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PUT ON YOUR BOOTS AND GO

 

Beginnings

           I grew up in Mississippi in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, and although we lived in town, if a collection of 20,000 souls qualifies as such, my father’s parents lived on a farm in the Mississippi Delta where I spent an inordinate amount of time as a youngster.

          My father and his father were both accomplished woodsmen and hunters. They were both deadly shots with rifle or shotgun. My father would flip pennies into the air and in one fluid, swift yet unhurried motion, lift his .22 rifle to his shoulder and fire. The crack of the rifle was immediately followed by the whine of a penny spinning away with a .22 caliber impression on one side.

Both Dad and Pop were excellent wing shots, able to bring down either speedy, darting, low-flying dove or distant ducks flairing to land on a lake. So in addition to rifles, they taught me to handle shotguns at an early age. Their concept of firearm safety was rigorous, as was their training and expectations of me.

They knew how to walk off into the woods, tread softly and silently, hunt all day, and walk out in the evening with game. Their sense of direction was so developed that they never got lost. To them these skills were as normal and natural as breathing, hundreds of subtle observations, subliminally recorded and internalized, then called up and used as needed.

I don’t know if that sort of thing can be inherited or if some people are just predisposed that way. I do know that my father and grandfather instilled those abilities in me by example and instruction at such an early age, I cannot remember not having them nor can I ever remember being lost in the woods.

By my early teens I would stuff a leftover sausage-biscuit in my pocket after breakfast and head out into the woods alone with my .22 rifle. I would return in mid-afternoon with game, usually a squirrel. Pop loved squirrel stew.

In 1964 I joined Boy Scout Troop 3 in Tupelo, MS, and although my career in the Boy Scouts did not last much beyond my friend and fellow Scout, Johnny Milam, moving to Nashville, TN, it did last for a couple of years and included a watershed event in my life. The summer I turned 12, our troop took a two-week trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. The highlight for me was spending most of that time on the Appalachian Trail with a backpack. I was hooked. Thank you Mr. Garber.

Although I drifted away from Scouting, I was blessed with several friends who enjoyed camping, hunting, and fishing as much as I did. J.D., Vergil, Stuart, and I traipsed around the Lee County countryside as much as possible.

In those days in Mississippi, you could pass the written part of the driving test on your 15th birthday and get your learner’s permit to drive. Thirty days later if you passed the actual driving portion of the test, you were a licensed driver, no restrictions.

By the time we were sophomores in high school, we were loading tents, stoves, food, rods, reels, tackle, rifles, shotguns, and ammunition into Vergil’s mother’s Oldsmobile Cutlass station wagon or my father’s 1953 Chevrolet pickup truck and heading north on Mississippi Highway 45 on Friday afternoons.

Vergil’s father owned some lakeside property in the undeveloped part of the Natchez Trace Villas. We would bounce along the Devil’s Backbone as the road was aptly named and turn in at the Hays property. Quickly pitching the tent, we would fish until dark, then heat a can of pork and beans or beef stew for dinner and sit around talking about the goofy stuff that 15-year-old boys talk about.

On Saturday morning by arrangement with the local landowners and farmers, we would hunt squirrels or birds, dove or quail as the season permitted. We would often be joined by the Irwin brothers, Robert and Michael, Bill Bucy or Bruce Owen, friends and classmates who lived in the developed area of the Villas.

Saturday night we headed home to get ready for church on Sunday.

In the spring we explored rain-swollen creeks, hunting snakes. During hard winter freezes, we explored the same creeks on inches-thick ice. When a rare winter snow coincided with a weekend, off we went where we learned how little we knew about camping in the snow.

We swam in the lakes we fished, climbed on beaver dams, and shot clay pigeons in a pasture using a handheld thrower. We rode Stuart’s neighbor’s mostly wild ponies without benefit of bridle or saddle.

It was an idyllic life, and a love of the outdoors was engendered that has lasted over 50 years and still counting. It has led me all over the United States and to South America.

There are literally hundreds of trips and thousands of stories. I have included four of those trips here. They cover nearly a 30 year timespan and include different groups of my cronies, but they are fairly representative of my outdoor life.

The first, “(Near) Death March on the North Rim”, is as much a story of friendship as it is of an eight-day Grand Canyon adventure. The title comes from the day we went hiking from the bottom of the Canyon all the way to the top of the North Rim, and yes, the title is somewhat of an exaggeration. But that’s how Vergil and I refer to it. It is still the single hardest day I have ever had on the trail in my life. Only in retrospect did I realize just how far over the edge we had hung our fannies. It is also noteworthy as it was my first expedition out West.

The second, “A Benton MacKaye Journal”, centers exclusively on Troop 6, the Boy Scout troop I served for over 15 years, and their successful hike of the entire Georgia portion of the newly opened Benton MacKaye Trail.

“Some Trips Just Have It All” combines adult leaders and some former Troop 6 Scouts introduced in the previous story on a trip to the Grand Tetons with more than its share of surprises.

The last entry, “Nothing Prepares You for the Wind”, is in a very real sense a bookend. It brings back my buddy Vergil from the Grand Canyon trip and includes our other buddy Stuart on escapades in Chilean Patagonia. I suppose it is a testament to our years in the backcountry and proof that we actually learned something over those years, that nothing wacko occurred, a rarity, I can assure you.

Make no mistake, backpacking is a vigorous, challenging pursuit. There is risk involved. We have been on trips where we have never seen another living soul for the entire trip. The margins are often thin, and sometimes there is no backup. You are on your own.

In the comfort of my home, seated in a plush chair, laptop and coffee at hand, even the most difficult experiences take on a rosy glow in recollection that they certainly did not have at the time. But trust me, some of these trips were hard. The fear, total exhaustion, and pain are mitigated by the years, but reside deep within us, to be recalled later if less intensely, just as the exhilaration, sense of wonder, and satisfaction of accomplishment can be.

I would not trade these experiences and the friends with which I shared them for the world. I enjoyed living every one of them, and I enjoyed reliving them in writing about them. I hope you enjoy reading about them. But more than that I hope they encourage you to get outside.

Once during a question and answer session following one of his presentations, the noted 20th century British climber, sailor, and explorer, H.W. Tilman, was asked by a young man, “Sir, how do I get on an expedition?” Tilman paused for a moment and replied matter of factly, “Put on your boots and go.”

Not that our escapades in any way compare to Tilman’s accomplishments. They do not. He was a world class explorer filling in blanks on the world’s maps where we but wander mostly established trails. But that simple line, “put on your boots and go”, became both mantra and inspiration to find our own adventures in the backcountry. So my friends and I continue to put on our boots and go.

 

(NEAR) DEATH MARCH ON THE NORTH RIM

 

Out on the Proverbial Limb

It must have been about 9:00 o’clock that night when we realized beyond any shadow of a doubt that we had screwed up. Royally. Not for the first time, or even the last time in our lives, to be sure, but up until this point by far the most seriously.

Vergil and I were exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, cold, and still over two miles of trail and well over 1,000 vertical feet below our goal, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Our world had shrunk to the North Kaibab Trail’s apparently endless series of switchbacks that seemed to be about 30 feet long with about a 30⁰ incline. We were just about toast.

We had left Phantom Ranch at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon about 7:30 AM on the 14 mile hike to the North Rim. Our original plans to overnight at Cottonwood Campground had been shot down when, between the time we received our Backcountry Permit in the spring and the time we arrived at the park in September, the Park Service decided to close the Cottonwood Campground early for the season to effect some renovations.

We were left with only one option in our eyes: all the way in one day. Heck, it was only 14 miles. We were still young (relatively) and strong (more or less) and knew what we were in for (not a clue). That particular 14 miles of trail constitutes an altitude gain of over 5,000 feet. That’s right. A vertical mile. The first seven miles of trail, running from 2,460 feet at Phantom to 4,000 feet at Cottonwood, is followed by a seven mile stretch from 4,000 feet to 8,250 feet on the North Rim. It was that second seven miles that was whipping our fannies.

                Vergil and I perched ourselves on a couple of trailside rocks, leaned over, and sucked air like only exhausted, dehydrated flatlanders at 7,000 feet can. The cool, clear air was redolent with conifer and an undercurrent of sun-parched dust. We stared out over the landscape. Every feature of the fantastically sculpted canyon was bathed in the ghostly, soft glow of a full moon. We asked ourselves what two guys born and raised in Mississippi were doing here. That answer was simple: dreams, dreams born in years of camping, hunting, and fishing together in the anything but arid climate of the relatively flat Mississippi countryside. We might be older and might have the wherewithal to make some of those dreams come true, but in many ways we were still those 15-year-old kids roaming the countryside with their like-minded friends.

                We heaved ourselves to our feet and started slogging upward again. We were taking turns hauling one pack. We were only spending one night on the North Rim and packing all we would need for that bivouac, we had left the rest of our gear with the rangers at Phantom Ranch. Verg took the pack and set off, as always the faster hiker. A flare-up of a nasty intestinal disorder and the ravages of the attendant medication had rendered my joints a mess and me even slower than usual.

                I could hear the tap-tap of Vergil’s hiking stick. I had located a stand of bamboo near my home and had made each of us a walking stick before we left. For the last 30-40 minutes that tapping was how we kept up with each other when separated.

I rapped my stick several times on a rock in response to Vergil and decided I needed another blow. I plopped down on a rock bordering the outside edge of the trail and immediately fell asleep, my back toward the abyss. I awoke with a slight jerk. Startled, I planted my staff, and with as firm a grip as possible began hauling myself back to my feet. At some point in the process of rising, I fell back asleep, awakening when my fanny hit the rock I had been sitting on.

Steadying myself I looked over my shoulder at the long plunge into the indigo depths of the canyon, the trail a ghostly, gray, moonlit serpent twisting downward and disappearing into the canyon’s depths.

 “OK, Bonehead,” I said to myself, “No more sit downs for you. I don’t care if you have to stop at every switchback, you’re not sitting down again. Too dangerous.” I lumbered to my feet and started uphill, stopping at nearly every switchback and leaning over with hands on knees, sucking air, but I never sat down again. 

I hadn’t heard the clatter of Vergil’s stick on the rocks in quite a while despite my repeated rapping. I was getting concerned and tried to call his name. I couldn’t get more than a croak out of my parched throat. Couldn’t whistle either.         

Copywrite 2014 by James Gregory Catledge





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