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When Peter Pan Enters Middle Age

Part 1 In Therapist Timothy Tate's Exploration Of What Happens When Men In Mountain Towns Have To Stop Playing And Grow Up

“When I began climbing hard I figured I wouldn’t live past 26. Strangely, I’ve lived almost 30 years after my predicted expiration date. I’ve quit counting on ‘No Future’ 
and learned to live with not knowing the future.”   —Mark Twight

Compete, consume, hunt, gather, extract—the edge of masculinity cuts deep into the fabric of humanity.

Each man will reckon with this edge, whether he wants to or not. This is a well-established process in male psychological development, and it enters often into conversations I have with men passing into and through middle age. It involves the eternal reflection on what is—and what might have been.

Some also wonder: could I have been more, and what more could I have been?
Now that the years have come and the steady descent awaits, how do I make sense of this thing called life? 

Yes, this thing we call the midlife crisis is no mere cliche; for fun hogs it can be a period of crisis in dealing with loss of identity.

Location, context, and culture contribute to how a man will face the force field of his manhood. In mountain towns like ours, the quest to define one’s own masculinity takes many forms—the priorities of today’s seekers are different from those who first homesteaded at the base of these peaks or slept in tepees, when the focus of necessity was on having enough food and shelter to get one’s family through winter, but no less critical to defining who they are.

Outdoor towns tend to be different from other places. It is a difficult thing to indulge the self without becoming consumed by self-focus;  even harder not to lose one’s bearings or pursue a “lifestyle” that leaves one narrower and emotionally stunted.

I have a person in mind—actually several—whose stories form a composite and yet whose amalgamation speaks to the perils of the modern journey and the possibility that one could land on the shoals.

For purposes of anonymity, let's call this composite of people “Walt”. 

Hailing from a metropolitan area not unlike the kind many of his future contemporaries would escape, Walt first discovered the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem on a family summer vacation to Yellowstone National Park as a child many years ago.

He made a silent vow as a boy, when he first laid eyes on the Beartooth Mountains, to return as soon as he could to make a life for himself in the Wild West.
"Some  wonder: could I have been more, and what more could I have been? Now that the years have come and the steady descent awaits, how do I make sense of this thing called life? Yes, this thing we call the midlife crisis is no mere cliche."
Throughout his teenage years, Walt held an enduring memory of a park ranger decked out in crisp green and grey, sidearm holstered, flat brimmed hat tight on his clean shaven head, directing traffic around a herd of bison crossing the highway in the Lamar Valley. Though Walt had only caught a brief glimpse of this heroic figure as an impressionable child, the image was vivid enough to keep re-appearing in his dreams.

Walt knew in his boyhood heart that this image of a solitary man, standing tall with authority and dignity, possessed deep resonance.

Notably, his aspirations of becoming a park ranger in the interior West did not conform with the prevailing family values at home.  The vision of “success” being projected upon him, that meaning was found in the pursuit of upward mobility and a house in the suburbs, led his parents to steer him towards a career in corporate America.

Defying his parents, Walt disregarded their list of “acceptable” schools and settled on Montana State University in Bozeman where he would pursue a major in something practical and a minor in skiing. Although they took exception to his move so far away from home, they were pleased that he chose civil engineering as his major. He assured his worried mother that she would enjoy visiting him in the winter, as skiing was their family’s sport.

Walt’s college years unfolded. He worked part-time at a local ski shop during the academic year and for a landscaping crew during the summer. He neither excelled nor failed in his studies, but engineering failed to spark any passion. After his sophomore year, he decided to focus on a soil and water sciences degree.  Somewhere along the way, Walt discovered the potency of local marijuana, particularly Gallatin Green, and what was initially recreational use riding the chairlift developed into a full-on daily habit.
 
Falling in and out of love several times and preferring friendships with benefits to a committed relationship, Walt followed the pattern of his peers: cutting classes on powder days to take in the white smoke at Bridger Bowl.

Despite his less than dogged commitment to education, graduation day eventually came. For a man in his early twenties, Bozeman was a fun, carefree place to be and bide one's time. A serious career could wait. Walt became a service worker, parlaying his wages and tips into an easy, if not shortsighted, system, enabling him to perpetually fly fish, mountain bike, rock climb and still pay the rent.

A few cans of PBR eventually became a few pints of stiffer local microbrews, which soon became a few drams of whiskey. Walt convinced himself that being physically active mitigated what others might consider addiction, a rationalization he found that his climbing and biking buddies agreed with.

A few years went by.  Now in his early thirties, Walt rented an apartment with another man who ski patrolled during the winter and guided fishing trips in summer. His Tacoma pickup truck gave him access to the end of dirt roads where wilderness began, places that felt like they were his, and he took advantage every chance he had.  A serious career? Responsibility? Commitment?  These were things that hobbled Walt's boyhood friends back in the city, but in Bozeman, Montana, there were no worries.

Walt, after all, was fit, gregarious, and popular.  Polyamory had become a thing which suited him just fine, finding that woman were as sexually free as he considered himself to be. Life was good.

Yet a nagging sense of loneliness would creep into him from time to time.  He had without realizing it come under the power of Puer aeternus, the Peter Pan Syndrome.

A few more years passed and slowly he knew a different kind of restlessness. As internal anxiety rose, Walt sated his unease by taking on more challenging climbing routes, steeper downhill mountain bike rides, and fishing in deeper, faster currents where occasionally he lost his footing. However, it felt like the more stimulated he was the more alive he felt.

Then one day, while skiing off the ridge at Bridger Bowl, Walt caught an edge, sending him into exposed rock and crushing his femur. His roommate happened to be on the ski patrol that day, and assured him on the sled down to the base that he would heal quickly and catch some spring runs down the “Great One” coulier.

Walt stoically agreed, although with no insurance he watched bank account drained to pay the bill. In the days, weeks, and months to come his loneliness festered into depression. He dove into his physical therapy regime to emerge stronger than before cajoled his on-and-off girlfriend to move in with him, and received both financial and emotional support from his family.

Walt defined physical strength in terms of capacity to endure pain and hardship without showing emotion.  His girlfriend, wanting tenderness, grew weary. His cronies, a cohort of younger men in whom he saw his former self, would exhort him to “cowboy up”. He felt pride in how quickly he rebounded from such a devastating injury, and even more so in how little outside help he needed to do it. 

Initially his girlfriend seemed impressed with his stoicism, and Walt was elated when he overheard her telling her friends he was “the strong and silent type.”  Soon though she began insisting on more from him- that they relate, communicate, and take things slowly. He loved connecting physically, but was at a loss when she kept talking about how she felt.   

She was no longer with him when he celebrated his 40th birthday with a line of shots at the Haufbrau.. The bros of his twenties and early thirties had, by then, coupled up and married. Some were taking their kids to sports practices and school events and when he reached out, asking them to have a drink or steal away a powder day, they would say, “sorry, I have to get home,” their wives were expecting them.

Walt still poured himself into seizing powder runs and hammering through tough rides in the Gallatins. He would tell his old buddies about his adventures, of how he still racked up 110 days on the slopes, and he was disappointed that they no longer appreciated the epic nature of his feats. 

But Walt was a legend to young men half his age, to whom he served as the keeper of lore and, for them, was the paragon of what it means to be an active old guy. In their eyes, he still was The Man.

Down at the bar, he was introduced to a fresh year of guys who had come West to ski.  He noticed how young they looked, and all at once he felt old—not older, but old. “How can I feel old at forty?”

This unspoken thought rattled around in his head all night, while his younger friends vigorously debated ice-climbing routes. The din of the banter crackled in his brain like a leaf blower, monotonous and indistinct. He was swirling around the drain of his youth.

Walt pounded another pint, excused himself from the gang and, although buzzed, figured he knew Bozeman like the back of his hand and could surely make it home if he stayed off the main roads. Tooling down residential unmarked intersections, he was mentally fuzzy about who had the right of way.  

Crash. 

The police showed up and the DUI citation came with advice from his attorney to seek counseling. The idea initially repulsed him. How could he benefit from whining to some shrink?  

Walt’s entire persona was founded on independence; needing the help of another was antithetical to who he tried so hard to be.  He told himself he would only enter counseling  to avoid jail time, that it would make him look good in the judge’s eyes.  Thus, Walt came behind The Blue Door and shared the story above. Alone, his was a tale I had seen in countless ways before.

For Peter Pan, life had suddenly turned real.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the next installment, Timothy Tate enters Walt’s head.
Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
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