The wild in common
A pair of teenage boys take to the Porcupine Mountains
How was I going to spend three days and three nights with the guy I had been arguing with for the past six months? We were separated by the typical tensions of teens, competition, differences of viewpoint, outside interests and pride. We were both to blame. Yet it was during this strained period that he asked me to spend a few days backpacking with him in the Porcupine Mountains in the U.P.
"Sure. Why not?" I answered without hesitating.
We were 12 years old when we became best friends. Our first day together was spent exploring the backcountry of his parents' land. They owned a chunk of five to 10 acres - enough for two tweens to spend a day exploring, hiking and making weaponry from it. We even drank the water from a stream which we later learned contained run-off from a local paper mill.
Our friendship had been built on afternoons, days and weekends of gallivanting through the woods. We accumulated day hikes without destinations. We used one of these afternoons knocking over snags or dead trees. We searched for trees that seeped rotten pulp from their woodpecker holes, and the taller the better. We would stand at the base of the tree and push and pull on it until we got it rocking. After the tree got moving, we would hear the roots creak loose. The moaning dead trees would rush through the forest canopy and smash to the forest floor.
I realize now this was not only destructive, but also dangerous. On one occasion the top of the tree broke off, and I awoke to find him staring at me bug eyed. The top had hit me square on the head and knocked me out.
Now teenagers with this history between us, I knew this trip would offer acres of adventure. The Porkies contain 87 miles of trail and an unending supply of old growth hardwood forest to explore.
We began to plan our nutritional needs, gear and the arsenal of knives we would bring. We both had overactive imaginations. Who knew what we would run into out there: bears, wolves, coyotes, raging lunatics or maybe even a raccoon. A photo from one of our earlier trips shows a log peppered with shivs.
The first night we camped on the Escarpment Trail overlooking the Lake of the Clouds. We slept on the top of the bluff, where the wind lambasted our campsite with endless gusts. I hardly got a wink of sleep.
As sleep deprived as we were, we still arose on cue with the chirping of the first morning robins. We were raring to go. We packed in a dozen eggs, a shake and pancake batter. One egg had cracked, so we ate the remaining 11 with our pancakes. After breakfast we began to put on the miles. We passed a portion of the morning with me jamming on my harmonica and my friend singing the blues as we hiked. Our noise pollution lasted only until we rounded a corner and found ourselves face-to-face with a couple other hikers bearing looks of amusement and irritation.
We came upon a waterfall and thought what a rush it would be to sleep next to it. We overlooked the fact that waterfall never rest. It's roar penetrated the night. It meant another night of broken sleep for me.
In the morning we planned to eat trout for breakfast. We brought fishing line and hooks. Considering ourselves modern-day MacGyver's, we didn't bother to bring poles or lures. Who needs them when you can invent what you need? That morning we ate instant oatmeal for breakfast.
As we entered our teen years, we knocked over fewer deadwoods and graduated to slingshots. We discovered an acorn fired from a slingshot produces quite a sting when it hits a person but causes no noticeable damage. Our acorn wars lasted until I had him treed and accidently nailed him in the cheek. It left a mark his mother couldn't help but notice and question.
We brought the slingshots with us on our backpacking trip. The days of shooting each other were over. Instead, we shot at targets of all kinds, alive and inanimate.
A section of trail we hiked had grand lumbering trees with such great leaf coverage the undergrowth was nearly nonexistent. Only green phosphorescence. It reminded us of the Lord of the Rings flora. (This was long before the movie adaptations of the trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein, and so our imaginations painted the resemblance.)
The third night we pitched our tent next to Mirror Lake. Quiet. Finally we had chosen a tranquil place to park our tent. The lake at dusk was surreal and the haunting call of loons added ambiance.
That night I awoke with a start. I tapped my friend. "Hear that?" I whispered.
Something or someone was scraping by the side of the tent. I held my breath. My thumping heart was getting in the way of hearing anything. We both lay awake and strained for any hint of the intruder's identity. We knew better than to talk and give away our position. Two hours later, we were none the wiser. Whatever it was, it had left. Our fear remained, however.
In the morning we used our keen tracker skills and ascertained it was probably a raccoon.
It was our last day of trekking. We hadn't mentioned our strained friendship. We did talk a lot about mileage, blisters, filtering water and our love of gorp and Ramen noodles. You know, woodsmen talk.
On the last day I finally asked, "So why did you invite me?" We had lots of other friends that would have loved to go.
"You're the only one who could do it," he replied.
Neither of us expounded on that, but it made sense. We made it through the trip unscathed and with no trace of disagreement. Fourteen years later I still feel shaped by that trip. It was proof that shared solitude doesn't necessarily heal all wounds, but it has the power to narrow the chasms.
We met some friends at a coffee shop. Beginning there we returned to our old ways. We ignored each other the rest of the night. We were back at odds.
At least we had the wilderness in common.
Clint Cherepa is a Wisconsinite currently doing volunteer work in Nicaragua.