I blame the scotch. Dewar’s to be exact. It’s not my drink of choice, but when you’re backpacking in the winter, you drink scotch. “To keep warm.” Sure, liquor has the opposite effect on your body temperature, but you can’t argue with tradition. What you can argue with, though, is my proximity to the fire during the bout of scotch worship. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Really, the trip went askew long before I lit up like Michael Jackson. The fact that we started four months late should have tipped us off that we weren’t on top of our game. It was supposed to be a summer backpacking trip. A chance for three high school buddies to wander deep into the Smokies and rediscover our friendship. There is no male bonding like Wilderness-based male bonding. Credit the campfire, the absence of Twitter, or the potential of a bear visit…whatever the reason, the recipe for forging friendships is at its most potent in the woods.
But the summer trip got pushed into a fall trip, which then got pushed into a winter trip. Blame our kids, our jobs, whatever, but play “Cat’s Cradle” because eventually we all felt so guilty about postponing the adventure that we finally just said “screw it” and met at a corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, ready to pick up our friendships where we left off.
It’s balls cold by the time we meet, but we are all experienced woodsmen: a Marine, an Eagle Scout, and an adventure journalist. We’ve seen the world. We can handle the Southern Apps with temps in the teens and a chance of snow.
This is what we tell ourselves over coffee, eggs, and hash browns at the Waffle House near the trailhead. We talk about the winter treks we’ve bagged over the years and how we’re not worried about the current weather. It’s easy to put up a strong front when you have unlimited refills of hot coffee.
Reality hits on the hike into the backcountry. My shoes don’t fit right and I imagine large blisters growing on each big toe. The Eagle Scout keeps stopping to adjust his back brace (or is that a girdle?) and the Marine keeps stripping, peeling off sweaty layers at the top of each small hill. He’s dressed for the Antarctic and it’s probably 40 degrees in the noon-day sun. Most of our conversations throughout the hike have to do with how we each combat carpal tunnel in the workplace.
The route I choose is just as lame. I handle logistics, choosing a half-ass route in the Deep Creek corner of the park for three reasons. 1) There’s good fishing. 2) It has almost no elevation gain. We’re all out of shape and the last thing I want to do is give mouth to mouth to one of these guys. And 3) There’s a Waffle House near the trailhead. All male bonding trips need a plate of hash browns.
The path is more gravel road than trail, moving through a winterized hardwood forest, offering nothing but dormant trees as scenery.
I’ve never had a winter backpacking trip go well. In college, two buddies and I were supposed to spend the entire week of spring break hiking the Georgia portion of the A.T. One night of trying to melt snow and shivering in our K-mart sleeping bags sent us packing for warmer environs. Then there was the frost-bite incident. The “hot stone” in the bottom of the sleeping bag incident. The “too much snow to build a fire” incident. Anyone can fake it through a summer backpacking trip, but sub-freezing temperatures expose all of your backcountry shortcomings.
The campsite I randomly choose has promise, though. Flat, with a nice-sized fire ring just steps from a broad, rushing trout stream. The trail may have been forgettable, and we may all be larger, sweatier versions of ourselves, but at least there will be fishing. Except the Eagle Scout forgot the rods. He brought the case—the one that keeps his graphite fly fishing rods in pristine condition—but no rods.
“I thought the case felt light when I was packing the car,” he says, smiling. “But look, I’ve got chocolate. And scotch.”
He reaches into his bag and pulls out a giant sack of fun-sized candy bars—leftover Halloween loot from his five kids—and a fifth of Dewar’s. Combined, it’s easily 12 pounds of gluttony stuffed into the bottom of his pack. The trip is saved.
There’s an argument over the proper way to build a fire, but soon, we have a hot-burning “log cabin” going and we start passing around the scotch. The conversation is easy, moving through the typical work-wife-kids topics until we land on the topic of dream jobs. With each pull from the Dewar’s, I get a little closer to the fire, relaxing deeper into my Therm-a-rest chair.
Before long, we decide we’re all quitting our jobs to start a backpacking guide service. We’ll lead city folks into the woods. Show them the true Southern Appalachians. This is when we are at our happiest, after all. Together, next to a campfire, passing around a bottle of scotch and a bag of Halloween candy.
Never mind the fact that we forgot half of our gear for this trip. Our lack of cardiovascular fitness and rusty backpacking skills are of no concern either. We want, no need, to share this experience with the rest of the world.
I doze off by the fire trying to think of a good name for our guide service (Three Amigos? Snickers and Scotch Backcountry Adventures?) and wake up when the Marine yells, “dude, you’re on fire!”
A large portion of my boot sole has melted and errant embers have burned holes in my Therm-a-rest, pants, and puffy jacket.
It’s decided that when we do this professionally, we won’t let our clients pass out so close to the fire. Or drink so much scotch. And we’ll have an ironclad insurance waiver. Because we have no idea what we’re doing. •