Blue Diamond, Black Diamond, what’s the difference?

In the mid-1980s, while at AT&T, I extended a trip in Colorado to go skiing. I chose a spot called Hidden Valley Resort. It wasn’t so much for tourists, but close to Denver, so ideal for one-day trips by the locals. I had no clue that bravado, stupidity, chauvinism and hubris could amass to cataclysmic intensity in one event on just one day.

black runs at the topHidden Valley Ski area opened in 1955 and closed in 1991. Ten miles outside of Estes Park, Colorado, it moved skiers to the top with ropes, Poma and T-Bars and eventually chair lifts. Most memorable were the olive green, canvas-covered army trucks (replaced with school buses by the time of my visit) transporting more adventure-oriented skiers to the upper valley, where tow ropes transported them to the top of the mountain, allowing a downhill rush through pine groves and powder. The resort featured an impressive 2000-foot vertical drop from 11,400 to 9,400 feet, with 30 percent beginner, 30 percent intermediate, 30 percent expert and 10 percent insane (my opinion) trails. Patrons were mostly northern Colorado residents avoiding the long drive and high prices of larger resorts along I-70. In 1984, a season pass to Hidden Valley cost $100 and adult daily lift tickets were $10. The resort never competed successfully with the larger areas and after a lousy snow season it closed operation and removed its lifts in 1991.

Having not skied in several years, I began my day with a lesson. Sure enough, with a good instructor and attentive practice, I’d returned to being a “mid-to-pretty-good intermediate skier” of a few years earlier. So, I hit the slopes.

After my early sessions on the green slopes, I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon perfecting my technique on blue (intermediate) slopes. My skills had returned and I felt confident. After a quick bowl of chili for lunch, I headed outside. Carrying my skis toward the chair lift, I spotted a school bus close to me with lettering on the side saying “Upper Valley” and decided to take it. I stowed my rented skis on the rack and got inside. Realizing I was one of the first on the bus and it wouldn’t leave for a few minutes, I hustled to the restroom to pee. When I returned, half a dozen guys were now on the bus and it was ready to roll. I sat down and the bus pulled out. I pulled my gaze from the attractive skiers walking past the bus to its interior. It was then I saw it: A large sign, right above the driver’s head, where you typically see the sign saying “Tips Appreciated,” was one saying: “This bus goes only to black diamond and double black diamond slopes – Expert skiers ONLY!”

Bus to upper trails

Oh boy, what to do? I had 15 minutes to think as the bus wound its way up the hill. First, I sure didn’t want to wimp out in front of all these guys and, at this point, everyone on the bus was male. I thought about ducking down in my seat and riding the bus back down, but realized it wouldn’t work. Second, my day so far had been going very well. My confidence level was high. I’d been on black diamond slopes before and while I wasn’t pretty, I always managed to get down. “Let’s see how this goes,” I thought.

At the top, everyone got off the bus and collected their skis. Thoughts of sneaking onto the bus disappeared as it left the second our skis were off the rack. Our small group of riders had sort of become a club, feeling a bit of comradery, never speaking to each other, but no dues, either. Latching up, I followed the group as they slowly traversed a ridge with a steep drop off to the right. OK, more accurately, a sheer cliff to the right. Every 15-25 feet or so, one of the group members would peel off and head down the slope. I kept following the guy in front of me, hoping he would lead us to a more gradual slope. It didn’t happen. As hard as it was to comprehend, the further we went along the ridge, the steeper the drop off to the right became.

This is the steepness I recall on the mountain.

With only 3 guys left, we finally reached the end. Hope of finding a gentler slope vanished. Instead, here was a T-Bar leading up and off to the left, into a deep white mist. Running out of options and terrified of having to ski off the cliff to my right, I followed my two remaining buddies as they hooked onto the T-Bar and we were pulled higher up the mountain. Examining the areas slopes sometime later, I realized I was heading to an area called “Tombstone Ridge.”

Arriving at the top, it felt as if I was close to the summit. It was colder. My two friends quickly disappeared into the thick fog covering the slope below, and the wind began to pick up. It was late afternoon and I was alone, at the top of a mountain, wearing skis. Everyone was gone. Thoughts of ski management people finding me in the spring alternated with my mumbling to myself “Don’t panic, take it one step at a time.”

It turns out lack of visibility can be a good thing. Because of the fog, I was unable to see very far down the mountain. Looking across a steep, icy slope, I saw a mid-sized pine tree, the nice Christmas-y type, 25 feet tall with big, wide branches at the bottom. I decided to go across the slope, rather than down, and into the tree’s lower limbs to stop my momentum. Miraculously, it worked.   More important, from this vantage point, I saw another tree on the other side of the slope, only a little bit further down, and I proceeded to ski directly into it as before, using the branches to break my rapidly accelerating pace.

This seemed to work. I crashed from one tree to another, not dying. Sure, I was skinned up a bit, but thick gloves and goggles make for better protection than you might think. But this was exhausting.  While recovering and gathering my energy in the branches of a tree, out of the mist came the savior I’d secretly been praying for. A skier in the distinctive uniform of the Ski Patrol was headed in my direction. “Oh, thank God, I am saved.” I thought.

The patrol person expertly skied right up to me, finessed a quick little turn and stopped, lifted her goggles and shouted to me through the howling wind, “Are you okay? Do you need any help?” OMG, it was a woman, a girl! Before thinking I said, “No, no, I’m fine, just catching a breather.” And with no time for me to reconsider my foolish response, she adjusted her gloves, smiled at me, pulled down her goggles and skied off down the hill. I thought to myself, “God, I am an idiot and a moron!”

The tree-to-tree skiing technique kept me from killing myself for the next few hours (well, okay, maybe 15 minutes) and I came to an ice-covered half-pipe-like formation. With no trees to slow my fall, I sat down, undid my skis and slid down through the bowl on my butt. Not the most dignified way to come down a mountain, but I did not die, either.

long straight slope through the treesEmerging at the bottom of the trough, I saw a sign showing a list of runs heading off in different directions. And then, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life, right in the middle of the list, was a blue diamond indicator (intermediate slope) and an arrow pointing to my left. I headed in that direction immediately and 30 minutes later, reached the bottom of the hill, alive, and able to recount this story.

Those of us committed to equality in the workplace and in life, often forget how deeply ingrained our sexist outlook really is and how it affects us in daily life. When in the delivery room with Maggie, as my daughter Ginger was born, I recall looking around me: the obstetrician was a woman, the anesthesiologist was a woman and the nurse was a woman. As my daughter was born I thought to myself, God help anyone trying to stand in the way of my daughter’s being anything she’ll ever want to be, and thankful she’d grow up in a world where people were judged on their abilities and not their gender or skin color. Sadly, we have a long way to go on both counts.

The Most Expensive Golf Clubs Ever

John Woychick and Ron Herem – one of the holes we see from our deck in Phoenix.

Here in Arizona, our house overlooks a golf course, as do 84.4% of all homes in Phoenix (just kidding). But neither Maggie or I play. In fact, if you asked any of my golfing friends “Does Steve play golf?” the most likely response would be “Not so much.” This story is not about golfing, although I suspect both golfers and non-golfers will find something of interest.

First hole, 520 yards, Par 5

Living in the Twin Cities from 1997 – 2003, after joining the founding team of Net Perceptions, we purchased a nice home on Bent Creek Golf Course in Eden Prairie. I loved the unfolding deep green lawn stretching from my backyard seemingly to forever. Better was it never needed my non-existent gardening ambitions. Our deck overlooked the green of the first hole, a 520 yard, Par 5, providing hours of entertainment. Being the first of 18 holes, the final players of the day passed our home pretty early. This allowed me to take a bucket of balls after the concluding golfers had passed and chip them from my backyard onto the green. Then I would step up onto the green, and putt them all into the hole.

While never playing the course, I got along well with the club management, pro and groundskeepers. Once they’d needed to use our lawn for some sand trap repairs and I’d made it easy for them. I knew most of the groundskeepers and waved every morning as they made their rounds. One time I noticed an older guy operating one of the riding mowers. That seemed odd. All the rest of the crew appeared college age and in pretty good shape. This guy was neither. I never spoke with him, but asked about him one day at the club’s golf shop. After describing him, a look of acknowledgement came across the course manager. “Oh, he’s not a regular groundskeeper; he’s one of our members. Due to all his DWI arrests, he’s lost his driver’s license. But he misses driving. So, his wife brings him over here and we let him drive the mowers around.”

Although not a true golfer, I’d become familiar with the game during my five year stint at AT&T, where golf is part of the culture. Not only were deals done on the course, AT&T sponsored golf events (Pebble Beach Pro-am for one) and invites high-value clients and arranges for them to play a round with a genuine professional and AT&T executives. Like it or not, I was expected to attend and play. While no need for me to be a stellar golfer, embarrassing the company by shooting a poor game was also not acceptable. After several lessons and lots of practice, my game settled into one where although never hitting the ball very far, I always seemed to hit it straight. It turns out this often resulted in a half-decent score, especially when playing with those who tended to plaster the ball a great distances but in all the wrong directions.

My golf clubs were purchased used for $15 at a garage sale in the early 90s, and I never really thought much about them. When going to an event, I threw them into my trunk, and then onto a cart. Perhaps someone looked a bit askance at my clubs now and then, but after seeing Rodney Dangerfield’s bag of clubs in Caddyshack, I was glad the size of my bag was at the other end of the spectrum. For at least 10 years of playing and a good number of prestige events, those were my only clubs.

As it turned out, Net Perceptions was a success, and went public in 1999, just before the Internet bubble burst in 2001-2002. Before the crash, it appeared I had a great deal of money, although most of it was on paper and in lock-up agreements. One downside of suddenly acquiring a big chunk of money is the mistaken belief you’ve also acquired extra brains in the process. This leads to thinking you must have the magic touch when it comes to picking investments. Of course, those opportunities are being thrown at you right and left by people whose business it is to follow newly-rich people around with the goal of snapping up some of that loot. This is how I was exposed to and made a $25,000 investment in a company that manufactured custom golf clubs.   Here is how the scam, oops, I mean “business model” worked.

It begins with a desperate-to-improve golfer in a golf shop talking to the local pro on ways to improve his game. Everyone knows buying something, like special long-range balls, or the “super driver of the decade” or the “magic putter” which makes all putts roll accurate and true, is much simpler than taking lessons and actually practicing. And so, sales are made. It reminds me of the story of the couple passing a talented piano player at a bar, leaving a tip as they depart and saying, “Wow! You were just great. I’d do anything to play like that. Well, except take lessons and practice, of course.”

Back to our story: At some point, the pro suggests the stock off-the-shelf clubs the player is using may be holding him back. What might help is a special set of custom-made clubs, where grips are tailored specifically to the hands of the player, the shaft lengths cut to fit the player’s exact height and the heads all angled for his particular sweet spot. “Expensive?” he asks. “Oh my, not really, and think about consistently shaving half a dozen strokes from each game,” the pro replies.

A full set of top brand irons typically ran about a thousand dollars then, and the fully-customized set with a fitted set of shafts and grips was about $2,000. So, the pro arranges for a “fitting,” using the computer software, camera and other goodies provided by the company in which I’d invested. Once the company got the specifics for the golfer, they tweaked their stock shafts, clubs and grips to match the order sheet, applied the logo of whomever’s brand was specified (Callaway, Ping, Wilson, etc.) and then, finally, the most important and perhaps costly step, packing them up to look like high-value works of art.

Part of my $25k investment was a set of custom clubs. They would arrange for me to go to the factory—which was local—and be personally fitted for a set of clubs and receive those clubs for free. Of course, at this point, I already knew the cost from the business model was around $200 bucks, but still, I couldn’t resist “free” and was on time for my appointment the following week. Arriving on Saturday morning at the company’s warehouse-like facility, I removed my clubs from the trunk of my car. They’d asked me to bring the set I currently played with, perhaps as some sort of baseline—I wasn’t sure. But I hefted them onto my shoulder and strolled through the wide open double garages of the warehouse space where I was welcomed by the investment guy and one of the measuring pros. The pro grabbed my bag, looked at it and said, “Oh, Mr. Larsen, you must have grabbed the wrong bag, these are lady’s clubs. Did you pick up your wife’s clubs by mistake?” When I looked at him quizzically, he said, “I’m serious, these are Mickey Wright signature clubs.” Apparently this Mickey Wright logo I’d been seeing for the past decade wasn’t some famous male golf pro, but a famous woman golfer. Oh god. Do you recall the scene at the end of the “The Six Sense” when Bruce Willis’s character flashes back on all those scenes, realizing he actually wasn’t in them and redefines the entire film, giving it a whole new meaning? My mind flashed over years of looks from other golfers and caddies as they saw my clubs, then shot a look at me, then again at my clubs.

Duh! It finally hit me—what all those funny looks were about. Upon reflection, it came home to me that acquiring money doesn’t make you any smarter than you were the month or year before. Unfortunately, the market crash and subsequent IRS issues wiped out any semblance of my “being rich,” which in the long run, was probably all for the good. I stopped looking for homeruns and returned to saving at least 20% of any money that came my way and while perhaps not the “smartest” play one can make financially, it’s consistent with my values of hard work, persistence and determination. In the end, they’ve always served me best. And I stopped playing golf and gave my $25,000 clubs to my cousin.

Martinis and smoke – one magical mixture

Dr. Ed Banner gave me a glimpse into a part of the world of which I was mostly unaware, but in a way that made me feel there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish. We were vastly different in age and light-years apart in economic and social status, but he treated me as an equal. This story from nearly 50 years ago would be impossible in today’s world – for many reasons which you will discover. Enjoy.

As manager of Schaak Electronics in Rochester, MN in the 1970s, some of my best customers were from the Mayo Clinic, one of the largest employers in town. These men (nearly all buyers of high-end stereo equipment were male), had far more money than my family and friends had growing up. In Fairmont, where I lived until I was a junior in high school, people with this amount of wealth didn’t even exist. Attending my senior year of high school in Rochester, I became aware of people like this, but was mostly oblivious to the various cliques and resentments some students felt about “those stuck-up rich doctor’s kids.” My interest at Schaak Electronics wasn’t about status, it was about selling more stuff and winning sales contests. Going out of my way to help those who could make more and larger purchases was part of my job.

Three group photos from Schaak Electronics.
When managing Schaak Electronics in the 1970s, I sent Xmas cards to our customers. These three survived.

One of my favorite Mayo Clinic customers was Dr. Ed Banner. Not only was he a doctor from the large, mysterious white building in downtown Rochester, he was originally from “the big city” (Chicago), drove a Ferrari, and sported a shock of red hair. His coming into my store was more like a “grand entrance” than someone casually strolling in to shop. He’d purchased stereo systems for his living room, office and other spots in his house and frequently shopped for electronic-oriented gifts for family and friends. Not only was he a good customer, I considered him a friend. One evening he heard me coughing and told me to call his office at Mayo the following day. Even then I knew people waited months for an appointment at the Mayo Clinic. But when I called his office, his assistant told me she’d been expecting my call and to come right down. After a quick stop in his office, soon I was being examined by the head of Mayo’s ENT department. As head of the Gynecology Department, Dr. Banner would not be treating me himself.

Anyone spending even a short time in Rochester, MN would hear stories about Dr. Ed Banner. His exuberance, confidence and style made him the center of attention everywhere he went. He lived large and possessed a bigger-than-life presence. He was hard not to notice and impossible to forget. His Ferrari was the only one in town. If he was in a restaurant having dinner, everyone knew it.

One Saturday morning a few weeks before Christmas, Dr. Banner had finished making some seasonal gift purchases at my store and we were chatting at the counter. Making conversation, he asked about my plans for the evening. Normally, my life was pretty dull and I would have had nothing interesting to report. But this time it occurred to me I might be able to impress the good doctor with my evening plans: “Well Doc, tonight I’m having dinner with my girlfriend at the Country Club.” Now Rochester’s Golf and Country Club was a private, exclusive, and high-dollar place I’d never been. However, that particular evening, the country club was the venue for a corporate holiday party and my date was an employee of that company. The company owners were flying in on their private plane from Quincy, Illinois, and had arranged the dinner at the club. My girlfriend worked at KROC-TV (later to become KTTC), and invited me as her date. I was excited at the prospect of going to “the country club,” and proud of it.

No sooner had I revealed my plans when Dr. Banner said, “Ah, yes, Alice and I will be dining at the club this evening as well.” He then paused, thought for a moment, stroked his chin, and asked me, “Steve, do you like martinis?” I’d never had one in my life and only seen the odd-shaped martini glasses on television, but I instantly replied, “Yes, I do.” Then he asked, “And do you by any chance also enjoy a good cigar?” And again, although not having ever smoked a cigar other than those horrible Swisher Sweets in college, heard myself answering, “Of course, Doc.” And it was then he made the following proposal: “Steve, why don’t you come over to the house about an hour before you’re set to pick up your date, and we’ll have a martini and a cigar. I think you’ll like that.” We finalized a time, and off he went.

Late that afternoon, I arrived at the Banner residence just as it was beginning to get dark. Snow flurries, the big, puffy, slow-moving ones that you can see clearly as they lazily float past, were drifting down. I parked in the driveway and rang the bell. Dr. Banner’s wife greeted me warmly, saying, “You must be Steve. Ed is waiting for you in his library,” and she guided me past windows overlooking all of downtown Rochester. Wow, what a view!

Dr. Banner stood up from his desk in a large comfortable office that was indeed, full of books. Classical music played at a low volume from bookshelf speakers I recognized as ones from my store. Mrs. Banner closed the double doors and we shook hands in greeting. After some preliminaries, he said, “Now, let me make you one of my famous martinis.” He pulled out a large bottle of gin and a smaller bottle of vermouth, and carefully measured them into a stainless steel shaker filled with ice. Spinning the liquid around, he told me it was important not to be too vigorous, as one could “bruise the gin.” After a minute of this, he left the room and returned with two large martini glasses. From their frosted appearance, I knew they’d been chilled. He carefully poured the crystal clear liquid from the shaker into the two glasses, turned to me, and said, “Do you know what the ladies say about my martinis, Steve?” I said nothing. His eyes twinkled and he said, “Well, they say, ‘Doc, I’ll have just one, two at the most, because three I’m under the table and four I’m under the host.’” We both laughed.

Before we could sample the drinks, Doc said, “Now, we’ll leave these here to rest just a bit, while we find something to smoke.” We left the room and entered his garage where he had a large refrigerator. Opening the door he showed me the entire refrigerator had been transformed into a massive humidor and filled with boxes and boxes of cigars — nearly all he pointed out, were imported from Cuba or South America. “You know,” he said, “many of my patients are the wives of South American politicians, and when they wish to show their appreciation they send me boxes of cigars.” He pulled two boxes out and opened them, saying “Here are my two current favorites. While the fillings are virtually the same tobacco, you’ll see one is wrapped in a green tobacco leaf and the other in a brown leaf. Which wrapper do you think you might prefer, the green or the brown?” I looked at them for a moment and then said, “I’d like to try the brown one.” He pulled one of the huge brown cigars from the top of the box and handed it to me. Then he selected one of the green ones for himself. But before he left, he took another of the large green cigars from the box and slipped it into my inside suit jacket pocket saying, “Why don’t you take one of these for later,” as he selected a second brown one and put it into the inside of his jacket pocket.

Back in his office he patiently took me through the ceremony of circumcising a cigar and then the right way to light one. Apparently, you were never to use a lighter — only large stick matches — to light cigars of this caliber. Obviously he knew I was a novice and unfamiliar with all of this, but he never once treated me like we were anything other than equals performing a ritual together that we’d done hundreds of times before. As we sat across from each other in his classic Eames lounge chairs, I will never forget the smoke and its deep rich fragrance wafting slowly around our heads and filling the room. I can recall sipping the super-chilled martini while listening to music quietly playing in the background. I remember us clinking our glasses in a toast or two but not to what. It was like being in a deep and relaxing dream while simultaneously, being fully awake and hyper aware of every sensation. Before I knew it, Dr. Banner was rushing me to the door, saying I must not be late. I drove down the hill on an amazing high. The snow had accumulated about an inch and was still softly falling. Parking in front of my girlfriend’s apartment, I left the car and walked up to the front door – actually, it didn’t feel much like walking, more like I had floated up. And if you want to know the truth, boys and girls, when I turned and looked back down the walk toward my car to check, it was indeed the case. There were no footprints in the snow as there should have been. While I can only speculate, I’m quite certain that I had literally floated up the walk on an invisible pillow of cigar nicotine and martini.

Arriving at the Country Club, we soon found the party, which was being hosted in a semi-private room. No doubt due to my girlfriend’s stunning appearance, we were seated at the head table with the owners of the television station from Quincy, the local station general manager and the local anchorman and his wife. Dinner progressed easily and safely. I remembered everyone’s names while forgetting which piece of silverware to use when. As soon as people figured out I was uninvolved with the television business, they ignored me – and I was fine with that.

We’d completed dinner and desserts were being served when I heard a commotion behind me at the back of the room. I watched the eyes of the people across the table from me as they stared transfixed. Someone obviously had entered the room and was heading for our table, but stopping here and there on the way toward us. Then the voice became recognizable and I heard it say, “Good evening, I’m Dr. Banner, pleased to meet you.” At another table, “Yes, hello Bob, good to see you, happy you could be here tonight, so nice of you to come.” I turned and watched as he slowly worked his way in my direction, moving along as if running for office and everyone here a potential vote. With a big brown cigar clenched in his teeth, he shook hands, told everyone how lovely they looked, and finally arrived at the head table where the local managers stood and introduced this local celebrity to the out-of-town visitors. Banner exchanged pleasantries with them, all the while resting his hand on my shoulder. Then he looked down at me, with a twinkle in his eye, and said, “Now, everyone knows I like these Cuban cigars with the brown wrappers,” as he pulled the large cigar from his mouth and held it up to admire it. “But every once in a while,” he continued, “I come across a discerning gentleman who’s been lucky enough to find one with a green wrapper. Might you be him?” he asked me. At that moment I remembered the green wrapped cigar Dr. Banner has slipped into my breast pocket several hours earlier. I slowly reached in and pulled out the cigar, held it in front of my face, and looked at it, then turned to Dr. Banner and asked, “But how did you know?” Dr. Banner looked down at me, smiled and said, “I can smell them. Here, let me light that for you.” And he did.

Epilogue: This night, so memorable to me, no doubt was just one of thousands of wonderful nights in the life of this incredible man. Dr. Banner passed away at 80 years old, on Nov. 5, 1992 in Vail, Colorado. After getting his medical degree in 1939, he began a fellowship in obstetrics and gynecology in the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine in 1942. In 1947 he was appointed a consultant in obstetrics and gynecology at Mayo and in 1969 became a professor at the Mayo Medical School. While he’d never mentioned it to me, I learned Dr. Banner was on the board of directors for the Rochester Country Club. His son, Dr. Ed Banner, Junior, graduated from Mayo High School in 1969 as did I. Young Ed Banner practiced medicine in Houston, Texas.

Yeah, this is roughing it!

Steve at Schaak Electronics

In the early 1970s, after purchasing my Lotus Elan, I was working at Schaak Electronics in Rochester Minnesota. We were suffering yet another long and exceptionally cold winter. Little did I know, the following spring I was going to experience one of those self-realizations and experiences that would forever change my life.

Apache Mall was the home of Schaak Electronics. The store was managed by Gary Eiesland, who’d taken over from Carl Estey. Gary’s management style and creativity seemed like genius after the unfathomably odd and foolish projects initiated by Carl. Gary’s reign as store manager felt a bit like Obama following Bush, (if you’re a Democrat) or Trump following Obama if you’re of the opposite political stripe. Unlike all the single guys working at Schaak, Gary was a real adult, being married with two small girls. Besides being an awesome manager, Gary took me under his wing, sharing his outside-of-the store interests as well as coaching me on work duties.

One day Gary inquired if I liked to hike and camp. Given his Svengali-like mesmeric influence on me, I could only say, “Of course.” Soon Gary was bringing in camping, hiking, and outdoor magazines filled with adventures and ads for outdoor gear for me to read. A store selling outdoor gear, a precursor to present-day REI, had opened at the other end of the mall. Gary and I would head in their direction whenever business was slow and wander the aisles, fantasizing about all the places we would go and top-end gear we’d acquire. It must have been January when we made our first big purchase; real, expensive, genuine hiking boots. These boots were the precise ones you’d buy if you were heading off to hike the 2,000+ mile Appalachian Trail. We’d watched the salesperson demonstrate and pitch these boots many times, as well as carefully examined the cut-in-half version of the boot, done to illustrate its advanced features and superiority. To ensure proper break-in for our as-yet-to-be-determined epic hike, we wore the boots to work every day, along with our 3-piece suits. For some reason, the idea we may have looked ridiculous was lost on us.

The boots were only the tip of the iceberg when it came to gear acquisition. We needed a tent, sleeping bags, gas lanterns, portable cooking pans, foldable plates, canteens, a compass, and specialty dark glasses with yellow lenses to better illuminate game trails as one traversed through the woods. And of course, few visits to the hiking gear store were made without loading up on the survival food options strategically placed near the cash register to maximize impulse buying. Boy, did they have us pegged! We bought bars having the same size and look as a Hershey’s candy bar, but so full of concentrated protein a single square would keep a man alive for 3 days. Of course, we each bought several, although not always on every visit. We got a box of a dozen oatmeal-type roll-ups, with the promise that each one would keep a lost hiker from starving for a week. We loaded up – after all, you never know what might happen out in the bush, and most of all, we wanted to be prepared.

Our decision on which backpack to purchase involved studying a host of reviews followed by months of arguments and discussion. After all, the Pacific Crest Trail ran over 4,000 miles from Mexico to Canada. Buying the wrong backpack could be a disaster. So, we borrowed one backpack after another from the gear store, took them out behind the mall to the banks of the Zumbro River, and loaded them up with smooth river rocks. Then we would walk back and forth around the mall parking lot, making thoughtful and careful assessments to find the very best backpack for each of us. Which sleeping bag to buy generated at least as much attention as the backpacks: on the one hand, it would need to be light enough and supportive enough to safely suspend us on the side of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, yet be warm enough to keep us alive on Mt. Kilimanjaro where we’d read the temperatures got to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. While that doesn’t sound that cold, that’s 20 degrees without wind chill factor. If there is one thing two Minnesota boys understood, it was wind chill.

The long winter contributed to a bit more shopping time than might have been optimal. Although we might have been able to get along without every single item, it never occurred to us we might have extras. One weekend the weather warmed and wishing to test our tent and gear, we pitched the tent in Gary’s backyard and set up camp. It had not been too long after we’d unrolled and crawled into our sleeping bags when Gary’s wife ambled into the backyard with Gary’s daughters. “Do you have any ideas on what I can tell our neighbors about why my husband is sleeping in a tent in our backyard with a guy from his work?” she asked.

Morning eventually came. We took the tent down and carefully packed it up as outlined in the instructions. Same for rolling up sleeping bags and mats, and with meticulous attention, stowed the gear in Gary’s garage. The day when we might be able to head out and use our gear on a real trip filled our brains like sugar plums dancing in the heads of toddlers before Christmas at the turn of the century.

Eventually the weather began to warm, the snow melted and we seriously began planning for our epic trip. It was decided that before spending the big bucks and traveling to a distant locale, we’d do a hike in our own region. However, it had to be properly devoid of civilization to give us a genuine sense of roughing it. This meant no civilization and no easy “outs” if things went wrong. We needed to test all of our newly acquired gear while putting our outdoor problem-solving abilities to the test. We eventually settled on a trip to northern Wisconsin.

Gary had heard of the unpronounceable Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, nearly to the most northern reaches of Wisconsin. He said there was nothing there but wild wilderness and wild beasts like deer and bear. It was settled, the very next Friday morning we would head north. He’d arranged coverage at work so we had the full weekend and truth be known, no one was going to worry if it took us another week to turn up back in Rochester.

Being this was before the Internet, our ability to research and plan every detail in advance was limited. But spiritually our goal was simple – drive into Wisconsin, a state known to be wilder and less populated than Minnesota and take every road going north, until civilization ran out. At which point, we’d be in the deepest, darkest forest, where we would hike, camp and forage. Yippee!

We’d decided to drive my Lotus. One feature of all the gear we bought was it was compact and fit into the trunk of the Elan. Plus, the car was fairly new, and the idea of a long road trip was exciting. Our first hint of not quite perfect planning was making far better time than we expected. Six hours after starting our trip we pulled into Bayfield, Wisconsin. Huh? With over 250 residents, this was a booming metropolis in our book. Driving around the tiny town we saw a Ferry terminal and several cars and a few people lined up to go out to Madeline Island. We learned there wasn’t much to do out there and most attractive to us, we heard it was the LAST FERRY of the day, and if we went out there, we’d be trapped overnight, at least, maybe longer if the weather got bad. We were hooked. They had room for just one more car. The Lotus.

racing toward shore, cars ready to drive off the ferryArriving on Madeline Island less than an hour later, a light mist was still falling. We drove past a large old hotel, trying not to look at it. Following the only road heading north, we took it out of town. In about a half-hour, the road gave out and turned into a logging trail. We kept going. Finally, we were out into the backwoods. Eventually the limited clearance of the Lotus required us to pull over. This was not a problem, and actually, it was what we were expecting and had prepared for. Out came our gear, backpacks were loaded, the car was locked and we pushed ahead north on foot.

Taking note of the compass and sighting in on a distant tree, we headed out. We hiked through the thick forest terrain, reaching the tree we’d seen. Using the compass, we spotted another tree and pushed forward. Now might be a good time to point out our second unexpected event. It turns out the light mist falling for most of the afternoon, had soaked the grass and brush. As we walked through the weeds, our pants legs soon became soaked. The water then worked its way into our hiking boots. Somehow the promises of being waterproof had not covered this eventuality. After about an hour, with our feet colder and colder, we began to think about finding a nice clearing and camping for the night. We decided we were suitably deep into the north woods. At just about that time, we crashed through some bushes and there, directly in front of us, was a nice red cabin. Shoot! Nothing smacks more of civilization than a cabin. We had to distance ourselves and fast. Gary pointed off to his left at another distinctly shaped tree and off we went, our cold feet making us more and more miserable and now realizing, no matter what we did, we’d likely not be more than a half-mile away from some damn cabin. Approaching a clearing, Gary pointed to a grassy spot in a small clearing and asked, “How about here?” I looked around and then noticed something odd. I pointed further to Gary’s left and said, “let’s try over that way a bit.” We pushed in that direction about 50 feet, came around a massive oak tree and there it was, my nice bright yellow Lotus Elan, right where we’d left it. I thought that tree had looked familiar.

We’d both read about people lost in the woods and their tendency to walk in circles, but had never assumed it could happen to us. It had felt like we were walking in perfectly straight lines the whole time.

But at this point we were tired, our feet were freezing and we just wanted to get warm. We unpacked and pitched the tent a few feet from the car. Before crawling into our sleeping bags, we tried to light a fire. However, the wood from the forest floor was wet and we couldn’t get it to start. Then Gary recalled a stack of wood covered with a tarp along the driveway of the red cabin we’d seen a ways back. He talked me into going back and stealing a few sticks of dry wood so we might have a fire. I did and we managed to get a small fire started, but no sooner would it get going than the rain would put it out. Nothing we did would keep it going long enough to roast the wieners we’d brought along for the occasion. But all was not lost – in addition to a bag of Cheetos, we had an entire box of emergency, super high-protein, keep you alive for a week, candy bars. Upon reflection, I can’t say if it was deep hunger or an artificially induced case of the munchies, but I know we ate every single one of those candy bars and fruit/oatmeal roll-up things and even raided the pockets on our backpacks where we’d hidden even more of these treats for emergencies.

In the morning, as soon as there was light, we crawled out of our sleeping bags, and rolled up the tent and other gear the way most men fold fitted sheets – but faster. We stuffed these balls of gear into the trunk of the Elan and headed back to the Ferry dock. We managed to get the first ferry back to Bayfield and from there, headed home to Rochester in the rain, with the windows down, allowing some of the most rancid farts ever produced to drift out of the car and pollute the road behind us.

This was a life-changing experience. Since this time, I’ve never once been seriously tempted to go on an overnight hiking trip. Been there. Done that!