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Call of the Wild

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

The simple life — the phrase conjures either Paris Hilton or Henry David Thoreau. As I write, the former is in the news, but the latter is on my mind during Baltimore's summer of tropical humidity and Code Red "air you can wear." That prospect always inspires fantasies of communing with nature, restoring the soul, and breathing without coughing. And doing so not at some wimpy place, like Walden Pond, where you can walk into town, but in the real wilderness, maybe the Rockies or whatever part of the Sierra Nevada isn't burning.

How to do it? Thoreau calculated his costs: Eight months at Walden came to roughly $62, including construction of a cabin. His accounting, however, was after the fact. Prudence and credit card limits point to calculating expenses ahead of time. What might a week in the woods, living in harmony with nature, cost these days? Not having any idea, I began my imaginary errand into the wilderness with Google.

A search on "wilderness outfitters" yielded the names of folks who take people to remote places to enjoy rugged beauty and kill large animals. A more refined search produced an "Overnight Backpacking Checklist." It contained 86 items. Some things I already had ("Funnel," "Photo ID"); others seemed unnecessary or contrary to the spirit of the venture ("Head net," "Travel games"). One was self-evident ("Money"), and another was scary: "Trip Plan (left with a responsible friend)." I hadn't heard of a couple of items, such as a "Sit pad or sleeping pad chair kit." A few were hard for a City Bumpkin to imagine in the abstract ("Stove and fuel"), or completely mystifying ("Footprints" — aren't those what you're supposed to leave, not bring?). A trip to a local outdoors store was in order.

Before passing through its doors, I found my personal checklist had shrunk from 86 to a more manageable 50 or so items. It expanded once again when I was inside and saw what technology has wrought since Lewis and Clark. For a while, a hand-cranked blender was in the mental shopping basket ("Give me Margaritas to match my mountains!"). It went, but another item joined the list, a Global Positioning Satellite Receiver. After all, the Web site with the checklist also had a "If you become lost clinic" that began with a horror story. The gadget boasted a chipset "sensitive enough to acquire signals in urban canyons and windy mountain roads." Anything versatile enough to get you through the urban jungle as well as the high Sierras was fine with me. It was also incredibly cool. That alone put me $438 ahead of Thoreau.

Food is not important in Paris Hilton's TV Simple Life because she and her co-star, Nicole Ritchie, don't eat. It is central in mine. Thus it was a relief to discover that freeze-dried wilderness dining includes Pesto Salmon with Pasta, Chicken Polynesian with Rice, Smoothies, and Blueberry Cheesecake. I also needn't have worried about a stove, which evoked images of something heavy and bulky. Instead, for $100 I could have a tiny "Personal Cooking System" boil water. A sleeping bag and tent added another $500 to the tab. A good-quality backpack was $375, a stripped-down model with no compartment for a notebook computer.

Other items on the checklist were borderline calls. I wasn't sure that John Muir, patron saint of the Sierra Club, ever required an altimeter, but it probably is a good idea to know how high you are at any given moment. I finally dropped the "Quick-drying swimsuit" on the assumption that if you're really in the wilderness you don't need one. That freed space for the MP3 player.

My accounting was not as precise as Thoreau's, which was down to one-quarter of a penny, but it looked as if a week of living simply might cost about $2,000, before airfare and a rental car. Wilderness, American-style, comes with a hefty price tag and a lot of technology. I'm staying out of the woods.

There are, nonetheless, two morals to this story. The first is that some people need — or want — a lot of stuff to get in touch with nature. The second is that going to Vegas is cheaper.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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