The real cost of cheap fun

Yesterday, I should have mentioned that another advantage of backpacking in my current economic situation is that it’s cheap fun. That said, I would have followed up with the real cost of cheap fun.

Cheap fun: On paper, this trip should have cost about $50. I already have the camping gear; my only expenses would be gas, about $25 (I drive a Civic that gets up to 40 mpg highway if I baby it) and food, about $25 (living on a diet of flat bread, peanut butter and dried bananas, and springing for prepackaged meals of freeze-dried grilled chicken breasts and mashed potatoes for dinner.

A three-day vacation for $50? Talk about cheap fun. Of course, that was on paper ... .

Real cost of cheap fun: I said I already have the camping gear. True, but any avid backpacker who does indeed have all the gear always needs more. I didn’t think I needed new rain paints; the 12-year-old pair I bought when I was 30 pounds heavier still worked OK. But REI was having its annual May sale (“Our Biggest Sale of the Year!”) and Marmot’s spiffy PreCip Full-Zip Rain Pants were marked down from $90 to just $64.99. Alan has a pair of full-zips (there’s a zipper down the length of each leg making for quick ingress and egress, crucial for when a downpour suddenly hits) and they had my size ... . It also turned out that I needed the $29.95 Black Diamond Orbit Lantern for when my tent becomes my office after a day on the trail. So, yes, I did have all the requisite gear, except for about $95 worth. (I should mention that while these may seem like extravagances for the recently self-employed, they proved to be godsends. It rained much of the time I was in Wilson Creek, the rain pants kept me dry. And because it rained the entire time I had more tent time than usual, time in a cheery, brightly lit tent suitable for taking notes and reading.

Tuesday, I hiked as much as I could in the morning, but heavy rains left many of the creek crossings impassable, and in the Wilson Creek area you don’t go too many places without crossing a creek. (Small watershed; the creeks go up fast in a heavy rain.) My stove hadn’t worked that morning, leaving me coffeeless and crabby. Eager to solve that problem, I hiked out to the car — about a mile and a half — and drove 30 miles or so to Blowing Rock and Footsloggers, a regional outfitter whom, I was pretty sure, could help me solve my stove problem. At least that was the plan.

A mile up the road, the engine light went on. Crap. The last time I was in the mountains and the engine light went on I ended up buying a new car (too long, painful and pricey a story to recount). Guessing I was low on oil, I added a quart ($3.95) and got a red-eye ($3.50 — no, it’s not related but the caffeine-addled among you are no doubt wondering how that crisis resolved). That wasn’t it. After consulting the owner’s manual — I’m a guy; Why would I do that first? — I discovered that the engine light could indicate anything from a gas cap not screwed on tightly enough to catastrophic engine failure. I opted for the former, made sure the cap was tight and drove on. By the time I got to Footsloggers, after diddling around with the car, the store was closed. I stopped and got something hot for dinner ($15) before returning to the wilds. The cascading effect of not being able to use my stove to cook dinner the next two nights meant I had to spend an extra $20 on food.

So, the real cost of my $50 cheap escape? Let’s get out the calculator here ... $137.45. Still cheap, I suppose. And certainly worth it.

But you really notice those extra pennies — 8,745, to be exact — when you aren’t sure where your next pennies are coming from.

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