Story by Myers Reece
If there’s an equally apt embodiment of true happiness as a deprived kid with a new toy, it’s an overworked doctor with a fat trout. I learned that and much more when I joined the doctor in question, my close friend Dave, and five others last July for a bachelor getaway on the Big Hole River to send Dave off into marriage.

On the first evening, we all stood at the river’s edge, gazing into the tea-colored water but really gazing into our future. Each one of us was either 29 or 30, and five had gotten married within the last three years, another was talking about it, and the good doctor’s wedding was just over a month away.

Through our conversations, which revolved around shifting domestic priorities, mortgages, kids, and burgeoning careers, it was clear our lives had reached a collective and critical pivot point. We were leaving the pupa stage of adulthood and evolving into full-blown grownups, stretching our newfound wings. Nobody had figured out how to properly use these awkward-fitting wings yet, and the riverside bachelor party was an opportunity to compare notes, air insecurities, and test theories.

This could have caused the occasion to be a bittersweet last hoorah: a formal goodbye to our carefree 20s and a trepid acknowledgment of the great responsibilities awaiting us. But, instead, the weekend proved to be only sweet: a joyous celebration of both the road ahead and the stepping stones of our past that led us to the road. It felt more like the dawn of a golden era than the end of one.

Dave and I met as students at the University of Montana. Long before he was officially a surgeon, we called him Dr. Dave and sought out his free medical advice, approaching him with unsettling inquiries about skin growths and weird internal bodily functions. Dr. Dave arrived from Corvallis, Oregon with the husband of his fiancée’s sister, Josh, a physical therapist.

That gave us a head count of a surgeon, a physical therapist, a pharmacist, an English professor, a home builder, a fisheries biologist and me, a professional scribbler of words. Four of us, including me, were Dave’s groomsmen, and the other two were similarly close friends. With the exception of Josh, we had all gone to college together in Missoula. The diversity of our professions ensured eclectic campfire conversation, as did our shared belief that no idea is too big or obscure to explore, nor is any story too lewd to shout.

In keeping with sacred bachelor party traditions, and inspired by liquid courage, we engaged in a great deal of this type of shouting, deep into the otherwise quiet night. Fortunately, we had secured a campsite far from the others. Also fortunately, and perhaps shockingly, nobody the entire weekend suffered an injury severe enough to require Dr. Dave’s or Josh’s medical attention.

Most of the campfire tales were about our college years, or the still-wild days immediately afterward. Many of my sweetest memories come from adventures with the guys huddled around that fire: bussing and hitchhiking through Central America with Justin; road trips to Oregon and Northern California with Dave, Jimmy and Drew; late Missoula nights with all of them. We played hard, worked hard, and dreamed big, and we still do.

The world never seems as full of possibilities as it does when you’re in college. That’s when you begin shaping and cementing the ideals that will guide the rest of your life, and it’s when you learn to walk all over again, shakily putting one foot in front of the other, without parents at your side, embarking on a quest that’s equally thrilling and frightening. To do it alone, for me, would have been overwhelming. But to do it with friends was a gift. As an only child, close friends double as brothers, and I walked away from Missoula with brothers who will be part of my life forever. The stories are just icing on the cake.

It’s always surprising to hear of people who had a strict life timeline in mind when they were in their late teens and early 20s. I’ve never thought in terms of predetermined timelines, but for those who do, I’ve learned that 30 is typically a major landmark. By 30, you have to be married. You have to have your professional career hammered down. You have to do this or that by the time you, god forbid, turn 30.

That all sounds stressful, but luckily I couldn’t see past my nose back then, keeping me safely sheltered from the pressures of forward thinking. On the rare occasions I was able to step outside the present and consider the future, I could probably, at best, muster the forethought to plan the next day’s lunch, but certainly not dinner. Thus, 30 was more of a concept than an age, and a distant concept at that. The only thing I was fairly certain of was that, based on my rudimentary comprehension of mathematics, I would someday be 30, though that fact held no special meaning.

Since I’m younger than most of my friends, I’ve had the privilege of watching them turn 30 first. Each reacted differently. One warned, before a spaghetti birthday dinner, to expect marinara and tears in his beard. Others were less dramatic, though in every case it was evident that 30 carried more weight than previous birthdays. Those with predetermined timelines faced a day of reckoning: the collision of expectations and realities. But even those without timelines, like me, got caught up in the age’s symbolism, approaching it as an imperative to take stock of our lives.

And the closer I look, to my surprise, the more I see that 30 actually is a viable landmark. To older folks, this notion might seem laughable, but I can’t argue with the evidence. Nearly every friend and close acquaintance to get married or purchase a home did so right at 30 or pretty close to it. The same goes for having kids. Many, even some of the chronic job bouncers, either began settling into careers around 30 or locked down a career they had previously been dabbling in. The ones who haven’t feel the pressure, warranted or not. I don’t know how much of this is organic and how much is influenced by the ticking of self-imposed clocks – or, perhaps, the ticking of society-imposed clocks – but it’s an unmistakable trend. I turned 30 last August, six days after my one-year wedding anniversary.

When I first announced my marriage proposal, a common reaction, particularly from people my parents’ generation or older, was mock dread. They would make comments, jokingly but with an unnerving edge of seriousness, like, “It’s all over now,” or, “Enjoy these next few months of freedom while you have them.” If you overheard the exchange, you’d think I was getting sent off to maximum-security prison.

On the Big Hole, I discussed this with Dave and Josh, who had encountered the same responses and were similarly puzzled. We theorized that it might be a symptom of generational gaps, the jokes stemming from an era when marriage meant something different and, in some cases, was more of a product of external pressures. Or maybe it’s simply a harsh outlook from people who have either gone through or been around too many bad marriages.

But it struck me that none of us shared those feelings of trepidation, mock or not. Like Josh and me, Dave lived with his fiancée for years before the wedding, so we were all essentially married before we were formally married. I don’t want to understate the significance of marriage, in either the sanctity of its lifetime commitment or its legal ramifications, but when you’ve already been practicing the married lifestyle, and you’re happy with it, you feel comfortable basing expectations off your own experience, as opposed to the experiences of others. I didn’t feel an impending loss of freedom; instead, I perceived a chance to build something bigger than myself with the woman I love, and I couldn’t wait.

As we floated, with the summer sun beaming hot down on us, marriage seeped into nearly every conversation. Nostalgia may have reigned at the campfire, but the future ruled the river. Those kinds of conversational divisions aren’t designed; rather, they’re spawned from forces we can’t pinpoint, and we shouldn’t question them. Sure, we told a story or two about our college days, but the warm air and flowing water mostly inspired us to look forward, and within. I dispensed the little wisdom I have regarding marriage, which is to say I told Dave that I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and that seemed to be the only insight he needed.

Dave works up to 80 hours a week, so I was content to row my raft so he and Josh could fish. From the front fishing platform, Dave hauled in one big brown after another, nearly every one caught on the surface. That’s when I learned where doctors and trout fit into the spectrum of deserved joy. Downstream, Justin rowed the others in his raft, and I could see periodic bent rods and hear whoops of joy.

We caught up with them as we neared a bend, and everybody exchanged a few inter-boat pleasantries and obligatory fishing taunts. Then, as if on cue, we all fell silent. There was no wind, and the only sound was the rhythmic rushing of water, the same music that had serenaded us to sleep at the campground a night earlier. We embraced the shared silence as we floated around the bend, turning the corner toward whatever lay ahead, gaining confidence with every stroke of the oar.