Most people keep mental lists of some kind- their favorite TV shows, ice cream flavors, dream vacations. I keep a mental list of my best nights of sleep. Strange, I know. But sleep for me is hard to come by, and when I actually get a good night’s sleep, it’s memorable.
My third best night’s sleep was on an overnight train ride in Europe. My second best night’s sleep was on the floor next to a wood-burning stove at Shane’s old cabin in Gunnison. My number one best night’s sleep, surprisingly, was in a wet sleeping bag under a leaking tarp in the storm-drenched forests of Corner Canyon, Utah.
But let me back up a little.
I was blessed in high school with a group of great friends- buds, if you will- who loved the outdoors as much as I did. Our little circle came together quicky- almost magically- our sophomore year. Never did a full week pass without some combination of us setting off to explore a canyon or bag a peak. Rain, snow, or shine- weather was never more than a side note. Each of us kept a rucksack handy with all the essentials for a night in the wilderness (rarely did those essentials ever include a tent). At the drop of a hat, we’d load into somebody’s mom’s car and drive west into the desert or east into the mountains to spend the night spinning yarns by a fire.
These trips had a simple structure. We’d start at a grocery store, where we’d stock up on beef jerky, Dr. Pepper, and Twizzlers. We’d drive until we found a good trail, then hike or bushwhack until we found a good place to set up camp. Usually these trips began in the evening (just as they do now), and most hiking was done in darkness. Once we’d settle in for the night, the fire became the central figure of our merriment. We’d roast meat and place various objects in the embers to see if they would explode. If the fire was a big one, John would get a running start and leap over it, just to see if he could (John has leaped over many an obstacle in the wilderness, and looking back on his many stunts, it’s a miracle he is still alive). Tyler, and sometimes Richard, would scrawl in their journals by firelight.
This care free nomadic lifestyle had it’s humble beginnings on that cloudy spring evening in Corner Canyon. We had packed light, and the sun was setting when we started up the trail toward Ghost Falls.
We felt the first raindrops just as we reached the waterfall, so we decided to create a shelter. We had no tent, but we had a few old tarps, which we frantically and sloppily strung up against a tree as the storm began to drench us. When we finally came up with a crude lean-to that somewhat blocked the downpour, we rushed under it and laid our sleeping pads down in the mud. John was on one end with the tarp hanging about a foot above his sleeping bag. Shane lay on the other end under a higher and sturdier tarp. In between were Chan, Matt, Richard, Tyler and me. It was only a matter of minutes before the water wicked its way through the bottoms of our sleeping bags. To make things worse for Tyler, a can of Dr. Pepper exploded inside his sleeping bag. Huge earthworms were trying to slither into my ears, and it soon became apparent that the bush I had been using as a pillow was, in fact, poison oak.
The situation would have been utterly miserable if we weren’t having such a great time. Our soggy predicament soon became a joke and we laughed at ourselves long into the night. The only dry piece of equipment in my possession was a micro cassette recorder, into which we dictated our great wisdom and reveled in our toughness.
I still can’t remember how or when I eventually fell asleep. What I do remember is that it was the best sleep of my life. Whether it was the joy of being in the mountains with my buds or the sheer exhaustion from the hike and the weather, I don’t know. But when I woke up I was as refreshed as I’ve ever been. The sky was clear, and the tarp had sunk through the night until it rested on John like a blanket.
We rolled out of our soaked bags and immediately turned our attention to the waterfall, which we could actually hear now that the storm had passed. After an hour or so of swimming and sliding down the waterfall, we wrung out our belongings and packed up. On our way down the to the car we laughed more about the turbulent night we spent in the storm.
I’m amazed at how little we took up, but also at how much we brought back.
Chan, turns out, brought something extra special back with him. While the rest of us were frolicking in Ghost Falls, he quietly slipped away to answer nature’s call. It soon became apparent that the tuft of leaves he had used as toilet paper was, in fact, poison oak.