Would You Be My Expedition Partner?

At exactly this time one year ago, I found myself in what would be a year-long collegiate pursuit. I never intended to go back to school for an entire year, one class just led to another, and then another, and by the time they hand you a diploma, you’ve nearly forgotten those early classes – the ones that helped develop the curiosity that kept you in the program in the first place.

Last week I stumbled upon a 3-ring binder from one of those first classes. It included a notebook, class handouts and a page divider for tests and projects. The notebook contained nary one note in all of its 150 sheets of paper. The page dividers divided not one test or project. You see, this class was all about hiking: Land Based Activities I.

There were tests and quizzes alright. One test question in particular simply read, “Cotton ________.” Being a newly informed outdoor professional, I knew the answer was that under no circumstance were any of your outdoor gear to be made from this horribly inappropriate material, but the one word to summarize this rule escaped me. Finally, I filled in the blank, “Cotton    sucks  .” My answer was not marked wrong.

We learned to build campfires on top of garbage bags, and spent an entire afternoon tossing bear bags over every tree limb we could find. We gave each other presentations on the principles of Leave No Trace and went shopping for the gear we would like to have…. if money were no object. And, along the way I learned some valuable life lessons. Lessons that may or may not have meant anything to my 20-something classmates, but at 55 years young they were invaluable reminders of how I should be living my life.

Among my notebook were five handouts, including this one on Expedition Behavior: The Finer Points (by Howard Tomb):

Rule #1: Get the hell out of bed.

Suppose your tentmates get up early to fetch water and fire up the stove while you lie comatose in your sleeping bag. Last night you were their buddy, now they’re drawing up a list of things about you that make them want to spit. They will devise cruel punishments for you. You have earned them. The team concept is now defunct. Had you gotten out of bed, nobody would have had to suffer.

Rule #2: Do not be cheerful before breakfast.

Some people wake up perky and happy as fluffy bunny rabbits. They put stress on those who wake up mean as rabid wolverines. Exhortations such as “Rise and shine, sugar!” and “Greet the dawn, pumkin!” have been known to provoke pungent expletives from rabid wolverine types. These curses, in turn, may offend fluffy bunny types. Indeed, they are issued with the sincere intent to offend. Thus, the day begins with flying fur and hurt feelings. The best early morning behavior is simple: be quiet.

Rule #3: Do not complain.

About anything. Ever. It’s ten below zero, visibility is four inches and wind driven hailstones are embedding themselves in your face like shotgun pellets. Must you mention it? Your pack weighs 87 pounds and your cheap backpack straps are – surprise!, surprise! – cutting into your flesh. Were you promised a personal sherpa? Did somebody cheat you out of a mule team? If you can’t carry your weight, get a motorhome.

Rule #4: Learn to cook at least one thing right.

One expedition trick is so old that it is no longer amusing: on the first cooking assignment, the clever cook prepares a dish that resembles, say Burnt Socks in Toxic Waste Sauce. The cook hopes to be relieved permanently from cooking duties. Tricks are not a part of a team spirit. If you don’t cook, offer to wash dishes and prepare the one thing you know how to cook – even if it’s only tea.

Rule #5: Either A) shampoo, or B) do not remove your hat for any reason.

After a week or so on the trail, without shampooing, hair forms angry little clumps and wads. These leave the person beneath looking like an escapee from a mental ward. Such an appearance could shake a team’s confidence in your judgment. If you can’t shampoo, pull a wool hat down over your ears and leave it there, night and day, for the entire expedition.

Rule #6: Do not ask if anybody’s seen your stuff.

Experienced adventurers have systems for organizing their gear. One of the most damning things you can do is ask your tentmate if they’ve seen the tent poles you thought you packed 20 miles ago. Even in the unlikely event you get home alive, you will not be invited on the next trip. Should you ever leave the tent poles 20 miles away, do not ask if anybody’s seen them. Simply announce with a good-natured chuckle, that you are about to set off in the dark on a 40-mile hike to retrieve them, and that you are sorry. It’s unprofessional to lose your spoon or your toothbrush. If something like that happens, don’t mention it to anyone.

Rule #7: Never ask where you are.

If you want to know where you are, look at the map. Try to figure it out yourself. If you A) suspect that a mistake has been made; and B) have experience in interpreting topographical maps, and C) are certain that your group leader is a novice or on drugs, speak up. Otherwise, follow the group like a sheep.

Rule #8: Always carry more than your fair share.

When the trip is over, would you rather be remembered as a rock or a sissy? Keep in mind that a pound or two of extra weight in your pack won’t make your back hurt any more than it already does. In any given group of flatlanders, somebody is bound to bicker about their weight. When an argument begins, take the extra weight yourself. Then shake your head and gaze with pity upon the slothful one.

Rule #9: Do not get sunburned.

Sunburn is not only painful and unattractive, it’s also an obvious sign of inexperience.

Rule #10: Do not get killed.

The worst thing to have on your outdoor resume is a list of the possible locations of your body.

All expedition behavior really flows from this one principle: think of your team, the beautiful machine, first. You are merely a cog in that machine. If you have something to prove, forget about joining an expedition. Your team will never have more than one member.