It was Velma, not I, who wanted to go backpacking. I always considered backpacking a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I'd already done it once.
That was 10 years ago. It was a 25-miler in southern Missouri. Instead of carrying that freeze-dried food that tastes like mulch, I brought a stick of pepperoni and a jar of pickles. Which made me thirsty and gave me a stomachache.
Anyway, Velma came in one day with snapshots her boss had taken on his hike.
"Look," she said. "It's the White Mountains." I didn't want to argue with her, but I said they looked green to me.
No, she said, the White Mountains were in New Hampshire. The Green Mountains were in Vermont. So I said, okay, I'd do it, and we started planning.
For those of you who have never backpacked, let me tell you what it is. You carry this knapsack on your back, full of things like dry socks and Hershey bars. Carrying this bag, which will weigh anywhere between 20 and 50 pounds, you walk all day. When you find a spot in the woods that looks like a good place to stay -- the longer you've walked the less picky you are -- you set up camp, eat instant potatoes and chicken noodle soup and go to sleep.
You repeat this process for as many days as you want or until your soup runs out.
The first thing you find out about backpacking is that it's more expensive than a trip to the Riviera. Three of us were going, Velma, I and our 16-year-old, who is allergic to Velma and me but who agreed to come along to make me happy.
This meant we needed three of everything. We looked at backpacks.
"How's this one for $29.95?" I asked the guy at the outfitters.
"That's for little kids," he said. "If you're looking for a good deal we've got this one on sale." He pulled it down. It was big enough to hold a Volkswagen and it was $89.
"Come on," I said to Velma. "Let's see if we can borrow backpacks." Which we eventually ended up doing.
Next came shoes. You can't hike in sneakers. They don't give enough support or traction. You must have genuine hiking boots, which look like corrective shoes for cowboys, and which can only be worn for hiking or to the office during snowstorms that are so bad the boss doesn't expect anybody to show up.
Decent ones start at $60. My daughter already had a pair; Velma was given a pair, and I bought a pair for $37, which were too light for the hike and almost crippled me. We bought some other things and then I looked for my Swiss Army knife. You might be able to get away without a decent pack and shoes, but don't ever go on a hike without a Swiss Army knife. It is the ultimate survival tool.
In the main, its purpose is to yank corks from wine bottles, but the Swiss Army uses the deluxe version with 27 implements to build chalets in the mountains.
Finally I bought what under normal circumstances would be a 10-year supply of moleskin. If you don't know what moleskin is you should never go backpacking.
Velma said we were going to use the hut system. She explained how it worked. The Appalachian Mountain Club had built these cabins, which were maybe 5 to 8 miles apart. Then they slashed a trail through the woods. For $35, backpackers who didn't want to carry a tent, food, cooking utensils and a sleeping bag could stay in the huts.
Sounded okay to me, so one Monday in early summer we drove to New Hampshire and started in. According to our map, the cabin we planned to stay at the first night was 5.3 miles away. This book I'd read said an experienced backpacker could make three miles an hour.
We were four hours into our opening hike and I figured we'd come to the cabin any minute now, when we met two women walking in the opposite direction. Their packs were twice as big as anything we were carrying and they looked like they'd been up in the mountains trapping bears or something for six months.
"How far is Zealand Falls hut?" I asked.
"Not far," one of the women said. "About three miles." For some reason, my feet started to hurt and my back began to ache. Three miles?
There is an explanation for this, but I didn't find out until later. First, the map was wrong. It wasn't 5.3 miles; it was more than 6 miles to the Zealand hut. Also, my experience -- admittedly limited -- taught me that when you ask somebody how many miles, the answer varies with the terrain. Even if it is only a quarter of a mile, a steep climb is described as a mile. If the path is flat and easy people might say the cabin is only a mile off, when in reality it is two.
Oh geez, I thought, 150 miles to the west people were sitting in sidewalk cafes in Montreal drinking sparkling cider, and I have warm water, a Hershey bar and two or three miles to go.
The trek to Zealand hut was about a mile more than I was prepared to go that day. We arrived at 6 p.m., just as supper was being served. The men and women at the picnic tables inside looked like they all just had marital altercations.
After dessert I had a chance to size up my colleagues of the trail. There were perhaps 30 people. Besides the cuckoos like me and the people who actually did this for fun, several distinct types emerged:
There were representatives of the wheat germ and honey cult; there were business people trying to walk off the stresses of their work; and there were the machos who were trying to prove how tough they were. These were easy to spot because they had the biggest backpacks and they carried no moleskin.
Sleeping arrangements at the huts are coed-dormitory style. I couldn't sleep though, because one of the guys was sawing Zs big enough to level the forest. Finally I dragged my sleeping bag out on the porch and fell asleep under the stars.
The next morning my left cheek was numb. A mountain spider must have mistaken me for a bug in a rug. When I went in for breakfast I tried to smile, but only half my lip would go up.
"What happened?" Velma asked.
"Stroke," I answered. "You'll have to carry me out."
I hate to admit this, but I think we were the slowest things in the woods. And I was the slowest of the slow. The 16-year-old was blazing trails, and sometimes I wouldn't see her for an hour at a time. Velma was next. For years I'd suspected Velma was in better condition than I was and now I knew it. And me, I had a strong motivation to stay close on her heels -- fear of being alone in the woods at night.
Which wasn't much of a possibility. The trails weren't what you would call crowded -- there are only so many masochists to go around -- but people came and went with certain regularity.
These were the "mountain goats." The first one I came across sneaked up from behind. She stopped for a second for a word with my daughter and was on her way. I don't want to say she was running, but she was going faster than most people I see jogging.
"What did she say?" I asked my daughter.
"She says she just finished climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro."
Great, she must be doing the White Mountains for dessert.
The other most notable character we met on the trail came hopping past us wearing a rain suit. Following 10 feet behind was a fat black dog. For some reason the dog kept looking back.
The guy in the rain suit stopped and asked Velma something about the trail, then he went on. "I think the dog knows the trail better than he does," Velma said.
I didn't know what she meant until a few minutes later, when I saw the guy flying back in our direction. He'd taken his rain suit off and the black dog was still 10 feet behind him.
"Missed my turn," he said as he went by. "The dog knows the trail better than I do."
I don't want to say I hated backpacking -- it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, even if it was my second time. I was glad to be finished, but I was also sad to be going back down into the dirty air and traffic. Four days we spent in the woods; on the final day, as the trail got smoother and we were coming down to civilization, Velma asked, "What do you think?"
My feet felt like somebody had been running back and forth over them with an asphalt roller. "It was great," I said. "Too bad they don't serve sparkling cider at the huts." Frank Rossi is a free-lance writer who lives in Philadelphia.