|Carole Latimer is prepping for the wilderness at a trailhead in the southern Sierra Nevada. Before her sits an organizational challenge commensurate with her stature as a cuisiniere en plein air and the Martha Stewart of gracious camping. She's putting together food, fuel, and cooking gear for a six-day, six-person backpacking trip that will top out on the 14,494-foot summit of Mount Whitney, and right now her staging area looks like an Outward Bound plane crash—dinged and scorched cookware, Nalgene bottles, Ziplocs within Ziplocs. The matériel commingles with a foods-of-the-world Pile of Babel, from poblano peppers to wasabi paste. For three hours, Latimer walks and crawls around the wreckage, organizing ingredients for breakfasts, multi-course dinners, and snacks. All told, she has about 70 pounds of dunnage that she and her group must divvy up and add to their packs. In skinny air on steep trails, every little superfluity will hurt. On the other hand, a missed must-have could kill: Leave behind the nori or the sticky rice and you can forget about sushi night.
Latimer works with peevish focus, but then suddenly she's ready, shouldering an enormous external frame pack. A smile slices her cheeky apricot-colored face and she dances onto the trail. "I love it!" she yells. "God, I love it!" What she loves, among other things, is weight on her back. "I'm the reincarnation of a mule," she says.
She also adores leading pilgrims into the Sierras with a load of grande luxe comestibles. Latimer occupies a singular position in the outdoors: For 22 years she has pushed back the limits of backcountry deliciousness through her Berkeley-based guiding company Call of the Wild, which specializes in all-women trips. But she doesn't mind taking me and another Y-chromosomer on this outing, a recapitulation of her standard Whitney hike. We're taking a roundabout, scenery-maximized backside approach to the top of the mountain. We'll cover about 42 miles, with one goof-around day at a particularly gorgeous campsite. Whitney's role, as Latimer explains it, is to provide incentive as well as aesthetics. "I think it's good to have a goal," she says. But the goal's goal is sybaritic delight. And I'm getting hungry.
OK, I am un-wowed by the thai tom yum soup on our first night in the backcountry. The problem is not the soup but psychic displacement. I don't know where I am yet and compare Latimer's tom yum to restaurant fare. But then, after a few day's hiking, Latimer flips me and everybody else to the 33rd level of gustatory bliss with her salmon on toast points.
It doesn't hurt that the campsite is as good as the hors d'oeuvres. We're in a 9,600-foot valley in a copse of pines between a trout stream and a glistening meadow. The group stands around the maestra, who kneels in pine duff, browning slices of bread in a banged-up frying pan over an itty-bitty camp stove. She cuts the toast into dainty triangles, smears on the salmon and offers them around. The first bite is oral Fantasia. The smoked fish swims to heaven while Holsteins sing the cream-cheese chorus and herbs and minced green onion go off like fireworks. The toast—pain grille, really—makes the whole business too too. The contradiction between here-and-now and what we're eating opens a toothsome rent in reality. Latimer seems to be having even more fun than we are. "I like the element of surprise, of turning people on," she says. "Cooks are egoists. They love the praise they get."
Latimer's ego can dine hugely on us, who praise her nonstop. Most of our meals are straight out of her 1991 book, Wilderness Cuisine, which is a woods-foodie standard. She doesn't mind sharing unpublished recipes, which seem too simple to be such knockouts. The salmon spread, for instance, is just cream cheese stirred up with a piece of vacuum-packed fish and a bit of dill and onion. Anybody could do it, except, of course, most of us wouldn't bother, much less follow it with a romaine salad perfectly dressed with rice-wine vinegar (Latimer tosses ours in a plastic grocery sack patched with duct tape), and then pesto over angel hair and fresh-baked brownies.
Like Alfred Hitchcock, who mapped out every camera shot on storyboards ahead of time, Latimer mentally rehearses each of her evening meals. "I have only a limited number of pots and stuff," she says. "I start planning my dinner out in my head. Exactly, step by step, what I'm going to do." Latimer has devised a battery of shortcuts and weight-saving gadgetry. She travels sans water filter, killing microbes with tincture of iodine (ten drops per liter of water) then killing off the medicine flavor with powdered ascorbic acid. The Latimer-signature backpackers' cupboard/dish drainer consists of a 3 by 4-foot piece of nylon window screen folded in half and pinned to a line strung horizontally between two trees. Dishes dry quickly in it, and they're easy to keep track of. She also carries a smaller piece of screen which multitasks as a colander, salad spinner, and scouring pad.
During our layover day, Latimer cranks the backwoods-comfort meter up to ten. She leads her group to a nearby waterfall, where she proffers chevre and sun-dried tomatoes. The high point, from her end, is finding wild watercress to garnish the plate just so. "I'm having fun now!" she enthuses. But she also finds time to loll with her back against a tree. Just sitting in the sun, Latimer fosters an illusion that follows her through the trip: Somewhere, just out of sight, she has her own secret resort hotel, because she looks too good to be camping. She sports the same synthetic fuzz and techno-cloth as the rest of us, but she wears it with more flair and a few extras—scarf, silver earrings, lipstick. Grooming, she says, is part of the disciplined attention to one's own needs that can mean survival. "Where are you going to draw the line, if you let yourself go?" she demands. "Are you going to let yourself get cold? Is it going to be no lipstick? I mean, where's the line?"
I can't imagine what the guy-equivalent of lipstick might be, but I'm with her—it's treacherous to cross the slob line. And I can't help but notice how the survival/fashion gear flatters her. Latimer is good to sit next to; brown-eyed, with an arsenal of smiles and a low, precise voice with an accentless twang. If a puma had her own radio show, she'd sound like Latimer. Rrrrrow. At 55, she doesn't play tricks with artificial youth. She's just an all-American babe with crow's-feet and decades of windburn. She's also a fifth-generation daughter of the Sierra foothills, raised in Placerville, California, a couple of hundred miles northwest of where we sit. Childhood backpacking trips with her father taught Latimer that camping is eating. "We had biscuits and eggs and salad with Thousand Island dressing. And bacon. And trout, golden trout," she rhapsodizes. Her food is a contemporized throwback. It's also a protest against what she calls "Sierra Club nerds" who make camping into something anal-compulsive and meager. Ultralight fetishism particularly gets on her nerves. Says Latimer, sounding as if she'd like to biff it out with a nerd right now, "There are plenty of hard-core people who carry heavy packs."
Latimer confides something about mount whitney: it might be the tallest peak in the Lower 48, but it's not the apogee of our trip. "The goal is the garbage-bag bath," she says. There's no way to know if she's right during the bath itself, because it happens three days before we summit. But the post-trip view bears her out. Whitney is this great big, you know, mountain. There's nothing all that surprising up there—at least not on the scale of a packable solar-heated spa.
Spread a ground cloth 300 feet from a water source where the sun can shine unobstructed for at least four hours. Set out two extra-large black garbage bags and fill with six gallons of water apiece. (Tie the bags loosely shut while filling to prevent spills.) Close the bags and leave the sun to do its work. When the bags are warm, it's bath time. Use one bag to wash, the other to rinse.
The water in my bag is more tepid than hot, but things start to get miraculous when I sit in it, pull the plastic up to chest level, and remember backcountry baths past. Where are the goose bumps, the screaming from ice-water shock? How come I don't want to run to the sleeping bag and go into fetal position? The bath is so not-horrible that there's time to sink into it, to splash and look around at the meadow, the trees on the far side, the mountains over the trees. In five minutes the garbage bag is kicking the ass of every outdoor spa in the West. Here, in a sack of Sierra bathwater, is the entire Camping-with-Carole-Latimer experience: It could be miserable, except she's figured out a way to make it more like a week at Canyon Ranch.
Speaking of which, isn't this sushi night?
Without a stick of butter, a whole onion, and a clove of garlic, your camp food is mere nutrition. As the French, and Madame Latimer, say, onion marries flavors. Consider butter and garlic the best man and maid of honor. They give earthy authenticity to freeze-dried dishes, so much so you'll forget that dinner came out of foil packets. Double-Ziploc the onion and garlic, and whittle as needed; keep the butter in a wide-mouth Nalgene jar. Don't even consider margarine or powdered onion or garlic, they're an insult to glorious realité.—M.S.
AND TO REALLY DO IT RIGHT:
Asian noodles. Soak in hot water and you've got pasta.
Tang and dark rum. Mix four ounces rum to one packet of the orangy insta-drink. Commence cocktail hour.
Coleman Peak One Feather 442 Stove ($55; 800-835-3278)
Opinel Folding Knife Model OP-8 ($11; 303-462-0662)
North Manitou Island, Michigan: White-sand beaches and protected bird habitats encourage lollygagging on this piney isle. Contact: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 231-326-5134.
MORE PARADISE FOUND
Big Bend National Park, Texas: Where the Rio Grande slices through 1,500-foot canyons, the ragged Chisos Mountains rise up sharply from the desert, and seldom is heard a discouraging word. Contact: Big Bend National Park, 915-477-2251.
Dempster Highway, Yukon and Northwest Territories: One of only three roads in North America that cross the Arctic Circle, its 451 miles of gravel are a choice jumping-off point for tundra exploration. Just watch out for hungry, omnivorous grizzlies. Contact: Tourism Yukon, 867-667-5340.
Sycamore Canyon, Arizona: Hot, rugged, peaceful, this is a miniature version of the Grand Canyon—minus the RV parade. Contact: Kaibab National Forest, 520-635-8200.
Gulf Islands, British Columbia: Tucked in a sunny pocket off soggy Vancouver Island, these wooded islets are a refuge for those seeking splendid isolation.Contact: Tourism British Columbia, 800-663-6000.
"People don't realize how much dead space there is in a pack. You learn to stuff the pots with food and squirrel away the cheese."
"I did start to consume a bit of Mountain Dew towards the end. Other than that, I guess I'm naturally full of energy. Fourteen hours a day was not that hard."
—MARK HARVEY, AUTHOR OF THE NATIONAL OUTDOOR LEADERSHIP SCHOOL WILDERNESS GUIDE
—PETE PALMER, FASTEST-EVER THROUGH-HIKER ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL: 48 DAYS, 20 HOURS
Outside correspondent Mike Steere profiled GoLite, an ultralight camping-gear startup, in the December 1999 issue.