An Unlikely Backcountry Inspiration
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's 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'd entrusted my well-being in the backcountry to a person whose first decision of the trip showed such tremendously bad judgment. I would've 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's from Seattle and, consequently, has exquisite taste in music.
But Bob talked me down, telling me I'd 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 it can fly. How was it 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've possibly imagined.
For all the intrepid backpackers out there, I'd encourage you to try the ritual for yourself. For best results, play on cassette through a terrible-sounding stereo.