Bodice Ripper in the Mountains

Campfire stories are a particular genre. Some are meant to be a bit spooky, have a gruesome ending, or end with a moral. I can imagine Norse Sagas being told around campfires. They have just the proper supply on hand of gore, doomed characters, and the supernatural.
But some years ago, I was on a long Memorial Day trip to Baxter State Forest. Camped near Mount Katahdin, we gathered nightly after days of climbing to eat, drink and tell stories.
One of our numbers was a proper old timer who had known Percival Baxter and had been in on the park’s founding. But Ron was early to bed and early to rise, so somewhere around ten, we were down to a hard core of campfire members. One night to mix things up, we decided to put story themes into a hat and have everyone pick a theme and, when it was their turn, tell a tale based on the guidance on the slip of paper. What could go wrong?

I drew a slip of paper that said “drinking.” This was easy. I told a tale about my friends on Boston Beacon Hill and how we used to have Truth or Consequences drinking contests in which the most outrageous teller of lies won. To my right, John drew another easy one, “horror.” At last, the hat with the slips of paper arrived at Harriet, a quiet young woman. With a big smile. she slowly drew the slip out of the hat, unfolded it, and then stopped. Someone snickered and asked, “Well, where’s the story? What does it say?” Harriet rolled the slip into a tiny ball and hurled it into the fire. After a moment of silence, she announced the theme -“Bodice Ripper” in such a quiet voice that we almost couldn’t hear it. Giggles came from some of the girls at the far end of the fire, and some of us males shifted uneasily on our log stools. Then, after a moment’s silence, she began a tale of innuendo and raging lust in Regency England that had to have been lifted whole cloth from a recently read Harlequin Romance. It easily rolled on for ten minutes, after which she rapidly departed the campfire. An embarrassed silence settled, and soon we banked the fire and went to our sleeping bags in ones and some twos.

The following morning was filled with breaking camp for the trip back to Boston. It was quieter than the usual last morning in camp, and a few glances were cast in Harriet’s direction.

No one ever admitted to adding that theme to the slips in the hat. I regularly hiked with many of the campers on the Katahdin trip. I periodically saw them at Appalachian Mountain Club local hikes and trips. Over the following year, we listed the names of the usual suspects for doing something like this but came to no conclusions. Finally, we decided that it was well that there seemed to be a bias toward camping stories, comedy, and goofy horror stories around the campfire. Bodice ripper was not the worst topic that could have been handed out, considering the sense of humor of some of our friends.

Oh, and we never saw Harriet on hikes again.


On organized hikes, the sweep is the individual who comes last in the group, trailing behind to ensure that no one gets lost. The sweep for a large group of hikers may be the first person who knows that someone has a nasty blister, has become dehydrated, or has overestimated their ability to complete the hike.

Most good leaders try hard never to lose sight of the rear of their group, but sometimes, with a large group, the hike breaks into fast and slow ends, making life for leaders and co-leaders complicated. So the role of sweep is more than a tail-end Charlie. The sweep may become the default leader of the rear end of the hike and needs to know the trail and destination.

As the sweep and co-leader for one of my closest friends and mentor, I always carried extra water, first aid supplies, food, and toilet paper. Of course, you hoped for the best but planned for the worst. Typically, my sweep role was to watch out for someone who needed a “station break” to go to the bathroom or just needed to amble along at a slower pace. Providing the odd shoelace or water happened also. Sometimes My job was to escort hikers to where the cars were staged because they could not complete the hike.

Then, the hike leader miscalculated a hop between boulders on Mount Katahdin and broke his hip. I became the leader on the spot, detailed individuals to notify the rangers, and stabilized my friend in place until we organized the Alpine Rescue.

So why did I do sweep year after year? When the leaders discussed who was doing what on the hike, I always chose to sweep. Well, I had an ulterior motive for this. I had noticed that when group sizes get above five or so people, the hike gets loud in the woods. So loud that any chance of seeing wildlife drops to zero. Birds go silent, and small mammals fade into the woods.

I discovered that by dropping back a bit further than expected, the routine of the forest returned. I heard the loons on the lake, the chattering of squirrels arguing, and saw the birds flitting through the woods. It was as though they were saying, “it’s safe to come out. Those idiot primates are gone!”

So next time you go on a hike, don’t pity the sweep way to the rear. Envy the sweep. While the rest of you are chattering away, only the sweep gets the experience that drew you to the woods.

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