Pass/Fail: Hike with a Stranger

Back­pack­ing has a way of bring­ing peo­ple closer. But does that mean shar­ing a tent with a com­plete stranger is a good idea?

Backpacker - - CONTENTS - BY WILL McGOUGH

I’M ON THE ROAD A LOT for work, which means I’m al­most al­ways with­out a re­li­able back­pack­ing buddy. Sure, I could go alone, but I’m a so­cial guy. As ther­a­peu­tic as solo trips can be, ad­ven­ture is more in­ter­est­ing when you share it with some­one.

I’d never thought about go­ing on a week­end trip with a com­plete stranger, but when I found my­self at a net­work­ing event in Den­ver with an of­fer to head down to Great Sand Dunes Na­tional Park for two days, a light bulb went off: Maybe this was the so­lu­tion to my lack-ofa-part­ner prob­lem.

I’d al­ways wanted to check out the dunes. At up to 750 feet high, they’re the tallest in North Amer­ica, tucked be­tween Medano Creek and the 14,000-foot San­gre de Cristo Moun­tains—and just four hours south of Den­ver.

En­ter my new ac­quain­tance, a fel­low work func­tion happy hour at­tendee. Thanks to some flaky friends, his week­end plans had just fallen through, and like me, he was itch­ing to get out. I hadn’t brought back­pack­ing gear, but he had spares of ev­ery­thing I’d need, a four­wheel-drive Jeep, and a lo­cal’s knowl­edge.

There was noth­ing ro­man­tic about the of­fer, yet it still felt like be­ing pro­posed to on a first date.

“You seem cool, man, but are we ready to share a tent? I don’t even re­mem­ber your name,” I joked.

“Justin,” he said, not laugh­ing like I thought he would. “Come on, what’d you come to Colorado for? To sit around all week­end?”

A lit­tle bit for­ward? Sure, but he was mak­ing a lot of sense. I did want to go back­pack­ing, and here he was hand­ing it to me on a plat­ter. But that’s what made me skep­ti­cal.

I won­dered: Did his friends re­ally bail on him, or did he kill them all?

Calm down, Will. We’d met at a work event, not in a back al­ley. Still, what if he talked too much? Or too lit­tle? What if he didn’t drink whiskey?

Oh, what the hell, I thought. When op­por­tu­nity is your only cri­te­rion, you take what you can get.

Justin picked me up the next day. I was feel­ing op­ti­mistic, but I sent a photo of his li­cense plate to a

friend, just in case he turned out to be an axe mur­derer.

On the road, our con­ver­sa­tion stut­tered and stalled. I started to think I’d made a mis­take. This might be a long week­end.

But when the dunes rose into view be­low the ser­rated San­gre de Cris­tos, we fell into quiet ad­mi­ra­tion. That we could sit in easy si­lence to­gether was a re­lief con­sid­er­ing the fact that our con­ver­sa­tions so far had sucked.

We parked and shoul­dered our packs. Fol­low­ing Justin’s tip, I took off my shoes and hiked in my socks, which let me feel the mas­sage of the sand with­out burn­ing my feet. He could still be a psy­chopath, but at least he had good ad­vice.

Justin led the way over the first set of dunes, and I was happy to fol­low. We found a low spot about a mile in where we set up the tent, gave up on stak­ing it in the loose sand, and de­cided to sum­mit a nearby dune. The ef­fort of the climb left

us quiet, but we’d found a rhythm to our pace.

A strong breeze picked up. With sun­glasses and scarves pro­tect­ing our faces from the blow­ing sand, we slogged on. At the top, we gazed out over the val­ley, the dunes, and the dis­tant peaks. Be­fore I could get too ab­sorbed in the beauty, though, I spot­ted some­thing orange rolling across the sand be­low: our tent.

We stood there for a mo­ment, saucer-eyed. Then we both raced into ac­tion, book­ing it down the hill in our stock­ing feet. We laughed, stum­bling and catch­ing up to the tent. It was the kind of blun­der old friends rem­i­nisce about years later.

From then on, we were united, a team against all na­ture could throw at us. When the whiskey came out that night, we skipped the small talk and dove straight into per­sonal sto­ries—places we used to live, girls we used to date. Con­ver­sa­tion came easy now that we’d suf­fered an or­deal to­gether.

Ev­ery­thing was per­fect— un­til Justin fell asleep. He snored like a buzz saw.

Should I nudge him awake? Whis­per in his ear? We were close now, but not that close. I gave him a quick jab with my el­bow, then snapped back and pre­tended to be asleep. It worked. He rolled over with­out a word.

The next morn­ing we sat hud­dled to­gether to keep the wind from blow­ing out the stove. I asked him how he slept.

“Good,” he said. “Did I snore?”

“A lit­tle. But it didn’t bother me,” I lied.

“You know, you could have just asked me to roll over.” He was laugh­ing.

We’re al­ready talk­ing about plan­ning an­other trip. But next time Justin’s not avail­able? Well, I could just ask any­one.

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