Why Outdoor Friendships Don't Last
You know that special feeling when you meet a stranger during an adventure, form a bond, vow to keep in touch—and then the whole thing fizzles out? Don’t feel alone. As Chuck Thompson explains, firefly relationships are an outdoor rite of passage, and in their own strange way, they’re magic.
If it wasn’t for the photo Uncle Dick took, I wouldn’t even remember what those two Canadian guys looked like, and I can’t recall their names.
Which is odd, since I still have vivid memories of them and the 33-mile Alaska-to-Yukon hike I did in the 1970s, on the Chilkoot Trail. The opening stage of the thing: a long, welcome-to-low-self-esteem uphill out of Dyea that to my ten-year-old legs felt like an assault on the Matterhorn. My brother, Mike, and I breaking camp on the foggy second morning, after Dick temporarily shut down with a nasty migraine (probably embellished a little to force a lesson in self-reliance on us boys).
For all the milestone memories, though, it’s the fleeting yet intense friendship we forged with the Canadians that has remained central to my recollections of that trip. They were buddies, maybe late twenties, on active duty in the Canadian Armed Forces. One was dark haired with a mustache; the other was lighter and clean-shaven. Friendly, rugged, wisecracking. To me they were like the Canuck version of Starsky and Hutch, the kind of cool guys I imagined myself knocking around with someday. Only these two were real.
After we bumped into them on the trail, my uncle mentioned that he’d brought a pistol for self-defense against bears.
“Keep that firearm buried in the bottom of your pack,” one of the guys calmly warned near the border station at the top of the pass. “You’re not supposed to bring that over to the Canadian side.”
During the next three days, they became our best pals—and then we never saw them again. After riding the train with us from Bennett Lake and shaking hands outside the campsite we shared in Whitehorse, they were gone from our lives forever. Except that they weren’t really. In the decades since, every conversation about the hike that Dick, Mike, and I have had inevitably swings around to “those two Canadian military guys.”
Our farewell went down long before there was e-mail, much less Instagram. But that’s not why we didn’t keep in touch. No matter how much they meant to us in the moment, our Canadian pals turned out to be BFFNs—best friends for now.
The phenomenon of intense new friendships dissolving into memories as fast as they formed has repeated for me over the years. A guy named Charles from Los Angeles who I fell in with on a trek through Mexico’s Copper Canyon. Crew members aboard a sailboat named Swan in the North Sea. An unrepentant Austrian named Eckhard. During a two-day ascent of Mount Apo in the Philippines, he borrowed half my gear, food, and cash, repaying me only by somehow being the most charming and hilarious freeloader in Southeast Asia.
Each of these people—all of these friendships—were deeply important to me. Yet each expired at about the same time as the backcountry permit that led to them. I know that some serendipitous travel encounters blossom into long-term bonds, even marriages, but I’m not interested in those. It’s the loved-and-quickly-lost variety I find intriguing. And kinda sad, because they’re so fleeting.
“Short-term friendships, or ‘activity friendships,’ are usually built on the experience that is being shared, rather than a deeper connection between individuals,” says Suzanne Degges-White, chair of the department of counseling and higher education at Northern Illinois University. After I contact Degges-White to ask what accounts for all the BFFNs littering my past, she offers one of those explanations that reduces everything to primal biological imperatives. As a Sunday humanist, I always find these dissatisfying but tricky to refute.
“Being thrown into new and unpredictable circumstances can generate the need to build what could be considered a social security support net,” she says. “Evolution has programmed us to build and rely on such systems when we’re working toward a new or challenging goal, so we are more willing to establish relationships with people we might never have befriended in our everyday lives.”
Then there’s the matter of personal space. At home we tend to behave like NFL linemen, aggressively guarding against territory breaches. That isn’t always possible when you’re crammed with strangers on a dive boat or in a mountain hut. Once our carefully maintained personal walls are penetrated, Degges-White says, “our brains are tricked into assuming we are also more emotionally intimate and connected to the people who are surrounding our physical selves.”
In other words, temporary relationships are to genuine friendships what golden flavoring is to movie popcorn—a sneaky facsimile of the real thing that gets us by.
There don’t appear to have been any peer-reviewed studies published on the subject of short-term friendships—surprising, given that serious research has been carried out in recent years to prove that electric fans can help keep you cool in hot weather—but Degges-White isn’t the only person who’s spent time pondering them. Another keen observer of shallow roots is Irene Levine.
For nearly ten years, Levine wrote a column called The Friendship Doctor for Psychology Today. Until 2017, she ran the popular Friendship Blog. Levine says factors that drive quick friendships include convenience and proximity. She also adds a splash of cold water on short-term friendships, describing what makes them as flimsy as my widely discredited camp-stove pancakes.
“When travelers return home, they have more commitments and less time and opportunity to nurture new friendships,” she told me in an e-mail. “In essence, the friendship has lost the convenience it once had.”
This makes sense, but the reduction of emotional connections to grinding logistics and antiseptic neurological synapses is alienating to me. What about those Canadian military guys? After the passage of so much time, that experience feels like it deserves more than a we’re-just-wired-this-way clinical breakdown.
Levine offers an explanation. “More than the friendships per se, it sounds like these were seminal trips or memorable accomplishments for you, and these individuals were part of the context of those meaningful experiences,” she says. It’s a little unsettling: the gist is that every special relationship in my life has been all about me, not them.
One big problem with adventure friendships is the follow-up. BFFNs can discover that bonds developed on the trail don’t always hold up if you reconnect in regular life, when you’re likely to find out you have less in common than you thought.
No post-trip reunion I’m aware of induced more awkward disappointment than one that involved four travelers who met some years back on the slopes of Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica. A pair of backpackers I know—my wife, Joyce, and her friend Melissa—bonded with a couple from the Southwest. By day they hiked through the forest while macaws, toucans, and parrots soared overhead like psychedelic apparitions. Back at the guest lodge, they debriefed over drinks and dinners. First-timers in Central America, Joyce and Melissa weren’t just thrilled that their new friends seemed so cool—and had a rental car to share—but that they knew so much about the local flora and fauna.
“We run a bird shop back home,” the couple told them. “If you’re ever in the area, you have to stop by!”
An impromptu reunion happened a few years later, when Joyce and Melissa traveled to their friends’ home state. The experience didn’t exactly match their sepia memories.
“We dropped into their store unannounced,” Joyce says. “The aisles were really cramped. The fluorescent lighting was dingy. But the worst was that all these incredible birds we’d seen flying around Costa Rica were in cages, and the whole place smelled like pet shit. No one knew what to say to each other. We left pretty quickly.”
Despite stories like this, most travelers seem to have a positive view of short-term friendships. Online message boards dedicated to the topic heave with perfumed tributes to ephemeral relationships that have enriched treks everywhere from Borneo to Belgium.
“I met a great person in Nicaragua who is 19,” reads a comment from somebody called ayngelina. “At 33 I would never be friends with her at home, the differences would be too great, but traveling we have so much in common.”
A traveler named Stephanie posted that she’d met someone in Colombia who “felt like a long lost best friend, despite being Peruvian-born and living in Switzerland. The immediate openness and willing to connect was there from the start.”
The shortest BFFNship I’ve had lasted all of 30 minutes. One late-fall afternoon in Washington State, I was hiking alone in the Cascades when I crossed paths with a woman in her early twenties. She was nearing the end of a big undertaking: solo-hiking the entire 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail.
She told me she was on the journey to get closer to God. My day hike hadn’t been intended as a spiritual quest, but it happened that I was in the middle of a complicated personal period. I can’t recall how the conversation unfolded—I might have mentioned that I hadn’t been near a church since my mother’s funeral—but during that half-hour, I said things that I hadn’t said aloud in years, if ever. It was an absorbing and perplexing connection, one I still value with an almost mystical attachment, partly for what happened when it was over.
Not two minutes after the woman turned to keep going up the trail and I headed down, I felt more than heard a powerful whoosh in the trees behind me. I looked and saw an enormous barred owl settling onto a cedar branch no more than ten feet from me. Eye level. Broad daylight.
We stared at each other for an eerie, timeless interlude, absorbed in some primal tie amid the quiet of the forest. The second the idea of reaching for my camera entered my mind, the owl swiveled its head 180 degrees and flew off backward with a nearly silent flap of its huge wings. I was heartbroken. Then I realized something: I hadn’t even asked the woman her name.
If there is a literary patron saint of BFFNs, it’s Lynn Schooler, an Alaskan guide who famously wrote about his enduring friendship with photographer Michio Hoshino in 2002’s The Blue Bear, one of my favorite adventure books.
The story of their developing relationship, and of Schooler and Hoshino’s pursuit of Southeast Alaska’s mythic glacier bear, provides the narrative arc of the story. But it’s a toss-off line early on that stuck in a dark little corner of my mind.
“The trip’s end was quickly approaching, and one of the harsher realities of the guide business, I’d learned, is that most friendships are temporary,” Schooler wrote. “Contacts with clients, no matter how companionable, dissipate quickly after the customary end-of-trip dinner, drinks and handshakes.”
When I reach Schooler on the phone, he’s game to reflect on what John Lennon called “people and things that went before.”
“There is a very sad and tragic element to it,” he says. “It’s definitely collateral damage to the lifestyle of being a guide.”
Like many of us, Schooler has pursued a few real-world friendships with BFFNs but generally found them unsustainable. He tells me about a dull dinner he had in Paris with two French photographers who he’d guided for a thrilling week.
“We had great grizzly encounters and got wonderful photos and knocked their whole assignment out of the park,” he says. “But in their home, you’re in a completely different place. They’d experienced me as a wild Alaska guide. In Paris or San Diego or Salt Lake City, I’m just another middle-aged guy.”
To Schooler, the general rule is this: the greater the initial adventure, the more ill-fated the follow-up is likely to be.
“You have a once-in-a-lifetime experience together, and that’s what you have in common,” he says. “How do we add to that when we already kind of peaked in the first week?”
The Blue Bear concludes on a reflective note. Before Schooler and Hoshino could find their elusive quarry, the photographer was killed by a brown bear in Kamchatka. Life is short. Friendships shorter. Schooler and I hang up without ceremony, and I feel like I’ve just met and lost another BFFN.
Afterward, something Schooler said about bonding with strangers while watching humpback whales clicked in my mind. Degges-White was right—our brains do get tricked in unfamiliar circumstances. Just maybe not the way she imagines.
The familiar form that BFFNs assume makes us think of road relationships as genuine friendships, ones we feel obligated to maintain, which is followed by guilt when we fail to do so. Ignoring a friend says as much about you as it does the other person. I think that’s a big part of what I’d been struggling with.
In fact, short-term companions are elements of a far wilder and more enigmatic ecosystem that we can’t possibly hang on to. Whether they’re from Peru, Paris, or the Philippines, carrying BFFNs back home with us is no more realistic than bringing home a tropical bird, a humpback whale, or a messenger owl.
After talking to Schooler, I phone Uncle Dick in Ohio to ask what he remembers most about the Canadians. “Real nice fellas,” he says. “They took a genuine interest in you two boys.”
Dick sends me a photo I don’t recall ever seeing. In it, Mike and I are posing with the Canadians in front of their car at our campsite outside Whitehorse. Gear stored in colorful stuffsacks is strapped to the top of the old Datsun. Dick captured the moment just before those guys drove out of our lives forever.
“I had their names written down somewhere, but I lost all that stuff years ago,” he tells me. “You can read the license of their car in the picture. Ontario plates. Maybe you could track them down with that somehow. I’ll bet the Canadians are a lot more friendly about that sort of thing than we are in this country.”
I’ll bet they are, too, I say, promising to let him know if I manage to turn anything up. But the truth is I’m not interested in any more detective work. I don’t need to find the Canadians—or Copper Canyon Charles or the crew of the Swan or Eckhard the Austrian freeloader—to know that I’ve finally got out of this march of memories what I need.
I was there. Nobody’s waiting for me to go back. Whatever it was that once spoke to me has long since flown away.
Chuck Thompson (@thompson_chuck) wrote about totem-pole artist Roy Vickers in October 2018.