Hiking Is an Ideal Structure for Friendship


Wenjia Tang

Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with a group of friends who have been going on monthly hikes for 25 years. They discuss why the hike organizer has absolute authority, how they’ve shown up for one another through tragedies, and why hiking together has bonded them more deeply than other ways of keeping in touch.

The Friends: Bo Brill, 63, a retired engineer who lives in Annapolis, MarylandRodney FOLLIn, 65, a retired local-government employee who lives in Fairfax Station, VirginiaJim Gillespie, 63, a children’s behavioral-health services manager who lives in Fairfax, VirginiaWill Smith, 53, a budget manager at the National Science Foundation who lives in Linden, Tennessee

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: Give me the prologue of your friendship before your monthly hikes.

Jim Gillespie: Rodney and Bo and I met at the University of Virginia, where we were fraternity brothers. For a decade and a half afterwards we got together, had parties, and followed UVA sports. Rodney and I worked together for a long period of time and got to know each other better through that. Will was my neighbor—we had young children at the same time, and our wives were both stay-at-home moms for a while. This hiking thing came together in 1995. At first it was Bo, Rodney, and I and our fellow friend and fraternity brother, Tom Shaffer. Tom passed away in 1998.

A couple years after that, Will joined the group.

Will Smith: Jim invited me to join because he knew that I did a lot of hiking and outdoor things as well.

Rodney Follin: He’s been with us for 15 or more of the 25 years that we’ve been doing this.

Beck: How was the monthly hike inaugurated?

Rodney, Bo, and Jim on a hike in 1997 (Courtesy of Jim Gillespie)

Rodney: We did a number of one-off hikes, and after one of those I remember saying, “We ought to do this every month.” We all laughed and thought that was not doable for folks as busy as we were. I said, “No—let’s put the date on the calendar for next month.”

After that, the dates were established month to month. As soon as we complete one hike, we immediately establish when the next will be. We rotate the organization and planning duties, eeny-meeny-miny-moe style.

That person has complete authority and responsibility to organize the hike, select the location, provide the beer and other refreshments, and make any other side-trip plans. We’ve done breakfast, dinner. We sometimes hit various local watering holes, or we just plop down with a cooler in the woods somewhere. The organizer is responsible for setting up all the logistics, soup to nuts, and is not questioned on the decisions made.

Beck: Why did that rule come to be?

Jim: We did experiment with trying to get our families involved. We tried to do a family hike one month, and then just the guys the second month. It didn’t work. You had seven or eight different personalities, everybody with their own idea. We realized we had to scope this thing down [to just the guys] and just have one person organize each hike.

Beck: Does the organizing power extend to canceling for bad weather?

Jim: Having organized a handful of the most atrocious hikes we’ve ever been on, I pushed the envelope on that. I took us up Short Hill Mountain in Loudoun County in cold, wet weather—and we came back off the mountain with no trail, after dark, not entirely sure where the road was. People did complain about it.

More often, you come up with something that’s fairly pedestrian. Five or six miles in a suburban park. But the whole ritual of getting together, talking and walking, makes even a very ordinary hike fun. I can’t recall times when we really felt like we were let down by our organizer.

Rodney: Even bad weather or more mundane hikes get you that sense of accomplishment. You start at point A and you go to point B, and you get something done. It’s something you can wrap up, check off, and mark on a map. On our 20-year anniversary of doing this, we drew lines on this huge map to show all the places that we had hiked. We’re probably somewhere between 1,700 and 2,000 miles hiked over the last 25 years.

The map of the Washington D.C./Maryland/Virginia area tracking the group’s hikes. (Courtesy of Jim Gillespie)

Beck: Tell me a bit about Tom and the hikes you had with him before he passed away.

Rodney: Those were the very first years. He was one of my best friends. He was a musician and lived in a group house full of musicians, the Palace of Musical Malice. They would host parties throughout the ’80s. There would be musicians in every room. They were the most wonderful, wonderful times.

I remember some great hikes with him in the Blue Ridge Mountains. During one only a few months prior to his passing, he was laboring a little bit. He sat out one particular peak that [the rest of us] got to the top of. I remember thinking, Well, that’s sort of odd. It may have been indicative that he wasn’t feeling the best. He passed away due to a heart attack.

We were all shell-shocked when it happened, and just continue to miss him. It was the first time I had lost a peer, and it had a profound impact on my realization of my own mortality. Geez, we were only in our 40s.

Beck: Obviously Tom’s death was a huge moment for your friendship. Have there been other major life events where this hiking group has shown up for one another?

Rodney: I recently suffered the loss of my older sister. It was graveside service only, and everybody’s got to wear a mask. Bo and Jim showed up for me. I just can’t tell you how much it meant for those guys to be there. Was that related to hiking? Yeah, it was—because without the continuity and the development of intimate friendships that have been produced by this activity, I would have no expectation of them being there.

Jim: We’ve been there for each other through some bad times. Most people know to support people they care about during hard times, but there are fewer people who are going to hang with you through the good times, who are going to take time out of their calendar to have fun on a regular basis.

We really are committed to this. There have been times for scheduling reasons that one or more of us could not make a hike, but I cannot remember a time when one of us just blew it off. If it had been more casual, it would have fallen apart.

Beck: What makes hiking a good container for your friendship? Do you think you would have stayed as close without this tradition?

Rodney, Will, and Bo on a hike in 2007

Rodney: Hiking gives you physical activity. We get out into nature, and I’m a great nature lover. I’m also a local historian and, in particular, a Civil War historian. So much of our hiking has involved locales where events of the Civil War took place—in Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia. Hiking allows me to explore all of those interests in a single activity.

Jim: And then there’s the advantage of having guaranteed time spent away from your spouse on a regular basis. I love my wife and my family, but it is really nice to know that once a month, I’m going to be away from them, doing some things with my buddies. If it were once a week, it would intrude on my family life. But I owe it to myself to once in a while say, “I’m leaving this morning, and I ain’t coming back for eight hours.”

Bo Brill: I do love my spouse, but it’s nice spending time with other guys. It’s good to be around other people who look at the world similarly.

Jim: This is not a time when we complain about our partners. I almost regard it as an unwritten rule that nobody dumps negative stuff about their family during the hikes. We don’t go there.

Rodney: We’re too busy talking about sports, politics, and my narrative about the local history and geography.

Will: The whole activity of walking in the woods is very conducive to having a conversation. Unless you’re crawling up the steepest hill, you can keep a conversation rolling along.

Jim: I think it would have been hard for us to keep our friendship close without this hike. It’s been a lifetime of births, deaths, job changes, and moves. My guess is we would have gotten together two or three times a year to watch UVA sports. Then I’d come home, and my wife would say, “Well, how’s Rodney’s girlfriend? How were Bo’s kids?” And I’d say, “I don't know; I didn’t ask about it. We just watched sports.” It would have been one of those college friendships where you get together and talk about the old days.

We actually talk about the old days remarkably little. Our conversations are about the present and the future. I like that. These are my friends for now. They’re not just my friends because I knew them back in college.

Rodney and Bo on a hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1998 (Courtesy of Bo Brill)

Beck: Can we end by going around and everyone telling me about one really memorable hike you’ve been on?

Rodney: Near the Cedar Run trail in the Whiteoak Canyon area, there are waterfalls by the score. You've got water slides; you’ve got rocks that you can jump off into clear pools of very cold water. It’s always one of our hikes in the summertime when the weather’s hot. We get out there into that cold water and we act like we’re 18 years old again.

Bo: A memorable hike that I planned was just a simple loop hike. It was snowing lightly. We took a wrong turn and came back, saw our own footprints and just followed them. Then we got lost again and came back on the same footprints for a third time.

Will: I certainly remember that one! I was thinking about the Old Rag night hike, which showed the group really coming together to execute in an emergency situation. I had a lot of fun on that hike, coming down in the pitch darkness with flashlights. Then we get to the parking lot, and I immediately drove my truck into a ditch. We pulled together and spent about an hour getting it out of there.

Jim: Our last hike was a great one. It was organized by Bo. We took the Potomac Heritage Trail for four or five miles down to Key Bridge. We crossed Key Bridge and then walked the C&O Canal, for four or five more miles. We’ve done different versions of that hike several times over the years. It’s really close by. Our next hike is a week from Saturday, I believe. Who’s organizing?

Rodney: That would be me. Stand by for the plan.

Beck: Is the plan a mystery?

Rodney: At this time of year, we have to keep our eye on the weather. So we tend to keep the hike plan unannounced until a little bit closer to the time.

Will: Can you give us a hint, Rodney?

Rodney: It will be local. In COVID times, we are unable to get in a car and drive great distances together—not a safe thing to do. I certainly miss that. But we make do with some tremendous local hiking opportunities. I will go ahead and drop the hint that this is a place, gentlemen, where we have been before but not for quite some time. I’ll leave it at that.

If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.