broke down, and we had to purify our drinking water with iodine tablets. Though convenient—the tablets worked while we were on the move—they gave the water an unpleasant metallic tang.
Dinner was another one-pot meal: pasta in a cheese sauce that looked and tasted a bit like papier-mâché, but at least it was food. Brown, thank God, produced an Italian salami from his backpack like a magician. It was greasy and garlicky, and nothing had ever tasted so good.
DAY THREE We had planned our itinerary so that on the third day we'd arrive at our campsite at lunchtime and have the afternoon free. When David, Nathan, and Brown took off to swim in a nearby lake, I stayed behind. Ironically, out in the middle of nowhere, what I needed most was a little privacy. All that quality time with friendswas exhausting.
Deciding to get a (literally) fresh start, I scrubbed myself and my clothes in the nearby creek while the sun was still hot. Following today's environmentally correct method, I washed a good distance from my water source, a process that required a cook pot (used as a bucket) and a lot of patience. Nevertheless, my mood instantly improved.