Nick Offerman’s Call of the Candy-Ass
In his inaugural column for Outside, the ‘Parks & Recreation’ star sounds off on Henry David Thoreau, emasculation, and bullying in the outdoors
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Earlier this year, I was sitting in Los Angeles traffic lamenting that my pathetic seat heater has only three settings, and listening to a podcast hosted by an outdoorsman. At one point, the guest casually mentioned Henry David Thoreau, and the host all but jumped on him, repeatedly and derisively calling Thoreau a lightweight because his most celebrated work, Walden, didn’t involve Thoreau staying deep in the wilderness. “He was still walking home to his mom’s every other day!” the host insisted. “He was a total candy-ass!”
I powerfully admire Thoreau, but I wasn’t angered. Instead, I wondered if this guy was aware of the naturalist’s storied toughness—his inner circle of friends knew him to hike for many miles, often with wet feet, and to have little use for those who couldn’t keep up—and if he believed that Thoreau would have cared much about impressing his peers with manly accomplishments. But I also wondered if I, too, might be ridiculed by the “people of the outdoors” for my own version of adventure. Am I doing this wrong? Maybe. I don’t have a story involving walking home to my mom, but I do have a tale of emasculation.
In the late 2000s, I was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, commuting around 11 miles by bicycle every day to Red Hook, Brooklyn, where I was building my first cedar-strip canoe in a rented workshop. (If I’m not employed at my first love, acting, then I’m likely engaged in my other first love, woodworking.) I was pedaling a Specialized Tarmac, usually in full cycling regalia, and relishing the opportunity to be out in the weather while getting in two killer workouts a day. There, in the most densely populated city in the country, I would fly all the way down the Hudson River bike path before cutting across the tip of downtown to catch the wide-open bike lane over the Manhattan Bridge. Some days I would stop at the pinnacle of the bridge and watch storm clouds moving in over the harbor, an edifying experience unavailable to the myriad souls in cars and subway trains. (You have to leave a little room for poetry, I guess, like a real candy-ass.) Once in Brooklyn, I’d cut south along the water to reach the shop.
Much of the route was so amazingly free of automobiles that I would often fall into a meditative reverie, zipping along in silence, focusing on my form, my breathing, my pumping legs—always trying to shave seconds off my roughly 45-minute time as a matter of pride and principle, and to widen the gap over the next best method of getting there: two trains and a bus, which took an hour. This was just basic New York City bragging-rights stuff, knowing inside and out the most efficient and economical route to get from one part of the five boroughs to another.
I especially loved the mile along Furman Street, which runs under the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway and was frequently deserted. Here I could truly lose myself in the pleasures of speed. Imagine my shock, then, when on a crisp 45-degree December morning, a Chrysler 300 full of young men and women materialized next to me, and the passenger-side male in the back seat loudly and cleanly spanked me. Whap!
I’m telling you, he absolutely nailed my medium-large and spandexed ass, perched tantalizingly atop my seat. The jarring blow goosed me forward on my bike, while his crew hooted, as if a winning goal had been scored.
Then the car sped away, nearly drowning out the triumphant cheers and laughter.
I veered off the street and barely managed not to crash. Rage and humiliation washed over me. Only through luck had I managed to avoid a broken limb or worse. I was badly scared and welling up with tears.
Getting on a bike or into a canoe is not something I do to impress anybody with my toughness or masculinity. It’s what I do to escape those kinds of domestic and cultural stressors.
Cut to some months later, and I had moved back home to Los Angeles, which, somewhat counterintuitively, is a substantially worse city to traverse by bicycle than New York. The streets of L.A. are wider, the population much more spread out, and the weather more conducive to cycling, to the point of being laughable. But there are very few good bike lanes, and getting to many places involves what we outdoor journalists call “uphill sections.”
Nevertheless, when I was cast in a Comedy Central show that was shooting in Burbank, about a 30-minute ride north of the woodshop I had opened in Atwater Village, I was hell-bent on commuting by bike as much as possible. My route required using a long stretch of San Fernando Road, a somewhat muscular thoroughfare with two lanes of traffic in each direction and a solid row of parked cars along each side. My best option was to stick as close as possible to the parked cars, maintaining laser vigilance in case a door was flung open.
Some drivers were extremely angry about having to share the road with a cyclist, so I was deferential with my gestures, erring on the friendly side with a Hello! wave or a palms-up gesture meant to convey: Hey, why don’t we try to make space for each other? I am actually a pretty friendly guy.
Still, horns would blare, and some geniuses would swerve at me slightly. Even so, none of this prepared me for the evening when a man cut me off with his Corolla and got out in a pugilistic fury, ready to throw down over the temerity I had displayed by riding in “his” space. (The nerve!) Frightened, I loudly but carefully asked him if he really wanted to fight. He screamed in reply, “Get off the fucking road!” before jumping back behind the wheel and zooming away. Fortunately, the Comedy Central show didn’t get renewed, so we were denied the opportunity for a rematch and possible second spanking.
The particular stripes of dumb in these two anecdotes strike me as having originated in the same fragile place as the urge to call a great naturalist and writer a candy-ass: A place of insecurity, fear, disappointment, and pain. A place of weakness. I sense that demeaning podcast hosts and cyclist-hating drivers come from a culture of bullying and aggression, one that so often misunderstands our need for outdoor adventure. For me, getting on a bike or into a canoe, or even just taking a hike, is not something I do to impress anybody with my toughness or masculinity. Quite the opposite: it’s what I do to escape those kinds of domestic and cultural stressors, to try and approach the world with empathy despite my human propensity to cause others pain.
If it’s intrepid wilderness adventuring you seek, I humbly encourage you to read some Thoreau, especially The Maine Woods, which includes some deep trekking and even deeper thinking. If Henry is to be labeled a candy-ass, then I can only aspire to be called the same.
Nick Offerman is an actor, a woodworker, and the author of five books, including, most recently, Where the Deer and the Antelope Play.