Urs and I fell in friend-love at first sight. We had both signed up for COHOP, which stood for Columbia Outdoor Hiking Orientation Program (I think). We had chosen Columbia because we wanted to live in Manhattan, and we were heading into the middle of nowhere.
They rounded up us 18 year-olds at the great lawn, taught us the school song (which we all promptly forgot and never uttered again), and left us to pack for our weeklong backpacking expedition into the deep, dark Catskills.
We split up into hiking foursomes: There was Ryan, a mean blond engineer, who told Urs and me the GORP was going to make us fat; Rico, a statistics genius from Spanish Harlem, who would get recruited for the Mets way before graduation; Urs, and me.
We needed to pack sleeping bags and tents and tarps…but we were most concerned with the food. There were apples, jars of peanut butter, hot dogs, bags of beans, and vast seas of hummus.
Menu planning was supposed to be a teambuilding experience, and we were failing. We couldn’t bear to part with our giant stick of pepperoni, or our boxes of rice, and so we took more than the recommended load, stuffing our smelly packs till the seams groaned.
The plan was for us to set up our sleeping bags in the grand lawn by Butler Library, spend the night there, then depart at the crack of dawn. But there was a problem: We were missing a crucial ingredient. Rico insisted plantains were a necessity beside his famous rice and beans, so the four of us snuck out to hit up a bodega under the cover of night. While we were there, we splurged on some avocados, limes, and jalapeños. Now we were becoming a team.
It was my group who embarked on the trail with bushels of plantains tied to our backs. We were going to hike, and then we were going to feast.
In our culinary ambition, we failed to realize the mountain-ness of the Catskills. During the drive, they looked like the kindest gentle, rolling hills, dense with tree-smell and studded with wide, clear lakes. With 40 pounds on our backs, the slopes felt immense. We huffed and puffed and tried to conceal just how out of breath we were.
Urs and I couldn’t stop talking about who we were and who we wanted to be, New York City and ambition, falling for the wrong people, and starting over. The boys just rolled their eyes.
It was at the top of a majestic peak that we pitched our tents and lit our camp stove. Taking off our packs felt fantastically liberating. Urs and I stretched our arms out wide, the world far away, below us, inconsequential.
We got the rice and beans started; I cut the starchy plantains into rough slabs with my not-so-sharp Swiss army knife. The stove proved uncooperative. We kept prodding it, and blowing, and changed the canister, and changed it back. Barely, pathetically, the beans bubbled.
We mashed up the guac, which we scooped up with already-stale tortillas. The guac was perfect. Our main course was gloopy, yet raw. Everyone tried messing with the stove, and stirring, and prodding, and waiting, in vain.
The sun set lazily behind a mountain, our feet already ached, the pine-breeze felt so generous, so good.
We had two senior ‘guides;’ a hipster art student and a rugby player.
“You guys,” they reminded us. “Leave no trace.”
But we couldn’t stomach the mash that was our dinner.
So we played all kinds of games on our mountain — eating games, where the losers had to shovel in bites of nearly-raw beans and al dente rice and still-hard plantains. Still, there were bowls of our food-failure left.
“Can we bury it?”
The moon shone, and fireflies fired, and we built a little fire, carefully, which became a slightly larger fire, into which we threw the congealing remains.
Everyone curled into their plastic tents, but Urs and I couldn’t stop talking. We lay on our backs. We planned what we would eat when we returned to civilization: Waffles, whipped cream, watermelon, and the soft-sticky-sweet plantains from La Caridad. The stars, they crooned us love songs.
In the morning, there were charred pieces of beans which we scattered into the woods before we packed up and headed up the next mountaintop, munching on GORP (good old raisins and peanuts), and fat, salty slices of pepperoni…everything ahead of us.