Breaking Rule No. 4, I headed toward a nearby peak alone. Without my backpack, I felt released from gravity's pull. (I'd also broken Rule No. 1 and filched some trail mix from one of the bear-proof canisters.) I went higher, to the next peak, then on up to the next. I was agile, surefooted, filled with confidence. I'd found my backpacking legs again.
DAY FOUR Turned out I needed those legs, and that confidence, the next day. The morning was easy, with gentle ups and downs through forest and meadow. And we all had more energy, thanks to a breakfast innovation of my own: tossing trail mix into the instant oatmeal.
We gained in elevation and were soon above the tree line. The narrow trail zigzagged up a steep and slippery red-shale slope, devoid of any vegetation, and the sun beat down relentlessly. It must have been in the nineties, and there was no shade to be found. Only Brown seemed impervious to the heat. When the rest of us reached the pass at the top of the peak, he was ready with his camera to take a group picture. To the east and south, the mountains stretched on without a break until they just faded away. Everything, even the sky, was bleached out. Brown set the timer on his camera and joined us. Arms slung over shoulders, we smiled as the shutter clicked. I was proud of myself, and of my companions, for all we'd accomplished.
DAY FIVE Late in the day, we arrived back at the Tuolumne Meadows public campsite tired, dusty, and very hungry. I don't know if I had released my feral self on our wilderness trip, or if it was protein deprivation, but I headed straight for the Tuolumne Meadows Grill and overcame a longtime aversion to red meat with two double cheeseburgers. I felt 10 years younger, and had easily lost five pounds.
After the return drive to San Francisco and the flight home, it was delightful to be back in my own bed. Visions of tomorrow's bagels and lattes dancing in my head, I added one more rule to Nathan's list: "Select your trail partners as wisely as you choose your equipment. You'll be depending on one another for survival." I'd certainly invite Nathan, David, and Brown camping again, but next time we'll hire a porter to carry wine, cheese, and a week's supply of salami.
Before You Head to a National Park...
36 Get expert advice, on-line and over the phone, from these top sources: The National Park Service (202/208-4747; www.nps.gov) provides essential information on America's parks. Gorp (877/440-4677; www.gorp.com) delivers frequent updates on parks and forests, as well as overnight options with detailed reviews. American Park Network (212/581-3380; www.americanparknetwork.com) gives wildlife advisories and advice about hiking trails, local activities, and photography. National Parks (www.nationalparks.com) offers comprehensive guidance on area attractions, permit and fee requirements, and ranger-station contacts.
—Jennifer V. Cole
For those who love the great outdoors but not its sometimes irritating inconveniences (say, the lack of running water), a growing number of campsites and wilderness tours are offering amenities ranging from preassembled tents and comfortable beds to gourmet food and spa treatments. Here's a sampling:
37 Santa Barbara, California: El Capitan Canyon
Sleep in one of 26 raised-platform safari tents, outfitted with willow beds, woven rugs, and wood decks. The campground offers surfing lessons and kayak outings in the Pacific; less adventurous visitors can take yoga classes or float in the heated pool.
TWO-PERSON TENTS $135; 866/352-2729; www.elcapitancanyon.com
38 Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina: Wind Dancers Lodge & Llama Treks
Gale and Donna Livengood use a team of llamas to shuttle provisions to a stream-straddling dining pavilion on their 270-acre wilderness preserve. After a four-course meal, guests can retire to a suite at the lodge or continue up the mountain for a night under the stars.
DINNER AND LUNCH EXCURSIONS $40, OVERNIGHT TRIPS $150 A PERSON; 877/627-3330; www.winddancersnc.com