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I was crouched by a boulder on top of Harney Peak, enjoying the view in between panting for breath, when up came a whole herd of little kids running around like they’d just discovered legs. Of course they were full of energy: they weren’t carrying anything. Their dads were another story. They all had the pale, sickly look you get after toting two gallons of water, fifteen candy bars, twelve assorted fruit snacks, and Junior -- weighing in at 65 pounds and currently running around like a banshee -- all the way up, including those last five hundred stone steps. One of the dads even had a toy rifle sticking out of his backpack.
Now this proves that you can never teach a child the rules of backpacking too young. The first rule, of course, is that everyone carries their own pack. If you’re old enough to climb it, you’re old enough to tote your own snacks. Let me tell you, the first time Junior hoists a full backpack, he’ll leave that toy rifle at home.
Then again, maybe he won’t.
Many years ago, back when the earth was young or at least I was, a whole gang of us used to go backpacking almost every weekend. We’d hike as far back into the woods as we could, find a reasonably flat spot -- to us, anything over a 45 degree angle was flat -- and set up camp. For every person who brought a tent, there were always two or three who planned to “sleep out under the stars.” These were the same people who chose the rainiest weekend in Dakota history to go camping, and ended up squashing into whoever’s tent was the closest. They were all great dog lovers, and their scent, wet with new fallen rain, gave new meaning to the words “pup tent.”
One weekend Sam, who was tired of people crowding into his tent at the first sign of clouds, came up with a new way of staying dry. He brought along the first mountain tent I had ever seen. A mountain tent, for those of you who have never seen one, is a fancy term for a sleeping bag with a tarp attached. They don’t come in sizes, but they should. Sam, who was husky, barely managed to squeeze himself in, using a series of undulate motions that only people from the Age of Girdles can remember. Once he was all zipped in, he looked like a caterpillar with flat, wet, army green wings. We never expected him to fly. But then, we never suspected that he had brought along his .45.
“In case there’s bears,” he later explained.
We were all asleep when Sam decided there were bears. What woke us up was a tremendous “BOOM!” followed by a slithery noise and a prolonged yell. Sam had been awakened by a snuffling sound right next to his feet. Listening to it, he realized that, while a mountain tent did keep out unwelcome fellow campers, those fellow campers offered a buffer zone to the wilds he currently lacked. Basically, he felt like a late night snack, the bear equivalent of a large Oscar Meyer wiener, done up in green plastic wrap. He also felt insecure, so Sam, who believed in direct tactics, reached for the heavy security of his .45, took aim a little above his feet, and fired.
What he hadn’t foreseen was that the kick of the .45 would send him, still in his mountain tent, skidding down the 50 degree slope at a fairly brisk speed. That was the slithering sound. The prolonged yell came when he realized he had no brakes.
Luckily for Sam, some pine trees caught him right before he zipped on down to the bottom of the mountain. Then the wind came up. The trees began to tremble, the tarp began to flap, and Sam was still stuck inside the sleeping bag, only now, because of his long slide, he was on his stomach and ready for take off. The wind got worse, the trees were swaying badly, the tarp had taken on pterodactyl qualities, and all it would take would be one big gust to push Sam right into the Guinness Book of World Records for man’s first flight in a mountain tent.
This is a true story, so he didn’t. We managed to find him and haul him down before he took off into the stratosphere. First, though, we made him drop the gun, which took a lot of persuasion, not because it was his main piece of ballast, but because he was afraid we were going to dispose of it, and a very valid fear that was. Twenty years later he’s still sulking about it, and about the fact that from then on we searched his backpack thoroughly before every camping trip.
Sam’s adventures in camping came back to me as I watched Junior grab his toy rifle and start running around the tower. By this time I was sitting up and his dad was crouched by the boulder, gasping for air.
“Be careful!” Dad managed to call out. “Don’t trip with that gun in your hand!” I looked over at him, and he gave me a sickly smile. “He insisted on bringing it. In case there were bears.”
I nodded sympathetically. Junior looked like he was going to grow up big and husky and not particularly aerodynamic. “Whatever you do,” I said, “don’t get him a mountain tent.” And then I headed down.