Having been born in Chicago and raised in L.A., taking a short cut through an alley or across a vacant lot has always been my idea of hiking. And although I saw in “The Yearling” that even wise and noble Gregory Peck could find a good reason to shoot a deer, “Bambi” convinced me that until one of those critters actually threatened to destroy my family’s food supply, my policy would be to live and let live.
My attitude towards camping was equally level-headed. Just as I felt that any six or eight-legged varmint that flew or crawled into our home was fair game, and was just asking to be swatted or squashed, anybody who chose to venture into the wilderness had no one but himself to blame if he got himself mauled or eaten. But you know how it is with peer pressure when you’re fourteen and two of your friends, Steve and Barry, both of whom had scouting experience, suggest venturing into the woods for a couple of days of high adventure. Or, to be more exact, as it turned out, two days and two nights in the bowels of hell.
Frankly, I don’t recall what I expected, but, for openers, I didn’t expect it to be as sweltering as it was. Hot weather and no air-conditioning is not a good combination. Air-conditioning, my favorite invention, by the way, is the one thing that truly separates us from the lower forms of animal life, including the French.
One of the most vivid memories of that camping experience is that from the moment that Steve’s mother dropped us off in the foothills all I wanted was a peach. I had always liked peaches, but no more than apricots or plums. But over the next 48 hours, I craved a peach the way nobody before or since has craved anything. I remember distinctly thinking I would gladly trade my entire baseball card collection for a single ripe peach.
The only sustenance we had were packages of dehydrated food. I had never before had experience with survivor fare. For those of you who have been spared, it is powder to which you add water, thus turning it -- voila! -- into wet powder. The way you distinguish one meal from another is quite simple: you read the label on the package.
The first night in the woods, I found to my surprise I was able to fall asleep quite easily, even though I had never before slept in a sleeping bag or under the stars. At some ungodly hour, I was rudely shaken awake by Steve, who announced in hushed tones that we had to climb onto a large boulder, where, in the moonlight, I could see that Barry was already perched. Annoyed at having my sleep interrupted, I wanted to know what the problem was. “It’s a skunk,” Steve whispered, pointing at a harmless-looking animal standing about a dozen feet away. I told Steve that it wasn’t bothering me, he was. I just wanted to go back to sleep. But he and Barry were so darn insistent, they left me no choice but to join them atop the big rock.
From that vantage point, we got to watch the skunk rooting around in the cardboard box that contained the food packages. Not being able to read the labels, the poor beast had no choice but to tear open half of them. After about ten frustrating minutes, he discovered what I already knew -- namely, that there was nothing even remotely resembling food to be found midst all that tasteless grub. Perhaps because it was my first foray into Mother Nature’s realm, I found it somehow comforting to discover that the skunk and I, coming from two such different worlds, were alike in thinking that if it came down to having to dine on powder, perhaps survival wasn’t such a big deal, after all.
After a while, totally discouraged, he wandered off, I suspect, in search of a peach.
The next day, just when I’d assumed things couldn’t get much worse, as is so often the case, things got much worse, indeed. By a majority vote, it was decided that I’d be the one to go up the hill to the stream that fed the nearby pond to collect a pail of water. So, like Jack without Jill, off I went. Collecting the water was no problem at all. However, as I made my way down the rather steep and narrow path, I heard a sound that stopped me in mid-step. Immediately, I knew it could only be one of two things. It was either Carmen Miranda shaking her maracas or a rattlesnake. Being aware, as I was, that Ms. Miranda never went anywhere without a fruit salad perched on her head, accompanied by six guys strumming guitars, I worked it out by a process of elimination. And elimination was what I figured I was facing.
At first, I was afraid even to call out, terrified that the snake might take offense at a loud noise. Finally, I managed to holler down to my friends that a rattler in the underbrush had me trapped. One of them, as I recall, yelled back what even at the time I regarded as a piece of very sound advice: “Don’t do anything to annoy him.”
It was, as I say, sound advice, and, yet, like most of the advice I’ve ever been given, entirely useless. Clearly, I had already annoyed him. I’d probably awakened him from a sound sleep. And from my own recent experience, I knew just how aggravating that can be. On the other hand, the snake had annoyed me, too -- annoyed me in fact into a state of near-paralysis. I was even afraid to breathe.
In the meantime, maintaining my position on a steep incline while the sun beat down and the pail of water seemed to double in weight every few seconds, reminded me that I could not impersonate a statue indefinitely. I strained to hear him slither away, but so far as I could tell, he, too, had stopped breathing, and was just lying in wait, poised to strike.
Finally, I made a carefully calculated decision. I decided to run as fast as I could, figuring I had the element of surprise on my side. Besides, if worse came to worst, my friends, I assumed, would carry me back to civilization, from whence I silently swore never again to roam.
By the time I safely reached the bottom of the hill, Barry wanted to know what had taken me so long. I couldn’t believe my ears. I exploded: “Did you think I invented that rattlesnake?”
“He only rattled because you’d frightened him. I guarantee he was gone in two seconds.”
“Well, I wish he’d taken a moment to say good-bye.”
The next 24 hours were relatively uneventful. I spent most of the time reminding myself how much I was hating the experience, so that, if, say, 20 years down the road, somebody suggested another such adventure, the first words out of my mouth would be, “I’m sorry. I didn’t really mean to bash you in the head with a baseball bat.”
The oddest thing of all is that the following afternoon, just as the three of us trekked out of the woods to find Steve’s mother waiting for us, I found I didn’t want a peach. I was dying for a hamburger.