Girls in the wilderness: Lessons from dirt and cold |

Girls in the wilderness: Lessons from dirt and cold

by Pat Devereux
Appeal Staff Writer

We all know the great American myth of “Men Bonding in the Wilderness” by camping, hunting and fishing. Now, more and more women are realizing that friendships forged during outdoor activities can be the most rewarding. Here is my story:

Thirty-seven years ago, Jane and I, aged 18 and 15, met on our first backpacking trip, a joint Sierra Club-Girl Scout venture. The leader was an ambitious young man climbing up the Berkeley Sierra Club pantheon by hitting up first one and then the other daughter of a club guru.

The backpack leader was in his element surrounded by a gaggle of adoring teen-age girls – except for me and Jane. We took one look at his little ego trips and thought “Jeez, what a jerk!”

The kicker was when he announced, “Oh, you girls go ahead and skinny-dip. Just think of me as your big brother.” Jane and I exchanged a look, rolled our eyes, then proceeded to make life hell for him – while cementing a lifetime friendship.

We took two or three backpack trips later that summer with young men friends, then dispensed with the boys altogether and started roaming the Sierra alone. (Yeah, I hear the gasp from all of you moms. No one would let her teen daughter do that now; more’s the pity.)

Despite admonitions that “You girls will never make it!” we once went in for a week to a lake out of Yosemite, to a pasture that Jane’s Sonora relatives had driven their horses up to for many summers.

We were blissfully happy dayhiking, skinny-dipping while getting hellacious sunburns, and reading melodramatic stories to each other from an ancient Redbook magazine we had unearthed while sitting in the double-seater outhouse.

In 1984, we took our first overseas trip, to explore the ruins of Peru. We backpacked the famed Inca Trail – 35 miles in four days, three of which it poured rain – struggling over a 14,000-plus-foot pass in a snowstorm, which we later learned was appropriately named “Dead Woman Pass.” I had developed a serious bronchial infection, and Jane kept me alive each night with Benadryl and tea made from coca leaves.

Our next Latin American adventure was exploring the jungles, pyramids and ruins of Yucatan and Guatemala, then it was on to rafting and snorkeling in Costa Rica.

After I moved to the western Sierra foothills, expanded outdoors opportunities knocked. We began to cross country ski in earnest, schlepping around in lumpy, woolen Salvation Army clothes on ex-rental skis. For a few years, we skied every Super Bowl Sunday, knowing it would be almost all women on the trails.

Endless walks on fire roads around my 14 acres became meditations on our careers, Jenny Craig, attempts to get pregnant, our families’ struggles, novels, home ownership, our hopes for the future – and men, men and more men.

Each summer, Jane would spend a week in her hammock at the Yuba River while I was at work. Then I would join her for a swim and picnic dinner until the bats came out. We discovered canoe-camping in my $250 Coleman boat from Longs and her 100-pound aluminum Sears monster dubbed “The Queen.”

Besides backpacking, Jane was with me on many of my other outdoor “firsts”: snorkeling at Black Rock Beach in Maui, whitewater rafting from Chili Bar to Folsom, cross country skiing at Royal Gorge.

She was also with me for some of my most transcendent wildlife encounters. Hiking through the jungle to a Tikal pyramid, a pregnant spider monkey followed us through the lianas, and a fox wandered out on the path. Once, we sneaked up in The Queen on a freshwater otter at Scotts Flat Lake. In Maui, we snorkeled above giant sea turtles. Canoe-camping at Lake Spaulding, we watched a mother mallard teach her ducklings to forage under water. Backpacking in the Sierra, we watched a family of marmots romping around in the morning sun. Hiking on a jungle trail next to a Costa Rican beach, we strained to discern motionless sloths in the canopy.

Calmly gripping the topo map, Jane has steered me in the right direction when, hot and tired, I’ve had hissy-fits at Pacific Crest Trail junctures, screaming “I know we turn left here!” We’ve played innumerable games of Go-Fish and Crazy Eights while stuck in our tent in the pouring rain. We’ve eaten a cubic yard of “gloppadagloppada” – the sound that rehydrated food the consistency of wallpaper paste makes when it hits your aluminum mess kit bowl. She can name every lake around which we ever threw down our Ensolite pads.

Now, those obnoxious teen girls of 1970 could be grandmas. We’ve spent less and less time outdoors together now as multiple boyfriends, one husband, jobs, differing vacation schedules, mortgages, ill health and even death have intervened.

It’s hard to explain to many women why it is important – I’d say necessary – sometimes for girls to keep their filthy hair in the same braids for three straight days, sleep on rocks, reek of campfire smoke, freeze their buns off in the middle of nowhere, wear the same stinky T-shirt day after day and pee in the snow.

A whole lotta fun has taught Jane and me things any young girl would be lucky to learn: Don’t listen when someone tells you shouldn’t do that because you’re too weak, too young and female, or that it’s too dangerous. Horsing around outside with girlfriends will teach you that your value as a person is more important than your value as a woman, per se.

Self-confidence, resourcefulness, rolling with the punches, reasoning your way out of tricky situations, knowing that how you look is infinitely less important than what kind of brain you have – somehow I don’t think girlfriends learn these things while clothes shopping at Meadowood Mall.

• Pat Devereux will always be an avid outdoorswoman. Contact her at