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  • If you have no sense of direction, you shouldn't tell your guide that, yes, on the first backpacking trip of your life, on a remote mountain in Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, you'll be able to finish packing up your tent and meet her at the cooking site. Even if you've walked the route together several times. Even if you think, yes, of course I know the way.

    I had turned 40 ten months earlier. I was spending the summer in Alaska and the backpacking trip--hire a guide, charter a plane, get dropped off in the mountains for two nights--was both a birthday present to myself and a chance to up my outdoors skills. I grew up in suburban NJ and, though the rest of my family enjoys being outside (beaches, botanical gardens, crafts fairs), our one family camping trip--I was six--ended after the first night. The bathrooms were gross. The tent was leaky. It was colder than we wanted it to be. The movie in my head has it this way: my mom stood up in the morning and announced, "Pack your stuff up. We're going home." Nobody fought her on that. She'd had enough. We all had. We were just not outdoors people. Before getting dropped off on the mountain, it was the first and last time I had slept in a tent.

    In the 34 years between, I had turned somewhat outdoorsy. Falling in love with Alaska will do that to a person. I had hiked more than a few miles, kayaked a bunch of others. But I didn't know how to set up a tent. I didn't know how to pack a backpack. I had no map skills. So, 40 and anxious to give my outdoors skills a serious kick in the hiking pants: the guide, the plane, the mountain. Rebekah, my guide, was 15 years younger than me. We had known each other for just three days but I trusted her completely. She was comfortable on the mountain, she was confident in every step, and she didn't make me feel foolish when, the first time we met, she had to teach me how to pack my backpack. ("No, you probably don't need that many socks...") I had been a chunky kid who suffered through every grade school gym class and, as an adult, my biggest fear is of embarrassment. The backpack lesson was important.

    After the plane dropped us off, Rebekah went over the emergency procedures with me. I learned how to use the sat-phone and memorized the layout of the First Aid kit. We spent the first day-and-a-half hiking up inclines, popping across spongy moss, checking out the holes grizzlies dig in pursuit of ground squirrels, and sitting on the edge of the world. The first day was all blue sky; from our peak in the Chugach, we could see all the way to Canada's Mount Logan. Rusted cans in an old fire pit made it clear that other people had been there, but it had been a long time. When Rebekah was planning the route through Steamboat Hills, few others guides knew a thing about it. Our pilot, who had been flying into these mountains for decades, was impressed by the choice.

    By the afternoon of day two, I was already starting to dread the plane's return. I felt more me than I ever imagined I would on the trip. Rebekah didn't question my skills. I had stopped questioning them, too. There was more to learn but I would get there.

    "Yeah, I'll meet you there. Not a problem."

    When the guide company sent me the paperwork for the trip, I had filled out spaces about injuries (funky right knee) and allergies (no penicillin, please). Rebekah even knew that I hated bananas, and left them off the meal list. The one thing they didn't ask--cause, why would they?--but that I should have told them anyway: I have no sense of direction. If I say go left, you should go right. I should go right, too. But I won't. And looking for landmarks doesn't do the trick either. It's geographic dyslexia.

    Yet, it remained a secret. A travel writer, it's an embarrassing thing to admit.

    After breaking down the tent and packing my bag, I started walking. The cook site was, in the real world, a short walk away. That didn't matter. I knew the general direction but, now, nothing looked familiar. Was it to the left of that rock or to the right? We didn't go down that hill, did we? Where's the damn creek? My sleeping pad was popping out of the top of my pack and bopping me in the head. Within a few minutes, my skin tingled with anxious. And annoyance.

    "Rebekah! REBEKAH! REEEEEBEEEEKAAAAAH!"

    With that last pathetic howl, Rebekah appeared on a ledge just ahead. Then she was standing next to me. I'm pretty sure she had walked to me. I don't remember moving.

    "You need a granola bar? Here, have a granola bar," she said. "Water. Have some water, too."

    As the sugar, water, and breathing kicked in, embarrassment started to push the anxiety out. At 40, I had a full-on tantrum in the Chugach Mountains.

    "I can't believe it took you this long to have a meltdown," Rebekah said. It seems they're part of the beginner's backpacking kit. With that, the embarrassment took a hike and, a mile or so later, the episode was lost to the bleached-out remains of a Dall sheep. We each pocketed a tooth and kept on walking.

    Between April and November of 2012, I took a solo road trip from NJ to AK and back again. I kept a granola bar in my bag at all times. Just in case.

    (Photo is of my guide, Rebekah Helken, during our backpacking trip.)
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