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The Great Outdoors Mancation

These are not members of the Great Mancation of 2008. They are members of the Penultimate Mancation of 2008. Photo by Attila Horvath.

I had never been so happy to see other human beings in all my life. I was sitting alone at a picnic table in firelight, trying not to cut my fingers off while slicing potatoes, when some kind of critter came sniffing around the campsite. Skunk. It was dark, I had no flashlight, the skunk seemed not the least bit afraid of me or the fire, and I began wondering if the gas station several miles away sold tomato juice. I wondered why in hell my buddies were running so late and whether they'd show up at all.

I hate to admit it, but I was experiencing something like … fear. So I lit a cigarette, thinking that skunks, like insects and other creatures who have no regard for personal liberties, would be repelled by it. Otherwise, I remained stock still as the skunk began to hone in on me and my potatoes.

The stars above me were positively throbbing and I was just about to start whistling to get my courage up when I heard a car approaching, saw headlights flashing through the trees and heard what was unmistakably the Grateful Dead being played way too loud from a car winding slowly down the road. I knew then that I would be okay. Three of my favorite knuckleheads in the whole wide world pulled into the parking space, piled out of the car laughing and the skunk went slinking away – his foraging delayed for an hour or two.

So began the Great Mancation of 2008.

***

Though popularized in the 2006 Vince Vaughn movie, The Break Up, the term mancation is of dubious origin. What it entails, of course, couldn't be more clear – a bunch of guys go on a beer-drinking vacation of some sort or another without wives or girlfriends and proceed to tell dirty jokes, act like jackasses and just generally try to evade all the unwonted expectations of male adulthood.

The most popular of these kinds of excursions are (not unpredictably) oriented towards golf and/or gambling. Las Vegas has always been a prime destination, as have been golf resorts around the country. But the mancation needn't stick so strictly to the template. For guys who still want to act like adolescents for a weekend, and who may want to avoid draining their checking account at the casino, there are plenty of other options.

Over the last several years, tourism boards and outdoor tourism providers have begun targeting this not-so-terribly-hard-to-predict niche market, and for good reason. Fishing, climbing, camping, skiing and rafting companies know a trend when they see one, and almost all have developed packages meant to appeal to beer-swilling old buddies in search of a reason to catch up.

P.J. Stevenson, who works at Rivermen Whitewater Rafting Company in Fayetteville, WV, says her outfit has several packages specifically designed to appeal to groups of men who want a bit of outdoor excitement during the day and then a little diversionary entertainment at night. Amongst the mancations that they offer are the Mountain Mancation, the Good Ol' Boys Getdown and the Redneck Romp (the latter with a NASCAR theme).

These packages generally include a day or two of guided rafting on either the Gauley or New Rivers, which would be attraction enough, but the company also has seven different types of lodging available (from tenting to deluxe cabins) and there is an on-site beer bar, The Lost Paddle Lounge, where tired rafters can repair for a cold one at the end of the day. "For us," P.J. says, "it's a lot of groups of guys – eight to 15 people, typically – coming down to re-live college days."

***

On my own recent mancation, I met up with three old high school friends at Paint Creek State Park in Ross County, OH. By profession we are a radiologist, a tennis pro-shop manager, a banker and a writer guy (me). We picked a weekend when we would all be free, got permission from our significant female others and made the requisite promises to them to be safe, not to be idiots, etc. Paint Creek was chosen because it lies more or less in between Cincinnati (where they live) and Athens, Ohio (where I live).

We had exactly one canoe, one fishing rod, one football, one deck of cards, four tents (dudes don’t share tents) and a couple of kick-ass battery-powered lanterns. There was also a ridiculous amount of food (mostly burgers, steaks and bratwursts) and we may or may not have drunk copious amounts of beer surreptitiously at night. (Alcohol is prohibited in Ohio State Parks, though it seems – judging by the dumpsters on the way out – that it's tolerated so long as you keep it down. And yes, old hands such as ourselves can drink both copiously and surreptitiously. We learned something in high school, anyway.)

In the early autumn weather with the leaves just starting to go from green to gold, we did some pronouncedly amateurish fishing off the bank of our campsite (which resulted in no fish and a reel so tangled in line that it may be broken irreparably) and did some of the most inept paddling of a canoe in Paint Creek's history. There were also a few hours of throwing the football, some political wrangling and too many Sarah Palin impressions to count ("I said thanks but no thanks on that pass to nowhere"). There was an epic $20 best-ball duel on the putt-putt course (so there you go – golf and gambling are unavoidable on mancations) and euchre games that went well into the early hours on both nights of our stay.

What I noted most about the weekend, though, is how the quality of conversation seems more elevated around a campfire than, say, in a golf cart. Perhaps it was the firelight on the undersides of leaves that made it all seem so profound, but there is something about firelight that pares away the unnecessary in human discourse. This is particularly true when skunks come circling around your campsite and you don't quite know whether you're just supposed to play it cool or run for fear. (The answer, as far as we could tell, was to keep a clean campsite and not piss them off – this conclusion reached by consensus.)

At any rate, it was one of the most meaningful and relaxed vacations, brief as it was, that I have had in a long time. When you come back home and you say to your wife/girlfriend, "I don't even know if I can explain how much fun we had," you know you've had a pretty damn good time. And that, it seems, is what mancations are meant to be.

(For the record, these four members of the Indian Hill High School graduating class of 1992 are voting overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, with one straggler, who claims to be worried about his money, undecided – this person not being, incidentally, the banker, the writer or the radiologist. Get it together, Brett!)

***

Tamara Brown, public relations manager for the Ohio Division of Tourism, says of the term mancation, “It really just puts a name to some of the things that men were doing anyway."

Don't we know it. We've been procuring food in the woods for centuries. Our forefathers were, at least. We now find ourselves procuring food (and other things) from the cooler, these days. Call it the malaise of post-industrial America, or the paving of our once-green wildness, but most of us (hunters, notwithstanding), have admitted that we mainly go out to the woods together to compare notes about an increasingly incomprehensible universe and to build a great big fire.

Not being a psychologist or an anthropologist, I cannot verify that claim. I do know that it is good to forcibly pry oneself away from SportsCenter now and then – even if you find yourself just bullshitting and dealing cards by lantern on a picnic table while turning a hotdog on a stick.

Left to ourselves, if you listened closely, you may have heard us talk about books or music, or how much we love our families – even our in-laws in a few cases. Oblique references to Animal Farm might be heard ("No animal shall drink alcohol ... to excess"), as well as inevitable references to Lord of the Flies ("Dude, that fire sucks. What'd you do, start it with Piggy's glasses?")

Or else you may have heard us bust out laughing when one of us farts. Particularly if you were in the RV a few campsites away.

If nothing else, our laugher (or was it the farts?) kept the skunks away and I'm already looking forward to Mancation 2009. It probably won't be a Redneck Romp, but who knows? Maybe it'll be a Good Ol' Boys Getdown. Or maybe we'll just go out into the woods again, drink beer, play cards, throw the football. Seems like those are things men need to do now and then.

Stephen McKean gets his exercise by being dragged around Athens, OH by his 12-year-old mutt, Henry. Their favorite summer activity is to splash around together in Raccoon Creek at Moonville (Zaleski State Forest, OH).