Woog's World / The sturdy dozen
It started casually enough.
Five men -- ranging in age from early 30s to early 40s -- took a bike trip through the White Mountains.
It was physically demanding, emotionally satisfying, and enjoyable enough that they decided to do it again the next year.
Three decades later the group -- now 12, all in their 60s and 70s -- is still at it. Stronger than ever -- physically and mentally -- they credit their long tradition with keeping them fit and together.
The group has never missed a trip. Individuals have been unable to go from time to time, of course, and they miss it as much as their comrades miss them.
Last month, nine of the 12 got together in Westport to discuss their impressive tradition.
They greeted each other with the warmth and passion of soldiers meeting their wives after a year in Afghanistan.
"Most of us see each other only once a year on the trip," one explained. "You see how much this means to us."
Details of their excursions tumbled out.
They laughed, corrected each other's recollections, and finished each other's sentences like long-married couples. Which, in a sense, they are.
Four -- Ed Diamond, Allan Goldberg, David Gottlieb and Irwin Sollinger -- live in Westport. Joel Beaman and Ira Slow are in Weston. The others are scattered throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.
The health-care profession is heavily represented: a dentist, orthodontist, pediatrician, periodontist, psychologist, urologist and two oral surgeons. There's also a lawyer and businessman. Several are retired. There are three sets of brothers-in-law, which helps explain how the group began.
"We have a lot of Type A personalities," one noted. ("And one Type B+," another joked.)
All are firmly rooted in the moment. They live for today -- and, of course, their next trip. It's always the first week in August. Next month they head to France.
As the years passed, the men learned to appreciate what they've done. They revel in the experiences they've shared over three decades. They've traveled to Yosemite, Colorado, Prince Edward Island, Wyoming, the Adirondacks, Montana, Minnesota, Idaho, Ireland, Quebec, Maine, Scotland. Last year they did Iceland.
Sometimes they hike. Sometimes they bike. One year, they canoed.
Over the years, the trip has changed. Originally, the physical component was most important. They challenged themselves, enjoying the opportunity to go places with other men that they might not have on family vacations.
As time passed, the emotional piece grew larger.
"In the beginning there was a lot of seeing who could hike or ride at the front of the group," one man said. "That's all faded. As our commitment to keep this going grew stronger, our ties and bonds grew.
The group created camaraderie, a desire to do more things together."
"It's gone from being very competitive, to very supportive," Sollinger -- the psychologist -- explained. "It's an evolution that's been beneficial to all of us.
"We're all used to running our own practices. We're all fathers. But when we're together, no one feels the need to be in control. We pass all those feelings on, and become one group."
That feeling of unity helps create amazing adventures. As with the best travel, the moments that stand out are small, but precious: Pub and restaurant owners who opened up especially for them.
A sausage meal in Quebec that "no money could buy." The "ooh la la!" from a woman that told them how lost they were. Spectacular meteor showers. Happening upon a reunion of the 10th Mountain Division -- and the Germans they fought -- in the White Mountains. Bonding so strongly with their guide in Iceland that he invited them into his home.
Of course, there's plenty of serious talk too. With a few serious illnesses behind them and over 40 grandchildren between them, they've weathered life's ups and downs.
On bikes and trails, in huts and restaurants, they talked about it all.
"We've learned a lot about each other -- and ourselves," one man said.
The commitment to the group -- and to each other -- helps them stay in shape. They still bike up to 75 miles a day and hike 14 miles. Three hip replacements have not slowed them down.
Have they ever had a bad trip? "No," Gottlieb said. "We had bad nights and bad meals, but no bad week. We're the original lemonade-makers from bad lemons."
So what makes every trip great? Cooperation. Commitment. Excitement. Trust. Beauty. "We've seen wilderness most people only dream about," Diamond said. "And we've done it with great friends."
Their wives and children are in awe of what they've done. "They love the commitment we've made. They love seeing the photos," one man noted. "They know the first week in August is sacrosanct for us."
"My wife is just glad I do this, so she doesn't have to go," another joked.
It's been an amazing 30 years. While eagerly anticipating this year's France adventure, the 12 men also look back on what they've accomplished with pride and gratitude. And, of course, levity.
"When we started, we all had hair," one joked.
True. But they've always had heart, fun and each other. They'll never lose that.