An Unlikely Backcountry Inspiration

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My father’s taste in music was grim. He tended towards Barry Manilow, regaling the family with tortured renditions of “Mandy” and “I Write the Songs” during interminable road trips. I remember thinking there has got to be better music than this.

My father would be proud to know that I have since come to appreciate the brilliance — yes, brilliance — of Barry Manilow. A good friend of mine from law school, Bob, is an accomplished mountain climber and has (to the uninitiated) a rather bizarre pre-expedition ritual of listening exclusively to Barry Manilow during the long drives up winding Forest Service roads en route to the trailheads. I joined him once for an excursion and was taken completely aback by the musical selection. I became nervous that I had entrusted my well-being in the backcountry to a person whose first decision of the trip showed such tremendously bad judgment. I would have chosen Led Zeppelin or similar — something to get us fired up for what would be a grueling few days. The choice of Barry Manilow — and only Barry Manilow — for nearly two hours shocked me, particularly coming from Bob who is from Seattle and, consequently, has exquisite taste in music.

But Bob talked me down, telling me that I would be okay, that the selection in fact made sense for reasons that went unexplained. I relented. What else could I do? I was putting my life in Bob’s hands and had no choice but to trust him on all things great and small related to the trip.

I was converted almost immediately. After the first few notes, we were belting out the lyrics to all the classics, lyrics that to my horror, I knew by heart. I felt like a baby bird when it first leaves the nest and is stunned to learn that it can fly. How was it that I knew every word to every Barry Manilow song?

It was quite a scene bouncing up those Forest Service roads in Bob’s beat-up Subaru, windows open, singing “Weekend in New England” as loud as we could. I thought about my dad and how I wished he could see us. How he might feel vindicated. No doubt we sounded as bad as he did. But by the end of the long drive, I was ready to face whatever perils awaited us in the backcountry.

I’m still not sure why Barry Manilow was so perfect for the occasion. It certainly bred a feeling of camaraderie. Bob probably knew that I knew all those lyrics, even though it came as a revelation to me. It cemented the feeling that we were in this together. And perhaps the musical throw-back that is Barry Manilow aligned in some mystical way with our shedding all modern trappings in the backcountry, as if pre-historic man might have sung “Somewhere Down the Road” while heading out to pillage a neighboring settlement. All I can say is that Barry Manilow fit the mood better than I could have possibly imagined. For all the intrepid backpackers out there, I would encourage you to try the ritual for yourself. For best results, play on cassette through a terrible-sounding stereo.

Perhaps the musical throw-back that is Barry Manilow aligned in some mystical way with our shedding all modern trappings in the backcountry, as if pre-historic man might have sung “Somewhere Down the Road” while heading out to pillage a neighboring settlement.

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