The Muddy Buddys

What do a sports photographer, information systems architect, a real estate appraiser, a Secret Service agent and an airline pilot have in common? They love Jesus, enjoy the outdoors, were Wilderness Ranch guides in the summers of 1977 to 1979 and are all members of the Muddy Buddys*.

In many ways, the Muddy Buddys could not be more different. But their experiences as Wilderness guides — leading young men and women on backpacking trips into the woods and into deeper relationships with Christ — catapulted them into a friendship that is still nurtured and celebrated more than 30 years later.

There are nine Muddy Buddys in all: John Berry, Jamie Casey, Scott Dolenc, Don Glassett, Paul Johnson, Art Kopicky, Ron McGuckin, Hudson Philips and Carl Yarbrough.

And even though, since those seminal summers in the late ’70s, their journeys have spread them all over the world and led them to a variety of professions, they have maintained the commitment they established to one another back in the wilds of Colorado. In their words, they are “growing old together.”

A tradition begins

It all started with a relatively spontaneous reunion in Moab, Utah, where they mountain biked during the day, sat around a campfire at night and shared Jesus stories until the embers grew cold. It was such a powerful experience it eventually became an annual affair, attracting more and more men each year. “It became a ministry in itself,” said Carl Yarbrough. When asked why so many men came (their fourth year, more than 60 men showed up), Yarbrough said, “Men bond best on an adventure.”

That might explain the close connection between these brothers. Whether it is skiing in Aspen, Colo., hiking the Wind River Wilderness in Wyoming or beach bumming on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, they have had plenty of adventures.

Their escapades continued through the ’80s. They kept in touch; they crashed on each other’s couches when they were passing through town or simply just needed a place to stay for a while; they were groomsmen in each other’s weddings. What began as something entirely organic developed into something slightly more refined and eventually grew into a core group of nine. It wasn’t until the 1990s when they finally gave themselves the moniker. However, the Muddy Buddys have never been all fun and games. “We may be a bunch of old guys who still go out and do dangerous stuff, but [we] are best friends,” Jamie Casey said. “These guys have walked me through my deepest struggles and my greatest joys.

“They’re the first group I call about anything. Even though it is not a daily thing, we maintain a pretty tight relationship I think.” Whether it is celebrating a childbirth or supporting someone through a devastating loss, these men have remained committed to journey through life together.

“I know without question, if I need something I can call any of them, and they will be there,” Hudson Philips said. Paul Johnson’s own experience is a testimony to the group’s commitment to each other.

He describes a period in his life when he was “on sabbatical from the Lord.” He had become engulfed in his job as a police officer and had laid his faith to the side. “It was these Young Life Wilderness guys who brought me back to the Lord. They loved me, cared for me and held me accountable. They helped me understand that I don’t have to be a super-Christian, I just need to be real and genuine in my faith.”

Last February while the nine of them were sitting around the dinner table, long after the food got cold, Hudson Philips looked the other eight men in the eye and told them, “I wouldn’t be alive today if you all hadn’t rallied around me.” It is a sentiment they all share with eyes that cannot be called anything but damp.

Together in life’s trenches

Reflecting on the last three decades, it is hard not to get nostalgic. “It’s frightening,” mused Johnson. But it is easy to see that they have been given something special.

“[When we share about the Muddy Buddys] guys get tears in their eyes,” Philips said. “They say, ‘I didn’t know this kind of thing was possible.’”

How it happened is anyone’s guess. Yarbrough attributes it to their shared experience at Wilderness Ranch: “I have had many great friendships, but these guys are special because I go back the furthest with them. Relationships deepen with the years, but I think [we are where we are because] of the common bond we had during this amazing period of our lives. Maybe it’s the soldiers-in-the-trench mentality.

“Guiding at Wilderness Ranch was challenging. But the Young Life way of ministering to people creates a bond that you cannot break.”

Jesus Christ has used Young Life to be the thread. There is wonder in his voice when Johnson said, “Young Life has been a part of every decision in my life.” To varying degrees, it has been true for all of them. As each one looks back, he is astonished at how much of the rest of their lives — career choices, marriages, friendships — was shaped during these formative summers guiding at Wilderness Ranch.

“It was an amazing experience for me,” Yarbrough said. “[It was] just what I needed as a Christian and as a person. We were a group of likeminded people, wanting to serve God in the simple way of living in the mountains.” And for some, Wilderness has become a new family tradition, too. Yarbrough’s daughter served as a guide at Beyond Malibu, another Young Life adventure camping experience. She’s not the only one: Scott Dolenc’s son has spent summers guiding at Wilderness Ranch as well.

All nine of these men share connections like that. They all have stories, and there is deep emotion as they relate them. They include hilarious and heart-breaking anecdotes about their adventures and the life they’ve shared together, from chain smoking pipes and cigars in the Wind Rivers to keep the mosquitoes away to making themselves available when the life of one of their buddies was coming unglued. And there are many stories in between. The Muddy Buddys have a relationship forged in the backcountry of Colorado, 30 years in the making and, as Jamie Casey said, “[Our bond] solidifies every time we are together.”

* This group of friends chose this alternate spelling of "buddies" after a mountain-biking trip together left them with the fond memory of the perpetual splash of mud on their backsides.