We gather at the river once again. Andy, Todd and I roll down the gravel hill to the put-in and find another few of our crew there, boats out, gear strewn about.
Somehow every year it works.
See, there is little “plan,” per se, to the annual Men’s Trip. The idea is what’s important. It’s harder to catch catfish than to hook these guys: just trolling a vague, word-of-mouth meeting time and place — “mid-day at Sand Island” — for a month beforehand is enough to collect a stringer of men for three days on the San Juan River every year. It’s like the only plan is No-Plan.
This year waiting for us on the beach are the familiar figures of Eric, Randall, Dave and Jan. First-timers Ben, Jared, Scott and Jim are introduced. Wild Bill and a friend of his are supposed to arrive after dark — every year a group floats in on the night shift, under the nearly full moon — as long as the nasty weather dumping on our mountains back in Colorado doesn’t discourage them.
We hope it won’t, because here the weather in southeastern Utah has turned. After greetings, we make early-afternoon rigging toasts as the gently rattling November cottonwoods frame a clearing sky. By the time our convoy hits the river, the air is dry, the sun brilliant and the headwind a spring-like breeze.
It seems that the Men’s Trip No-Plan is working so far. Again.
I’m a firm believer in the kiva. I’ve had several: A 1980 Jeep Wagoneer. An old Chevy Van. A 10 x 12 cabin in a high mountain valley. A little room in my garage. I feel a deep kinship with those male residents of the ancient Southwest who negotiated with their wives for the first kiva. A hole in the ground with a stick roof? We can do that! And the women, too, I suspect, knew that this men-space was best for the whole tribe.
Todd knows what I mean. Although we don’t really talk about it — we are male, after all — it’s seems I always find Todd hanging with me in whatever kiva is in my life at that time. One winter night sitting in my van parked in a cold valley in the La Plata Mountains, Todd came up with the idea of our investing in a fleet of “Chevy Kiva” rentals, so more men could explore their men-space callings affordably. Ken’s Men’s Vans, we’d call our “Men Business.” It would be a service to society, we reasoned.
A van is nice, but my favorite kiva is a canoe. A 16-foot red tripping canoe, to be exact. And in which, for the last few Men’s Trips, Todd has been both bowman and barman, those roles overlapping and often indistinguishable. He is also the spiritual leader of the group: As we tie off our boats at our first campsite, Todd ascends the shore, like MacArthur returning to the Philippines, and fastens a big pirate flag to the arm of a thick cottonwood.
There are laughs and more joking toasts to the flag, but I think he’s got something here. Isn’t the absolute value of piracy — the intent aside from the positive or negative manifestations — simply poaching your spirit from forces that would control it? The true Pirates — those we most admire safely from our side-line landlubber lives — are those who most deliberately and resolutely carve some space where they can assert their own style no matter what.
And that, right there, is both the function and beauty of the Men’s Trip. Because here there’s only one rule: Mutual non-coercion.
Moonlight sugars the smooth top teeth of Lime Ridge, across the valley. Around a campfire, groups of two or three cook a variety of meals. As pragmatic and efficient as it would be, there is, of course, no group-wide coordination of food, drink, cookware or appliances. This is understood and never discussed. It’s one of those questions you just don’t ask on the Men’s Trip.
Todd, Andy and I stand around a table and enjoy enormous hunks of campfire-grilled steak, served communally on a tin plate with a side of baked beans bubbling over a backpacking stove. River knives and forks are the utensils. Dining is by headlamp and emerging stars.
“This steak’s a little raw,” I mention politely to Chef Andy, as Todd and I poke our fleshy slabs for signs of life.
“It’s not raw steak,” Andy corrects. “It’s cow tar-tar.”
“Another Men Business,” Todd suggests. “Beef Sushi.”
Andy’s the one who already owns a successful restaurant, so I let him tackle Todd’s latest brainstorm. I have my own business to worry about.
A female friend told me once that I don’t have enough women in my writings. But I argued that, as a journalist valuing fairness and accuracy, I don’t write about things I don’t understand. But I mean no disrespect in this; in fact, I mean respect. Look, I think men and women are different. Very. But I also think this is not a bad thing — not in the least.
In fact, I’m here to celebrate that.
“Too much beer, also,” my literary-critic friend appended to her editorial feedback. “There’s always too much beer.”
To that charge I plead guilty. But I claim the fairness-and-accuracy defense again. Especially when writing about the Men’s Trip, because the worst of what you might imagine is true: It’s an unconscionable foray into excess. Hence, another thing you can’t ask on the Men’s Trip: “How many have you had?”
I’ve had a few by now. We all stand around, wedged between firelight and moonlight, talking. But this isn’t “talking” like in mixed company, outside the kiva. When just men are together, it’s the act of talking that matters. It’s like the rap in hip-hop — you can listen, if you dare, but the real point of the nasty talk is musical.
As most common stereotypes would predict, there are, of course, sexual undertones, and overtones, to everything. But don’t get too excited; this stuff really isn’t that different from hanging outside the gym at the junior-high dance. Suffice to say that, for tonight, “mount” has become a remarkably versatile and amusing verb. Also, when men gather in groups of just men, warmth and affection often manifest as bantering, badgering and derogatory flagellating. This year, for example, everyone is really glad Ben is with us — truly so, this being his first men’s trip — so “Ben, you suck!” has quickly become our terms of endearment. It seems to bring us all closer together.
Still, though, sometimes sincere, touching compliments slip out. Like earlier today, when my relieving myself on the river’s edge was cut startlingly short by the sudden appearance of a passing boat.
“Don’t worry,” Andy reassured me from nearby. “He just thought you were throwing him a rope.”
Sometime around midnight, I decide to give up on Bill and his friend arriving tonight, and wearily turn toward my sleeping bag on the river’s edge. Before I wander down, though, I lean toward Todd.
“The No-Plan is unfolding perfectly,” I tell him.
I startle awake. It’s still dark. I turn and see the moon ready to plunge behind the ridge. It must be three in the morning.
“Get up, you scumbags!” Bill’s big voice booms from the middle of the wide, shallow river. A flashlight flashes, searching the shore.
“Get up, you bastards! We’re stuck in the mud!”
After a couple of hours on the water, we hit shore on river left, drag our boats up and pull shoes from our drybags. While others mill around and set up lunches, Andy, Randall, Jan and I head off on a run.
We do this every year: an hour-long sprint across broken-slickrock desert up and down steep arroyos, until we scramble up a great volcanic plug with a staggering view. It’s dangerous and grueling, and my legs always come back shredded and stinging from dodging and leaping saltbush and sage. But it’s so great.
This is another Man Thing, is it not? I don’t mean to suggest that men are somehow tougher than women — fairness and accuracy wouldn’t allow that. My wife runs at 6 every morning year round; I join her, only with great effort, once a year or so to show her I still care. And I’ve seen two babies come into this world, so I know first-hand that, if men had to go through childbirth, cockroaches would already rule the earth. So it’s something else.
I have a theory: Men are from Utah. Women are from Telluride.
I mean this metaphorically, of course. I propose that each place represents the topography of the psychology each gender generally inhabits. I also, though, don’t mean this metaphorically at all.
Take the example at hand. For the Men’s Trip, it’s Utah: big, raw, wild, exposed. And we’re all paddlers, so maybe this group’s spirits and styles are best expressed in this canyon’s entrenched meanders — seeking not, perhaps, the most direct route, but certainly the most lovely. Because to men, function is beauty.
For women, I propose, beauty is function. Several of the men on this trip have wives — also veteran river rats — who every year gather for their own Women’s Trip. This, too, is a shameless foray into excess; but for the women, it is a carefully planned visit to a luxury hotel with posh amenities in classy Telluride. There, they savor saunas, pools and masseuses. At night, they walk Telluride’s scenic sidewalks and eat in nice restaurants and wander the fancy shops. And we men all strongly encourage, support and assist our wives’ carving out their own space in their own place. We think it’s a good thing for the whole tribe.
But I also know that, as a Men’s Trip venue, that would hold less appeal than a sleep-over at Michael Jackson’s house.
I’ll instead take this: The four of us claw our way up the crumbling volcanic tower and mount the summit (heh heh). Before us stretches redrock ridges and a brown belt of bare cottonwoods, through which threads the slowly sliding river. The dozen boats of our manly flotilla lie on the rocky shoreline below.
“Ben, you suck!” we bellow affectionately.
Morning. The campfire is rekindled. For breakfast, Andy, Todd and I hold bratwurst impaled on sticks over the flame. Meanwhile, we work on our retirement plans.
“I’ve got it: greeting cards for men,” I announce. “We’d have three lines: cards men would send to men, cards men can send to women and cards men would like to get from women.”
“There’s too few places that would carry any good ones,” Todd notes, crushing our dreams. We think some more while we roast our brats.
“Do you need a beer?” Andy asks politely. But I scold him: “You can’t ask that on a Men’s Trip. It’s not about need. If there’s a point to your drinking, you’ve got a problem. I want a beer. Pointlessly.”
He hands me one, eyes lowered apologetically. To avoid these conflicts in the future, we divert our attention to coming up with a list: The Top 10 Things You Can’t Ask on the Men’s Trip:
10. “Are you going to pick that up?”
9. “Can I borrow a mirror?”
8. “Did you wash your hands?”
7. “When will you be back?”
6. “Do these pile pants match my paddling jacket?”
5. “Did you toot?”
4. “Is there any Zima left?”
3. “Congratulations. When are you due?”
2. “What did you mean by that?”
And the number-one thing you can’t ask on a Men’s Trip: “What are you thinking?”
What I’m thinking, actually, is that as zany and crude as I make all this sound, to be fair and accurate about it, the Men’s Trip is really more like “Boys Gone Mild.”
Our after-breakfast activities illustrate this: Eric and Bill play golf (all sandtrap). Todd and I throw a baseball around. Others play a game of tug-of-war on milk crates. The guitar comes out and gets passed around: Dead music, Jimmy Buffett, some Pink Floyd and, of course, a healthy helping of Neil Young — an honorary Men’s Tripper. Andy, meanwhile, decorates the riverside with a lovely free-form arch of driftwood.
The truth is, we don’t really need to act like stereotypical men all the time. And, the truth also is, we don’t want to act that way at home or around women. It’s just that, every now and then, it does our spirits good to pirate a visit to a kiva. It may not be pretty, but its function is its beauty.
After Utah, the best plan I can imagine is a visit to beautiful Telluride. And I mean that non-metaphorically. And metaphorically.
Chasing a stray baseball, I wander over and mention my newfound Men’s Trip insight to Andy.
“Everyone here is really so nice,” I tell him.
“Y’know what they say,” Andy responds with a warmth only a man could understand, “if it’s day three of the trip and you don’t know who the asshole is, it’s you.”
Ken Wright is a self-proclaimed “parenting bum.” He lives with his family in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. This story is from his most recent book, “The Monkey Wrench Dad” (Raven’s Eye Press).