Trial by Error

Today I’m going to talk about something almost every outdoors writer does.  It’s the “Oh look at how I’m a complete Noob out in the woods and let’s all have a chuckle at my antics” entry.  Except that a lot of the memoirs I’ve read about this sort of thing all have one thing in common;  they’re all about Adults bumbling out in the woods.  They are supposed to be an inspiration about getting out there to go and adventure and not to be afraid of your mistakes because we all Do make them.

The difference between me and a lot of the memoir writers is that my first camping trip was with the Boy Scouts and I was about 9.

Looking back, you’d think that at minimum, I would have had some training, somebody to take me aside and say “Hey, Tagg, this is what camping is, this is how you set up a tent, this is how you make a fire without burning down half a national forest.”  You’d think if not my parents, then at least my Scoutmaster would have given me some practice at this.  Every memoir writer has at least read a few guide books on how not to totally screw up in the woods.  Not me.

No, bright eyed and freshly frocked as a Real Boy Scout, I was invited to go on a weekend campout to Enchanted Rock State Park.  My parents didn’t want me to go.  They hadn’t told me anything of the sort going on.  They had no interest in me even Being a Boy Scout at all.  They hadn’t given me any time to prep, to research any of this, I didn’t have any real camping gear to my own name (my step-dad had a set, but wasn’t willing to either go or let me borrow it).  When I got told that the troop was going, my response was to beg and plead to go, as it sounded like a grand adventure (it was).  My parents hemmed and hawwed and finally allowed me to go if I could be ready to go in time (ten minutes).  In that time, I rolled up my Hawaiian Punch sleeping bag and got into my Real Boy Scout uniform and presented myself as ready.

I’m sure most of the ultralight campers are twitching by now.  Yes.  JUST a sleeping bag.  No food, no water, no hiking boots (I was nine, what the hell did I know??  Besides, you find me where it tells of a guide to footwear in a Boy Scout Handbook.  Go ahead, I’ll wait…) no tent, Nothing.  Just me, a smile, and a sleeping bag.

And my parents let me go.  And so did my scoutmaster.  I’m sure they both let me go for two entirely different reasons.  Here, I’ll pause for a moment and let the Sierra club members wake back up from the dead faint that the first sentences of the paragraph have inspired.  I’ll let the rest of the Boy Scouts out there collectively get over their outrage at this.  I’ll let the rest of my Army buddies pick themselves up off the floor from laughing until they’ve pissed themselves.  I’ll let Bear Gryllis try to hide his snicker and let him get another take of his close-up.  And then I’ll get back to you.

Looking back, yes, I knew my parents were letting me go on such short notice with no gear, no food, and no anything because they wanted me to fail at it, and let my enthusiasm wane for it and wanted me to quit so they wouldn’t be bothered with Boy Scout Antics anymore.  No, my mother and step dad were not what most would call model parents.  Leave it at that.

Now then.  For the BSA, guys, Cool It.  As it turns out, my Scoutmaster was NOT breaking any of Wheaton’s Laws (even if he himself wasn’t even old enough to have come up with them yet..).  He Was going to teach me, but by the trial of error.  He wasn’t going to do what my parents did and actually picked up a lot of the slack for the two slackers.  So cut him quite a bit of the slack he picked up, he’s the hero of this story.  Not me, and not my parents.

So, everyone piled into the two vans for the trip and off we went, early in the morning.  We got there when most people are still watching Bugs Bunny.  I was Stoked.  I hadn’t even had any sugar that morning and I was quite ready to yo-yo the PCT in a day on nothing but the unfettered and unlimited enthusiasm of a nine year old.

I got out of that van and bolted for the nearest tree to climb.  And then I saw something much better.  I saw Enchanted Rock…  And then I had the typical awe of a typical nine year old seeing more than a thousand feet of solid granite dome to climb.  My wife is probably STILL snickering about this.

Texas peeps, let me tell you something.  You don’t have mountains.  Really.  You don’t.  Yea, Yea, I know by the sheer technical sense, anything over a thousand feet up has graduated from being a hill to being a mountain.  Trivialities.  Semantics, even.  Texas, if you want to see what a mountain is, I invite you to Shasta.  I invite you to Whitney.  I invite you to climb until you pass out, wake up, and climb some more.  I invite you to climb so much into air so thin by your standards that you start hallucinating that the bears are actually talking to you.  In invite you to climb into places your Texas Summer can’t even put a dent in the snow on the ground.  Go ahead.  THEN I want you to look back on what you have back in Texas and tell me with no bullshit that you have mountains.  I, who lives lovingly with the Sierra Nevada, will laugh in your face.

But most of you can understand that to your average completely uninitiated nine year old, there’s a jungle gym at a park, and then there’s a thousand feet tall alter to the awesomeness of adventure.  Had they told me of the cave up at the top, I probably would have died on the spot due to awesome overdose.

And lo, without any of the other things that Real Boy Scouts normally do, I was off for that well rounded top.  I didn’t bother with helping to set up camp, or tents (I didn’t even Have one) or to get a canteen (because, you know, Hot Texas Summer + Climbing 1k feet + no water Usually = dehydration and heat exhaustion, and possibly even heat stroke) or even breakfast or lunch.  I didn’t bring any food with me, and I was perfectly content to run on that unbridled and unlimited enthusiasm that nine year olds on an adventure have.  I was too ignorant at that moment to understand how rude and very Un-Boy Scout I was being.  There was Awesome, and Awesome Had To Be Explored, RIGHT NOW.  Nine year olds.. Sheesh.

And my Scoutmaster, a much wiser and more patient soul than most (like my parents), sent his oldest son with me.  Not just to bond and adventure, but because Scouts are supposed to travel in numbers and help one another out.  Me, barely a Tenderfoot, had yet to learn this.  I just thought “Hey Cool!  I get a new friend!”  Also, oldest son was smart enough to bring a canteen.  This will become important later.

And so we ran to the base of Enchanted Rock just in time to see the rescue crew wheel someone down off the rock (I still can’t call it a mountain, and hell, my wife calls it a Bump….  Like Texas is due to give birth to a real state park system any century now.).  To most, this is a warning.  To a nine year old, it was something else that was awesome.  Because hey, what’s awesome with a little spice of danger to season it?  Why, it’s MORE AWESOME, of course.  And so, with that sort of reckless abandon, we went up.  And up.  And up.

Hey parents.  You have a kid with a Too Much Energy problem?  Take ’em to Enchanted Rock and tell ’em to go find the cave at the top.  Problem solved.  Also, give them a canteen.  Really, it helps.

As we got up, I had one of those defining moments in my life.  One of those sorts of moments that sticks with you for the rest of your life and in one thunderbolt of a moment sharply defines the shape of who you will be for the rest of your life.  Epiphany is an existential understatement for this sort of moment.  Epiphany would need to come with an actual lightening strike to come closer to the mark.  As I paused to catch my breath (you mean it’s Not Unlimited??!?!  Who Knew?!?), I paused to look around.  Now, for a nine year old, being able to see into about five different counties and still have his feet on the ground is this sort of moment.  The view can fell you with awesome like a SEAL with a sniper rifle.  And that view, it wasn’t even from the Top Yet.  I wondered what That would Be Like.

To this day, Thirty Years Later, I still climb mountains.  Not because they’re there (although that reason IS in my top ten), but because I want to see the view from the top.  I want to be able to see into the next state.  I want to be able to see past as many lines on a map as I can.  I want to blow that all away and see just the endless expanse that is one land.  It drives me to hike.  It drives me to climb.  It offers me a satisfaction that is only rivaled by really good mind blowing sex.  I don’t have to explain this to hikers and climbers.  They’re just nodding along with it.  It’s what makes the hike worth the blisters.  It’s what makes the climb worth the sweat.  It is what drives us.  For each it’s different, but it affects us the same.  For me, it’s a View.  And for that view on top of that rock, you could have felled me with a feather.

If I had to say, thirty years later, what cut the legs out from under me, the climb, or the view, I wouldn’t be able to honestly tell you.  Both, surely.  But at the top, I sat down.  Quickly.  And I asked for a sip of water from the canteen from New Friend (I can’t remember his name, sadly).  He told me that it was empty.  We’d both been taking sips from it on our way up.  This is about the only thing that saved both of us from heat exhaustion.  I found out that indeed, the drive that nine year olds have for adventure does have limits.  I was bouncing on them like a kid on a newly made bed.  I was running on nothing but view and awesome.  No breakfast, no lunch, and little water.  I was as undaunted by this as a sled dog at the beginning of the Iditarod.  I was too dumb to care.  I too dumb to know I should have cared.  I had No Idea how close I actually Was to being one of those people being wheeled off the rock with an IV in me.

But then we found the cave.  And that saved us.

The cave is actually on the top and north face of the rock, and it cuts down the rock a bit and exits out the north west face of the rock.  When you get back out, the best thing to do is just walk back around to the south face and walk back down the fairly gentle grade to the bottom and the camp sites and let your legs recover from being turned into jello.  But the cave was also much needed shelter from the heat of a south Texas afternoon.  It was cool as hell and it’s kinda hard to get heat exhaustion when you’re in a cool cave.  So, once more running on nothing but Awesome, we went down the cave.

When me and New Friend got back down the cave (which was AWESOME!!!), we searched around for water that we were both really in bad need of by that point.  We found a dry rotted dirty water hose hooked up to a spigot that we both ended up taking quite a bit of water from.  Was it potable?  I was too dumb to care.  Too thirsty too.  Don’t look at me like that, I was nine.  Nobody had bothered to teach me anything of the sort.  But more importantly, nobody had to.  Something else was starting to happen.  Something important.  I was LEARNING.  On My Own.

What’s the Boy Scout Motto?  Come on.  Everyone should know this.  It’s Be Prepared.  It’s like the slogan too.  It’s one of those cliché top ten things every back packer and back country person knows.  Be Prepared.  What was I?  NOT PREPARED.  And that lesson was at that moment beginning to dawn on me.

What did I learn right there and then?  Lesson 1:  If you want to go see the really awesome view, you should bring two or more canteens because it’s hot and your friend may need one too.  Also, drinking water out of a dirty hose?  Not the brightest of ideas.  Ew.  One canteen is okay.  Two is better.  Ding!  I learned Something!

When I got back to camp, I seem to have had a bunch more lessons waiting for me.

Lesson 2:  At night, everyone sleeps somewhere.  Usually, this is in a tent or shelter.

Lesson 2A:  I needed a tent.  Or Shelter.  Luckily, I was allowed in the scoutmaster’s son’s tent.  But it was not lost on me the value of having my own.

Lesson 2B:  If you’re going to tent with someone, it’s usually considered the polite thing to help out rather than just run up the Awesome Adventure with naught but a canteen and a New Friend and a name.

Lesson 3:  Going all day on nothing but Awesome is not feasible.  It runs out and leaves you with a HUNGRY.  (Once again, it Runs Out??!?  Who Knew?!?)

Lesson 3A:  I needed Food.  Bad.  Luckily the Scoutmaster had packed extra in the cooler for me to eat.  So beans and franks it was.

Lesson 3B:  Can Opener.  Seriously.  Always have one.  Swiss army knives are Not an efficient way of opening cans.  P-38s are.

Lesson 3C:  If you want hot food, having something to cook with is great.

Lesson 3D:  I need to learn how to make a fire without burning down half a national forest.  Might be a good idea.

And thus the evening went for me.  The day was of adventure, the evening was of learning.  Not the sneering “oh you Suck” learning that one always fears of failure, but more the sort where I was left to figure out on my own.  It wasn’t the sort of thing that I was made to feel ashamed of.  It was more along the lines of I was left to figure out what I should Be doing rather than focus on what I was doing Wrong.  And this sort of learning has also always stuck with me, and so has that sort of teaching.  I already knew Why what I was doing was wrong, I just needed to learn how to do it Right.  And learn I did.

When I got back, my parents were unhappily surprised to find that I wanted to go back out again.  I had brought with me not just the love of the view to keep me going, but the love of learning as well.

Next Walk It Off post: No Thanks For The Memoirs.