The Dumb, Beautiful, Singular Chaos Of Close Male Friendship
So many close men push each other — up mountains and into the night, past the point of comfort and down the rabbit hole. Just one question: Why?
“This is exactly what you wanted to avoid, right?”
Sensing my aggravation, Marc had come to my side as I fumbled to assemble my tent in the dark. Then he’d finished my thought.
“Right,” I said.
As he’d picked this trail, and we’d agreed it should be challenging, but not too challenging, for my older boy’s first real backpacking trip, I felt I had a right to be pissed. Hearing in his voice that he felt responsible, I didn’t see the need to get into it. Besides, all I wanted in the world was to lay down and rest.
“We can talk about it in the morning,” I suggested. “Later this morning.”
“Notte, Bum,” he said, and went to his bivvy.
All things considered, we were good. Beyond good. The skies a mix of cloud remnants and stars, the night gently cool — good sleeping weather, water near at hand, back in the High Sierra. Out where I long to be with one of my very best friends and son Gus, age 16. Count your blessings.
What I hadn’t wanted, though: for Gus’s first day and night on the trail to be so grueling he didn’t want to go on. We’d pushed too hard, too soon, crossing that threshold from commitment into exhaustion. The way Marc and I are prone to.
It’s different, though, when you bring a kid. For one thing, Gus was worried for me because I’d lagged behind. The altitude had hit me hard; I was slow. Hit my pride, too. An athlete in his own right, Gus had started out strong, and when we’d first switched on the red LEDs on our headlamps to carry on after dark, that had only added to the adventure. But when we were still humping up switchbacks hours later, he saw a different kind of red. He burst into a tearful rage about how bad an idea this was.
And the kid had a point. Instead of an initiation into the alpine sublime, he was getting a crash course in what happens when two old friends regress.
As is true for most of the men I know, my oldest, closest friends and I drew close while surviving various trials that can only be described, in the clarity of hindsight, as jackassery, competition, or risk sports. It’s as if the unwritten rules for men who wish to be great friends require that we nearly die in the trying. See any buddy picture if you doubt this. As Dave Eggers puts it in You Will Know Our Velocity, his novelistic study of young, male friendship, “if you inhale the chaos, you give the chaos, the chaos gives back.” Yes. Yes, it does.
My chaotic, be-funnier-if-more-wasted days are behind me, and it’s not as if Marc and I, or any of my other close friends, are Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell setting speed records up El Capitan. And yet, even now, in our 50s, we push. It couldn’t be a beginner hike for Gus, could it? Of course Marc favored a route with thousands of feet of elevation gain to start. Of course I signed us up to begin it the same afternoon we’d driven five hours from sea level. Of course we got benighted, broke the kid’s spirit. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be us. We’d be impostors.
Plenty of women I know possess a similar hunger for challenge and slow learning curve, but when speaking, say, about the trips I’ve made or still wish to make, several of the women in my life tend to let out an exasperated sigh. “What about that is even remotely fun?” asks my partner Mary. At my friend Sakeus’ bachelor party last year, not one, but two of his groomsmen, coincidently both named “Pat H.,” sustained major bone breaks while mountain biking within seconds of one another. Later they’d race wheelchairs in the corridor outside the emergency room. Upon hearing the news, one of the Pat H.’s wives provided the weekend’s most memorable quote: “Why are you such f*cking cavemen?!”
It’s a fair question.
Part of the answer, I’d say, is that activities that improve your chances of an ER visit — mountain biking, say — are otherwise great fun. Another part: imprinting from high school. A teen in the ’80s, I marvel that I made it to 18, and not because I was some extraordinary hellion. On the contrary, I was a nerd, gangly late bloomer. But I was typical of a very privileged class of youngsters who weren’t drafted into street gangs or a foreign war and had access to cars (soon as we were old enough), recreational drugs (well before any of us were old enough), and nothing much that resembled a cultural initiation into manhood. And so, we made our own rites up as we went along… Hey, let’s remake that scene from Dirty Harry where he lands on the hood of a car and the driver tries to shake him off by steering wildly. I’ll take the hood first!
By the time I met Marc, my first year of college, I’d found rowing, and so our friendship began in the context of that sport. On a crew, you’re only as fast as the weakest oar; as well, you might have to beat out your best friend for a seat in the first boat. Marc had a quiet, diamond determination and great technique, emerging as a leader by example. Because I’d skipped a year in grade school, roommates from crew nicknamed me Pup. Marc was the Rodent, Bow God, Assassin.
Our freshman year, he seemed a bit clueless about pop culture, as if he’d been living abroad. Instead of rock concerts, he’d played classical violin and completed a National Outdoor Leadership School course where they leave you alone in the wild. Marc had an enviable superpower: He could power nap in the middle of loud, stale beer parties. So I’d evolved, if that’s the word, from friendships where we saved each other from bouts of puking after pitcher races and bong hits, to heaving after test pieces on rowing machines. Maybe guys just need vomit to bond?
Marc questions everything, a sometimes maddening quality I love. He’s a bit intense, as we said in the ’80s, but with a sharp, incredulous Hah! of a laugh, alive to absurdities. The friend who’s always optimizing things and professing how you should, too, be it the brewing of coffee, replacing electrolytes, mediation, cardio, a workout shoe, power tools, proper squat technique, and always proper rowing technique (he became a professional coach). Recently he found a way to avoid jetlag by fasting, based on a study of Swedish bats. Swedish bats!
In college, Marc and I constantly pushed one another, and valued the push. It was the most fun when we were close rivals, less so when I was struggling in our third year and not challenging him, too. That regret returns sometimes when I’m behind him in the hills. He revels in being off-trail; off-trail makes me nervous. Am I holding him back? At least on some things, we entirely agree. Never for us the midnight road trip to Vegas. Make ours Joshua Tree. Let the rangers chase us around for a lack of permit at three in the morning. We’ll hide in the boulders, greet the desert sun.
For a spell we both lived in the Bay Area, but then, for years, we lived on opposite coasts, or he was in Europe with his Italian wife, and we saw less of each other. Before texts became a primary way to catch up, we wrote each other actual handwritten letters. I know his penmanship as well as any; we still address each other by how we began those notes: “Hey, Bum.”
In his letters, the Bum was forever exhorting me to gain experience. I listened. I see now that I pursued friendships with men who promised me something like Marc had: a chance to get in over my head but make it out alive. Like the time Marc back-belayed me, darkness falling, off a cliff in the Angeles National Forest — my first time ever. Me, facing Marc, trusting, leaning into the seat of the harness over a 150-foot dead drop. “I felt like I saw the into the soul of the Pup,” he said later of my frightened eyes. That’s the trick, isn’t it? Friends who get us into trouble, but also home.
One of these is Rob. After I moved to New York, he invited me to join the Man Hike, the ironic/not ironic name for an annual trip his buddies make to the Adirondacks each winter. Bourbon, dope, guitars, harmonica by night; in the morning, sweating out the hangover on Mt. Marcy at 10 degrees Fahrenheit, winds like an airplane wing on the summit. Another is John, who’s worldview might best be summed up by the final-scene laughter in The Wild Bunch. Recently we met at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Shop in San Francisco, in view of the church steeple we climbed within hours of first meeting 32 years ago. Church climbing is not a crime.
Brings me to another theory on why we’re such cavemen. It’s that being vulnerable with other men is often so awkward, we need situations where it’s more socially acceptable to be so. The Franciscan monk and author Richard Rohr is good on this. So is Dr. Brené Brown. During those years of training, or even today, launching into frozen or glacier-scalloped mountains, my friends and I are choosing circumstances where we cannot hide. We might even need rescuing. Perhaps men need to struggle together so we can admit to struggling and muddle through the disappointments.
Soon after daybreak in our Sierra camp, Marc, Gus, and I discussed the day ahead — more of the same switchbacks — and the day after that (ditto), and Gus made it clear he for sure wanted to turn back. I had a choice: insist we go on, and have him possibly hate backpacking forever, or cave and make the best of one more night together at elevation. I caved. If we didn’t object — and of course we didn’t — Marc would complete the planned circuit solo.
In texts later, we did a forensic on this decision, and Gus’ outburst under duress. It’s bracing as a parent to get this kind of feedback, but… no hiding.
“I’m trying to blame myself for what happened,” Marc thumbed me. “But [Gus] seemed convinced the trip was impossible for him to enjoy. At that moment, at that place he’s arrived at in the dark, when he really had done the hardest part, we might have shown him how strategy and not pure emotion — the anger he shared with me earlier — could have taken him anywhere, specifically over the Black Rock Pass.”
We could have shown him, and maybe we still will. But the lessons, of course, were not only for Gus.
Marc vowed that in the future we’d be sure our objectives didn’t just destroy us, but in some measure restored us — “at least spiritually,” he grinned as he said it. And this year, before leaving the trail for the “true Sierra,” we took a night to acclimate in a walk-in campground, a day hike to get our legs. We still pushed, but not to the breaking point. Instead, we reached the point of no time but the weather, found stillness on a mountain pass that felt, as I lay on it, like it might launch me into space.
For the record, Gus and I had a fine second night together on his first backpacking trip. Not only did he have no signal, his phone and backup phone battery both died. Briefly, another disaster. How could he survive this? A: Brilliantly. After plunging into a creek, a solo encounter with a curious buck, and making his own wonderfully horrible trail goulash, Gus started talking. I’d gotten exactly what I wanted, after all, just took a while to see. The other day, Gus even told me how great that hike had been. He saw my look of surprise.
“Yeah, it was great,” Gus said. “It just wasn’t sustainable.”