Maxed out 

Straight into the abyss


Map? Check. Compass? Check. GPS? Check and double-check; so just call me a belt 'n' suspenders kind of guy. Trekking plan? Check. First-aid kit? Check. Clean underwear? This is a wilderness trip, Pilgrim; tough it out.

On an early camping foray into the Pecos Wilderness in northern New Mexico I learned several valuable lessons. This being one of my first backpacking, non-Boy Scout or car camping trips, I did what any impoverished student would do; I scrambled around the house looking for things that would be useful and allow me to avoid any additional expense.

Since I needed something to cook in, I grabbed a medium-size cast iron skillet. How very cowboy. I grabbed a full-size ironstone plate, gotta have something to eat off. And, because I had a prof who took sadistic pleasure in grilling unprepared students, I tossed a four-pound constitutional law book into my pack for some tiresome campfire reading. I think you can see where this is headed.

Somewhere north of 12,000 feet, on a rocky trail far steeper than the angle of repose, doing the old two-steps-forward-gasp-for-air dance, I gave serious thought to dropping Con Law. But it was a required course. A few steps and gasps further along the trail, I was ready to breach the "take only pictures, leave only footprints" ethic and plant the cast iron skillet handle-first into the ground like a cairn warning other hikers about the stupidity that preceded them. Sometime that evening I dropped the ironstone plate from shear exhaustion; it broke, I buried the pieces and ate out of the skillet for the rest of the trip.

I had learned the second rule of wilderness travel: pack light. The first rule of wilderness travel? I learned that two days later.

Standing atop a grassy plateau, drinking in the autumnal beauty of blazing aspens and low angle light, my hiking partner and I surveyed the terrain, consulted our map - a non-topo, Park Service brochure - and contemplated what lay ahead. Our best reckoning suggested we still had 12 miles to trek. Six downhill on tight switchbacks to the Pecos River, six uphill on equally tight switchbacks to the trailhead.

The problem was, we could practically see the trailhead from where we stood. It was maybe a mile and a half as the crow flies. There were, of course, two problems: we weren't crows and the river, which we had to cross, was about 1,500 feet below us. I think you can see where this is headed as well.

"We don't need no stinkin' trail," I believe were the last civil words we muttered for the rest of the day... or at least until well after dark when we stumbled into the first open bar and said, "Quick, gimme a cold beer. Then just kill me."


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