Lessons from the Wild

three men hiking into the sunset

A story of misadventure and understanding

The summer sun slanted through the open barn doors, coating the hay and wooden rafters in a golden haze. As I pitched hay, beads of sweat trickled down my neck, and the dusty air carried scents of dry grass and aged leather.

Mike's boots scuffed up small puffs of dust as he ambled in. "Got a call from Beth's boss, that Bill fella." Beth was Mike's girlfriend. He grabbed a canteen and gulped down the water, droplets rolling down his chin. "He wants to hire us to take him camping."

I paused my work, leaning on the pitchfork. "A camping trip? Can't see that guy lasting one night on the hard ground."

Mike chuckled, his amusement echoing through the rafters. "I know, but Beth says he's determined to experience real wilderness, probably just to brag to his office buddies."

I shook my head, my pitchfork piercing the hay again with dull thuds. Our old truck desperately needed repairs we couldn't afford, but babysitting some arrogant city dude didn't sound too appealing, either.

I wondered if an important guy like him would take kindly to being told what to do, especially from a couple of "hayseeds" like us. Though still, the wilderness may teach him some humility. I smiled slightly at the thought.

"We could really use the money for the truck," Mike added, fanning himself with his hat. His forehead glistened with sweat in the afternoon heat.

I scratched my cheek, deep in thought, considering it. As much as I disliked coddling arrogant big shots who thought they knew everything, we did need the cash. "Alright, I suppose we can tolerate one novice for a few days," I reluctantly agreed.

Mike nodded, his grin crinkling the corners of his eyes. "I knew I could convince you." He slapped me on the back. "See you at Mae's Diner tomorrow, 7 am. We'll drive out to the trails from there."

Before leaving the barn, he turned, wrapped his arms around himself, and said in a goofy-sounding voice, "Just the three of us!" I picked up a dusty old rag from the barn floor and threw it at him but missed. I could hear him laughing all the way to his truck.

I hoped this Bill fellow was ready to get his fancy boots dusty and his clothes soaked with sweat. The mountains didn't care if you were a hotshot executive. Out here, you listened to the land, or you wouldn't last long at all.

On our way to the backcountry

A trail leading to the backcountry

Gravel crunched under my boots as I stepped out of my car, a puff of dust swirling up to greet me. Across the parking lot, Mike leaned against his dented pickup, boots scuffing the stones.

"Howdy there," I called out with a wave. Mike tipped his hat in reply. The low purr of an engine made us both turn. A sleek midnight-blue sports car prowled into the lot like a panther. Letting out a low whistle, I watched as Bill unfolded his lanky frame from the driver's seat, straightening his khakis and polo shirt.

"Gentlemen, the great outdoors awaits!" Bill announced, spraying a mist of breath mints. I caught a whiff of his pungent cologne mingling with the scent of sagebrush and creosote.

Inside Mae's Diner, the sizzling aroma of hashbrowns teased my empty stomach. As we wedged into a corner booth, vinyl squeaking beneath us, Bill immediately launched into a boastful monologue, not even pausing as our waitress, Stacy, poured his coffee.

"You know, I just oversaw the purchase of a 20-story corporate building. Italian marble lobby, floor-to-ceiling windows, private elevators to the executive offices..." Bill droned on.

He prattled on about his lavish vacations and country club memberships as I nodded politely, fingers tapping out a beat on the table. Mike's jaw clenched, eyes distant, as he picked at his eggs. I could tell Mike's mind was a thousand miles away.

I jumped in the instant Bill finally paused for breath. "So, done much hiking before?"

"Of course, I'm practically an expert outdoorsman," Bill scoffed through a mouthful of pancakes, syrup droplets hitting me in the eye.

I wiped the syrup off my face and exchanged a skeptical look with Mike across the table. "Well, even experts can benefit from a few tips for first-timers..."

Bill held up a hand, swallowing loudly. "Please. I'm an executive. You think I can't handle a nature walk?" His lips curled in a wry grin.

I sat back with a sigh, realizing our advice would fall on deaf ears. Was it a bad sign that I'd rather be shucking hay in the barn right now? I wondered.

"So, fellas," Bill said, setting down his coffee mug. "We'll take my car to the trailhead. No way I leave it parked here for someone to mess with."

Mike looked perplexed. "We know the owner of this cafe. Your vehicle will be perfectly safe here."

Bill shook his head. "Just the same, I'd rather keep my baby closer. I brought a cover to protect her out there."

We headed to the parking lot, the morning sun beating down. Bill's sleek sports car glinted arrogantly in the harsh light. Mike and I climbed into the buttery leather interior. As Bill turned the key in the ignition, the powerful engine purred to life, and we pulled out onto the dusty backroads.

Bill's fancy car jounced over the deeply rutted dirt road, spewing up plumes of dust like a spooked horse. Bill gripped the ceiling with a scowl at the first bump, his knuckles white. "Jeezus! This car costs more than your barn," he snapped at Mike.

After one especially teeth-rattling pothole that nearly rattled my fillings loose, Mike finally ordered Bill to pull over, having enough of the fancy car's abuse. Glowering like a scolded child, Bill reluctantly swapped places with Mike.

I leaned back and dramatically flung an arm over my eyes, feigning despair. "Are we there yet?" I groaned. Mike chuckled and elbowed me in the ribs. I sat up straight again, unable to keep a grin off my face. Our mighty executive's pricey vehicle was no match for the ruthless backcountry roads.

Finally, the trees parted, revealing our destination up ahead. I breathed an exaggerated sigh of relief. "Uncivilization at last!"

At the trailhead, Bill struggled to lift his overstuffed backpack, grunting with effort. It looked ready to burst at the seams. "You sure you don't want me to carry some of that?" I asked.

"I've got it," Bill grunted, already red-faced and sweating.

I shrugged and headed down the trail after Mike, pine needles and twigs crunching under my boots. Our overburdened friend would have trouble keeping up. But some lessons you just had to learn the hard way.

Further down the trail, I heard the heavy tromp of boots before Bill stumbled into view. His enormous backpack swayed precariously, resembling an overstuffed steamer trunk.

"Last chance to lighten that load," I offered.

"I've got it covered," Bill huffed, mopping his brow.

"Alright, partner, your call." I hid an eye roll and continued down the trail. I'd definitely get my exercise today, doubling back for him. With a shrug of my shoulders, we left Bill in the dust.

A little summer dip to cool off?

River rapids with crystal blue water

We reached a rushing river, its icy spray raising goosebumps on my damp skin as it misted my face. Mike turned to Bill, having to shout over the roaring water. "I'll cross first with a rope. Wait here with Peter." He eyed Bill's bulging backpack doubtfully. "Hand that over. No way you'll make it across carrying that monstrosity."

Bill bristled, his pride pricked. "I don't need a sherpa," he insisted indignantly, clutching his pack tighter.

Mike's patience was shot, and his jaw clenched in frustration. He grabbed the pack roughly from Bill's shoulders with a dull thud. "Give me that thing before it sinks you!" he snapped, his voice nearly drowned out by the raging river. Grumbling under his breath, Bill reluctantly handed it over.

Mike adeptly crossed the churning blue-grey water, the current tugging powerfully at his legs. He tossed the rope back with a flick of his wrist. I pulled it taut, the coarse fibers digging into my palms.

"Take the rope! The current's too strong!" I shouted urgently over the roar, but my warning went unheeded.

"I don't need floaties," Bill dismissed sarcastically, edging towards the water's frothy edge. Before I could stop him, he plunged heedlessly into the racing river with a splash. Instantly the powerful current snatched his feet out from under him. My heart dropped into my stomach as Bill thrashed in the swirling grey water, arms flailing wildly.

"Hang on!" I yelled, leaping into action. Without hesitation, Mike and I crashed into the raging river after him. I gasped as the shocking cold stabbed through me like icy knives.

I battled furiously against the relentless current dragging me under, my soaked clothes weighing me down like lead weights. Bill's head dipped below the foamy surface before he reemerged, sputtering and thrashing. As we reached him, Mike and I each seized one of his arms, yanking back with all our strength.

Bill came up spewing water, his face bone-white and lips tinged blue from the icy water. Working together, we steadily hauled him toward shore, the angry current constantly threatening to tear him away.

With a final firm pull, we dragged ourselves and a shivering Bill from the water's cold grasp onto the rocky bank. Spying slimy dark river weeds tangled in Bill's drenched hair, I barely choked back panicked laughter, giddy with relief.

Racing, foamy river water

"Next time, take the rope," I admonished him wryly, clapping his shaking, soaked back.

Bill looked up at me sheepishly, the slightest hint of a rueful smile touching his blue-tinted lips. "Maybe I should've listened," he admitted begrudgingly, his typical bravado washed away.

"Tricky terrain, eh?" I added lightly.

Bill huffed out a short laugh, shaking his head. "Clearly." Some of the defiance had drained from his eyes.

Though he still wouldn't fully concede we'd been right, I detected a glimmer of humor and humility beginning to break through Bill's usual smug facade.

As the midday sun blistered overhead, I noticed Bill lagging farther and farther behind, his face flushed crimson. I dropped back to check on him.

"How's it going, Bill?"

He huffed, mopping his drenched brow. "Oh, just fine. Enjoying the views."

Bill was struggling, but he wouldn't admit it. At our next break, not wanting to embarrass him, Mike and I pretended our muscles were aching terribly, insisting we rest longer in the shade. Bill gratefully slumped down, although he complained about us being "slackers."

I hid a smile, hoping the day's humbling events were sinking in for our overconfident friend. Out here, you needed to rely on and listen to others, no matter your status or wealth. The wilderness had a way of teaching what really mattered.

At the campsite, finally

Tents nestled into the campsite

It was nearing dusk by the time we reached our campsite, the setting sun staining the sky amber and gold. Mike and I quickly set up our tents, poles clicking into place. Meanwhile, Bill wrestled with his poles and fabric like he was wrangling a steer, eventually becoming hopelessly entangled in the uncooperative fabric.

"Need a hand over there?" I asked, biting my cheek.

"I've got it!" Bill grunted in frustration, practically at war with the collapsed tent.

"I don't mind helping," I offered.

"No," Bill snapped.

Behind me, Mike didn't bother hiding his laughter at Bill's floundering attempts to play wilderness expert. Our executive friend was totally out of his element but refused to accept guidance from a couple of "hayseeds."

As I prepared dinner, the crackling fire warming my skin, Mike wisely stressed the importance of securing leftover food. "We should bury any scraps to keep bears away from camp," he suggested, his face illuminated by flickering firelight.

Bill let out an exaggerated sigh that could be heard across the campsite. "Another quaint cowboy ritual?" he asked sarcastically, poking at the fire with a stick.

I tried explaining that it was crucial backcountry practice for deterring bears, but Bill dismissed me with an impatient wave of his hand. "I'm not digging holes to bury leftovers. I'll be fine."

After eating, I reminded Bill once more to bury or hang his uneaten food, but he brushed me off dismissively. As he unrolled his sleeping bag, I casually approached, making one last attempt.

"Here, let me just quickly take care of your leftovers. I don't mind." I offered in a friendly tone.

Bill recoiled, clutching his pack defensively. "I don't need your help, thanks. You're just trying to make me look stupid."

Whoa. That hit me right in the gut. Had I done that to him? "I've just been trying to help you, Bill."

He pointed to my tent, so I knew the conversation was over. I raised my hands in surrender, knowing further arguing was useless. I shook my head as Bill stubbornly placed his fishy-smelling pack right by his tent entrance, like a steak dinner placed on a bear's front porch.

"That isn't a good idea, Bill," I pointed out, but he ignored me.

"Go to sleep, Peter. We can talk about it in the morning." He abruptly zipped his tent flaps closed.

I settled onto my back in my own tent, too physically spent to do more than briefly hope nothing disturbed us in the night before I passed out cold.

A visitor

a curious bear cub visiting camp

I was startled awake by panicked shrieks that cut through my dreams and turned them into nightmares. My heart pounded as I fumbled to grab my flashlight, the cool plastic slipping slightly in my sweaty grip. With a quick flick, a bright beam pierced the darkness as I peered outside to investigate.

The harsh light illuminated a scene of chaos - a curious young bear cub stood just a few feet from Bill's tent, sniffing at his discarded pack, drawn by the lingering scent of leftover food. Bill thrashed wildly in his sleeping bag inside the nylon walls like a turtle flipped onto its shell.

Exchanging an exasperated look with Mike under the dim, dying firelight, we moved slowly and quietly, cautiously easing ourselves out of our tents. The soft crunch of dried leaves and sticks under our boots barely made a sound.

"Easy now... let's move calm and steady," Mike urged in a hushed voice. We waved our flashlights to create flickering beams and made gentle noises to encourage the curious cub to amble back into the dark forest. Mike exuded steady confidence in the tense situation. Eventually, the cub turned and scampered off on quick paws, its footsteps fading into the distance.

With the immediate threat resolved, I had to suppress an ill-timed laugh. Bill still lay tightly cocooned in his sleeping bag, his chest heaving like he had just sprinted ten miles. His eyes were wide and blinking rapidly, a residual effect of adrenaline and fear.

"All clear," I reassured him in a calming tone. Our woefully underprepared executive had received a crash course in essential wilderness protocols.

As Bill freed himself from his sleeping bag, he avoided meeting my eyes, his face flushed with embarrassment. I knew he felt ashamed by his reaction, though his panic had been a perfectly normal response to an alarming situation.

I grabbed his pack. "I'll dispose of this safely for you, Bill." He nodded.

We all settled back into our tents, but the morning seemed to come faster than usual. Bill emerged looking puffed up like a bullfrog, his face still reddened from the night's excitement. He angrily berated us, shouting loud enough to scatter birds from the trees.

"You cowboys failed to warn me about bears!" he bellowed, spittle flying from his lips.

I took a startled step back, nearly stumbling over Mike's boots. Mike stood rigid as a stump, fists clenched at his sides.

Carefully, I stated, "It was just a curious cub, no harm done."

"Harm done? I could've been killed!" Bill was shouting himself hoarse, face purpling.

I put a steadying hand on Mike's shoulder, feeling his muscles coiled tight as a spring. One careless spark could set him off.

"Hey brother, go gather me some firewood," I said, steering him away before he erupted.

Mike grumbled under his breath but did as I asked, boots stomping into the ground harder than necessary. Once he was out of earshot, I turned to Bill, keeping my voice level and calm.

"Why don't you grab some water while I take down the tents? We all need to just...simmer down."

Bill's nostrils flared, but he snatched up his canteen and retreated to the trees without another word. I stood by the tents and looked up at the cloudless sky, breathing deeply to soothe my fried nerves.

Later, while dousing the fire, I heard a commotion. Bill was stuffing gear aggressively into his pack, nostrils still flared wide.

"Where you off to?" I asked lightly.

"I'm leaving," he huffed. "Don't need cowboy escorts now."

Before I could respond, he turned and marched off alone into the forest. I slumped against a tree, disheartened. "I knew this trip was a mistake. Should've trusted my instincts," I muttered.

"Keep your chin up," Mike said. "His pride will fade once his fancy shoes get soaked. Let's wait here until he comes back."

Lost in the wilderness

Full moon over the mountains at night

An ominous stillness fell over the forest as the afternoon faded toward evening. No cocky laughter or off-key whistling echoed from the trees - only the worried creases lining Mike's face mirrored my own growing dread.

"It's been hours since Bill charged off in a huff," I finally said, voicing our shared concern. "His temper should've cooled by now. He ought to have been back."

Mike nodded grimly, prodding the fire with a long stick. "You're right. Something's wrong. Bill may act as big as a grizzly, but he's got the wilderness know-how of a baby bunny."

"And night's coming quick," I added, glancing at the shadows already stretching across our camp like dark fingers. "His chances out there alone after dark..." I trailed off, stomach twisting as I imagined the worst.

Mike's jaw tightened with resolve. "Then we head out now. Won't do him any good if we sit here twiddling our thumbs any longer."

With a last weary glance at the darkening forest, we moved briskly to gather our gear, spurred to action. That foolhardy hothead's life was on the line. And though he'd scorned our assistance, we couldn't abandon him to the unforgiving dangers lurking in the indifferent wilderness.

As daylight faded fast, shadows engulfed the rugged canyon walls like an approaching tide. Our "Bill!" shouts echoed unanswered through the stillness, save for the nerve-wracking shriek of circling hawks.

I scoured the rocky trails, squinting as the last weak rays of sun slipped behind distant peaks. We were about to turn back, defeated, when Mike called out.

"Here, look!" He pointed to trampled brush and disturbed dirt leading away from camp. "He went this way."

We followed the sporadic boot prints and signs of smashed vegetation that marked Bill's erratic path. He clearly had no idea where he was going, weaving recklessly through the backcountry.

The trail disappeared into a dark, wooded ravine. I was peering down the steep slope when Mike shouted from up ahead. He'd spotted a flash of color through the trees - Bill's signature navy jacket!

We scrambled down to find Bill crumpled in a small clearing, clutching his bloody leg with a grimace. His torn jeans revealed an angry, ragged cut on his shin. Scrapes marred his hands, and a branch lay snapped in two nearby.

"Must've fallen and cut it on those rocks," Mike deduced, examining the injury. "Doesn't look too deep, at least."

Bill grimaced, face pale. "Tripped over that damn root and went tumbling down. Landed hard on those sharp stones." He gestured to the bloodied grey rocks surrounding him.

Working swiftly as the muted light faded fast from the sky, Mike and I bandaged Bill's gashed leg using supplies from the emergency kit. Bill grimaced but, for once, didn't complain or push us away.

With Mike supporting Bill under one shoulder and me under the other, we slowly guided our injured companion up the rocky trail exiting the ravine. Darkness had fallen entirely now, the jagged walls around us lost to inky shadow. Mike's flashlight danced ahead, lighting scattered patches of uneven ground. I kept my eyes glued to the dim trail so we didn't lose our footing.

I glanced at Bill's tense, pale face. He looked drained but determined now, arms gripping Mike and me tightly as if we were his lifeline. And I suppose we were. But together, we'd make it back.

We moved as quickly as we could, half-dragging Bill along between us. He winced with each hopping step but didn't utter a complaint. Somewhere far beyond lurked our campfire's beacon.

Pausing to catch our labored breath, I met Mike's eyes in the flashlight glow and saw my profound relief mirrored there. "Almost home," I said, squeezing Bill's shoulder encouragingly. He managed a weak but grateful smile. Enveloped by the silent darkness, we were finding our way forward step by step.

After what felt like an eternity of stumbling slowly through pitch-black wilderness, our small circle of light finally illuminated a welcome sight - the clearing we'd chosen for our camp. The campfire's flames welcomed us back.


A blazing orange campfire

Bill sank onto a log by the newly built fire, the tension seeming to drain from his body. "I had no clue where I was or how to get out," he admitted softly, staring into the flickering flames.

"Well, good thing you hired a couple experienced fellas to get you out of that scrape," I said, giving him a gentle, forgiving wink.

Bill managed a small, sheepish smile in return. He watched the dancing flames silently, the day's sobering events playing across his weary face. I could see the hard lessons of the wilderness churning in his mind. There would be time to reflect more after rest and a hot meal.

Meanwhile, Mike knelt to examine the cut on Bill's leg, brow furrowed in focus. "It's ragged but just needs cleaning and fresh wrapping," he reported after a moment. I quickly gathered the first aid supplies and helped Mike redress the injury.

As Mike carefully tended to Bill's leg, I prepared some coffee and food, the rich aromas lifting our sagging spirits. Bill sat up straighter when I offered him a steaming mug, murmuring his thanks.

Huddled around the crackling fire with mugs of coffee and plates of food, Bill shook his head as if emerging from a stupor. "Don't know what I was thinking, going off alone like that."

"Clearly, you weren't thinking at all," I responded lightly, giving him a playful nudge.

"Suppose you're right," Bill acknowledged with a light laugh. "But no more. I've learned my lesson the hard way."

"We all stumble sometimes," said Mike kindly, his eyes glinting in the firelight. "Main thing is we found you."

"Well, thank you again. And I'm truly sorry for how I acted," Bill said earnestly, meeting our eyes with sincerity.

I poured more coffee into his mug and clapped his shoulder. "We're sorry too, Bill. I'm not proud of some things I said either."

Bill nodded thoughtfully and drank from his replenished mug. It had been a long, difficult day that challenged us all physically and mentally. But what was done was done; no use dwelling on past trials. What mattered now was getting rest and looking ahead with wiser eyes.

As we sat there together, I realized maybe, after everything, the three of us could move forward as friends. Bill had gained some humility and perspective. At first, we struggled to contain our frustration with his arrogance. But our instincts led us to aid him in his hour of need. Seeing his vulnerability up close reminded us that even know-it-alls are human.

We could put aside our differences if he was willing to meet us halfway. We wouldn't ridicule his mistakes, however tempting. That would only push him away. We resolved to meet ignorance with understanding; anger would only breed more anger.

Miles were left to hike on this trip, and I hoped we'd be walking them as a team from here on out. The wilderness reminded us we're more alike than different deep down. Bill wasn't so unlike us, after all. We'd all do foolish things when pride overrules good sense. With effort from all of us, I was optimistic for the future. Over the years since, Bill's become a good friend, joining us on many more camping trips. 

The following morning, as we headed for the trail home, I took one last look over my shoulder at the little clearing that had taught us so much. We left that campsite a bit wiser and a little kinder, ready to lead future newcomers with patience and grace. The wilderness humbled us, then brought us together. =]:)

Mountain trail leading out of the backcountry

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  1. I have a lot of respect for your patience, Peter
    As always, I thoroughly enjoyed your story

    1. Ha! I'm not always patient! Thanks so much for reading it! I really do appreciate it. :)


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