grew up in Mississippi in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, and although we lived
if a collection of 20,000 souls qualifies as such, my father’s parents
a farm in the Mississippi Delta where I spent an inordinate amount of
time as a
father and his father were both accomplished woodsmen and hunters. They
both deadly shots with rifle or shotgun. My father would flip pennies
air and in one fluid, swift yet unhurried motion, lift his .22 rifle to
shoulder and fire. The crack of the rifle was immediately followed by
of a penny spinning away with a .22 caliber impression on one side.
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
rifles, they taught me to handle shotguns at an early age. Their
firearm safety was rigorous, as was their training and expectations of
walk off into the woods, tread softly and silently, hunt all day, and
in the evening with game. Their sense of direction was so developed
never got lost. To them these skills were as normal and natural as
of subtle observations, subliminally recorded and internalized, then
and used as needed.
that sort of thing can be inherited or if some people are just
way. I do know that my father and grandfather instilled those abilities
by example and instruction at such an early age, I cannot remember not
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
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
Boy Scout Troop 3 in Tupelo, MS, and although my career in the Boy
not last much beyond my friend and fellow Scout, Johnny Milam, moving
Nashville, TN, it did last for a couple of years and included a
in my life. The summer I turned 12, our troop took a two-week trip to
Smoky Mountains. The highlight for me was spending most of that time on
Appalachian Trail with a backpack. I was hooked. Thank you Mr. Garber.
drifted away from Scouting, I was blessed with several friends who
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.
Mississippi, you could pass the written part of the driving test on
birthday and get your learner’s permit to drive. Thirty days later if
passed the actual driving portion of the test, you were a licensed
By the time
were sophomores in high school, we were loading tents, stoves, food,
reels, tackle, rifles, shotguns, and ammunition into Vergil’s mother’s
Oldsmobile Cutlass station wagon or my father’s 1953 Chevrolet pickup
heading north on Mississippi Highway 45 on Friday afternoons.
owned some lakeside property in the undeveloped part of the Natchez
Villas. We would bounce along the Devil’s Backbone as the road was
and turn in at the Hays property. Quickly pitching the tent, we would
until dark, then heat a can of pork and beans or beef stew for dinner
around talking about the goofy stuff that 15-year-old boys talk about.
morning by arrangement with the local landowners and farmers, we would
squirrels or birds, dove or quail as the season permitted. We would
joined by the Irwin brothers, Robert and Michael, Bill Bucy or Bruce
friends and classmates who lived in the developed area of the Villas.
we headed home to get ready for church on Sunday.
explored rain-swollen creeks, hunting snakes. During hard winter
explored the same creeks on inches-thick ice. When a rare winter snow
with a weekend, off we went where we learned how little we knew about
in the snow.
We swam in
lakes we fished, climbed on beaver dams, and shot clay pigeons in a
using a handheld thrower. We rode Stuart’s neighbor’s mostly wild
without benefit of bridle or saddle.
idyllic life, and a love of the outdoors was engendered that has lasted
years and still counting. It has led me all over the United States and
literally hundreds of trips and thousands of stories. I have included
those trips here. They cover nearly a 30 year timespan and include
groups of my cronies, but they are fairly representative of my outdoor
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
the bottom of the Canyon all the way to the top of the North Rim, and
title is somewhat of an exaggeration. But that’s how Vergil and I refer
It is still the single hardest day I have ever had on the trail in my
in retrospect did I realize just how far over the edge we had hung our
It is also noteworthy as it was my first expedition out West.
Benton MacKaye Journal”, centers exclusively on Troop 6, the Boy Scout
served for over 15 years, and their successful hike of the entire
portion of the newly opened Benton MacKaye Trail.
Have It All” combines adult leaders and some former Troop 6 Scouts
in the previous story on a trip to the Grand Tetons with more than its
“Nothing Prepares You for the Wind”, is in a very real sense a bookend.
brings back my buddy Vergil from the Grand Canyon trip and includes our
buddy Stuart on escapades in Chilean Patagonia. I suppose it is a
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.
backpacking is a vigorous, challenging pursuit. There is risk involved.
been on trips where we have never seen another living soul for the
The margins are often thin, and sometimes there is no backup. You are
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
at the time. But trust me, some of these trips were hard. The fear,
exhaustion, and pain are mitigated by the years, but reside deep within
be recalled later if less intensely, just as the exhilaration, sense of
and satisfaction of accomplishment can be.
I would not
trade these experiences and the friends with which I shared them for
I enjoyed living every one of them, and I enjoyed reliving them in
them. I hope you enjoy reading about them. But more than that I hope
encourage you to get outside.
question and answer session following one of his presentations, the
century British climber, sailor, and explorer, H.W. Tilman, was asked
young man, “Sir, how do I get on an expedition?” Tilman paused for a
replied matter of factly, “Put on your boots and go.”
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
mostly established trails. But that simple line, “put on your boots and
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
on the Proverbial Limb
been about 9:00 o’clock that night when we realized beyond any shadow
doubt that we had screwed up. Royally. Not for the first time, or even
time in our lives, to be sure, but up until this point by far the most
were exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, cold, and still over two miles of
well over 1,000 vertical feet below our goal, the North Rim of the
Canyon. Our world had shrunk to the North Kaibab Trail’s apparently
series of switchbacks that seemed to be about 30 feet long with about a
We were just about toast.
We had left
Phantom Ranch at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon about 7:30 AM on
mile hike to the North Rim. Our original plans to overnight at
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
for the season to effect some renovations.
with only one option in our eyes: all the way in one day. Heck, it was
miles. We were still young (relatively) and strong (more or less) and
we were in for (not a clue). That particular 14 miles of trail
altitude gain of over 5,000 feet. That’s right. A vertical mile. The
seven miles of trail, running from 2,460 feet at Phantom to 4,000 feet
Cottonwood, is followed by a seven mile stretch from 4,000 feet to
on the North Rim. It was that second seven miles that was whipping our
and I perched ourselves on a couple of trailside rocks, leaned over,
air like only exhausted, dehydrated flatlanders at 7,000 feet can. The
clear air was redolent with conifer and an undercurrent of sun-parched
stared out over the landscape. Every feature of the fantastically
canyon was bathed in the ghostly, soft glow of a full moon. We asked
what two guys born and raised in Mississippi were doing here. That
simple: dreams, dreams born in years of camping, hunting, and fishing
in the anything but arid climate of the relatively flat Mississippi
countryside. We might be older and might have the wherewithal to make
those dreams come true, but in many ways we were still those
roaming the countryside with their like-minded friends.
heaved ourselves to our feet and started slogging upward again. We were
turns hauling one pack. We were only spending one night on the North
packing all we would need for that bivouac, we had left the rest of our
with the rangers at Phantom Ranch. Verg took the pack and set off, as
the faster hiker. A flare-up of a nasty intestinal disorder and the
the attendant medication had rendered my joints a mess and me even
could hear the tap-tap of Vergil’s hiking stick. I had located a stand
bamboo near my home and had made each of us a walking stick before we
the last 30-40 minutes that tapping was how we kept up with each other
I rapped my
stick several times on a rock in response to Vergil and decided I
another blow. I plopped down on a rock bordering the outside edge of
and immediately fell asleep, my back toward the abyss. I awoke with a
jerk. Startled, I planted my staff, and with as firm a grip as possible
hauling myself back to my feet. At some point in the process of rising,
back asleep, awakening when my fanny hit the rock I had been sitting
I looked over my shoulder at the long plunge into the indigo depths of
canyon, the trail a ghostly, gray, moonlit serpent twisting downward
disappearing into the canyon’s depths.
Bonehead,” I said to
myself, “No more sit
downs for you. I don’t care if you have to stop at every switchback,
sitting down again. Too dangerous.” I lumbered to my feet and started
stopping at nearly every switchback and leaning over with hands on
sucking air, but I never sat down again.
hadn’t heard the clatter of Vergil’s stick on the rocks in quite a
despite my repeated rapping. I was getting concerned and tried to call
name. I couldn’t get more than a croak out of
my parched throat. Couldn’t
Copywrite 2014 by James Gregory Catledge