"The need to buy a tent and go off into the woods spring from guilt," says Marianne.

"None of us is worthy of a room at the Plaza, one overlooking Central Park, for $250 a night. But we'll spend $350 for a down sleeping bag and lie down in swamps."

She sips her Scotch and laments the cost of camping accoutrements acquired by her former partner in life: stove, tent for twelve, nonpolluting peppermint soap for washing pots, hair or teeth, collapsing crockpots, bear repellent. . .

Once, to save her marriage, she packed the gear, her mate, her Welsh terrier and two friends into the back of her Volvo, and set off for Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia. On the way, she warbled "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and worried whether the wine was chilled and whether they would find a campsite.

Prophetically, the campgrounds were all full, so Marianne proposed staying at a Ramada Inn in Wheeling. Her peers, however, stubboringly clung to dreams of misty morning reveille under pines.

A helpful ranger suggested a campground maintained by the Forest Service as an alternative. "Just make the turnoff to the right of Betty's Beauty Salon," he advised.

Betty's, in a trailer, sat beside a rugged, lonesome road, which Marianne decided was perfect for trying out her new driver's permit. She drove fast, hoping to find civilization by pretending this was a well-maintained highway.

"Where's the ranger station?" she demanded, her fears rising with the road. The only other sounds now were the pongs of large stones bouncing off the oil pan.

After 17 bumpy miles, the campers decided to pull into the next clearing to pitch the tent before nightfall. They picked a cleared slope near a swift stream, where mushrooms, like sea coral, grew thick in the damp air. The moon rose over quiet birches and a low forest of rhododendron as the business of camping began.

The butane was back in Mount Pleasant, forgotten, so the camp stove was not in commission. "How do you want your chicken? Rare?" asked Marianne, placing the boned breasts over the sulky fire and filling four paper cups with a white bordeaux.

After distributing it, she retrieved some charred potatoes from the flames with a crooked stick, then rolled them onto a paper plate. When she slit the skins, charcoal fell into the hard, raw insides, but Marianne mashed them into edibility and garnished with pepper. The cap fell off the makeshift salt shaker, burying her best efforts under a mountain of white.

Marianne lit a Merit and called the campers to table, noting that salt killed germs and that raw vegetables had a lot of vitamins.

During dinner, Dylan, the aging terrier, shivered, not from the cold but from fear, under his mistress' knees, where he waited till the flames were embers and the moon shadows crept out like bears and badgers.

Without fire, the chilly campers went in to their sleeping bags. "Time passes slowly on a Saturday night in the woods," Marianne remarked to the rustling woods, the scruffling, scurrying, snarfley woods.

A sudden rroarrrrrr livened things up a bit.

"It is a puma," said Marianne.

"There are no pumas here," said the others, voce bravura.

"It is a puma," she repeated.

In substantiation, another large cat called back from across the clearing.

"We are surrounded," she said, quietly preparing to die.

She lay awake in the night of the pumas, Dylan held tight against her. At the false dawn, a storm crashed upon the mountaintop to keep the pumas from their trysting. And she abandoned her watch to bail out the waterproof --excepting the seams -- tent.

At 9, the rain stopped. Time for a breakfast in town. Pirouetting in muddy sneakers, Marianne went to warm up the car while the others splashed their faces at the icy stream.

Rudnnn. Rudnnnnnn. Sound of non-ignition. Rudnnnn. Rudn. Sounds of silence. An inspection of the Volvo showed an empty gas gauge and a hole in the gas tank.

"We must hike out," said the camper most assertive. "Take the chocolate bars, the canteen and the cigarettes."

Every half-mile, Marianne stopped to eat a square of chocolate and confide that her marriage was on the rocks.

About 2, the company came to Betty's trailer, across the street from a Sunoco station. Its attendant drove them back to camp in a Jeep and placed a gasoline-soluble patch on the Volvo. He left a can of gasoline, advised the party to pack up, pour in the gas, then go for it.

The party did. Lickety-split. The patch held till Betty's. More gas at the Sunoco. Marianne made bologna sandwiches in the back seat and passed out grape sodas.It became a race between the gas pumped in and the gas that poured out.

No smoking and no rest stops all the way to Washington.

And they almost made it home. Just this side of Mount Pleasant, they smashed into a Volkeswagen, which smashed them back. Metro-mini-demolition derby. Cars and relationships cracked.

Today, Marianne and Dylan reside with a noncamper. Sometimes they cook out in the backyard on a Weber grill.