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Life As A Goat
That thing up there, on top of your body—it's is not for thinking.
This piece is not part of my book-length memoir, but if you enjoy my writing, be sure to check out An Ordinary Disaster—one man's proof that we can all learn to hear and live by the subtle voice of self.
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I was still in my infancy as a goat when I went to dinner one night in San Francisco with my then-girlfriend and one of her lifelong mentors, the rebel, writer, and activist John Perry Barlow. I didn’t know much about him at the time, but it was clear just from his gravitas that I was in the presence of a man who, at the very least, deserved the respect due to an elder.
We were in the car on Market street talking about where to eat, and I piped up to suggest a classic place that I was sure enough that we’d all enjoy—and Barlow just about stopped the car. He turned to me with a look that made it clear that I was just some hairy kid who happened to be momentarily attached to his treasured protégé and barked, “Zuni?! Gimme a break. Overpriced! Pretentious! I hate that place. We’ll go…there,” and pointed to the blighted corner of Market and Church, previously occupied by a beer hall called, I believe, the Bus Stop, then recently converted into a place that I referred to as “Big Gay Dennys.”
A huge red sign hung over the building simply reading “HOME.” Let’s just say the name seemed uninspiring, but I was cowed by this much more powerful old goat, embarrassed even, for having made my suggestion—even though it was a good one.
We parked the car and the six of us filed in, his perhaps slightly-more-domestic-than-usual entourage, and slid into a booth where we were all handed the predictably oversized, plastic-coated, and greasy menus. Then came a long pause as we all did our best to assemble a respectable adult dinner from the menu of dolled-up generic Americana—mac ’n cheese, pancakes, biscuits & gravy and other late-night slop—as we took in the charmless decor and inhaled the vapors of restaurant-supply floor sanitizer. I mean, whatever, who cares all that much, we were there for each other, not for a fancy dinner, but, it just wasn’t even nice, y’know?
After a couple of minutes, Barlow looked over at me, looked down at the menu again, shook his head and chuckled—which was enough for him to tell me that I’d been right enough about the place—and that, of course, he was just fine to sit tight and order up a table-full of mac and cheese and fried chicken, which is exactly what we did, and it wasn’t all that bad after all.
I only saw him occasionally after that, but when we did, we got on pretty well—and I know that part of the reason was that we had that confrontation, as inconsequential as it was. Even though he shouted me down, I’d had the balls to speak up. We’d butted heads, and ended up closer to being friends.
How do we learn to navigate this sort of encounter with confidence—and even grace? I’ve gotten better at it since, and as with everything else, the only way, really, is to practice.
And that, my friends, leads back me into the mountains.
This kid here, the reluctant but proud Frisco Kid, former teenage boozehound, paperboy, D&D “dungeon master,” fog eater, Ty slide master, and MUNI rider from the days of transfers printed on newsprint—I’m so much a City kid that I wrote off even Santa Cruz as too far away for college, let alone Reed, Evergreen, or somewhere in Colorado or Montana. I ended up at Cal Berkeley—not a bad school, but even though it was just across the Bay and only BART ride away, I spent the first year living in SF—and with a junior year abroad, that made for only two that I actually lived near campus. Point being, when I was growing up I saw myself as a CITY KID at all costs, and even though I pursued a number of outdoor sports from an early age and into the present—skateboarding, sailing, snowboarding, windsurfing, mountain biking, and then kitesurfing, paragliding, and trail running—it mostly in retrospect that I looked back on early backpacking trips in the high Sierra.
Sure, I did a little climbing and backpacking along the way, but years often went by between occasions that I’d cross a pass on foot instead of by road. Part of the reason was that, for some reason, while I made a ton of friends doing all those other things, I didn’t know any climbers or avid backpackers, and so when I did go, I always ended up as the leader—a role I’m very familiar with, that I like, that I’m good at—and, frankly, that, these days, I often find myself tired of. I like leading because it puts me in control, and because it’s a good way to learn by doing, and because I get recognition for taking that role, but it also puts me a very specific sort of box in terms of my relationship with the other people that I’m with. The leader/follower setup sets me up to run the show—and also leaves me sort of alone, and often feeling that others aren’t doing as much as I’d like. It puts me in a position, from the start, of being in an inherently “vertical,” or unequal relationship—which is OK if I’m actually working as a guide, but isn’t what I’m looking for with friends.
Despite my lack of trail time, and the fact that my birth certificate reads “San Francisco,” there’s always been a part of me that felt like I was born in the high mountains of California. It took years to stop trying so damn hard to leave this beautiful and unique city home, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it took me a similar number of years to find my way back to the Sierra with any regularity. I’ve been so used to leaving SF, CA that it was only after going to Corsica last year, and ending up staying there and hiking for a full month, including two weeks on the GR20—widely known as Europe’s most difficult, and perhaps most interesting, long-distance trekking route—that I felt confident enough to finally dig into planning a proper seven-day high-Sierra backpacking trip.
Even that, I know, is nothing compared to the now-fairly-common phenomenon of thru-hiking long distance trails like the PCT—but I’m not really interested in cranking out 30 or 40 miles a day, tucked in tail-to-tail like tuna—or sardines. Like many older and craggier Sierra rockhounds, I prefer to travel cross-country as much as possible, scrambling, loping and gliding through the rugged, spare, and mostly open country of the God Zone, certainly above ten thousand and often up to and beyond twelve thousand feet in elevation, above tree line and into the realm of granite aprons, ramps, and pinnacles, tarns, cols, talus and scree, all of which have been shaped by relatively recent eons of glacial geomorphology.
While going off trail requires a fair bit more preparation that cruising along the singletrack highway, it’s all very doable, and as Kim Stanley Robinson points out in his ode to our mountains, the high Sierra is, in the experience of many, not just one of, but the best mountain range in the world for self-propelled backcountry travel, due to a combination of climate, geography, and accessibility. There are lots of great places to go hiking, trekking, and backpacking all over the world, and still… California’s Sierra Nevada is hard to beat… especially if you live right down the road.
Now at fifty-three, this city kid here who got so good at riding buses and buying beer—and raised within easy walking distance of the Pacific—was just reminded again how, somehow, I feel lighter, stronger, and faster at ten thousand above sea level than I do right at home just above the tide line. I’ve felt this often enough that as I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had the clear sense this would be the decade of what I’ve come to call the Goat Work—and that, at some point before long, even though I also harbor persistent dreams of long-distance sailing…more time on the ocean…I know that I want and will need to live in the mountains.
On one hand, the Goat Work is just walking, and that makes perfect sense. I am getting older, and, sensibly enough, I’ve put aside a number of things that I did earlier in life that often involved jarring encounters with the surface of the earth.
Besides being better than bashing myself to bits, we are made to walk even more than we were “born to run,” and nothing that has taught me more about how to the world works, simply by observing the patterns of nature and the way we weaves ourselves around each other when we’re out there, than simply walking around outside. Any outdoor sport will do, but because it’s so simple, walking in the wilderness is simply the best way to get good at wayfinding, which, for all its practical utility, is one of those seemingly physical skills that being competent and confident in translates directly into a deeply-felt competence and confidence in finding our way through life itself.
It might not seem obvious how getting good at reading the landscape, avoiding cliffs, and finding campsites would make you good at reading the room, avoiding threats, or finding a job or a good place to live, and we don’t really need to understand how it does, but it damn well does, because of the parallels between the patterns that we run into out there in the wild, and the patterns of everything else.
We need to be good at wayfinding to be good at life, and that’s big part of what the Goat Work is for. It’s about putting your hooves on the bare rock and navigating the luminous interface betwee geology and atmosphere with all your senses—but perhaps cultivating most of all the subtle sense of smell—working the nose that hints at a spring, or rain, or lightning over the horizon. My eyes always get good exercise up there too—I find that my vision gets sharper after a few days in the mountains.
The saying goes that we go to the mountains to “clear the head,” but why—so we can think clearly? I say no: that’s not what happens. My head does get clear up there, but the clear sky doesn’t fill up with clouds just because it appears to be empty.
On this last trip, I was reminded how there’s so little to do, and yet the animal that’s me is always fully occupied. Dreaming, waking, eating, excreting, packing up camp, walking, resting, walking, finding and making camp, eating, and sleeping—that’s all there is, and it’s plenty to fill every moment of the day. I can’t recall much more than a minute when I was idle, or not thinking about anything, even though, for the most part, I didn’t think that I was thinking about anything at all! Most of all what occupies the mind up there is…just looking around. There’s an infinity of shapes and colors and so much of everything to take in; aside from walking and eating, observing, absorbing, and being in the landscape makes good use of all the time there is.
So, yeah, my head is clear—but that thing up there ⬆️ is not for thinking.
My head, that is. The word that does comes to mind is purifying. Of course, the experience of being up, in, or out there, in what is certainly one of Earth’s greatest of its most approachable landscapes, it’s incredible, it’s beautiful, it’s sublime—but I don't know if words can really do that beauty justice, and that’s not what I’m trying to do here anyhow. I’m not trying to describe the place with words. I’m not necessarily trying to encourage you to go. I mean, do go! Go if you want to—but I prefer not to run into too many people anyhow. What I do want to convey is that feeling in my body: purified, cleansed—and strong in a balanced, integrated and unified way. Those words that we use sometimes to describe people, as if they were metaphors: ”together,” “grounded,” “solid”—those are real feelings, and that’s how I feel—as if I took some of all that granite right into me.
Going into the mountains clears the head of thoughts, not for thoughts, which brings to mind another simple transformation that I ran across recently, also signified by the simple shift of a single preposition. As Sophie Strand writes in her extraordinary recasting of masculine myths The Flowering Wand, “…Orpheus is plural. Rather than naming as specific heroic individual, Orpheus appears to have been used more as a spiritual title. You didn't pray to Orpheus. You prayed as Orpheus…” The Goat Work isn’t praying to some horned goat god, it’s praying as the goat, which is exactly what I meant when I first told a friend that I’d be doing the goat work in my fifties—so, thanks Sophie, for explaining!
I was introduced to the idea of a “plurality of masculinities” by Grayson Perry in his book The Descent of Man, and I just love how she has carried this into her re-casting of masculine archetypes and gods, and extended it to illustrate how “everyone is Orpheus,” along with the Minotaur, the wizard Merlin, Osiris, Jesus, the Devil—and, as it happens, her favorite, the goat-horned Dionysus, god of the Goat Work himself—and, surely, one of the gods that dear old Barlow prayed as quite a bit on his road through the years.
There’s another important aspect to the goat work which is more social, more animal, and more human than geologic or geographic. Part of life as a goat is learning how to butt heads properly. Now, you might think that head-butting is just plain something to avoid, or something that doesn’t really require any learning how to do, but au contraire, mon frère!
I didn’t learn to butt heads early on in life, and so for many years I did my damndest to avoid confrontation, or even being around (especially) men who I know might confront me. The potential for confrontation felt uncertain, scary, and dangerous—and I felt justified in feeling turned off by what I saw as this aspect of what (not just) men do… but I also wondered why I didn’t have a lot of male friends, and why men didn’t reach out to me for counsel, or return my calls as much as I would have liked. It certainly wasn’t only because I didn’t know how to butt heads, but I’ve since learned that that was part of the reason, for sure.
I’m certainly not the first to point out that some conflict in life is inevitable, and, well, we can choose—or try—to avoid it, but doing conflict well is a skill that can be learned, and that enables us to experience more. If we avoid conflict, we risk being—or trying to be—someone that everyone likes, which is not only downright impossible but impossibly stifling. While you may feel free of conflict, it’s also a clear sign that you’re actually not free at all, because you’re censoring yourself, staying safe on the sidelines—and less than fully you while you’re standing there fuming.
There’s part of our nature—maybe it’s the goat DNA—that wants us to butt up against other animals and say “hey!” Of course it happens in intimate relationships, but—here’s a secret that I didn’t learn until late in life—as with so many other aspects of relating, we can learn that skill of positive confrontation outside of the context of romantic relationship and then apply it to those more complex connections. As a man who got into plenty of conflict with women in my life, learning to butt heads with men without freaking the fuck out—and be proactive about it when called for—has improved my relationships with women quite dramatically.
Ever watched a herd of goats? Or boys at recess in a schoolyard? They butt heads! Sometimes it gets down to an actual fight, but it’s also, and more often, a form of play. Playing, tussling, and fighting exist on a continuum—and if the left side of that spectrum is never visited, the right side, where it feels like a real fight, and people get angry and hurt—gets over-expressed. Punches are thrown—or, more often, conflict is hidden in veiled, shame-filled, silent contests. Unexpressed, buried—until it blows up later, spewing shit all over the place.
It took me some time to recognize that I’d been avoiding this aspect of the goat work—and of course in this case you don’t have to go into the wilderness to practice. It’s really just an exercise in courage, and in truth-telling. I don’t necessarily mean unadulterated radical honesty, but these days, I’m doing my best to tell the truth about how I feel. Sometimes I may put someone off, or even lose a friend, but that’s part of life as a goat. For the most part though, it’s expansive and generative, because much more often than that, the goat gains self-respect, and that of others, and that brings us closer.
I’m glad that I’m no longer afraid to get the horns out. Funny how we have to make a point of learning what to a goat, of course, just comes naturally. What I’ve found is that life is clearer, cleaner, and more fun with a bit of goat in me. We butt heads, or wrestle, or sweat it out together on the trail, for a bit, and then we go back to eating grass—or macaroni and cheese.
⭐️⭐️ THANK YOU FOR READING ⭐️⭐️
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References and Further Reading
- and her Substack . Read her chapter on Everyone Is Orpheus for a transformative exposition on “praying as” and opposed to “praying to.”
The Courage To Be Disliked, Kisimi & Koga — dig in for a great discussion of horizontal vs vertical relationships, and why you’re not free if nobody dislikes you.
Born to Run, Christopher McDougall
Questions for you
Which gods are you praying as—and what have you learned?
Do you have an example of a time when you were aware of butting heads with someone, in a positive way? What was the result? How did you learn to butt heads?
Where do you go to do the goat work?
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