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Benjamin Percy: Man Camp

Getting out of doors, getting connected, and never calling anyone “bro.”

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Alec-Egan_Lumberjack_550.jpg
Alec Egan, Lumberjack, 2013. Oil on canvas, 96 x 84 in.

By Benjamin Percy

When the invitation came, I didn’t say yes, not right away. Man Camp. That’s what everyone called it. Two nights, three cabins, twenty-six dudes. We would ski in, we would crawl blearily out, stinking of whiskey and campfires. This would take place at the end of January—when temperatures sometimes drop so low your lungs might shatter if you take too deep a breath—at the 9,000-acre Tettegouche State Park in northern Minnesota.

It’s no wonder I was reluctant. The summer after fifth grade, my parents sent me to an all-boys survival camp in the scablands of eastern Oregon. On the first night, the kid in the bunk below me woke up screaming. Flashlights blinked to life and revealed he had been bitten all over by the Black Widow spiders whose nest he had disturbed. A helicopter came and shuttled him away and we never saw him again.

The next day some boy who was allergic to eggs ate eggs. His face swelled, his throat tightened, and a rash burned across his body. The helicopter returned, the emergency crew hefting his body on a stretcher while we watched, our hands thrown up to guard against the grit thrown by the downwash of the chopper blades.

Next we were to build atlatls, a device that supports and propels a short spear. We were given hunks of obsidian. With antler horns as a carving tool we chipped the night-black glass into projectile points and before long everyone’s hands were flecked and shredded and bandaged. The atlatls were about as easy to use as their name is to spell. Within a few minutes some boy hurled his spear directly into the calf of another boy. He was transported away, weeping and bleeding, not by a helicopter but by a transport van that roared off and dirtied the air with the dust thrown by its tires.

We hiked into the desert and pieced together shelters from the brown bones of juniper trees, the dried wigs of sagebrush. That night the temperature dropped and the wind blew and a rainstorm came and a flash flood woke us. When we called for help, our screams sounded like those of the near drowned.

And then came the rattlesnake in the bush and the scorpion in the boot and the bullies who pissed on one boy’s sleeping bag and the dried and salted bugs the counselors made us eat while sitting shirtless around a fire.

Camp sucks, in other words.

We can make small talk, but that’s different than making friends.

I grew up in a family that never vacationed at Disneyworld or took a cruise or lounged at a Yucatan resort, but traveled nearly every weekend to the side of the mountain or the bottom of a canyon to set up a tent, load a rifle, bait a hook. I will hike until my feet bleed. I will sleep on a rocky stretch of ground in the backcountry below a star-spangled sky. I am no stranger to discomfort or wilderness.

But I am a stranger to Northfield, where I live. And a stranger to Ames and Stevens Point and Milwaukee and Carbondale and Galway and Providence and Bend and Honolulu and Eugene, where I have lived previously. And while I might be a pronounced example—due to my peripatetic life and introverted personality—I think this is a common condition for men. We can make small talk, but that’s different than making friends. We have trouble getting close.

Twenty-six bodies crushed into a short bus and a few splintery cabins is close.

I’m sure my grandfather, when he was younger, hosted the occasional dinner party or traded a few jokes with a neighbor over the hedges, but in the twenty-five years I knew him, he never mentioned or interacted with a single friend.

I know my father, when he was younger, went on road trips to California and Colorado with pals. I know he organized pranks at his college that stripped dorms of electrical wiring and once kidnapped a student council opposition leader from the middle of a lecture hall and handcuffed him to a toilet in the week that led up to the election. I know he and my mother went to parties now and then when I was in school. But I can’t name a friend of his.

Maybe it’s because they moved so much, like me. Maybe it’s because they’re both inclined toward solitude, like me. Maybe it’s because we’re all considered difficult (for our tempers or stubbornness or cynicism). Or maybe this is what men do.

I am friendly with many, but I have few genuine friends. Those who know my secrets and I theirs. Those without a professional agenda underlying our companionship. Those I can sit with in silent comfort, those I can have a conversation with that doesn’t feel like a performance. Those whose presence I actively seek out and whose absence I sincerely note.

You can be “friends” with thousands, and friends with none of them.

I recently offended another writer (whose work I respect) when he approached me for a blurb. I told him I was swamped with travel and deadlines and could barely even acknowledge the pile of forty books sent my way for endorsements, several of them from friends. He responded testily, saying he was sorry I didn’t consider him a friend.

We have never met. And even if we had, I would not consider him such. Because I am extremely careful about calling someone a friend. In part because I hate the way, in this age of social media, the word has lost its value. You can be “friends” with thousands, and friends with none of them.

But I worry about this. My lack of close friends. I worry—especially since I work from home, since I don’t socialize regularly—that I will become more weird and hermetic, that the pleasure I take in silence will give way to deafness, that the embrace of solitude will result in a void.

Of the twenty-six who were shipping off to Man Camp, some were strangers, some were acquaintances, and some I was friendly with, but none were friends, not in the truest sense. I almost said no, but I said yes.

We met at dawn at an ice-scalloped parking lot. Here we loaded our gear onto a van and climbed onto the bus (the kind normally chartered for bachelor parties) and headed to the north shore of Lake Superior. My wife dropped me off, and when I heaved a sigh and reached slowly for the door handle, she gave me a concerned smile and said, “Try to play nice. I hope you make some friends.”

The road in to Tettegouche was layered with knee-deep snow and closed to motor vehicles. We snowshoed and we skied in, steam chimneying from our mouths, everyone going slow due to the vertical climb and the heavy packs and sleds that weighed us down.

When we arrived at camp, an hour later, everyone dumped their gear and immediately broke off into groups to hike, ski, play cards, and this became the standard of the weekend: everyone splintering into activities and then coming together for meals.

We followed wolf tracks as big as my hand. We climbed onto a glacial erratic the size of a house. We hiked to the top of Mt. Baldy and marveled at the white-black forested hills that ran up against the sun-sparkled expanse of Lake Superior. We listened to the faraway gurgle of a stream sliding invisibly beneath a sheath of ice. We broke trail with our skis as we moved through a maze of white pine and cottonwoods and black walnuts.

We traded dirty jokes. We told stories about various times we were injured or caused injury. We ate variations of meat and beans and cheese, which gave way to an almost orchestral celebration of gas. We laughed so hard we roughed away tears. One of us drank too much and puked. Another of us drank too much and fell out of his bunk. We stayed up late and rose early. We did not brush our teeth or change our clothes. We fought the cold with fleece and with exercise and with whiskey and with the wood shoved constantly into the cabin stoves.

At night, the moon burned away a circle in the clouds, so that it appeared like a great white eye. The snow glowed with its light when we trudged through it, climbing a hill with our sleds, two hundred yards, maybe more. For the next several hours, we sledded, sometimes alone, sometimes together. We wore headlamps and the sight of us bobbing up the hill or zipping perilously down it had the look of busy stars, as if the night sky had come down to join us in our play. We knocked each other over and hurled snow in each other’s faces and skidded into trees and bailed into snowbanks. Sometimes there was only the hiss of the sled on the snow, but other times, we screamed, we hooted, we howled. Our voices came from high and low, as if we were wolves calling to each other.

I’m not the kind of guy who joins a fraternity. I don’t go to the bar with a bunch of guys to shoot pool and watch the game. I don’t shotgun beers and call people “bro” and pound them on the back while roaring with laughter. In fact, I’ve always considered that sort of person as other, someone I view with disdain.

But that night in the woods—with everyone bombing down the hill, our sled trails threading together into one slick, blue current—I felt happily connected.

This was the sort of thing I feared when signing up for Man Camp, the thing so many men fear. Sharing openly. Being sincere. Having feelings. Surely, I thought, we’re only one step away from a shirtless drum-circle.

On the last night, after a dinner of beans and kielbasa heaped onto paper plates, Nate whistled for our attention. He was the reason we were all there. The bandleader, the coach, the community organizer. He made the reservations, collected the money, set up the Google doc for meal assignments. A few in the group jokingly call him “Dad.” He works in the outreach program at a local college, and the job description extends to his everyday life: Bringing people together for good reasons—a cider press party, a pickup basketball game, a YMCA fundraiser, a gravel road bike ride—comes effortlessly to him.

He stood before the woodstove now and the room fell silent. He wanted to go around the room, have us all share our favorite memory from the weekend. I inwardly cringed. This was the sort of thing I feared when signing up for Man Camp, the thing so many men fear. Sharing openly. Being sincere. Having feelings. Surely, I thought, we’re only one step away from a shirtless drum-circle.

But then something curious happened. People mentioned their favorite memories—hiking to the top of Mt. Baldy, skiing to an ice-cloaked waterfall, playing Ultimate Frisbee (with a tennis ball) out on the lake—but only very briefly and sometimes not at all. There was something else they wanted to talk about.

One guy—who played center on his college football team and who could tear any of us in half with his bare hands—spoke in a gentle voice about what a shitty month he’s had (his father and brother-in-law had both died) and how purifying, almost medicinal this escape had been for him. Another talked about how he was a transplant to town, how almost all of us were transplants, and that gatherings like this gave him a sense of community, made Northfield feel more like home. Special was a word that came up often. Friendship was another.

When men get together, they tend to speak with irony or rough-throated braggadocio, but there was an uncommon sincerity to everyone’s tone. It caught me off guard. After each man spoke, the rest would raise a beer and say, “Yes,” or “Hear, hear,” and take a sip, which started to make one person’s voice sound like everyone’s.

During the weekend, Nate took many pictures, and whenever I asked him if he wanted to be in the photo, he always shook his head. He wanted to focus on everyone else’s alliance. It was as though he knew we all needed something—to be together, to smile (and fart and exercise and tell wretched jokes)—and he had merely provided the opportunity for it.

He looked at me now. It was my turn to fill the silence. A month prior, when I asked my wife whether she thought I should go to Man Camp, she said yes a little too emphatically. “I think it will be good for you.” I wasn’t sure what she meant then, but I was pretty sure I did now.

The fire snapped. Someone cracked a fresh beer. Everyone was waiting.

I started off with my standard shield of humor. “I sit for a living,” I said. “It’s been good to not sit these past few days. I have become—sadly, with every passing year—less of an outdoorsman and more of an indoorsman. So it’s been good to get away from the desk, get out from beneath a roof, get a dose of vitamin D that didn’t come from a bottle I bought at Costco.”

Then I paused and my mouth opened with the words that came less easily. “I also spend most of my time alone. In a dark room. Playing with my imaginary friends. It’s nice to get a break from them. It’s nice to have real friends.”

To that everyone hoisted their beers and drank.

Benjamin Percy’s new novel—The Dead Lands, a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga—releases this April with Grand Central/Hachette.

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4 comments for Benjamin Percy: Man Camp

  1. Comment by Jim on March 17, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    Great read. You touch on a subject that a real man has trouble understanding but yet lives every day. I sent your article to my boys (32 and 34) so they can understand a little more about the things that move me.
    Thanks

  2. Comment by Joe on March 18, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    This indeed rings a bell. We tend to have a lot of “friends” at work and as an extension of our wives’ circle of friends, but it is rare to have the kind of friendships women often have. For the most part men get as close to other people as they like or can trust — and this is not a very trusting world we live in.

  3. Comment by William on March 23, 2015 at 9:13 am

    Great article. You should check out F3Nation.com and the book from its founders called Freed to Lead. It aims to solve the same problem through free peer-led boot camp-style workouts. It’s grown into something bigger, but it starts with the workouts.

  4. Comment by Marlo on March 31, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    Thanks Ben for this very real and moving depiction of being man. I completely relate the feeling of having few true real connections, to the sense of being constrained in my relationships with men. The anxiety you allude to in the circle, about showing any earnest emotion in a group of men, get’s to the heart of how our isolation is about far more than not spending time playing together, but also being unable to talk about what’s really happening. An escape is nice, but how much better could it be if rather than escaping “reality” to find connection, we could move into creating connections in everyday life.

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