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Beer March

Or, knowing when to say when.

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We certainly didn't start our day with the intention of walking 17 miles under full backpacks. It's not our idea of a good time. But most days don't go the way you expect when you first wake up -- and really, that's a good thing. If my first thought of each day were fulfilled, I would rarely leave the bed.

On this day, the fourth of a five-day backpacking trip in the Absoraka Wilderness of Wyoming, the original plan was to go nine miles, dropping 3,000 feet and winding up in a sprawling meadow where we had camped on the first night. Eight miles past that was the car, but we had plenty of food and the weather was nice, so what was the rush? We slept in, had a nice breakfast, and started walking around 10.

About a half-mile out, my brain started doing what it always does when I'm hauling a 50-pound pack up or down a mountain: It started thinking about something else -- in this case, not walking up or down a hill with a 50-pound pack. I did the math and figured that at our usual two-mph pace, we'd make camp by 2 or 3 p.m. (plenty of time to lounge around the meadow) maybe catch a fish for dinner, then crawl into the tent and talk about what a fine way this was to end a fine trip.

Then another thought crept into my head: If we're in camp at 2 p.m., and we make two mph, we could be back at the car at 6 p.m. And 6 p.m. isn't even dark. And with a car we could get to a bed, a beer, and a pizza.

As soon as I saw the image of a cold beer sitting next to a thick, hot pizza, nothing about a fish or a tent or a meadow made any sense anymore. I let the thought slip out. "You know, if we're gonna make camp by 2 p.m. " But John was already there. "We could have pizza and beer by 7 p.m.," he said. And so the die was cast. We would do the Beer March.

Like most bad ideas, this one started out with much enthusiasm. We booked it for a couple miles, then stopped to rest. We lingered at a stream crossing, then felt rushed because it was noon and we were behind schedule. And the trail was anything but flat. We had to go up and out of the valley, over the ridge, down the other side, over another ridge into another valley, on and on, but always walking. The walking quickly became our job, which of course means all the fun was out of it. Two o'clock came and went, and we didn't make the meadow. I thought about giving up the march, but being a 20-something male in the company of another 20-something male, I didn't say anything.

I had a bag of M&Ms that I would dip into occasionally, and since my body was getting stressed, I was at the mercy of the candy. I would eat a handful, become intensely thirsty, get a rush that felt like I'd been plugged into a car battery, hike like a jackrabbit, then crash hard, get a headache, get thirsty again, feel sleepy, and want more M&Ms -- all within about three minutes. I was losing it, one bite at a time.

We rolled past the meadow at 3:45 p.m. and didn't say a word. Thinking about it now is like watching a cheap horror flick: "For God's sake, stop at the meadow!"

Somewhere around 6 p.m., I felt exhausted and weak, so John gave me some beef jerky to get salt back into my system. A minute after I ate it, I felt a film develop over my body and I became jumpy. I slammed some Gatorade and -- what the hell -- knocked back another handful of M&Ms. I got going again, so well that I started getting blisters. But I didn't care.

By this point, John and I were sort of chanting, sing-songy, a little mantra that went "Pizza and beer, and beer, and pi-I-I-I-za." There were no campsites between the meadow and the car, and there was no turning back.

We stumbled. We cursed. We laughed and cried. The sun went down. We lost track of the time, the miles, the fatigue, the pain. We became delirious -- literally. At one point I stopped to rest, hands on my knees and too tired to even pull out my water bottle, and when I stood up again I almost fell over. Then I couldn't remember which way to go, and I had to call John for help.

We were hiking by starlight, but I'm sure I went off the trail a few times. All I knew was that the car was at the end of the valley we were in, and I could make out the ridges in the dark, so I aimed between them and just walked.

I caught up with John at one point, and he was whimpering. I asked if he was okay, and without a word, he lifted his flashlight, aimed it ahead of us, and I caught the reflection of a license plate. My first thought was that better be our car, because I'm sure as hell driving it out of here. When we got in the car, it was 9:39 p.m.

We had our pizza and beer in town, and I guess it was worth it, but it was a couple of days before I could walk right. So let me give you some advice: If you ever have a decision to make, don't ask a 20-something male for his opinion, and if there's a meadow you can possibly stop in, do so.

E-mail: paul@paulgerald.com

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