They are like brothers to me, this band of disparate men in various stages of repair.
We are doctors, diesel mechanics, purveyors of coffee, psychiatrists, students and writers, at least by lines denoted on our resumes.
But when we’re together, we’re bigger than our titles, those small words that encompass so much of our lives.
We have climbed mountains together, paddled into wild lakes, floated rivers, drank deeply from what surrounded us.
We break each other, because steel sharpens steel. And because we become strong at the broken places.
And I left them behind. Not by choice, but because the newspaper I worked for laid me off, and Missoula, Montana might be everything that Norman Maclean writes about it, but it’s not economically viable when you get ushered out of the job you’re most qualified for.
But my brothers continued to gather in my absence. They climbed mountains, paddled into wild lakes, and they share records and craft beer on vinyl night and otherwise do what men do in mountain towns on the very fringes of paradise.
In moving back to Oregon, back where it all started, back in time before Montana meant anything to me, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to pursue now that I’m house poor and debt rich in the town I grew up in.
Some days I’m not sure if what I most want in my life can be found anywhere else but in Missoula at a fixed point in time.
The invitation came in mid-December, but life got in the way as usual, and the trip was rescheduled for Valentine’s Day weekend.
How to explain this to the wife?
Bring her along.
The guys have been doing this ice-fishing and remote cabin trip since I left. It’s a yearly tradition made up mostly of the core group of guys and a few add-ons every year.
There was no way I was going to miss this weekend. I’ve been dreaming about it for nearly six years. My guys are mostly never on Facebook or any social media for that matter. They live in the present, sans photos or banal updates.
So I only ever heard of what happens out there on the ice with my band of wild brothers from other mothers and places and even times.
I convinced her to leave Thursday to make the long drive to Spokane so we’d have a shorter drive to Missoula on Friday, when the festivities were set to begin.
I stopped into a Holiday Inn and left shortly after the women at the counter said $130.00 a night plus tax.
I don’t value sleep as much as my wife, so there was no way I was paying $32.50 plus tax per hour of sleep.
We motored to a Motel 6 and left our socks on to walk across the room to the bed, for fear of the floor, and we drained a huge Columbia Valley Zinfandel in tiny plastic glasses before crashing for what remained of the night.
Starbucks for breakfast and two rainy passes later we drove down from Lookout Pass much like we have many times before. But this time we were not going home.
We stopped off at Big Sky, near our old house for a few samples and a quick chat with Mel, the queen of the taproom, before heading down to Kettle House South, affectionally known as the South Hole and a quick meet and how-the-hell-are-you with old friends and colleagues.
I kissed my lovely goodbye and made my way into the thick of a guys weekend like no other. We broke bread together, and by that, I mean five of our group ate Puttanesca together, because what other dish speaks to the soul of brevity and convenience like the Whore’s Pasta?
We drank fine beverages and carried on like we hadn’t seen each other in six months or more.
In the morning, or something dark, cold and unfamiliar we sometimes call morning but which really should have another name to befit its foulness, we rose and packed and punched our way into someone’s SUV for a white-knuckle ride to the Seeley Chain of Lakes.
Like Hobbits, first breakfast was coffee and egg and cheese sandwiches from the Ace Hardware. And then it was the trailhead, a mile-long downhill tromp through a few feet of snow to the iced-over Alva Lake.
A bonfire, of sorts, awaited us, along with a crew of bearded beasts in Carhartts or woolies bearing augers and short fishing poles.
Our fresh crew spelled the old crew for a turn on the augur, as we made at least two holes for each angler in the group.
We baited and waited and bear hugged each other. The ones who had spent the night at the cabin and those of us who opted for a night in the relative comfort of town.
Second breakfast was thrown down in the form of a slab of bacon slices on an old, barely functioning Coleman stove with a cast-iron griddle atop it.
While the bacon sizzled and the eggs simmered and the tortillas browned, we grabbed whatever firearms were laying about and begged the early drinkers to finish their cans so we could shoot them.
We unloaded a box of clay pigeons I had brought and hand tossed them to guys who had never fired a gun before.
We took turns on a Civil War-era replica black powder revolver that kicked like a mule and yelled at the guy who fired the 357 without warning anyone he was going to do so.
Breakfast felt good in our hands as the hot bacon and eggs warmed their tortilla wrappers, and each bite seemed to sink all the way down to our toes.
We fished, we ate, we drank, and we got crazy. Crazy in the way that you get when problem solving isn’t necessarily the major task of the day.
Whiskey made its way around several times, and there was enough beer to keep a small army marching for a month.
We sucked the eyeballs out of the trout we pulled from the lake depths and said it wasn’t so unlike sushi. We took our shirts off as a fuck you to the elements and a reminder of all that we came from.
Or maybe that’s just how I interpreted it.
In the late afternoon, I shivered with an uncontrollable force that told me my core body temperature was too low. My teeth started chattering, and I started nagging some of the guys to head for warmer places.
The walk back up to the cars solved that issue quickly, as I post-holed and my lungs cried out for reprieve in the thin, cold air.
The tradition, after a day on the ice, is to go to the Hungry Bear, a typical Montana roadside bar, and drink some more and maybe eat something you wouldn’t normally eat but which sounds awesome when you’re surrounded by as much alcohol-infused testosterone as we were.
We ordered poppers and wings and rocky mountain oysters and drank Big Sky IPAs. And we played Shake-a-day hoping for a full house and a shot at the $500 pot.
After bar time, we chained up for the half-hour ride up to Vandemeer’s Cabin. That’s the only thing I know it by, and it seems too plain to just call it the cabin in the woods.
Which was dark and cold until filled by 12 hungry guys back from a day of adventure.
The camp cookie, B.O.B., used the propane stove to whip up some baked potatoes and chili, which was nice but nearly deadly with that many men in one, closed-up location with two wood stoves.
We ate and opened more beers from far away places and passed them around. And we stared up at the walls full of old stories from when Vandemeer had lived here himself. And we told stories about the day and the days that had passed.
The outhouse is an open-affair, as in open to the elements with two seats, so you can go with a partner. I suppose this is because Vandemeer’s cabin is in bear country, and, in fact, someone told a story of how an old grizzly bear had crashed through the big front window of the cabin one year, which explains why Vandemeer keeps a loaded 12-gauge by the back door.
I waited until the last possible minute to use the outhouse but was rewarded with the quietest silence I had ever heard. Which of course my mind wants to fill with imaginary sounds that sound an awful lot like grizzly bears.
The night was cold as we lost the heat from the wood stoves and nobody wanted to chop wood and disturb the profound silence.
I saw my breath in the morning and refused to move from my goose-filled bag on the floor until I heard the tell-tale crackle of flames in the wood stove.
Breakfast consisted of eggs and trout and beans, because why not. And guys poured some of the leftover whiskey in their coffee, while the rest of us sipped on lukewarm beer, because if we left it outside, it would be a slushy.
And we talked late into the morning, as the daylight slowly crawled into the confines of the cabin.
The high level of intellectual curiosity in the cabin sparked conversations about everything from hunting ethics to immigration, and we got deep and spiritual and honest, and honesty is the wellspring of true friendship.
The kind of friendship isn’t based on interests, jobs or even proximity to one another.
And though I’ve been around this rock a few places, I’ve yet to find anything like it, anywhere.
Because men are hardwired to project strength, and anything that is not strength is too unpredictable to wield. Honesty, along with emotions, are better left behind the strong exterior.
Vulnerability is death or worse.
And yet we don’t go off to war every spring anymore. Our battlefields are corporate offices and soccer field sidelines.
Our castles, filled with family as they may be, are fortresses of solitude. We wave to each other from our garages every Saturday.
In Montana I have found something that only exists because of honesty and vulnerability. Because we chose to allow each other access to the other parts of what it means to be a man today.
It’s not about guns and ice fishing and booze, those are just outlets for all the pent-up frustrations inherent in a life without our Merry Men or our band of brothers.
But honesty, in the form of owning up to all the garbage in our lives so as to rid ourselves of the hold it has over us, has forged friendships as deep as the bonds of brotherhood and as wide as the distance necessary.
In my quest to better understand the relationships we build around the construct of the modern world, I have not found anything as strong and empowering as the friendships I have taken with me across the miles.
For – Chris, Jon, Beau, B.O.B. and Rob