One car + two weeks + four friends = ‘BroFest’

Guy pals take off together

We are an unlikely bunch. There is Andrés, the Argentine journalist turned world traveler. There’s Chris, the Oregonian English major turned Ph.D. candidate. There’s Ian, the award-winning independent film producer who shook off the glitter of Los Angeles to return to his hometown of Napa, Calif. And there’s me.

Six or seven years ago, we met in a singing group at Washington and Lee University. In 2004, we ended up sharing a grungy apartment nestled at the far end of campus in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

After graduation, we scattered to the four corners of the country for jobs, grad schools and projects. But we tried to keep the gang together.

After a nearly interminable round of e-mails in 2008, we came up with a plan: a summer reunion in Chicago and Miami.

A tradition was born in the humidity of South Beach. We called it “BroFest.”

Apparently, we are not alone. The Wall Street Journal reported in June that more guys are getting away from work for adventure-seeking trips with male friends, closing the gap on ladies who have been going on “girlfriend getaways” for years. Pop culture has dubbed them “mancations.”

For two weeks this past May, we embarked on BroFest 2010. After touching down in Seattle, our four-man crew crammed into a Toyota Matrix — along with musical instruments and an increasingly fragrant Italian sausage — and hit the West Coast. We sang karaoke in Seattle, tried bacon doughnuts in Portland, climbed towering rock formations on the Oregon coast and explored the California redwood forests. We hid from the cops in Napa and tried to convince bouncers in San Francisco that, no, we were not interested in visiting their clubs.

These are memories from the road.

Mount Hood, Ore.

It’s getting uncomfortable.

Not the kind of uncomfortable that comes from being one of four dudes stuck in a tent with enough musical instruments to supply a folk band, not enough sleeping mats and too many damp socks.

It’s getting, like, REALLY cold.

Except for Ian, who seems to have brought enough cold-weather gear to outfit a Delta Force squad, our little band is woefully unprepared for the perils of wilderness travel. In lieu of an actual map, we relied on an iPhone with dodgy connectivity to lead us to the Mount Hood campsite. We hadn’t checked the Weather Channel, and brushed off the admonishment from the Trader Joe’s clerk who warned of weather rolling in.

As the car chugged up the mountain into the fog, the warmth gave way to a chill. When we stopped, we could see our breath. Patches of snow spotted the muddy campsite, which was nearly deserted.

We set up our tent in the waning light. No fire, no hot food and only two small flashlights. We did have cheese and that Italian sausage, bought especially for the occasion.

And then the rain came. A cold drizzle at first, and then more insistent. Chris wants to have one more adventure, and suggests we go hiking.

Ian expresses dismay.

“That’s a really bad idea! You don’t have any waterproof clothing! Let’s turn back.”

But we don’t, because we’re too fascinated by the roadside signs that tell the story of the early settlers. We never find the hiking trail. We do find some teenagers who have camped for days beside a van, waiting for enough snow to allow them to snowboard. We ask if they’ve been hiking. This allows us to stand by their fire for a few minutes and get warm. Or, get less cold.

“Nah, bro, we’ve just been chillin.”

So that’s that. We pile into the tent and break out the guitar, harmonica, bongo drums and zither. They start to blend together into a halfway-decent rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow” before we try to arrange ourselves for the night.

Demonstrating an impressive grasp of wilderness survival skills, we have packed more musical instruments than floor mats. This cramps our headroom, foot-room and all other room in between. Chris later complains that he spent most of the night trying to avoid a root sticking into his back.

Against all odds, I sleep. I open my eyes to light and a blast of cold air as Ian opens the tent flap. The ground, moist the night before, is coated with several inches of snow. It’s sliding down the sides of our tent, which explains the patter-patter-patter sound from last night.

Andrés, bundled up in a down vest, is shivering heavily. He retreats to the car and cranks up the heater as high as it goes. The windows fog up. We pack up the tent, stuff it in the back, shake the mud off our shoes and head down the mountain. Portland in all of its self-proclaimed weirdness was calling.

San Francisco

As everybody and his cousin will tell you, it’s the best way to see San Francisco: on a bicycle. Given the lack of parking in some parts of town, it might be the ONLY way to see this most photogenic of cities.

In any case, it’s definitely the most lung-busting, muscle-shredding way, because this city is vertical, an uninterrupted pattern of undulating canyons and valleys.

We rent bikes in North Beach and pedal down to Fisherman’s Wharf. Past the crab shacks and the guy playing piano on the corner, the Boudin Bakery serves up massive chowder bowls in sourdough bread.

Stuffed with too much bread and seafood, we ride through the marina toward the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge.

It looms above us, an orange expanse of columns and suspension wires. The wind fills your ears when you reach the bridge’s midway point. It towers 245 feet above the water and stretches 8,981 feet across the bay. From every angle, it’s a postcard picture waiting to be snapped — a painting in steel.

We climb to the top of an old gun battery near Point Lobos, where installations once guarded the harbor. We grab our phones to snap some poses with the bridge in the background. And then it’s onward to the woods and trails of Lands End.

Muscling our bikes over a cable fence, we walk down a gravel path to the cliff where train tracks once carried San Francisco vacationers to the beaches. The waves smash far below us. It’s quiet.

It doesn’t stay quiet for long. Chris, with athleticism honed by years of competing against two brothers, takes the lead as our pack of bikes starts to stretch out. He yells over his shoulder, laughing at our pace as we push through Golden Gate Park and tackle the steepest section of the city.

As a motivational technique, the insults don’t work. But we eventually find the bike rental place. The attendant tells us we rode 15 miles. Or maybe 22. Either way, we’re beat and ready for some pizza, gelato and brewskis — and the long ride back to Napa.

Napa, Calif.

When I hear the phrase “the good life,” I will remember this day. We woke up in the living room at Ian’s parents’ place and rolled out into the sunshine for a whirlwind tour of the valley.

We grabbed sandwiches at the Browns Valley Market and ate them beneath the massive Grapecrusher statue that looks over the south end of the Napa Valley.

Napa isn’t known for its views, although it should be. The horizon is bigger here, the sky a deeper shade of blue. Its claim to fame is wine, produced by some of the world’s premier vineyards. We carved out an afternoon to explore these places.

We started at Artesa Vineyards, which has hillside reflecting pools and verandas with panoramic views of the valley. Apparently, we aren’t the first tourists to pay for tours and tastings. This place screamed money.

Then, it was on to Darioush, a winery apparently designed to evoke a Persian palace, complete with sand-colored columns. Clear tubes carried water from floor to ceiling, imitating a huge harp.

“Pretentious,” said Andrés, ever the cultural critic. But there were free pistachios. And to my untrained palate, the wine was tasty. We stood around the bar, swirling and sniffing deep red liquid. Sophisticated gentlemen, we.

Ian saved the best for last. We pulled into his family’s winery, Robert Sinskey Vineyards, in late afternoon. Walking past the fish pond, rose garden and the walls draped in ivy, we sidle up to the bar to sample cheeses, olives and meats paired with pinot noir.

Thanks to Ian’s VIP status, we were allowed a tour of the cellar. Stone tunnels stacked with wooden barrels stretch deep below the building. Our guide shows us into the founder’s library. Wine bottles are racked high up the walls and above us in arching metal braces.

After dinner, we grabbed flashlights and drove through town to Westwood Hills Park. In the darkness, we hustled up the gravel road until the trees hid us from headlights. Strictly speaking, the park was closed, and Ian, our unofficial risk management officer, didn’t want us to get arrested. Chris, tempting fate, refused to keep his light off.

The dusty, rocky trail led us through oak stands and grassland to the top. Up in the hills above Napa, with the yellow pinpricks of streetlights stretching below us, we cracked open warm beers. One each. We toasted to friendship, and to BroFests to come.

Jeremiah McWilliams covers business for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Ian Dickinson contributed to this story.