This coming November, I’ll be going on “Big Trip 14” with a group of 11 friends. We call it the Big Trip (BT) because that’s exactly what it is: an annual adventure somewhere way off the grid. For some background, it seems like almost anytime you get a group of guys together (and alcohol is involved), one of them will probably make the bold and usually slightly drunken statement, “We should do a trip somewhere every year!” Most groups never pull off the first year of the trip, much less fourteen consecutive trips. Well, back in 2004 I was the guy telling my friends we should start a regular adventure, and when I say I am going to do something, stubbornly, I usually end up doing it.
Our first Big Trip was paddling 80 miles on the Yellowstone River near Bozeman, Montana. We found a catering company in Bozeman to put together our food, label it, and pack it in large coolers. We loaded all the food, gear, and a good bit of beer into two cargo rafts, then added three canoes. We camped on islands between river braids, cooked great meals, laughed our assess off, and had a terrific adventure. The trip was epic enough to set in motion an annual plan for incredible trips. When I explain to people how long this trip series has been going on, they’re always amazed at the longevity of the concept.
The trip only functions though because of the guiding principles that the godfathers—me and a friend—of the BT set up. The critical principles are as follows:
• Two people plan the entire trip. There is no democracy. There is no input sought, nor accepted from the group. There is no, “Where does everyone want to go this year?” or “What dates work for everyone?” The trip is a complete dictatorship. The two planners pick the trip, the location, the activity, the date, the cost, and the itinerary. We have a bunch of Type-A personalities but trust me, this works.
• The trip usually starts on a Tuesday or Wednesday and goes through Sunday. As we all now have wives and children, this minimizes turbulence at home.
• Every day, we move from point to point as we do not mix well with idle time.
• We camp out in places where most people don’t go—uninhabited islands, remote huts, high alpine meadows, frozen lakes. We avoid civilization as we do not mix well with civilization.
• The two planners send one email about the trip 6 months in advance. Within two weeks of the email, participants must state if they are “in” or “out.”
• Payment is made in full within 30 days and there are no refunds. If you bail, the group keeps your money and invites someone else who also pays full. Your money goes to the beer fund and you are appropriately mocked.
• If you go on a trip, you have first right to go on the following year’s trip. If you miss a trip, it makes re-entry difficult. This rule encourages continuity.
• While on the trip, the dictators are in charge. They assign who is in what sailboat, canoe, kayak, raft, snow-mobile, etc. They assign breakfast, lunch, and dinner duties. Assignments are not optional.
These principles are the glue that makes the trip function. As long as the glue holds, the trip works beautifully. Everyone checks their egos and interests at the door and trusts in the process, because they understand the danger in anarchy.
Our trips have included paddling the Yellowstone River, sailing in open cockpit sailboats and camping in a chain of uninhabited islands in the Bahamas, summiting the Grand Teton, hut-to-hut hiking in Colorado, sea kayaking and camping on tiny islands in the San Juan Islands, paddling the Main Salmon River in Idaho, rim-to-rim hiking the Grand Canyon, Jeeping in Moab and Ouray Colorado, riding snow-mobiles 400 miles through the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and paddle boarding 50 miles down the Chama River in northern New Mexico. We have had epic campsites that are on no map, seen hundreds of shooting stars, had some very hairy oh-shit moments, laughed into hysterics, and re-told the same stories over and over.
Like the time we kayaked down the Main Salmon River in inflatable kayaks called “duckies.” These craft can be used by nearly anyone with basic paddling skills, but to run this river required guides. As we approached some of the larger class IV rapids, we could literally feel the rumble of the rapids and the roar ahead. We’d pull over to the bank just before we met the rapids, and the guide would draw a diagram in the dirt describing how to run them. Encouraging comments from the guide included: “If you go to the left, I am going to kill you. Although, maybe I won’t have to—you might already be dead.” We would line up duckies and the yard sale would begin. Later in the evening, jokes would be told around the bonfire and then we would climb into sleeping bags and pass out looking up to a sky with absolutely no lights but stars.
We cherish the Big Trip. We are all outdoorsmen, but this is the annual chance to get way off the grid, to pick right back up where we left off the trip before, to push our comfort zones, to learn new skills, and to enjoy great company. The simplicity of the principles are what makes BT work. Every year I wonder how long this run will last. I never expected to get to five years much less fourteen. Every trip now is gravy.