The first time I heard the word "bushwhack," I was watching leotard-wearing skinheads prance about on WWF. Older, wiser and forcibly weaned from cable television, I know now that bushwhacking was around long before the 1980s. Webster's offered these smart little meanings: "To make one's way through thick woods by cutting away bushes and branches; To travel through or live in the woods; To fight as a guerrilla in the woods."
All three conjure images of hacking at banana leaves and camouflaged thugs with a blood-stained machete, but the most telling element is listed as a synonym: "To attack suddenly from a place of concealment; see 'ambush.'"
On a balmy Saturday morning, the boy began a slow ambush disguised as a spontaneous weekend trip. The night before, he had spent hours using Google Earth, an Internet feature that allows you to look at any location on the planet as a satellite image overlaid with a topographic map. We wanted to go backpacking in entirely new country, and the boy saw this as his chance to test my definition of "roughing it."
What about the time we camped in snow flurries and driving rain for five days in Stanley? Did I ever complain? Well, maybe a little, but overall I think I'm a pretty tough chick. Overall, the boy agrees, but he must have thought I'd chicken out if he explained the truth about this "hike."
"Honey, why is it so far away from the others?" I asked as he pointed to the line on the computer screen that was to be our "trail."
"Well, it doesn't go all the way to the lake," he said, hurriedly adding "but we'll only have to bushwhack at the very end." There was that word--bushwhack. Somehow I knew this was going to get interesting.
With dehydrated cheesecake, rain ponchos, fly rods, whiskey and other necessities crammed in our packs, we loaded the dogs into the truck and drove the winding highway to Deadwood. The weather was gorgeous, so gorgeous that I left my boots behind in favor of river shoes and an old pair of Nikes, should the need arise.
The trailhead was pristine, cupped in a lush meadow of wildflowers and tall grasses. About three miles in, we came to a stop by a foot bridge. "Here's where we start breaking trail," said the boy. I was a bit surprised considering the bushwhacking was supposed to be minimal, but things had gone all right so far. Then he pointed up a blackened hill covered with ruined trees and beyond--seemingly hundreds of miles--to the mountain that cradled our lake. My eyes bulged. When I pulled out my tennis shoes, it was the boy's turn to balk. "Where are your boots?" he asked calmly. I explained that I thought this was going to be a relaxed sort of thing, one-day in, one-day out, easy. His shoulders sagged as he saw me pull on cotton ankle socks--the kiss of death.
The GPS (global positioning system) said five miles total. We had already gone three. After crossing a stream with a swift current and jagged rocks, sinking in burned earth and tumbling over treacherous stumps, trudging along a desolate ridge with the sun beating down, chopping through overgrown nettles and taking out spider webs with our faces while being feasted upon by biting flies and mosquitoes, I wondered if the boy had meant to use the metric system. I had been grumbling obscenities under my breath for miles. Yes, miles.
"How much further?" I hissed, nursing a flesh wound inflicted by a particularly nasty sapling. Indicating his trusty GPS, the boy assured me we were less than two miles away from water, shelter and food--the basic necessities of life that had been ripped from me for the last six hours. He was infuriatingly optimistic, even though it felt like we had been two miles away all afternoon. Then he uttered the dreaded words "as the crow flies."
Making like a crow (albeit a sickly one), I pulled myself inch-by-inch up what can only be called a cliff. The boy swore the lake was on the other side. One thought ran through my mind: If it's there, I'm going to live. If not, I'll kill him. What I saw at the edge stirred an impossible mixture of ecstasy and doom. There was the lake, but it looked like a drop of water at the bottom of a volcano. We were hundreds of feet above it, and the only way down was a hillside of loose shale and struggling shrubbery pitched at an angle appropriate for a freestyle ski jump.
In a choose-your-own-adventure book, this would be where you give up and start over. Not having this option, we slid down the ravine, me without ankle support or the will to live and the boy with 40 pounds on his back and a bum shoulder. Somehow, someway (after 1 minute and 28 seconds of crying), we made it to the bottom where a group of rosy-cheeked J.Crew models were toasting marshmallows. Across the mountain we saw a trail snaking to some unknown trailhead. I looked at the boy and said, "I don't care where it goes. Tomorrow, I'm going that way."
So after four servings of beef stew, a little fishing and a few hours of sleep on lumpy ground, we took the trail. Nine miles and umpteen blisters later, my "easy way" turned out to be one of the steepest, longest, rockiest mothers I've ever tackled. We hiked for hours without water, half-carrying our exhausted dogs to the trailhead. What happened from there is another story involving trespassing, a minivan and a girl named Whip ...
In the end, we traveled 16 miles, 10 in the wrong direction. My entire body was covered with dirt, sweat, blood and bruises, my hips and collarbones rubbed raw, but there was a feeling of weary triumph as we lunched on smoked oysters and dry saltines by Deadwood Reservoir. The struggle made the reward that much sweeter. Maybe next time, I won't cry at all.