When Lee Glickenhaus and his four buddies attended Oberlin College in the 1970s, no day was complete without a hard-charging game of Ultimate Frisbee. But 25 years later, few Frisbees were being tossed during their annual get-togethers. In their new roles as husbands and fathers, they found their weekends together to be pleasant but . . . different. Inevitably, the spontaneity of their undergraduate days took a back seat to domestic obligations.
What could they do to recapture the old camaraderie? The answer, they concluded, was for the five of them -- no wives, no children -- to go on an outdoor vacation together.
So for the past few years they have done just that. They have hiked through Zion National Park and Arches National Park , both in Utah. They have gone mountain-biking through another national park in Utah, Canyonlands . They have bicycled along the Cape Cod National Seashore outside of Provincetown. They have hiked on Great Island in Wellfleet. Though it hasn't always been easy to find the time amid family and work obligations, the five men have made it a top priority to spend a week together.
"It's a chance for us to talk about our lives, where we've been, where we're going," says Glickenhaus, 49, of Brookline. "It's allowed us to sort of go through life together."
This sort of guys-only getaway has acquired a groan-inducing moniker: the "mancation." But whatever you call it, it's on the rise.
Your typical mancation is spent in the strenuous pursuit of fun or adventure -- skiing, mountain-climbing, golfing. But the larger goals are to reconnect with old friends (or strengthen the ties with new ones), to recharge depleted batteries , to hold on to youth (or at least youthfulness), to regain a piece of an identity eroded by time and change.
Or simply to cut loose and kick back in a context that does not resemble the office or the homefront in the slightest.
Take Tom Rolfs , for instance. As the principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Rolfs has a high-profile job in one of the swankiest workplaces imaginable. But every year, Rolfs teams up with three other BSO principal players and another friend and spends a week on the shores of a lake in Ontario, a spot so remote they have to fly in on a float plane. Their cabin has no indoor plumbing, requiring the musicians to use outhouses and to pump water from the lake if they want to shower. They sleep on bunk beds. They fish for their dinner. And they love it.
"There's no telephone calls, no computers, no televisions," says Rolfs, 47, a married father of three who lives in Winchester. "There's a lot of quiet time, just sitting around playing cards. But then there's a lot of conversations about all sorts of things, not necessarily music, either. You get to know each other in a way you normally wouldn't in the workplace."
Not that they completely leave work behind. These are, after all, world-class musicians, and as such, perfectionists. In addition to Rolfs, the group includes French horn player James Sommerville ; tuba player Mike Roylance ; timpanist Timothy Genis ; and Mark Cantrell, a former Boston Pops trombonist who now works as a pilot. Their instruments are too large for the float plane, but that doesn't stop a couple of them from bringing along their mouthpieces so they can practice, sort of. So as the sun sets on the lake, a musician from one of the nation's most prestigious orchestras might be sitting on the end of a dock, buzzing away on a mouthpiece with only the fish for an audience.
But that's where Rolfs draws the line. Noting that Sommerville was recently hired as the music director for the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Toronto (he will remain at the BSO), Rolfs cracks: "We can't have people looking at scores on our trip. We can't let that happen, just because he has this fancy job."
Strong words. But then, trash-talking is a part of the mancation. While it is mostly good-humored, arguments can result when you add the human ego to a complicated logistical equation involving different locations, family situations, and job demands -- not to mention competing notions of a good time.
"There are times when we fight like banshees," Glickenhaus says of his group, which includes men from Seattle, San Diego, Santa Cruz, N.M., and Ames, Iowa. One year, for instance, Glickenhaus wanted the group to go to the mountains, while one friend lobbied hard for Key West. "We had an enormous falling-out on the issue of where we should go," he says. "It was pretty ugly for a while." (The group eventually compromised and went to Cape Cod).
Sometimes, quirky traditions grow up around the mancation. For instance, a ratty old green polyester blazer is the trophy for the victor in the annual golf excursions undertaken by Tim Wern of Canton, Conn., and seven fraternity buddies from Cornell.
The golf trips have taken them to Las Vegas, San Diego, Myrtle Beach, S.C., Hilton Head, S.C., Scotland, and Canada; this summer, they will head for Lake Tahoe, Nev. The winner, by tradition, gets to put his own logo, usually unsightly, on the coat, which was purchased at a secondhand store on Route 1 in Saugus.
"It gets uglier and uglier with each successive patch," says Wern, 39. "If you're the winner of the coat, you have to wear it when we go to a restaurant. It always draws a lot of attention."
Wern organized the first golf trip in the early 1990s, not long after the eight graduated from Cornell. Back then, it was a way for a group of ex-athletes to keep their competitive juices flowing. But as they have approached middle age, its meaning has deepened.
"As the years go by, it's more of a draw, because guys need more of an escape as family commitments increase," says Wern, a married father of one. "It's almost like time hasn't passed, in a way. We all look older, but the banter is the same. It's almost like we're back in college again." In Wern's view, "Our generation is different from the previous generation. Where they were just more work and family, our generation is more in touch with taking care of ourselves, which might be one weekend away with the guys."
In fact, the annual excursion is so important to Wern that before he got married, he made it clear to his wife-to-be that it was, in his words, "A take-it or leave-it deal."
"I joke that there was a pre nup," says Wern. "She knows I would go crazy if I couldn't do this. Frankly, most of us would love it if our wives did the same thing, so we could reciprocate."
Because physical challenge is the organizing principle of the mancation, age and injuries inevitably take a toll. What starts out as an annual mountain-climb might quietly downshift, over time, to a bicycle trip. Lee Glickenhaus's cadre has begun to suffer the slings and arrows of middle age: sciatica, bad knees. But Glickenhaus is getting more ambitious, not less, about their outings; in fact, he hopes one day to talk the gang into trekking across the High Sierras or the Cascades in Washington state.
"We are getting older, and it's nice to challenge ourselves and feel alive," he says. "This is an enormous priority in our lives. It's pretty sacred at this point."
Rolfs feels the same way. But, illustrating the vagaries of scheduling that can befall even the most devoutly observed mancation, this year's trip might be a casualty of a late-summer European tour by the BSO.
"I think the BSO should have cleared that through us," jokes Rolfs. "James Levine must have forgotten about our trip."
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.