Bonding in the Backcountry: The Secret to Self-Exploration?

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I DON’T WANT TO take off my shorts. I’m standing with 17 other guys at a conference center in rural West Virginia, where the New Warrior Training Adventure (NWTA) is underway. The weekend-long retreat is designed to spark opportunities for self-examination and growth for guys who are struggling with what it means to be a man, and 24 hours in, things have been going pretty well. But now the retreat leaders want us to blindfold ourselves and get naked—that is, absent religious or “other” objections. Actually, I do have one: I don’t want to. So I keep my underwear on, but I do don the blindfold and join hands with my 17 comrades.

We’re led to the woods, each of us utterly dependent on the man ahead of us and responsible for the one behind. When I signed up for the NWTA, I was down for a weekend of exploring a more evolved brand of masculinity. This definitely wasn’t what I’d envisioned.

Illustrations by Zohar Lazar

THIS IS HOW it starts: On a Friday afternoon, I pull up outside a low-slung cinderblock building for the first day of the retreat. A rangy dude in a cowboy hat is the first sign that the weekend is not going to be as cozy as I expected. After I park, he approaches and wordlessly stares, as if he’s a drill sergeant already angry at me. Seriously? I think.

The NWTA is the hallmark event for the ManKind Project (MKP), a nonprofit with 24 chapters across the U.S. The retreat aims to help attendees explore a more developed state of masculinity, by way of connection and self-expression. So what’s with the staredown dude? “Follow me,” he growls, then saunters toward the building.

I trail behind him, toting my duffel and sleeping bag. He leads me to a dim, cavernous room and points me to a guy at a table, where I surrender my phone, keys, and wallet. I’m photographed and assigned a number, 7. This is the first step in separating us from the known world and edging us toward the unfamiliar. My bags are searched by two men who’ve obviously been tipped off that I’m dealing fentanyl. Another guy frisks me for contraband. But getting worked up here seems senseless. Besides, I signed up for this.

Founded in 1984, MKP is something of a forebear to a number of similar men’s groups—Evryman, A Call To Men, Illuman—that have cropped up recently to address the existential crisis that many American males seem to be experiencing. Of the retreats offered by these groups, the NWTA is the most well-known. Sixty-eight thousand men in a dozen countries have completed it, and enrollment is up 8 percent this year, according to Boysen Hodgson, MKP’s comms guy. “More men are awakening from a dark sleep,” he says. “They’re seeing that the bill of goods we were sold about manhood—independent, competitive, dominant, stoic, disconnected—was always a lie.” Now, he says, men are looking for support, connection, and self-expression. Which is why I’m here.

I know that many chest-thumping macho stereotypes are corrosive and deeply harmful, but I’m also tired of apologizing for being male. Moreover, I’d like to build deeper friendships with other guys and get more comfortable with myself. Maybe a guy retreat can move the needle.

AFTER THE INSPECTION, staredown dude leads me to a room where other attendees are sitting on the floor. Within an hour, there are 18 of us, which turns out to be the whole group. Most of the guys are between 30 and 45 years old and here on the advice of therapists or friends who’ve gone through the retreat. The MKP staff consists of about 30 volunteers, all members of various local MKP chapters.

At sundown, our group is led to a former horse barn, where we sit on pillows. A stout, middle-aged guy in a cutoff T-shirt and cowboy boots bangs a staff on the ground. Men have been warriors for thousands of years, he says, but the old notions of masculinity have hurt us and those we love. This weekend, he says, is an initiation into a more affirming kind of manhood, and we’ll be confronting our fears, weakness, and shame. This, we’re told, will unlock our power as men.

I KNOW THAT MACHO STEREOTYPES ARE HARMFUL, BUT I’M ALSO TIRED OF APOLOGIZING FOR BEING MALE.

I was OK with test-driving a new model of masculinity, but, at that moment, I realize that I had no real intention of abandoning the dysfunctional behavior that landed me here. The staff leads us through exercises that are effectively party games: We pair up and tell the other guy what we observe and imagine about him. We then sit back-to-back and try to stand up together. Corny as this sounds, I feel an unusual, and surprising, bond forming with the other men.

In a sharing circle, a quiet guy who drives a school bus for a living explains that he grew up fatherless, with an emotionally abusive mother. As the guy unwinds his story, he is completely vulnerable, and as courageous as a man staring down a tank. At the break, I hug the guy and tell him that he’s the bravest motherfucker I’ve ever met. I feel his body fight the sobs that he needs to let out but isn’t ready to yet. I get it. Around me, other men, some with wet eyes, are hugging. The vibe is neither New Agey nor contrived—it’s just what emerges when we stop bullshitting ourselves.

Turns out, being deeply moved leads to dehydration and hunger. Dinner is a glamorous spread of dry granola and apple slices and all the water you can drink.

Afterward, we split into six-man teams. For the next game, we’re to carry a large log representing “a fallen comrade”—whom we are not to put down—to five stations, picking up a balloon at each. It’s me and five guys against two other teams and the MKP staff. My group grabs the log and takes off across the grass toward a distant drumbeat, guiding us to the first station. The night swallows us up. My team starts slow, and it doesn’t help that the staff repeatedly tries to throw us off. The first station, set near a large tree, is a decoy, with a drummer but no balloons. At another, we’re offered plastic hockey sticks, which, we’re told, are “better” than a balloon.

I spot these ruses and warn the team, and it feels strangely good to be part of a group. We spend a half hour stumbling up and down hills, looking for each station, careful to keep the log off the ground, trusting one another. In the end, our team finishes first. There’s no prize, but we’re proud. It shocks me how quickly and deeply I trust and feel connected to five guys I met just hours ago.

At around midnight, we’re led to rooms that barely hold nine cots each. I fall asleep within seconds.

illustrations of bonding in the backcountry 1
Illustrations by Zohar Lazar

THE NEW WARRIOR Training Adventure is designed to lead guys through a hero’s journey, like in classical literature or Star Wars. We’re definitely in the stage where things get worse before they get better. Saturday begins with 60-second cold showers and oatmeal for breakfast. The retreat, given its design, has faced some criticism over the years, mostly for being too intense and weird. I get it. It’s easy to spoof what’s going on here—the games, the crying, the initial staredowns. But if you engage, this all seems beside the point.

To be sure, processing your deepest emotions can be about as fun as a prostate exam. And yet, after a morning of dancing in a circle (highly awkward), that’s what we do. Standing in two circles, with five or six staffers in the centers, the 18 of us step forward one by one to take on our “shadow selves”—the identities we constructed the moment we learned, usually during adolescence, that we were not good enough, strong enough, or lovable enough. One guy’s moment was in eighth grade, when his friends told him that he had a hairy back and called him weird in front of some girls. Another man’s parents derided him for not being “manly” or as tough as his brothers.

When my turn comes, I step forward and a staffer with a gray beard takes my head in his hands. He says that he’ll be with me on my journey. I explain how, at age 10 or 11, I told my parents that I wanted to be a writer. “That’s great, Bill,” my dad said. “But it’s about the most competitive thing you can do, and nobody makes any money at it.” Translation: I don’t have confidence in you.

I tell the bearded guy—a proxy for my father—that I needed his confidence, not his distrust. But he just keeps telling me that I’m not good enough, that he doesn’t have faith in me. Then I shout that a boy shouldn’t have to earn his father’s love, that he turned away when I needed him to believe in me. My “dad” staggers to the ground under my words, and other staffers cover him with a sheet. He dies. I’m almost out of my body by this point, watching a drama that proceeds as if by its own will.

Another staffer tells me that my words come from love, that I wouldn’t risk telling “Dad” otherwise. I don’t understand this fully, but it feels right. Finally, I bring my father back to life. He smiles. I look up to see the bearded man who sent me off on this quest. He cups my head in his hands and tells me that I’ve done good work and have completed my journey. I’m led away to a soft chair and orange slices, feeling utterly spent but also purged, as if some tumor has been excised. The catharsis leaves me feeling agreeable. Which is how I end up traipsing through the woods nearly naked.

Afterward, we go back to the barn and, as drums pound, dance in the dark around enough candles to roast a hog. There are nearly 50 of us, counting staff. It’s a celebration of having completed our journey and of how far we’ve come. And it’s true. I’ve shared things with these people that I’ve never told anyone. I’m exhausted but also relieved of some of my secret baggage. And, oddly enough, here, being the only dude wearing underwear makes me far more conspicuous than being naked would.

On Sunday afternoon, we say our goodbyes in the parking lot. I tend to bug out of events as fast as possible. But here I don’t. I’m reluctant to close this door. I find the school bus driver and hug him again and tell him that I still think he’s the bravest motherfucker I’ve ever met. I tell him that he has to own his bravery now, which is scary as hell. He says, “I know. I saw you this weekend, bro. I saw your heart. And you’ve got to do the same thing.”

I know he’s right. I drive home feeling exhausted but also strangely buoyed. With each mile, the high of the weekend fades slightly. But maybe when I get home, my shadow self won’t be there.



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