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SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – I was born in New York City and one time when about five, just prior to World War II, I was taken by my parents to a family reunion somewhere uptown. To get there we had to take the 3rd Avenue El, an elevated train that ran along the seamier part of lower Manhattan and to my shock there were derelicts lying and sleeping on the seats of the cars. Not only that, but looking down into the street I saws rows of men laying side by side along the storefronts arranged like cords of wood. I had never heard of anything like that, for unbeknownst to me they were the remnants of World War I veterans, outcasts of society and victims of either the horrors of war or the Great Depression that was still in progress.
Of course the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor soon plunged the country into a four year conflict that consumed all of the nation’s resources, though with the positive effects of having that elevated eyesore torn down for its steel to be used in the war effort, and also removing the hobos whose manpower was needed for more useful purposes. I never again saw street people, other than the rare apparently homeless wanderer who was always alone.
Perhaps 15 or so years ago my son gave me a book about a mountain climbing expedition to Mt. Everest and ever since I’ve been enchanted with the prospect of leaving civilization to scale some Alpine or Himalayan peaks. Having also read the exploits of environmentalists and naturalists, I dreamed about trekking for months at a time through the pristine woodlands and canyons in the wilds of Alaska or the northwestern U.S. while reveling in the solitude they offer. It all sounds so romantic.
Some time passed until my wife and I took a motor trip from northern California to Washington State, and while walking through a redwood forest called the “Avenue of the Giants” just south of Oregon, we chanced upon some young backpackers who were the filthiest and most unkempt people I had ever seen, looking far worse than any of those vagrants of my childhood. Not only were their faces and clothes covered in dirt but they had at least two months’ growth of beard… disgusting. We of course had pre-arranged motel accommodations each night and were eating in restaurants, while these vagabonds were obviously living in the wild like animals and eating God knows what for food. I wouldn’t have touched any one of them for all the tea in China.
After returning home from our vacation and picking up yet another of those books on the great outdoors, it suddenly dawned on me that the authors of wilderness sagas whose exploits I admired so much must look just like those tramps that I had encountered a short time before. All I had ever thought about was the beautiful scenery and the adventure while never taking into account the hardships and negatives that were involved.
I guess that’s why so many books are written on the subject, since it’s certainly much easier to vicariously hike through dense forests or along snow-covered crevasses while sitting in an easy chair and then being called to dinner, than to face those difficult experiences first hand. And it’s a heck of a lot cleaner as well.