I DO NOT WANT take off my shorts. I'm standing with 17 other guys in a West Virginia countryside convention center where the New Warrior Training Adventure (NWTA) is taking place. The weekend retreat is designed to open up opportunities for introspection and growth for guys who struggle with what it means to be a man, and after 24 hours things are going pretty well. But now the leaders of the retreat want us to blindfold and become naked, that is, there are no religious or “other” objections. In fact, I have one: I do not want. So I put on my underwear, but I put on a bandage and hold hands with my 17 comrades.
We are led into the forest, each of us is completely dependent on the person in front of us and is responsible for the one behind. When I signed up for the NWTA, I was about to spend the weekend exploring a more developed brand of masculinity. This is definitely not what I expected.
WHAT IS IT LIKE it starts: on Friday afternoon, I drive up to a low cinderblock building on the first day of the retreat. A chubby dude in a cowboy hat is the first sign that the weekend will not be as cozy as I expected. After I park, he walks over and silently looks, as if he is already a sergeant, already angry at me. Seriously? I think.
NWTA is the hallmark of the ManKind Project (MKP), a nonprofit organization with 24 chapters throughout the United States. The purpose of the retreat is to help visitors explore a more developed state of masculinity through communication and expression. So what's up with the old dude? “Follow me,” he growls, then heads toward the building.
I follow him, dragging my bag and sleeping bag. He leads me into a dim cave room and points to a guy at the table where I give my phone, keys and wallet. I was photographed and got number 7. This is the first step that separates us from the known world and directs us to the unknown. My bags are searched by two men who were clearly warned that I was dealing with fentanyl. Another guy accused me of smuggling. But working here seems pointless. In addition, I signed up for this.
Founded in 1984, the MKP is a kind of ancestor to a number of similar male groups – Evryman, A Call To Men, Illuman – that have recently emerged to resolve the existential crisis that many American men seem to be experiencing. Of the derogations offered by these groups, NWTA is the most famous. According to Boyzen Hodgson, MKP Public Relations Officer, sixty-eight thousand people in a dozen countries completed this year. “More and more men are waking up from a dark dream,” he says. "They see that the list of products that they sold to us about masculinity – independent, competitive, dominant, stoic, disconnected – has always been a lie." Now, according to him, men are looking for support, communication and expression. That is why I am here.
I know that many stereotypes of macho in the chest are corrosive and very harmful, but I'm also tired of apologizing for being a man. Moreover, I would like to establish deeper friendships with other guys and feel more comfortable with myself. Maybe the guy is retreating, he can move the needle.
AFTER CHECK A dude leads me in surprise into a room where other participants are sitting on the floor. Within an hour, we are 18 people, and this is a whole group. Most guys are between 30 and 45 years old, and they are here on the advice of therapists or friends who have retreated. The MKP staff consists of about 30 volunteers, all members of various local MKP offices.
At sunset, our group leads to the former stable, where we sit on pillows. A fat middle-aged guy in a cropped T-shirt and cowboy boots pounds the ground with his staff. According to him, people have been warriors for thousands of years, but old ideas about masculinity hurt us and those we love. This weekend, he says, is an initiation into a more masculine form of courage, and we will face our fears, weakness and shame. This, we were told, will reveal our strength as men.
I KNOW THAT STEREOTYPES ARE PLEASANTLY HARMFUL, BUT I SO TIRED to apologize for being a MAN.
I was fine with the test drive of the new model of masculinity, but at that moment I realized that I had no real intention to abandon the dysfunctional behavior that brought me here. The staff guides us through the exercises, which are essentially party games: we pair up and tell the other guy what we are observing and imagining about him. Then we sit close and try to stand together. No matter how strange it sounds, I feel an unusual and amazing connection with other men.
In a social circle, a quiet guy who rides a school bus explains that he grew up without a father, with an emotionally abusive mother. As the guy unfolds his story, he is completely vulnerable and as brave as the man looking down at the tank. During the break, I hug the guy and tell him that he is the bravest bastard I have ever met. I feel his body struggling with sobs, which he must release, but not yet ready. I realized. Around me, other men hug, some with wet eyes. The atmosphere is neither New Age nor far-fetched – it is just what happens when we stop fooling around.
It turns out that deep movement leads to dehydration and hunger. Dinner is a glamorous dish of dry pieces of granola and apples, as well as all the water you can drink.
After that, we split into teams of six people. In the next game, we must carry a large magazine with the image of a “fallen comrade” – which we should not lower – to five stations, picking up a balloon at each. It's me and five guys against two other MKP teams and employees. My group grabbed a log and flew through the grass toward a distant drum beat, leading us to the first station. The night swallows us. My team starts slowly, and it doesn't help that the staff is constantly trying to confuse us. The first station, located near a large tree, is a bait with a drummer, but without balloons. Another time we are offered plastic clubs, which, as we were told, are “better” than a balloon.
I notice these tricks and warn the team, and it feels strange to me to be part of the group. We spend half an hour stumbling along the hills, searching for each station, trying not to let the log to the ground, trusting each other. As a result, our team will finish first. There is no prize, but we are proud. It shockes me how quickly and deeply I trust and feel connected with the five guys I met just a few hours ago.
Around midnight, we are led into rooms in which nine beds are barely enough. I fall asleep for a few seconds.
NEW WARRIOR A training adventure is intended to guide the guys through the hero’s journey, as in classical literature or Star Wars. We are definitely in the stage where things are getting worse before they get better. Saturday starts with a 60 second cold shower and oatmeal for breakfast. The retreat, given its design, has been criticized for many years, mainly because it was too intense and weird. I understood. It is easy to fake what is happening here – games, crying, initial glances. But if you do, it all seems out of place.
Of course, processing your deepest emotions can be as exciting as a prostate exam. And yet, after the morning dance in a circle (very awkward), this is what we do. Standing in two circles, with five or six employees in the centers, 18 of us go out one after another to take on our “shadow selves,” identities that we created at the moment we learned, usually in our teens, that we were not good enough, strong enough or attractive enough. One of the guys 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 person’s parents ridiculed him for being “courageous” or as tough as his brothers.
When my turn comes, I take a step forward, and an employee with a gray beard takes my head in his hands. He says that he will be with me on my journey. I explain how, at the age of 10 or 11, I told my parents that I wanted to be a writer. “That's great, Bill,” my dad said. “But this is the most competitive thing you can do, and no one makes money on it.” Translation: I'm not sure about you.
I tell the bearded guy — my father’s confidant — that I need his confidence, not his distrust. But he just keeps telling me that I'm not good enough, that he does not believe in me. Then I scream that the boy does not need to earn the love of his father, that he turned away when I needed him to believe in me. My “dad” staggers under my words, and other employees cover him with a sheet. He is dying. At this point, I almost got out of my body, watching the drama that happens, as if of my own free will.
Another employee tells me that my words come from love, that I would not risk saying “dad” otherwise. I do not quite understand this, but it seems correct. Finally, I bring my father back to life. He smiles. I look up and see a bearded man who sent me to this quest. He wraps his arms around my head and says that I did a good job and completed my journey. They take me to a soft chair and slices of orange, feeling completely exhausted, but also peeled, as if some tumor had been removed. Catharsis makes me feel pleasant. So I ended up in the forest, almost naked.
After that, we return to the barn and, as the drums knock, dance in the dark under enough candles to roast a pig. There are about 50 of us, counting employees. This is a celebration of how we completed our journey and how far we have come. And it is true. I shared things with these people that I never told anyone about. I am exhausted, but also freed from some of my secret baggage. And, strangely enough, here, that I am the only dude in my underwear makes me much more noticeable than I would be naked.
Sunday afternoon we say goodbye to the parking lot. I try to get out of events as quickly as possible. But here I am not. I do not want to close this door. I find the driver of the school bus, hug him again and tell him that I still consider him the bravest bastard I have ever met. I tell him that now he must have his courage, which is damn scary. He says: “I know. I saw you this weekend, bro. I saw your heart. And you have to do the same.
I know that he is right. I am going home, feeling exhausted, but also strangely lively. With each mile, the maximum of the weekend fades slightly. But maybe when I get home, my shadow will not be there.
This story appears in the September 2019 issue with the title “Backcountry Binding.”