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Adventure Travel

Stalking the Wild Vacation at the Hyatt Regency Chicago

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They were all so young. And tanned. And trim. And so...so fit. Sheesh.

Well, not everybody. But even those people over 50 at the Adventure Travel Show at the Hyatt Regency Chicago were so damned young looking. And those whose skin had that midwestern midwinter pallor undoubtedly would be the first to sport outdoorsy tans in April. If there was a paunch in the whole place, I didn't see it.

I saw posters and enticements to travel to Tanzania, Egypt, Costa Rica, and the Galapagos Islands. There were exhibits for whitewater rafting, horseback tours of Kenya, bike tours of Europe, and natural history tours of Alaska. There was enough almost to make me forget that my feet were soaked and freezing after trudging here from the el through five inches of slush in 30-degree temperatures.

A middle-aged guy wearing an old captain's cap is giving a couple a lesson in earth sciences. His kayak paddling tours, he says, are the equivalent of college courses in botany, geology, and oceanography. He tells them how the coral reefs were formed off Key West. He explains how freshwater mangrove islands are springing up even as we speak, in the middle of the saltwater sea there. He tells them how you can eat like a king, partaking of succulent plants and fruits and scooping shrimp right out of the water.

"Isn't it awfully hot down there?" the man asks. Odd question, I think, as I wiggle my toes to get the feeling back in them. "Let me tell you something", the captain replies, his voice softer now, as if he were sharing a secret. "We're in the temperate zone down there. That's what people don't know. See, the tropics are at 22 degrees. We're at 24!"

The man snorts. The two-degree distinction doesn't mean much to him. The woman glances longingly at a mountain-climbing display across the aisle. They've been shanghaied by the captain and are looking for an out. The captain, so engrossed in his recollection of the keys, doesn't notice. Me, I'm willing to be taken.

Just as I step closer to the captain, the couple scram. He doesn't care. Without skipping a beat, he simply repeats his lecture.

His name is Dan McConnell. He used to live in Winnetka and ran a marketing company here until he visited the Florida Keys for the first time in 1987. When he got back, he told his wife to pack their things--they were moving down to the very tip of Florida, a mere two degrees north of the tropics. He started his Mosquito Coast tour business that year. Now he is deeply tanned, his waist is narrower than his chest, and his hands are weathered rough. And he's sickeningly happy.

"Every trip is a different ball game," he says. He rarely takes the same path on any of his tours. He and the two expert guides he employs learn new things every time they go out. "Key West is a tremendous repository of retired anthropologists, ornithologists, writers, and schemers," McConnell says. "They teach me."

Business is good. When he started the tours, he was interested mostly in having company while he was kayaking. "Now I'm turning people away," he grins. Business is so good, in fact, that McConnell is able to turn over a day's receipts each month to a nature society or foundation. "I couldn't have accomplished any of this up here."

I hate him.

Time to move along. Maybe I'll follow the couple to the mountain-climbing booths. They stop before a long nylon tube-shaped bag. It looks like some gaily colored casket out of the L.L. Bean catalog. Two fellows are trying to sell the bag. They stand next to a chart that shows the "frequency of acute, mountain sickness."

One of the fellows is slight and wan. He speaks so softly the couple have to lean in close to hear him. The other is tall and strong. His face is prematurely craggy--it's a good bet he's been high enough to use the nylon coffin. The small guy explains that it is a portable hyperbaric chamber. The couple listens raptly.

"It is used for treating altitude illness," he says. "At about 8,000 feet, you start running out of oxygen." He ticks off the first symptoms of the malady: fatigue, headache, nausea, trouble sleeping. "They normally kick in within 24 hours," he says.

The small guy's name is Jim Bower. He runs the company, Portable Hyperbarics of Ilion, New York, that makes the bag. It's a great invention, he tells me after the couple have taken his card and moved along. "This is the first time people in Chicago have seen it," he says. Before, the only treatment for altitude sickness was to leave the mountain. Now nauseated climbers simply climb into the inflated tube, breathe the pressurized air for one or two hours, wait a day, and continue their climb, he says, shaking his head in amazement.

He tells me of a man who died of acute altitude sickness in Colorado recently. The man ignored the early symptoms, kept on skiing for three days, and suddenly died of high-altitude pulmonary edema. "The bag costs $2,495," he says, staring me in the eye earnestly. Left unsaid is: It's a small price to pay for your life. Humph, I say under my breath, thinking there's snow on mountains so I don't think I'll be needing your bag. I look down the aisle to see if I can locate my couple. They're hanging around a booth for climbing vacations in Hawaii.

"Well, I gotta go...," I begin. Just then the bigger guy, Carl Darnell, steps up. "I found out about the bag when I ran into its inventor in Nepal," he says.

"Wait a minute," I say, "are you one of those guys who climbs sheer rock faces and dangles on a rope?"

"Well, yeah," Carl says modestly, "but there are some guys around here who are real climbers. I've been to Peru and Nepal and I did Mount McKinley once, but some others have been around the world." When not climbing, Carl is a salesman for the bag company. He calls himself a high-altitude athlete.

"There's a little mountain downstairs," he says. Sure enough, I remember glancing at the show guide when I first came in and seeing a mention of the "mountain," a smaller, temporary version of those faux-rock walls so popular now in certain health clubs. "I'll climb it for you," Carl offers.

I shrug and tell him maybe. Both Jim and Carl load me up with literature and cards as I try to keep my couple in sight. Carl waves as I leave. "Remember," he says, "if you want me to climb for you, just come and get me."

I follow the couple downstairs, past a giant plastic moose trophy, the symbol of, you guessed it, Moosehead Beer, a major sponsor of the show. Down here people carry clear cups of beer as they walk from exhibit to exhibit. The couple walk over to a big curtained-off area where you can roller-blade for free. "Oh, cool," the man says. They pick out roller blades their sizes and go for a spin.

A 55-ish man stands at the entrance to the rink. He wears a goatee and a beret. He shifts from one foot to the other, apparently trying to screw up the courage to strap on a pair. He watches as a 65-ish man--incredibly trim and tanned--skates by slowly but confidently as little kids and young adults speed past him. A moment later a younger woman stops at the entrance and appraises the scene. "I'd kill myself." she laughs to him. The man grins and walks away, relieved he isn't the only coward at this show.

The couple, laughing and breathing heavier now, unlace their skates. They head toward the "mountain." On the way they pass a snack area complete with patio furniture and waiters. Strangely, the only fare here is junk food: hot dogs, slices of pizza, potato chips, and Cokes. Not so strangely, most tables are empty.

The mountain is really a 15-foot-high wall. Experienced climbers wearing shorts and hiking boots run the exhibit. They look on, bored, as they hold safety ropes for novice climbers who try the wall. Many of the novices can't even get both feet off the floor. They grasp with shaking hands for jutting phony rocks that serve as handles. Every now and then an experienced climber passing by can't resist the urge to show how it's done. They climb the wall as easily as the rest of us get out of chairs. We who are watching look at each other and smile sheepishly.

"You stay here, I'll be right back," the man of the couple says to the woman. Crossly she responds, "No!"

They move on back upstairs and stop at the displays for the Windjammer Barefoot Cruises and junkets to Hawaii and and the South Pacific. Some people literally ooh and aah when they get here. The woman is one of them.

They study a poster showing a scantily clad couple on a lonely black-sand beach. She puts her arm through his and smiles. His face remains impassive.

"C'mon honey. I want to go," she coos.

He grunts.

"I have a long weekend coming up at the end of February."

Now he gets back at her. "No!"

"Honey," she whines playfully.

"I knew we shouldn't have come here," he says, angry now.

"You're such an idiot," she says.

"Let's get out of here."

"No. I'm going," she says as she signs her name on the booth's mailing list.

The man walks away. "I knew this was going to be trouble," he mutters.

Who do I follow now that the couple have gone separate ways? I know, the guy. Gotta find out why he's in such a hurry to get away.

He (with me following at a discreet distance) passes the South African Airways booth. I'd seen this booth earlier. Two guys, one black and one white, sat glumly in front of huge posters of an antelope, a rhino, and a giraffe. No one was stopping at their booth. Every few minutes, the black guy would stand up and straighten out piles of brochures and fliers that no one had touched since the last time he'd straightened them out. This time when we pass it's around three o'clock. The black guy, alone now, looks at his watch, slaps his hands to his knees, gets up and starts taking the posters down. He's finished for the day.

Oddly, it seems as though the place has become less crowded, much less crowded, in the last few minutes.

The man I'm following has picked up his pace. About 15 yards down the aisle, a small crowd has gathered in front of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau booth. There is a small TV there. Perhaps half the booths have had TVs set up to show promotional tapes. This one, for some reason, is the only one drawing attention. As we get closer, the crowd grows by ones, twos, and threes. Suddenly, several men in the crowd grunt, then there's a big cheer. "Go, go!" a man shouts. "Yes!" another man yells.

Finally we reach the crowd. I stand on my tiptoes and see a replay of the Bears' John Mangum intercepting a New Orleans pass in the play-off game that had started a few minutes before. I glance over at the man I was following. He is smiling now.

One of the men running the booth grins at the crowd. "This is a preview of the Pro Bowl," he says. The Pro Bowl, of course, is in Hawaii. The man puts out a clipboard for people to sign his mailing list.

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