Can the Outdoors Save Guys from Themselves?

Many years ago, at a dark bar in San Francisco, some friends and I fell into a troubled conversation about the future of men. I don’t mean we foresaw #MeToo or the ascension of Brett Kavanaugh. It was our own fates we prophesied. We anticipated, with the bitter clarity of youth, the vacancy and inflexibility that take hold of men as they age, perhaps even blooming from within. We saw the unaccountable anger and emotional stuntedness posing as stoicism. The isolation and the defensiveness and the joylessness. The technological bewilderment and the many World War II books. The weirdness around women. The weirdness around men. 

We did not like this, but like Wilderness Collective, we had a plan. Staving it all off was just a matter of locking in some inoculative habits: regular conversation, emotional accessibility, pushing back on each other when necessary. By the end of the night, a monthly gathering had been willed into existence. 

This past year, we marked the 20th anniversary of our Man Club, and for all our efforts, I’m not sure what we’ve achieved. No corpse of ingrained maleness lies at our feet; we do stupid man stuff all the time. So what does that bode for men’s groups in general? Are we really the ones who can change us? 

Stephen James thinks so. A psychotherapist and leadership consultant in Nashville, he takes his clients on Wilderness Collective trips—something about them, he told me, helps the guys be more open, honest, brave, and understanding. In addition to running a private practice, James is the author of Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys. As he sees it, these trips counteract the atomization that both suburban and urban living have wrought in men. We live too internally, he said, and no longer “have strong voices inspiring us to be wholehearted men.” 

I felt that old tingle at first—was “wholehearted” code for some kind of essentialist patriarchal nonsense? But what followed felt uncontroversial: modern domestic life has gotten too comfortable for some men, and they are the worse for it. “We’re numb to celebration and protected from struggle,” he said. “Our lives get sanitized, and that leads to anxiety and depression. Our hearts are made to live a bigger life than comfort.”

Dubbeldam described his job as waking guys up—getting them to pay attention to their lives and not just their work, their phones, or whatever else we pour too much of our lives into.

“One of my biggest goals on these trips is to spark introspection,” he said. “Get them to stop and think, What direction am I going in? If I keep sailing at this angle, where does that get me in ten years?” 

As Dubbeldam sees it, men are prone to tunnel vision—“I’m not going to take a breath until I get fired or acquired,” as he put it. Even more troubling, he explained, is the tendency “to wait until something really terrible happens before doing some introspection.”

Though, when that’s the case, Wilderness Collective is there for them. Dubbeldam and James told me of campers past admitting to explosions of heartache: illness, the unraveling of a marriage, the loss of a child. Meanwhile, there’s the everyday man stuff that makes everything harder. “There’s a way men struggle with shame that’s different from how women do,” James said. “Do I measure up? Is my value what I achieve? Men seem to identify with those questions more. The question they have is, If I take my mask off, am I the same as you?”

Some time back, Dubbeldam was on a Grand Canyon expedition with a client who nine months earlier had lost his wife after a long illness. The man’s life had essentially been on hold for years as her condition worsened. Then, on the third day of the trip, something changed.

“He was driving around this corner, and he took it way too fast and rolled his machine down a ravine,” Dubbeldam told me. “I saw him crawl out of the bushes. Thankfully, he was OK. Around the fire that night, it woke him up. He was vibrating. Crashing and basically destroying his machine was the best thing that could’ve happened to him. He’d spent the past six or seven years playing it safe. And finally he wasn’t.”

I thought about that man for a long time. On the final night of our trip, we camped 15 feet from the edge of the Grand Canyon. (About that 277-mile-long, six-million-year-old chasm I will only say: it’s worth a look.) But nobody rolled their machine that day or any other, nobody vibrated with newfound feeling. One of the guys confessed to me that he had something of a reading addiction; otherwise we kept it on the surface. After the long trek from the canyon to the UTV warehouse in Utah, we parted with more handshakes than hugs. We agreed to keep in touch, but we haven’t. 

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