When I was a youngster, I got my hands on a 1960s boy scout handbook and learned many interesting (if unnecessary) skills — such as how to escape quicksand, how to tie intricate knots, and how to cook an amalgamation of curious foods over a campfire.
The lesson that I found best suited to my personality, however, was the boy scout motto: be prepared.
As a lifelong schemer, I took this advice to heart and overprepared for countless aspects of my life. There were times, in fact, when I took so much time preparing that I never got around to doing the thing I was preparing for.
It took me a while to learn this, but sometimes the best way to do something is simply to do it.
It was with something of this spirit that my older sister and I set off on our first major trip together several years ago. Together with my nephew — a tenacious toddler of three — we bundled into a senior SUV with an arthritic transmission and a forgetful air conditioner and headed west.
In general, the trip had all the hallmarks of two inexperienced travelers with dubious planning abilities. Our first mountain trip, which was meant to be a celebration of remote peaceful wilderness, happened to coincide with one of the nation's biggest motorcycle rallies. In a SUV-turned-sauna, we spent what felt like a few years crossing South Dakota, sharing the highway with inexplicably irritated motorcyclists.
The reason for their irritation eventually became apparent when it was discovered that my nephew had taken it upon himself to unravel an entire roll of toilet paper out the open car window. It scattered across the landscape behind us like a mid-summer snowstorm, nearly blocking out the enraged expressions of the motorcyclists in the rearview mirror. Yet it was quickly forgotten when mountains reared out of the flat landscape before us.
Through a bug-stained windshield, we watched the mountains transform from blue shadows to hulking masses of stone that seemed utterly improbable to drive up. This improbability only grew when the transmission of that faithful SUV refused to shift out of second gear, and we slowly climbed the switchbacks at what can only be described as a ponderous pace.
There is a certain humility gained when you realize a lawn mower could probably summit the mountain quicker than the vehicle once described by a dealer as 'an extreme off-roading vehicle.'
Our first hike was a tremendous success, in that we survived and weren't too badly injured. My nephew indulged in a full body immersion in a mud puddle (some of which I believe he also consumed), a car door viciously attacked my finger, and we got mild altitude sickness at the breathtaking height of 8,000 feet above sea level.
The second hike was only slightly more successful. We became disoriented (sometimes referred to as lost) for three hours and walked over 13 miles on a trail that did not deserve the title, my nephew once again experimented with full attire swimming and was reduced to wearing my jacket tunic-style while his own wet clothing flapped sadly from our backpacks. I also slightly sprained an ankle.
Yet, somehow, we survived 14 days in those mountains and when we drove our exhausted bodies down the mountain (causing permanent brake damage to the SUV and inexplicably killing both headlights), our brains were filled with fresh memories of sights more breathtaking than we'd ever seen and dreams of returning.
The human brain is remarkably good at forgetting trauma, as can be demonstrated by the fact we have returned to those mountains and many others countless times over the years.
That tenacious three year old is now an unequivocal eight year old who has seen more of the world than either his mother or I could have imagined at his age. He still has a taste for unexpected swims and ruining more clothes than seems possible. He can now use full sentences to explain why it is unfair that we have taken him away from peacefully watching television to make him climb the country's most beautiful mountains.
We are now far less likely to get lost, and bringing the right gear (in the right quantities) is second nature. I learned a lot on that first journey west — lessons that are not limited to camping trips. It is good to be prepared, but sometimes you need to experience life in the raw to understand what you are preparing for.