Monday, March 30, 2009

Babes in the bush: a bit of comic relief

They dubbed us “the babes in the bush.”
But I was more like a babe in the woods.

Some years ago, Brookdale Community College, N.J., advertised a “Women in the Wilderness” weekend at the “primitive facility” of Wawayanda (aptly pronounced way-way-yonder) State park in northern Passaic County. An editor with a sense of humor thought I was the perfect choice for the assignment.

Up front, you ought to know I was a 46-year-old, out-of-shape woman whose idea of primitive is a place where there is no microwave. I don’t do the outdoors willingly. As a child, I only lasted two days at Girl Scout camp.

So, it was with understandable trepidation that I faced the weekend, a sort of overage slumber party--minus the house, the bed and the toilet. Oh, did I forget to mention that? For the uninitiated, “primitive” is a camping code for no toilet facilities – not even and outhouse. How’s that for fostering an up-close and personal relationship with Mother Nature?

But more about that later.

My anxiety didn’t decrease much as I met my fellow campers, all of whom had at least some experience in the outdoors. I was definitely there to provide the comic relief. And I didn’t let them down.

Bonding began at the base camp, which sported such luxuries as a water pump and three outhouses – one which was closed. (someone with a primitive camping sense of humor had propped a “NO DUMPING” sign at its door, creating a popular photo opportunity.) Our low-key leaders espouse the philosophy of “low-impact camping” -- all you leave is a footprint; all you kill is time. What they neglect to mention is that low-impact camping is high impact on the body. Each of us carried a full 50-pound pack containing the gear, food and two bottles of drinking water – all there would be until we returned to base camp the next day.

The hike to our campsite, Lake Lookout, was an uphill trek for miles on moist leaves interspersed with rocks. (A tip: If you want a walking stick, it’s advisable to find one BEFORE loading on your pack. It’s almost impossible to bend down once you’re strapped in. Trust me.)

The trail, actually an old mining road, was both beautiful and treacherous. The foliage was peaking, but the colorful leaves underfoot were slippery, so most of the time we stared at our feet. We hadn’t gone 50 feet when I began to sweat. A few minutes later, I began a fight for breath that lasted the whole hike. I was clearly in over my head and bringing up the rear, with a new understanding of those unfortunates forced to walk in the Bataan Death March in World War II.

In between the moans and groans, the mood on the trail was incredibly convivial. We hit it off immediately and there was a spirit of oneness that kept us going. If you stumbled, help was there before you could fall. It was impossible to fail.

By the time we reached the campsite, I couldn’t tell what hurt more, my chest, my back or my feet. We dropped our packs and took in the scenery. It was almost worth the pain. The orange, red and green leaves were reflected in the placid lake, mirroring the carpet beneath our feet.

The light was starting to fail. I realized I had better attend to basics before it was completely dark. So, I grabbed the shovel and some paper from the “toilet tree” and went to find a spot far from camp. The land was hilly, and my leg muscles quivered from exhaustion. I found a fairly sheltered area and set about to take care of business.

The real trouble came when I tried to stand up. My trussed-up legs gave way and I fell, tumbling down the hill. Before reaching the lake, I was caught by a rock and a tree--literally wedged between a rock and a hard place. I lay there in pain and humiliation, unable to even pull up my leggings. Finally, I made it upright, put myself back together and stumbled back to camp to the sound of leaves crunching inside my clothing.

Even in the gathering darkness, it didn’t take long for my fellow babes to sense something was wrong. That was the strangest part of the weekend. No one ever needed to ask for help; we had become so in tune with one another. It was spooky how quickly we bonded into a highly functional and loving family.

Regardless, Saturday night was my low point. If I had access to a phone, I would have called for my dad to come get me – just as I did at Girl Scout camp 35 years earlier. Instead, I swallowed some painkillers and slid into my sleeping bag, hoping like hell it wouldn’t rain. And determined not to open my eyes if something licked my face.

Sunday dawned to fog but no rain. Amazingly, my body rallied, and I could actually bend. My spirits lifted momentarily as I downed coffee made from the lake’s brown water. Then I realized there was no way to avoid another solo walk into the woods. This time, I braced myself by holding onto a friendly log. I relaxed. I felt greatly relieved. Until I stood up. My technique had improved but my aim needed work.

There was nothing to do but peel off my soaked leggings, slap a grin on my face and stride back to camp, sporting only my hiking boots and L.L. Bean anorak. It made such a fashion statement that--between shrieks of laughter--the cameras appeared.

It wasn’t a love of nature I carried away, but the kinship of the group, the sound of that laughter. I never had sisters, but I imagine that’s what the connection is like at its best.

Of course, I also leaned to appreciate indoor plumbing, and greeted my toilet warmly on Sunday night.

1 comment:

Brian J Boyd said...

I slept like a baby last night. I sh$! and pissed all over myself!