We wound through narrow trails carved into the Carolina mountains, covered by canopies of colored trees and specs of sunlight. We hopped over fallen logs and braved the temperature-drop of higher elevations. We treaded over wooden bridges, our feet, for a second, thumping instead of crunching through dying leaves stretched out before us like stained and lumpy blankets.
“Yo, man. Nature’s a serious punk,” Cody said, and all of us, each of the other five guys hiking in line, away from Flagler for our four-day “mancation,” couldn’t have agreed more.
“For sure!” Ryan said. “Oh yeah,” Chris added. “Total pipsqueak,” said Spencer. And Johnny kicked the earth, just to show it who was boss.
From the second we started planning this trip, we did it as Men, conquerors of nature, modern-day pioneers. We’d buy a keg of ale, cook steaks, make fires, climb mountains.
We’d also make s’mores, of course, eat ice cream and run a corn maze, but that was beside the point. The point was that we were powerful, and self-reliant, regular Paul Reveres and Ron Swansons.
Work didn’t exist out there in the mountains. Mention your job and you were liable to lose a mancation point, a system we devised the first day of the trip without ever talking about it.
The rules were somehow pre-ingrained, instinctual. Order a salad for any meal: minus one mancation point. Complain that your feet were hurting or that you were too full for another brew: minus one. You might gain a point by making a key executive move, like having the coffee ready before the rest of us got up in the morning. Or by riding in the back of the truck 20 minutes up a dirt road toward an overlook, so the rest of us didn’t have to.
It was a competition, but we already knew Johnny would be the winner. He was already an outdoorsman, and his family was letting us stay in their cabin, with its country décor and abundance of mounted animal heads, for free.
Last place, automatically, would go to Joey, who bailed on the trip the day before we were supposed to leave. The rest of us were vying for second.
A half-mile up our hike, we reached a clearing, where the woods turned into sand and rock and a towering waterfall, at least 100 feet high. We rested, drank water, took pictures. And Johnny disappeared into the forest.
He wasn’t following a trail, he was blazing one. And when he reached the top, waved at us through a hole in the trees and yelled, “Hey, guys!” we all threw down our stuff and followed him up.
Here we were, five chumps with no hiking experience, five avid indoor enthusiasts, and we were freeform scaling the incline of a mountain, using roots and branches for leverage. It was all about shifting your weight, being confident, finding then suring your footing.
It was all about knowing you weren’t the same person here as you were back home. Here, we weren’t writers and lawyers and engineers; we were Animals. Capital A.
At the top, looking down at where you came from was the payoff. That used to be me, you might think, looking down at the pebbles and twigs.
We set up a camera and took group shots. The serious pose. The mean one. The one where we flex like wrestlers and yell, trying to capture what we were truly like when we were young enough to be this stupid.
At the peak of a mountain, it’s impossible not to think about what would happen if you fell from it, how you’d tumble, if, at some point, your limbs would steady and you’d close your eyes, have that revelatory movie-moment where your past plays out before you with abstract clarity. Like a slow-motion replay, or the last line of a poem.
But you don’t talk about that. You don’t talk at all.
You stand at the edge. Take in the silence. You look out, into the ranges in the distance and the nothing between your feet and the ground thousands of feet below.
Then you spit into the wind and watch it fall. Because you earned this moment. And this is mancation. And spitting is totally plus one.
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