If you live here, you’ve probably heard the stereotypes about Durangoan culture bandied about: That it’s a place full of people working transient jobs, juggling multiple occupations without any discernible career goals, passing through to ski in the winter or bike in the summer, placing an emphasis on a carefree style of living and relationship-having. It’s not only Durango – this is an epidemic in many mountain towns, especially when it comes to the dating scene. A “Peter Pan” is a man whose emotional life has remained at an adolescent-like level, one who refuses to “grow up.” PP Syndrome (a real pop-psychology concept) is often mentioned informally in Durango when referencing men who have seasonal jobs, put a priority on spending time outdoors and have a resistance to settling down. You might even say PP’s are the modern version of the old Western cowboy, nursing an ideal of rugged independence. They don’t need anyone. They ride or fly off into the sunset alone.
Unlike the stereotypical rugged cowboy, though, Peter Pans are often light-hearted, delightful, spontaneous company. They’re like your childhood playmate, always up for an adventure. Small mountain hamlets seem to be the perfect breeding ground for this personality. “A lot of these guys love the extreme sports, and they’ll get cheap jobs here so they can ski,” said Michael Wilkinson, couples and relationship counselor at Chrysalis Counseling in Durango. “There are people 50 years old still doing that! They are literally flying boys, flying down the mountain. It’s the closest they can come to actually flying.” Mountain towns exist outside some of the social strictures and responsibilities more tightly imposed in cities. No one is going to fault you for a lack of conventional ambition or for failing to work 60 hours a week. Not every PP is a sports-fanatic, though, and “some can hold down jobs and do very well at them,” said Wilkinson. “But then they can’t have a relationship to save their lives.”
“I call the large population of unattached, sun-scorched, backcountry-clothed, beautifully chiseled men ‘the perpetual Peter Pan[s],’” said a female living in Durango via email, who asked to remain anonymous. “‘Perpetual’ is the key word here. They stay fit and beautiful until they die. Their love of a sport is their oxygen. I’ve only met a few that can drop that word “perpetual from their name, but they found women [who are] as into their sport as they are. Some even have kids.”
Who qualifies as a Peter Pan?The “millennial” generation has a notable problem feeling like adults. Many cannot afford to move out of their parents’ place, jobs in their fields aren’t hiring and they don’t begin families until much later in life – so how do kids know when they’re “grown-up”? Men in particular struggle with this lack of clear transition, according to Wilkinson. “I think to understand what’s happening now, we have to go back in time 50,000 years,” he said. “We were living in caves, we were migratory and the rules were clear: the men hunted and provided, procreated and protected. The women’s job was to gather and nurture. But fast forward to where we are now: The extraordinary technology we have has enabled amazing changes in our lives. And one of the things we have lost is our purpose as men. Procreation is now more of a luxury and a choice.” Women can even have babies or make a living entirely without the help of the male species.
Some men are confused, in part, because of our culture’s lack of coming-of-age initiation rituals (aside from the likes of the Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, the Amish Rumspringa and the Hispanic Quinceanera). Guys who move away to college or into their first apartment are performing a rite of passage into adulthood, in a sense, but it’s not necessarily enough. “Some people will have the ability to take going to college as a rite of passage,” said Wilkinson. “Some people will self-initiate, but it’s very difficult to do. In tribal cultures, no boy initiates himself.” Girls get a more self-explanatory passage into womanhood with their start of menstruation. Most girls are taught what it means. Women also tend to surround themselves with groups of female friends with whom they can discuss their feelings and insecurities. The opportunity for emotional unburdening is more difficult for men to find.
“Wendy syndrome” is the lesser-known companion to Peter Pan syndrome. A “Wendy” is a woman who plays mother to her mate, allowing and enabling his PP behavior. “Wendys don’t really know who they are,” said Wilkinson. “They tie their identity up with their boyfriends. These guys are only too happy to step in and give them opinions.” Wilkinson claims it’s much more unusual for women to have PP Syndrome and for men to be Wendys.
Why is this an issue? So what? How is rivaling a fictional J.M. Barrie character (with the power of flight) a bad thing? According to Wilkinson, “It’s costing them connection, vitality, tolerance, self-esteem. They know they should be doing something else, there’s a part of them that pines for that. But many aren’t presented with a choice.” Indubitably, when it comes to behavior, there isn’t any inevitable “should” or correct answer. You don’t NEED to start a family or become a responsible grown-up. Some men must be perfectly content living this lifestyle forever, right? “Those guys aren’t the ones who come into my office for help,” said Wilkinson. “The guys who come to me are the ones who say, ‘I’ve had 18 relationships in the last 15 years and it’s killing me. I am willing to change.’”
It’s possible Peter Pans are merely immature dudes who aren’t ready to accept the drudgery and monotony of a lengthier partnership. “I have a friend who is a flying boy,” said Wilkinson. “He jumps from relationship to relationship and believes it should be that feeling of being in love all the time. But that doesn’t mean anything. Falling in love is pheromones and hormones at work, trying to get two people to copulate, procreate and perpetuate the species. It’s a biological reaction, like fight or flight. But after six weeks to six months, that feeling falls away, and you get the chance to see the person for who they really are. According to Jungian psychologists, that’s when the relationship really starts. Up until then, the relationship has been with yourself, because you’re projecting. So when my friend hits that point, there’s pain, tears, drama, and then he goes to the next one. Rinse and repeat. He’s having dessert for every meal, and doesn’t understand that a relationship is also about meat and potatoes and vegetables. He just wants the flan. After a while, you’ll get sick of the flan. It’s too sweet.”
Married couple and co-owners of Durango’s Rock Lounge climbing gym, Marcus and Tambri Garcia, have dealt with some Peter Pan-themed problems of their own. Marcus is a professional climber who travels frequently, but in his younger days, he lived for eight years in his truck (“dirtbagging” it, as they say), zealously climbing the entire time. One year, he spent 250 total days off the ground. He met his wife 14 years ago, while working as a guide in Durango, when he took his wife-to-be on a wildflower tour up Engineer Mountain. Marcus has always worked multiple jobs while staying flexible, traveling and chasing every new peak. When they first met, Tambri was the self-described princess headed down the corporate-husband path. “But my time with him, listening to how he viewed the world, was what captured my attention,” Tambri said. “I didn’t know I had an adventurous drive. He took me to climb Snowdon Peak, and I realized, going back to Houston, that I was trapped in a world I wasn’t happy in. I didn’t have a lot of say in my own life. Snowdon was a revelation; it made me see I can do whatever I put my mind to.”
“He did tell me this was his life, this was who he was, and he wasn’t going to change,” continued Tambri. “I had to make a decision if I wanted to be in his life. It’s like if a person falls in love with a fireman or policeman – it was very dangerous. He was never home, always guiding or climbing.” Tambri notes Marcus would regularly be gone on trips for six to eight weeks, and once she moved houses while he was gone. When he returned, he didn’t know their new address, and Tamri had adopted a brand new dog. “That woke him up a little bit; that’s when he started taking shorter trips,” said Tambri. After their daughter was born (now 13), Marcus stopped going on solo climbs (the really dangerous ones without ropes). According to Tambri, Marcus never planned on getting married. “We didn’t ask each other or talk about future goals,” said Tambri. “We live day by day in our marriage. He still does what he wants to do. I’ve changed a lot to fit around his personality. But it’s really worked out for us. We have this new gym together, and we spend more time together because of it. But I take on the bills, the house upkeep. I’m more responsible.”
Dr. David Kozak, professor of anthropology at Fort Lewis College, is another “reformed” Peter Pan and passionate climber. He is now a husband and has a daughter, too. “I started climbing 40 years ago, and that’s my identity, still to this day,” said Kozak. “I can’t do it as much now because I have a job and a family. I did 10 years of dirtbagging, making ends meet, working when I had to, playing when I wanted to.” Kozak remembers male buddies who shared his attitude were easy to come by (some still climb with him), but his girlfriends had varying levels of tolerance, and were never willing to live his lifestyle. “I didn’t want that, to put it bluntly – my priority was climbing above everything else,” said Kozak. “It was a self-centered activity. It was about me.” Attending college at FLC, Kozak spent at least four months of every year living out of his truck; in the summers, he went climbing wherever he wanted. He did much of his school reading by head lamp.
What’s the appeal of this lifestyle? As most people living in Durango will attest, there’s true bliss to be found on the trail, in green grass, cool lake water and the thick of a forest. “I loved the separation from society,” said Marcus. “When you’re climbing, nothing matters except for the moment. In society, you have to live on a weekly or yearly schedule.” Added Tambri, “All of my staff members at the gym are climbers, they’re all single and none ever talk about being lonely.” She agrees this could be because it’s less socially acceptable for men to express loneliness or speak freely about their feelings.
“The whole idea of climbing as an adrenaline sport, that’s not why you climb,” said Kozak. “There’s a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who talked about this concept called ‘the flow,’ and I think that’s what it’s like. A euphoria that comes from complete concentration. It’s not about being an adrenaline junkie, it’s more about controlling yourself and your fears to accomplish something. Being career-minded, it’s less likely for a person to experience the flow, or at least it hasn’t happened that often for me. With gravity sports, it’s your full body and mind integrated into making something happen. Academically, I get great satisfaction out of being a scholar and teacher … but it’s not your body, it’s just your mind.”
At times, both Kozak and Garcia have longed for their old lives. “I love my life now, but there were many times I thought, ‘Man, what if I had continued with that?’” said Kozak. “You talk to boaters, climbers, skiers, and there’s always another mountain, another river, another objective out there. That’s one of the wonderful things about the lifestyle: There are concrete goals. There’s nothing else really like that in day-to-day life. Relationships are a whole lot messier.” Additionally, outdoor pursuits are rarely just about conquering a landscape. They’re also about conquering yourself, wrestling with your own abilities and limitations. That’s pretty rewarding. “I’m definitely gone a lot, so that puts strain on my relationship,” said Garcia. “I was used to being in my truck and being on my own for years. I was able to get up and leave. I find myself wanting to be back there, even now when I love having a wife and a daughter. ”
Can Peter Pans grow up? Wilkinson assumes there is always a part of the Peter Pan that would like to grow up, a part that’s not OK with not evolving. “I tell these people, ‘Who are you to think that you can do something the universe itself cannot do? Which is stand still,’” said Wilkinson. Wendys similarly deny problems exist, justifying or explaining their partner’s conduct. “They’ll say, ‘He doesn’t know any better; I just need to take care of him,’ but that isn’t sustainable,” said Wilkinson. “If this woman comes into my office, I’ll help her reconstruct her own self-identity, without anything or anyone else.”
Take note, female DGO readers: Wilkinson addresses the telltale signs you’ve hooked a charming PP. “I would look for financial stability,” he said. “Or if he’s living out of his van or in a tent. Where do they put their priorities? These people can be really social and gregarious. The problems start when the woman wants more than he’s willing to give.”
Not all women eagerly await the day when their Peter Pan will change his ways. Tambri Garcia is as understanding as they come. “I think loving the outdoors is a very addictive thing, and for a lot of these men, it’s their spiritual journey,” Garcia said. “They don’t necessarily voice it – but they need it. And women trying to make them give up that part of them is tragic, and can turn things dark really fast. I don’t know if the men who choose this lifestyle are built to be depended on by other people. They’re wired that way.”