Bradley Jay Owens
(L. to r.) Christopher Plummer, the author, and Richard Kaminski on Prince Edward Island in 2014.

A decades-long chat among friends

High-school buddies find that shared trips promote wide-ranging reflection.

We saw many terrapins along the Katy Trail in early June. Or maybe they were tortoises or turtles. We discussed the differences – Chris and Rich and I – and could have satisfied our curiosity by pulling out our smartphones. But some unspoken rule restrained us: We’d consult the internet for weather and directions only, with exceptions made for sightings of unusual birds.

After graduating from high school in Las Vegas in the 1970s we kept in touch. At times we lived nearby, worked unrewarding jobs together, and shared drafty, dank apartments. As we got older, years passed without our seeing each other. We changed careers, circumstances, and addresses: East Coast, West Coast, overseas. Obligations and commitments kept us close to home. Now and then we got to visit for an afternoon, an evening, or, at most, a day.

In the spring of 2014, after Rich and Chris spent a weekend biking trails together in Virginia, Chris suggested the three of us plan a tour.

We met in Canada the following September, rented bikes, and rode five days along the north shore of Prince Edward Island. The Katy Trail across Missouri was Tour 2.

I had worried some before that first tour. How well did we know each other after all these years? Did we have as much in common as we used to? Would we have enough to talk about? We would be on trails for hours at a time, for days. Some days we’d be riding in bad weather. We might get tired and cranky. What if none of it was fun?

I needn’t have worried. We have enough to talk about. We know each other better, now, than ever. We get tired and cranky. Yes, it’s fun.

On the trail we talk about our wives and children, friends we have in common and friends we don’t, books and movies, politics and music. We talk about places we’ve lived or traveled, and other places we might tour.

We talk about the things we can’t let go of – things we did, or failed to do; opportunities we missed, or took; choices, good and bad.

We circle back to certain conversations and revisit what we heard or said. Was the story that I, or someone else, told yesterday an accurate description of events? How much of it was fanciful and how much true?

We might revise; we might have more to say. Stories lead to other stories. My friends’ stories change the way I feel about my own. When I moved east, from California, had I really put all my possessions in my MG Midget? Yes. And when I helped Chris move east, months later, had the two of us, and all his possessions, fit into the same car? Yes. Had Rich and I once dragged home a tinseled Christmas tree we’d found discarded outside the Harvard Lampoon? Yes.

We kid each other and we joke around. We have fun. But we reveal ourselves in ways we might not with others – not necessarily because the information that we’re sharing is intensely personal (though, at times, it is) – but because there’s room.

Moving through a changing landscape, following the rivers or the coast, seems to open us to wider, if not deeper, thinking. Having no goal other than to reach our lodging before dark presents an unanticipated opportunity to stretch our understanding of each other and ourselves. Unhurried days in nature in the company of friends turn out to be conducive to reflection.

Some places on the trails stay with me more than others. Encounters, too. Like the elderly retriever on Prince Edward Island, waiting for us at the door of Shaw’s Hotel; and the man outside Mount Stewart who advised us that he would never eat at a cafe that called itself “The Thoughtful Squash,” but it was up the road a bit, and we were welcome to it. And there was the farmer in Pilot Grove, Mo., who told us how much land he had, how he’d gotten it, what he grew on it, and how much it was worth.

I won’t forget the well-kept cemetery in Augusta, Mo., where family names of German immigrants are chiseled in granite headstones, and familiar names etched crudely in cement blocks set against the back fence are likely those of slaves.

Last year my friends and I turned 60; we’ve known each other since we were 16. Our memories have layers to them – faults and fissures, too. We don’t agree on every detail of the stories we remember, but we tell them anyway, and sometimes in the telling other stories are revived.

Years ago, when Rich was staying at my place outside Boston, we went to a country fair where there was horse racing. We bet $2 on a long shot and won. The horse’s name was Wazza Match. How is it I recall that and not where I left my checkbook yesterday?

It’s because, I think, the pleasures that we don’t anticipate stay with us longest and get richer over time. Among these are friendships that persist despite life’s weather, or because of it.

As I write, Chris and Rich are preparing to fly to California, where we’ll ride the Monterey Peninsula and Big Sur, near my home. Already, Tour 3 is under way: In our messages we joke with one another, testing out our lines. We plan, we disagree and cavil, we express enthusiasm, and we start conversations, knowing they’ll continue on the trails.

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