Outside magazine, June 1995
Jack (not his real name) is between jobs. This has allowed him to become something of an expert on last-minute weekend camping trips. What Jack has, and you workaday wage slaves don't, is time, and plenty of it. That's not to say that any gainfully employed adult can't pull off the quick escape as gracefully--it just takes a bit more stealth. And patience. Remember, Jack's had time to practice sliding his tent poles into the tent's stuffsack without leaving the tips exposed. Don't expect to perfect the drill as quickly as he has.
Jack can shop the affordable grocery first (aspirin, Tabasco) and then progress to the healthy grocery for items that the affordable doesn't carry (Ginseng Sunrise all-natural energy bars, banana chips). Jack can weigh the pros and cons of bringing a stove and select entrées accordingly, stocking noodles and low-salt soup mixes if we opt to bring the stove, cereal and cheeses if we don't. If need be, Jack can then do a dry run with the stove to make sure the valve isn't clogged and the infernal contraption will stay lit. Of course, his pack is always ready to ship out on a moment's notice. Jack can add or subtract last-minute items to or from the pack propped in the closet by his front door, but he's already loaded the basics: sleeping bag, socks, headlamps, playing cards, toilet paper, ground cloth.
Jack can procure maps. If he suspects we won't make it into the backcountry our first night, he can call to reserve a national-forest campsite (800-280-CAMP). Yes, it's wimpy, but it gets us closer to a trailhead on Saturday than a morning departure from the city would. While I'm still devising my plan to bail from work early on Friday, Jack is phoning the forest's ranger station to see whether and where backcountry camping is allowed. If we're heading to a national park, Jack knows the rules and calls by Thursday to secure us a Friday-night site (800-365-2267).
Once we're on the road, I assume some responsibility. It's my job to read maps and direct us to our designated site. Sure, I'm a little inquisitive while Jack drives: Jack, did you bring the waterproof matches? Do you have enough moleskin for me? Just to eliminate worry variables, we didn't pack extra clothing (underwear, socks, and raingear excepted) or cleaning accoutrements beyond soap and toothpaste. Jack recalls from his working days that best-selling novels may hinge on a single error--the abandoned glove, the smudged topo map. But the farthest we ever got from the car in a day was 15 miles in fair weather, so our errors aren't consequential. We forgot the ground cloth once. We lived. Jack forgot his raingear once. I was fine.
On top of my en route duties, I direct on-site social activities. As the sun sets, some campers' fancies turn to alcohol. Whiskey is the classic choice, but Jack, provider of all providers, has been known to haul a flagon of Bordeaux. After dark, I regale him with plot lines to episodes of The Simpsons and entertain him with lilting airs on my harmonica (Hohner puts the music to "When the Saints Go Marching In" in every box). We also favor Indian poker, in which bets are made off the four cards in your hand, plus the one stuck face out--with either spit or the band of your headlamp--on your forehead. No money changes hands, of course, just favors, i.e., anything that involves getting out of a warm sleeping bag in the cold and dark. Jack invariably wins, but back in my bag, I take comfort in the fact that he's had all week to perfect his game face.
Elizabeth Royte, a frequent contributor to Outside, is fresh off a seamless last-minute trip to Joshua Tree with "Jack."