ENO RIVER STATE PARK, NORTH CAROLINA (PHOTO: JIM LIESTMAN)

The Man Date

Yo, bro, check this out.

“How much further?” I wailed, cursing my sleeping bag as it limply dangled from my pack, chafing the back of my legs with every step.

“A little less than halfway there,” Peanut yelled back at me, “I’d give it about another twenty-five minutes or so.”

“Great,” I thought, “Yay. Awesome. Fun trip.”

I readjusted the straps on my backpack, accidentally dropping a tent into a mud puddle in the process.

It was a balmy September night, too hot to be wearing the t-shirt and khaki shorts that I had on and too humid to be wearing any clothing at all. Each additional five minutes on the trail yielded another liter of sweat. My aching body chastised me for going to the gym that morning.

Brash, Peanut and I had been “planning” this trip for the last six months or so. It started as a crazy idea — one of those “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” ideas that you have while showering or not paying attention to your biochemistry lecture. And then it progressed to semi-serious banter — “you know, we should really start looking for good places to go camping,” followed by short fifteen-minute bursts of passionate Googling. We went so far as to buy a camp stove gas canister at Wal-Mart. But, eventually, inevitably, tragically, our plans just devolved into a really elaborate joke.

“Guess what we’re doing next weekend?” Peanut would ask.

“Camping,” Brash and I would say with a grin and a chuckle, knowing full well that life would get in the way and that “camping” was merely a euphemism for “sitting in the apartment, ordering three boxes of Buffalo Chicken Kickers from Domino’s, and watching a few episodes of Planet Earth.

Being the only three guys in our immediate group of friends not entangled in serious, long-term relationships, we had fallen into the routine of weekend man dates. The man date is a curious social phenomenon. In 2005, the New York Times revolutionized the world of inter-male interactions when it reported on two buddies, back home for a holiday break, paying a slightly awkward visit together to the Museum of Modern Art: “two heterosexual men socializing without the crutch of business or sports,” a “socially perilous… peculiar ritual” bursting with “the emotional support of male friendships.” What? You mean emotionally connecting with other males is socially acceptable now? Brash, Peanut, and I embraced this concept openly, going on late-night burger and milkshake binges, playing countless games of pool, and watching a myriad of romantic comedies.

The start of a new school year and a slew of recent relationship troubles renewed our sense of adventure. White Wine Wednesdays with William — our weekly ritual of imbibing while simultaneously watching whimsical film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays — just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Shakespeare in Love is less than fulfilling when you’re going through a messy break-up. So we decided to get away — to get some fresh air, to fulfill the dreams of months past, and to embark upon the grandest man date of all, the weekend camping trip — a storied tradition in the history of man and the pinnacle of male camaraderie.

“Turn right,” Peanut yelled from further down the trail, pivoting around and inadvertently blinding us with a powerful beam from the lantern.

We made our way down a set of steps, the rotting wood crumbling beneath our feet. The trail ended about fifty feet ahead and funneled into a narrow wooden footbridge. It was much wobblier than I had anticipated, swinging precariously thirty feet above the Eno River, which, as a result of a dry summer, probably would have been more accurately dubbed the Eno Stream.

Stopping in the middle of the bridge, I readjusted the loose straps on my backpack and rubbed my sore legs, curiously watching a drop of water from the afternoon rainstorm jump from strand to strand on a nearby spider web.

Being in nature has a way of clearing one’s head of clutter and allowing the mind to wander. Watching the intricate web shimmer in the moonlight, I thought about my childhood, growing up in the middle of Kansas, and the plethora of camping trips that I took with Boy Scout Troop 287. I thought about my twelve-year-old self, slightly tubby and incorrigibly awkward, struggling to pitch a tent with my buddies, Cory and Andrew, and about the red Swiss Army knife that I used to whittle sticks with for fun, the same knife that I still keep in my top desk drawer back home. I haven’t used it in years.

We trudged along the path for another fifteen minutes, conscious that every minute walked was a minute closer to a roaring campfire and a hot, satiating meal. In the distance, we could hear people talking, a welcome symphony after our long, arduous hike from the parking lot. Climbing up the hill to the campsite, I could distinguish the voices and giggles of a group of teenage girls sitting around a fire and singing songs. Great — women.

“Why, hello there!” an older woman exclaimed, stepping out from behind a tree and startling us. “Ma name is Sheila! I’m with the Girl Scouts up here. Hope y’all don’t mind the noise. They can get mighty excited sometimes.”

Sheila was the physical manifestation of the word “twang.” Think Dolly Parton in hiking boots and poncho.

“Y’all must be looking for the campsite. Ooh, I hope they didn’t book y’all in campsite four, because we’re in campsites three and five, but there weren’t ‘nuff space, so we moved some of our tents int’ campsite four, because we were figurin’ that no one else was comin’ tonight. Y’all aren’t in campsite four, are ya? Cause if ya are, that’s fine — we can move! Ooh, but I sure hope y’all aren’t in campsite four.”

After assuring her that we had booked campsite two, which was most certainly not campsite four, and that no, we did not mind the noise but thanks for the concern, we settled into our surrogate home for the night. We hastily pitched the tent in a forest clearing, fumbling to put
together our camp stove, the savior that would bring much needed relief from the agony of hunger.

But we discovered that in our haste, we had bought the wrong size of gas canister, rendering our heavy metal stove nothing more than a glorified paperweight, which as it turns out, is not so useful in the middle of the forest. Panic began to set in, but we were men — specifically, men with a lighter.

Since it had been raining for the previous three days, everything in the forest seemed to be drenched; it was nearly impossible to find anything resembling dry wood to build a fire with. But we were determined, so we started scouring the forest for dry tinder. Thirty minutes later, after wandering half the forest and inadvertently wading through a large patch of poison ivy and a deceptively deep puddle, we gathered a small pile of twigs, trying desperately to get a sustained flame.

“Shit,” Peanut mumbled.

“What happened?”

“The lighter melted,” he said sheepishly. “It melted. It won’t light.”
It was 10:30 p.m. The three of us sat back in our chairs and crumpled into dejected heaps of dreams lost, potential unfulfilled, and hunger unsated. We made numerous attempts to borrow some matches from the Girl Scouts, but alas, each time we approached their tents, lights would be switched off and giggles would be hushed in an effort to ward off the nosy troop leaders that we had been mistaken for. After all, there was much chitchat to be had and gossip is best served without an audience.

Sitting around our imaginary campfire quickly became a metaphysical experience. Isn’t it funny how space and time work? We were in the middle of the woods, resigned to a hard fate of raw hot dogs, raw chili, raw beans, and Doritos, washed down with a luxurious bottle of Pinot Gatorade. The dull rumble of a plane overhead reminded us that we weren’t too far from actual civilization, urging, beckoning us to jump into Peanut’s orange Volkswagen Beetle and make the fifteen-minute drive back to campus. “You could pick up a lighter,” it seemed to say. “And when you do, maybe you’ll just give up and decide to party the night away with your other friends. Who thought camping would be a good idea, anyway?”

But being as stubborn as we were, we decided to stick it out. After all, raw hot dogs weren’t so bad. We looked up at the stars through the forest clearing, telling stories of camping trips past. We laughed at our inabilities to stay in “normal” relationships, and vowed to stay away from women as much as possible, fully knowing that this pact was an empty one. We planned a road trip that we would take someday, maybe the summer after graduation, when our lives and futures would be different, but we three, at least together, would be exactly the same.

The next morning, we packed up our dew-soaked supplies and made the hour-long hike back to the parking lot. We piled into Peanut’s car and drove back to campus, ending the man date as all real men should — with brunch at the campus art museum. Sitting behind towering glasses of orange juice and mouthwatering plates of French toast and scrambled eggs, we meditated on our experience.

“Guess what we just did?” Peanut asked.

“We went camping,” Brash and I responded, laughing in unison.