Can the Outdoors Save Guys from Themselves?

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O tender child of but six years: may this massive motocross-style helmet, complete with 14 intake vents, fit and protect you, for I understand not the ways of the online sizing chart. 

I clicked purchase, and two weeks later my son, Casper, and I were roaring across a high sage desert, darkness falling, canyons plunging, chunky rocks looming, frigid wind howling, expensive epic of cinematic masculinity unfolding.

What in the end does a father want for his child? I wanted Casper to not get pneumonia on the first fucking day of our trip. But in his infinite wisdom, the god of the utility terrain vehicle (or UTV) forsook windshields, windows, climate control, and, for that matter, an effective muffler. I draped my coat across the boy’s little lap. 

“Don’t let this blow away!” I yelled. 

“What?”

“Don’t let this blow away!”

“What?” 

Our conversation might’ve continued in this vein had I not been so caught up in staying upright. I’d been driving this bizarre vehicle—essentially a small, high-octane dune buggy—for an hour now and was steadily getting worse at it. We were in northwest Arizona, sloshing along a canyon somewhere between the Colorado Plateau and the Mojave Desert. Yucca and scrub oak blurred past as we fishtailed wildly across gravelly BLM two-track. The natural thing to do would be to slow down, but the light was fading, and we had another hour, or maybe five, until we reached camp. So I gunned it, swerving into the lonesome western landscape, hunched dementedly over the wheel, an off-road, neon-helmeted Neal Cassady.

I first heard about Wilderness Collective, the group putting on our mechanical foray, when it launched in 2011. Ostensibly, the Los Angeles outfitter offers $3,500 high-horsepower adventures for stylish urban dudes. But that’s only the wrapper. The essence of the brand is the invisible skein of brotherhood and truth stretched between the snowmobiles and dirt bikes. “Wilderness makes you better”—that’s the motto. During trips to Yosemite, Alaska, and Death Valley, men rev into a higher echelon of manhood, growing closer as fathers and sons and friends and bros. Whatever ails us is no match for the improving power of wild lands plus loud machines.

In 2019, the group launched its first child-friendly outing, “a four-day off-road adventure to the Grand Canyon designed for fathers and their kids to have the adventure of a lifetime.” Each day would involve two to four hours of driving, periodic stops, and backcountry camping in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, and eventually we’d end at the North Rim. Four staffers would prepare our food and document us assiduously. Along the way, a dozen dads would undergo unspecified man-growth.

“Don’t roll your vehicle,” Martín Vielma, our chill, ponytailed guide told us at the start of the voyage. We dads and our kids, most under ten, had fanned out around him in a giant UTV warehouse in Saint George, Utah. We were a mostly white group, middle-aged, and all straight, as far I could tell: some sporty Dallas guys who went to church together, some LA guys with tattoos, a tech guy from San Francisco. Vielma reviewed a few additional points of UTV operation, but the essence was: don’t be stupid.

In the run-up to the trip, I had envisioned long days of contemplation and connection. The scrubby hills and low plains of red-brown, the washed-out stretches of prickly pear and cholla—this is the type of country where you figure out a thing or two. The minute I punched the gas, I realized the idea was laughable. The drone of the motor and the roar of the wind obliterate everything—every thought, every idea, every word spoken. We were quivering husks when at last we rumbled up to a small plateau in Mohave County, Arizona. 

While I pitched our tent, the Wilderness Collective crew built a fire nearby, and in time everyone drifted over for dinner and warmth. I let Casper get to know the other kids—mostly boys, though not all—as the grown-ups chatted around the blaze. There was talk of jobs, motorcycle projects, whose kid was killing it in soccer, and, as occurs on every guy trip, epic adventures past.

But we were here for the future. A father thrums with a deep and weary hope, after all: You, my child, shall fuck things up slightly less than I did. That’s a heavy burden in its own right; add a widespread overhaul of masculinity to the proceedings and things get extra complicated. In Heart of Maleness, the French philosopher and sociologist Raphaël Liogier describes the strange fog men find themselves in after #MeToo, “struggling to redefine our ambitions as men, our fantasies as men, our behavior as men, our desires as men. In short, our place in the world.”

Frankly, anyone so disoriented by the current landscape strikes me as either willfully obtuse or weirdly dim. Toxic masculinity, as we now call it, has always oozed through civilization. For your average halfway-­reflective guy, the recent wave of bad-men stories shined a new kind of light on an old situation. The challenge isn’t knowing our place in the world, it’s helping each other get there, starting with the youngest among us.

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