What One Man Can Do Another Man Can Do...

We had been a month in the wilderness when my brother and I were cresting an off trail ridge line in the high Pyrenees. Using compass/map directions and elevation readings alone, we were transferring from the the GR 10 in France over the border to the GR 11 in Spain. Pic du Midi d’Ossau to our backs and the Spanish border to our front. We had successfully covered 200 miles of trail since leaving the French Coast at Hendaye. It took a grueling three hours to reach the col. While gazing upon the distance we had covered in France I began to reminisce about the life path that had led me to that windy pass.

I began to remember that there was a time when I didn’t know how to mount my own expeditions into the lonely places of the world. I didn’t even know where to start. I would watch movies like “Jeremiah Johnson” and “The Edge” and day dream about being a mountain man and wonder if I had what it took to survive being lost in the wild. My television diet consisted of “Man vs. Wild” and “Survivorman”. I read “The Tracker” by Tom Brown, “ How To Stay Alive In the Woods” by Bradford Angier, and “A Walk Across America” by Peter Jenkins, hoping for the day when I would set out on adventures of my own.

I grew up in a family that knew nothing of wilderness travel beyond the occasional car camping mishap. Camp placement was always questionable, equipment was always in disrepair, and our camp meals consisted of hobo packs and undercooked burgers on a foldable propane grill.  The tents always had holes in them and we always seemed to go camping on long weekends when there were thunderstorms brewing.

“Don’t touch the sides of the tent!” my brother would whisper desperately, as I could hear water droplets hitting his head in the dark. Our cotton baffle sleeping bags would soak up the water and chill us to the bone every night. Camping meant misery to me in those days; a rain drenched mud covered miserable nightmare.

So began my wilderness mishaps, one after the other, that eventually led me to competence.

My identical twin brother and I set out on our first backpacking trip into Shawnee National Forest when we were 19. We had moderately decent gear at this point. A tent that didnt leak and synthetic sleeping bags! Imagine the comfort! The major mistake we made was trying to save money by buying a titanium alcohol stove. We didn’t read the directions or even understand how to use it when we set out. We bought rubbing alcohol for fuel instead of isobutane and this is where our trouble began.

One of us, I can’t remember which, had the bright idea to save money on food by buying unsoaked lentils. The plan was to soak the lentils in a nalgene all day and cook them over the stove at night. Great plan! Worked like a charm!

The only problem was that our stove only burned for around 5 minutes. (Not long enough to boil water let alone cook lentils.) We ended up eating raw lentils for 5 days as our main means of nourishment. I don’t know if any of you know what that’s like, but on the third spoonful the gag reflex sets in. The highlight each evening was a kids Clif bar that we would split between the two of us. Chocolate brownie flavored energy bars never tasted so good.

We eventually emerged from the forest, a little lighter and much wiser, and hitchhiked to the nearest convenience store. The one thing that I had been craving while slowly starving in the wilderness was graham crackers and peanut butter. I gorged until my belly bulged. You’d be hard pressed to convince me that you’ve ever tasted a better meal in your life. Needless to say, we chucked the lentils. I still cannot, for the life of me, swallow lentils without gagging.

The first piece of wisdom I gleaned from this trip was that meal planning, preparation, and proper cooking equipment are paramount to the success or failure of a trip.  

On the same trip we hoofed it over a hill called High Knob in all of our layers. We were soaked with sweat and overcome with fatigue by the time we reached the top; feet blistered and feeling like pancakes. My layers were so soaked through with sweat that they stopped insulating effectively. As we ascended the hill we should’ve removed layers as needed. Instead, we just pushed through out of haste and didnt peel off layers as necessity dictated. We paid for that mistake by being cold and wet while ruining our means to comfort by soaking it through.

The second piece of wisdom I gleaned from the trip was that layers are for removing and replacing as needed, not to wear all the time. The third was, just because a pair of boots costs a lot of money doesnt mean that they are the right tool for the job.  

We had soaked through our clothes by not maintaining our layering system, gotten blistered and bloody feet by wearing improper boots, and gone hungry by not planning our meals correctly.  There were a whole slew of lessons that I learned from this trip. It doesn’t matter what gear you have if you don’t know how to use it. Owning expensive gear, clothing, and boots does not make you a competent outdoorsman. Wisdom is what creates competence and usually wisdom is only gained through making mistakes and painful decisions.

The line that kept running in my head throughout the entire ordeal was from a film called “The Edge”. In the scene two friends are arguing about what they are going to do regarding a Kodiak bear that is stalking them. It has already mauled and eaten one of their friends.One loses hope while the other is determined to make a plan to kill the bear. In a state of starvation and desperation, the hopeful friend recounts a story of a native boy that killed a bear with a spear. He states,

“What one man can do another man can do! And you know what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna kill the F%#^%#!”

If you don’t have competence you can gain it through sheer will and perseverance. What one man can do another man can do…