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O Brother, Where Art Thou? 5 min read

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Two brothers – an optimist and a pessimist – go hiking. What can they teach us about quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic?

By Cary Littlejohn
O Brother, Where Art Thou? Post image
Photo by Riccardo Chiarini on Unsplash

Chalk it up to spring, with its warming weather and longer days and sprouting colors. Call it stir-craziness, with its feelings of walls closing in, its recirculated air, its very inside-ness. But in this moment of quarantine and isolation, my mind wanders to outdoor adventures of the kind Jon Krakauer or Cheryl Strayed might pen, under vast blue skies and alongside lakes and atop mountains.

The big dream, the reach that perhaps exceeds my grasp, has always been a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. The AT is an ideal outdoor adventure for someone growing up east of the Mississippi and in a state whose eastern border helps define the trail. My brother and I have talked about hiking it, partly to say we did, partly to bond. We want to relive glory days of physical fitness and feel the sense of accomplishment. We want to run unafraid into the unknown, accepting fully how bad we might be at any number of aspects of thru-hiking. We want to stand on an outcropping after a particularly difficult uphill trek and throw our arms skyward as if walking up a hill were the accomplishment of a lifetime. We want to bitch and moan about how hard or gross or wet or smelly the experience was. We want to connect, not just with each other but with Mother Nature. We want to disconnect from the world we left behind, the world that’s wider than a narrow hiking trail, less scenic, loud and brutish. We want to sit around a campfire at night, hear the crackle and smell the woodsmoke.

I can’t adequately describe how powerfully those feelings came flooding back after reading a recent piece from Outside, where two brothers – one an optimist, one a pessimist – decide to share a hike out west in hopes of bonding and quieting the voices in their heads.

The article is styled as a love letter from the author to his older brother, and in the same way that horoscopes or enneagrams invite the reader to search for himself or herself in the descriptions, I likewise couldn’t help but search for myself in the profile sketches of the brothers:

Don was 64, recently divorced after 24 years, recently retired from a long career as a law partner and CEO. His only child had graduated college two years earlier and moved 2,500 miles away, and Don was spending a lot of time in his four-bedroom house in Portland, Oregon, alone, lonely, plagued by shoulder pain and acid reflux, and deeply committed to what he was certain was a reasonable survival strategy, namely, “I just need to get used to the idea that I’m closer to death and the world is meaningless and there’s a good chance I’ll never find anything worthwhile to do.”

Slightly alarmed, eager to help, and always up for a trip in the outdoors, I had broached the idea of a hiking vacation together. I was 62, single, childless, technically unemployed (I’m a writer), renting a studio apartment in New York City, and suffering from recurrent gout. While generally resistant to the idea that a toasted marshmallow could change anything profound in anyone’s life, I was still desperate to believe that it might.

Was I the older brother or the younger? Funny thing is: I have a decent claim to both of them. Author Steve Friedman continues:

He favors button-down shirts and lace-up shoes and travels with his own pillows, plural, because “better to carry a little extra than to be surprised.” He listens to albums on his turntable, reads the print version of The New York Times, watches network news, naps every day at precisely 4 P.M., and has erected some sturdy and clearly defined personal boundaries, especially when it comes to our mother. For his 60th birthday, he hosted a small gathering, to which he invited Mom. When she asked if there would be cake, he replied in the affirmative. When she asked what flavor it would be, he asked why she needed to know.

I like hoodies and Hawaiian shirts, have occasionally lied about my age on dating sites, and have, in the past ten years, inspired by infomercials, purchased fake thumbs that lit up when activated with secret buttons, a Bowflex Xtreme 2, and something called the Owl Optical Wallet Light, which contained a magnifying glass and a reading light. Actually, I bought two of those. I answer any and all questions from my mother, then deal with my resentment and guilt by eating Entenmann’s Devil’s Food Crumb Donuts and Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby ice cream until I am sick.

This isn’t a very long piece, yet Friedman conveys so much through his use of specifics. In writing that would make our high school English teachers proud, he shows instead of tells, and it’s all the more effective. He could have just told us that his brother was a straight-laced professional type, and he the stereotypical creative sort, but instead he handpicks some telling and endearing details that do the very same. They don’t seem to share anything at all in common, let alone come from the same mother. But Friedman understands his big brother because of a shared experience: a bout with depression.

COVID-19 has us trapped, in our houses, in our minds, in truncated routines; it is our shared experience. It feels like a perfect time to read such a story, as many of us, no doubt, are vacillating between potentially-real-but-likely-forced positivity and soul-emptying despair as we reckon with our life and our current situations. Perhaps we’re even stuck in a house with loved ones who are resolutely feeling the opposite of us at a given moment: When we’re soaring high, they’re wallowing, and when we want the freedom to wallow, they’re on an unrivaled positive streak. That could be for the best, if we’re going to be free to vacillate, since things could be very bleak indeed if both are stuck wallowing at the same time. (And yes, we all concede that everyone being super positive all the time would be the ideal, so blessings to those of you out there so fortunate.)

The Outside story is touching for how real it is, how raw and unvarnished the retelling is. Friedman doesn’t sugarcoat his brother’s demeanor on the trip, and at times, it feels overwhelmingly negative, especially in the face of Friedman’s unrelenting positivity. It’s hard not to feel bad for him, as you read the conversation (or lack thereof) and are transported to these trails amid unimaginable beauty; you feel sorry for him and simply want someone to appreciate it with him.

But get to the end of the story, and let it speak volumes to you in your time of quarantine, in your times of ups and downs, in the times of ups and downs of those you love most. Because even though it might not seem it, if you look and listen closely enough, you’ll find that Friedman, and by extension all of us, aren’t quite so alone as we might feel.

A Love Letter to My Curmudgeonly Big Brother | Outside

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