Every experienced backpacker has a collection of newbie stories suitable for teaching and humor. One of my favorites involves a young couple looking for romantic adventure.
I was in the middle of a mid-April solo trek southbound on Vermont’s Long Trail. New Englanders know this to be a precarious season for hiking in the mountains, but I had been blessed. The days had been sunny and fair, mostly in the 50s but occasionally nudging 60 in the sun. The nights had been clear and in the low to mid 20s. It was delightfully bug free. There were occasional stretches of shallow snow-covered trail, and a fair amount of mud, but everything was easily passable.
I had arrived at the shelter in plenty of time, settled in, finished my hot meal, and was enjoying the growing dusk in my warm dry camp clothes. I was too enchanted watching the lights come on simultaneously in the valley below and in the sky above to want to read the book I had brought.
I heard them long before I saw them, fragments of two voices and occasional laughter. The voices, one male and one female, were accompanied by the clattering of camping gear clipped to the outside of packs, often a tell for poor packing skill. When they finally appeared in the clearing by the shelter it was nearly dark. They made no attempt to hide their disappointment.
He spoke first. “Shit. I was sure we’d be alone.” She shrugged in response.
Sharing a campsite can be a wonderful communal experience - or a test of tolerance. Based on their noisy arrival, lack of greeting, and first words, I steeled myself for the latter. I was not to be disappointed. They both wore jeans. She had light hikers but he was in running shoes. They were carrying more gear for their weekend than I carried for a week. And they were noisy. They would have seemed only slightly noisy in a supermarket parking lot, but here it was jarring. As they clattered their gear all over the floor of lean-to, it became obvious that her gear had been lightly used, but his was brand new. Brand new, meaning still in the original packaging. It was at this point that they first directly acknowledged my presence: “Is there any other place nearby? We were really hoping to be alone.” I assured them that I would be gone early in the morning.
They set about preparing dinner, consisting of chili (packed in a large glass peanut butter jar), bread, butter, and a bottle of red wine. She produced a canister of white gas while he unpacked a whisper-lite stove from its original store wrapping and started assembling it by flashlight, struggling to read the instructions laid out on the floor. (An unspoken law and potentially life-saving tactic among experienced hikers is to test and familiarize oneself with all new equipment at home.) After several unsuccessful attempts, he did manage to assemble it, but his attempts to light it resulted in a powerful smell of spilled white gas but no flame. When he announced he was going to move to the back of the lean-to to get out of the wind, I decided it was time to intervene, more for my safety than their comfort.
When he waved off my offer to help, I simply got out of my bag, took the stove out of his hand, put a flat rock on the front lip of the lean to, primed the stove once, lit it, set up the windscreen so wouldn’t blow out, poured the chili into his pot, and showed him how to adjust the flame (which bears a striking resemblance to a small blowtorch) for best fuel efficiency.
They ate about two thirds of their chili, left the rest in the pot, and drank at least half the wine, without offering me any. She went down to the stream to fill their water bottles, and he proceeded to make an immense pot of tea. As nearly as I could tell, they did not have a water filter. When I asked, she said she wasn’t worried, the spring looked clear and fresh. I thought about Giardia, but said nothing.
After dinner (and several cups of tea each) they prepared for bed. He went around behind the back of the shelter to change into pajamas, and she asked if I would “step out for bit” so she could change. I told her I would roll over and close my eyes.
They lined up their cooking gear, stove, and water bottles along the front of the lean-to, including the one-third full pot of uneaten chili. They hung their damp jeans and cotton sweatshirts on nails along the front eaves “to block the breeze” and climbed into their bags.
I don’t know how long they talked, as I fell asleep almost immediately, tired from my day of hiking and relieved that they could do no more serious mischief. I was vaguely aware of grumbling related to multiple bathroom trips during the night, a side effect of the bedtime tea consumption.
I arose before first light intending to prepare a breakfast of an orange, hot oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar, and hot chocolate. There had been about an inch of light snow during the night (revealing that some of the bathroom strips had been short, indeed), their cotton clothes were frozen, plank-like, and both water bottles were solid ice.
I paused my breakfast preparations, suddenly imagining the nasty scene when they got up to dress and eat. Wanting no part of that, I packed up in silence and left without waking them. I enjoyed a solitary breakfast watching the sun rise over the valley about an hour down the trail, well out of earshot, wondering how their day would go, and if they would ever venture into the woods together again.