7. FREEZE-DRIED ICE CREAM AND ADRENALINE SOCKS

You can’t just go like that,” my wife said.

I looked down at the bed, where I had laid out some shorts and a pair of Adidas sneakers. “I’ve got a Swiss Army knife,” I said. “You’re not giving me a whole lot of confidence.” The next day, at her prodding, I tried to find a place where I could purchase more suitable gear. Friends directed me to one of the many stores in Manhattan that cater to the growing number of hikers, off-road bikers, extreme-sports junkies, and weekend warriors. The store was virtually the size of an industrial warehouse, and, as I stepped inside, I was overwhelmed. There were rainbow-colored tents and banana-hued kayaks and mauve mountain bikes and neon snowboards dangling from the ceilings and walls. Whole aisles were devoted to insect repellents, freeze-dried foods, lip balms, and sunscreens. A separate section existed for footwear (“Gurus can lead you to a perfect fit!” a sign said), which didn’t include an additional space for “spring loaded ratchet binding” snowshoes. There was an area for “adrenaline socks” and one for Techwick “skivvies.” Racks held magazines like Hooked on the Outdoors and Backpacker: The Outdoors at Your Doorstep, which had articles titled “Survive a Bear Attack!” and “America’s Last Wild Places: 31 Ways to Find Solitude, Adventure-and Yourself.” Wherever I turned, there were customers, or “gear heads.” It was as if the fewer the opportunities for genuine exploration, the greater the means were for anyone to attempt it, and the more baroque the ways-bungee cording, snow-boarding-that people found to replicate the sensation. Exploration, however, no longer seemed aimed at some outward discovery; rather, it was directed inward, to what guidebooks and brochures called “camping and wilderness therapy” and “personal growth through adventure.”

I was standing in bewilderment before a glass case filled with several watch-like contraptions when a young attendant with long, lean arms appeared from behind the counter. He had the glow of someone who had recently returned from Mount Everest.

“Can I help you with something?” he asked.

“What’s that thing there?” I asked.

“Oh, that rocks.” He slid open the counter door and removed the item. “It’s a little computer. See? It’ll give you the temperature wherever you are. And the altitude. It’s also got a digital compass, clock, alarm, and chronometer. You can’t beat it.”

I asked how much it was, and he said about two hundred dollars, though I wouldn’t regret it.

“And what’s that?” I asked, pointing to another gadget.

“Pretty much the same deal. Only that one monitors your heart rate, too. Plus, it’s a great logbook. It’ll store all the data you want to put in about weather, distances, rates of ascent-you name it. What kind of trip you planning anyway?”

When I explained, as best I could, my intentions, he seemed enthusiastic, and I thought of one Fawcett seeker from the 1930s who had classified people based on their reactions to his plans:

There were the Prudent, who said: “This is an extraordinarily foolish thing to do.” There were the Wise, who said: “This is an extraordinarily foolish thing to do; but at least you will know better next time.” There were the Very Wise, who said: “This is a foolish thing to do, but not nearly so foolish as it sounds.” There were the Romantic, who appeared to believe that if everyone did this sort of thing all the time the world’s troubles would soon be over. There were the Envious, who thanked God they were not coming; and there were the other sort, who said with varying degrees of insincerity that they would give anything to come. There were the Correct, who asked me if I knew any of the people at the Embassy. There were the Practical, who spoke at length of inoculations and calibres… There were the Apprehensive, who asked me if I had made my will. There were the Men Who Had Done A Certain Amount of That Sort of Thing In Their Time, You Know, and these imparted to me elaborate stratagems for getting the better of ants and told me that monkeys made excellent eating, and so for that matter did lizards, and parrots; they all tasted rather like chicken.

The salesman seemed like the Romantic type. He asked how long I intended to go, and I said I didn’t know-at least a month, probably more.

“Awesome. Awesome. That should let you get immersed in the place.” He seemed to be thinking of something. Then he asked if it was true that some catfish in the Amazon, called a candiru, “you know, that it—”

He didn’t finish his question, though he didn’t have to. I had read about the almost translucent, toothpick-like creature in Exploration Fawcett. More feared than piranhas, it is one of the few creatures in the world to survive strictly on a diet of blood. (It is also called the “vampire fish of Brazil.”) Ordinarily, it burrows in the gills of a fish and sucks its blood, but it also strikes human orifices-a vagina or an anus. It is, perhaps, most notorious for lodging in a man’s penis, where it latches on irrevocably with its spines. Unless removed, it means death, and in the remote Amazon victims are reported to have been castrated in order to save them. Fawcett, who had seen a candiru that had been surgically extricated from a man’s urethra, said, “Many deaths result from this fish, and the agony it can cause is excruciating.”

When I told the salesman what I knew about the candiru, he seemed to transform from the Romantic into the Practical. Although there was little to protect someone from such a creature, he told me about one gizmo after another that was revolutionizing the art of camping: a tool that was a digital thermometer, a flashlight, a magnifying glass, and a whistle; compression sacks that shrank everything inside; Swiss Army knives with a computer flash drive to store photographs and music; water-purifying bottles that doubled as lanterns; portable solar-powered hot showers; kayaks that folded into the size of a duffel bag; a floating flashlight that didn’t need batteries; parkas that converted into sleeping bags; poleless tents; a tablet that “destroys viruses and bacteria in 15 minutes.”

The more he explained things, the more emboldened I became. I can do this, I thought, piling several of the most James Bond-like items into my basket. Finally, the salesman said, “You’ve never camped before, have you?”

He then helped me find the things that I’d really need, including comfortable hiking boots, a sturdy backpack, synthetic clothes, freeze-dried food, and a mosquito net. I also tossed in a handheld Global Positioning System just to be safe. “You’ll never get lost again,” he said.

I thanked him profusely, and when I got back to our apartment building I carried the equipment into the elevator. I hit the second-floor button. Then, as the door was about to close, I extended my hand to stop it. I got out and, hauling the stuff in my arms, walked up the stairs instead.

That night, after I put my son, Zachary, to sleep, I laid out all the things I planned to take on the trip and began to pack them. Among the items was a file I had made with copies of the most important Fawcett documents and papers. As I flipped through them, I paused at a letter that detailed something, in Brian Fawcett’s words, so “ hush-hush” that his father “never spoke of its objects” to anyone. After receiving his diploma from the Society, the letter said, Fawcett had been given his first assignment, in 1901, from the British government. He was to go to Morocco- not as an explorer but as a spy.

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