THE EX­PE­RI­ENCE

Just you, the squir­rels, and your short­com­ings.

Backpacker - - Contents - By Gra­ham Aver­ill

AD­MIT­TING YOU’RE WRONG It’s never easy, but the con­se­quences are a lot big­ger if you don’t face the facts in the back­coun­try.

“THE CAMP­SITE IS

IN­CRED­I­BLE,” I SAY. “BLACK BEARS ARE LARGELY MIS­UN­DER­STOOD CREA­TURES,” I ADD.

THE SIGN AT the camp­site is straight­for­ward. “Closed due to bear ac­tiv­ity.” You’d think there wouldn’t be room for in­ter­pre­ta­tion, but my wife and I see the same words and come to two dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions.

Liz says it’s omi­nous. She uses that ex­act word. “Omi­nous.”

I see it as aus­pi­cious. A camp­site this choice is usu­ally the first to get nabbed, but it’s wide open thanks to the sign, which I in­ter­pret more as a friendly cau­tion than a hard-and-fast rule. The site is right next to the river, close to a swim­ming hole, and has some of the best views in the area. “No won­der the bears like to hang out here,” I say.

We’re on an overnight trip in North Car­olina, fol­low­ing a sec­tion of the Art Loeb Trail as it ca­reens over high-el­e­va­tion balds and dips into stands of ev­er­greens and mead­ows of waist-high grass. It was sup­posed to be a fun way to recharge—get away from the kids, sip canned wine by the camp­fire—but it’s turn­ing into an in­ten­sive mar­riage ther­apy ses­sion, largely be­cause of my quest for a per­fect camp­site. A camp­site ex­actly like this one.

Liz wanted to set up camp 3 miles ear­lier, at a de­cent site that promised a good sun­set, but I had my heart set on a spot by the river be­cause I know she loves to fall asleep to the sound of wa­ter. Plus, if we go swim­ming, there’s a chance we’ll skinny-dip. So we con­tin­ued, climb­ing through rhodo­den­dron tun­nels and down the rocky trail un­til we hit the Yel­low­stone Prong, a trout stream packed with wa­ter­falls and some of the best camp­sites in the for­est. When they’re not closed due to bear ac­tiv­ity.

I of­fer my in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the sign. “The camp­site is in­cred­i­ble,” I say. “Black bears are largely mis­un­der­stood crea­tures,” I add.

Liz doesn’t buy it. But she has the pa­tience of a preschool teacher, so she weighs the pros and cons of my ar­gu­ment (pro: prox­im­ity to wa­ter; cons: break­ing the rules, death by bear) and sug­gests, sen­si­bly, that we back­track to the good camp­site we passed 3 miles ear­lier. I’m al­ler­gic to back­track­ing, so we com­pro­mise and con­tinue down the trail in search of a dif­fer­ent site on the river that bears might be less in­ter­ested in.

But as the path shifts away from the wa­ter, it be­comes ob­vi­ous that we’ve left the best sites be­hind. Much like when I de­ter­mined we didn’t need reser­va­tions for that new restau­rant (we did) or that I could fix the toi­let my­self (I couldn’t), I’m wrong. But my poor judg­ment is even more ev­i­dent—and has more se­ri­ous con­se­quences—when we’re back­pack­ing. I re­al­ize that the “com­pro­mise” we made to search for an­other site was just me be­ing too stub­born to adapt when our cir­cum­stances changed.

Af­ter a cou­ple of quiet miles, over which I imag­ine my wife is think­ing about all of her suit­ors who were prob­a­bly bet­ter lis­ten­ers and out­doors­men than I am, we set­tle for a spot nowhere near the river with­out any view at all be­cause it’s get­ting dark and we’re tired and this is what hap­pens when you can’t ad­mit you’re wrong. A small de­feat turns into a big one.

Back­pack­ing is full of wrong turns, twisted an­kles, and mis­cal­cu­lated mileage. Nowhere are there more “op­por­tu­ni­ties for growth,” as a coun­selor might say. So that night, as we lie on un­even ground in a too-small tent with­out any view, I ad­mit my mis­takes. I apol­o­gize for over­look­ing the first site, and for push­ing onto this pile of dirt. For­tu­nately, Liz loves back­pack­ing as much as I do. “I don’t mind this spot,” she says, “but you can try again to­mor­row.”

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