What It’s Like to Carry On a Tradition With a Friend Who Can’t Remember It

“He could tell if it rang true inside of him or not.”

A close up illustration of a high five
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 Gabe and Andy, two friends who for more than six years have walked 30 minutes once a week to give each other a high five. The tradition started as a fun way to see each other regularly and came to mean so much more—especially when Gabe got sick with a brain infection and lost his memory. They discuss the origin of the high five, what it’s like to share something special that one friend can’t remember, and the joy that a simple routine can bring to a friendship.

The Friends:

Andy Gullahorn, a 44-year-old singer-songwriter who lives in Nashville, Tennessee
Gabe Scott, a 45-year-old musician and restaurant owner who lives in Nashville

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: Tell me how you met and became friends.

Andy Gullahorn: We first met in 2000, at a show in Birmingham, Alabama. I was playing guitar for my wife, and Gabe was playing guitar for another artist. Somebody booked a show for them to play together.

[A couple years after that, we all] started playing together on a Christmas tour every December, until this year. We loved spending time together on the tour. We would play a lot of games and have competitions on the road. And every year, at the end, we’d be like: “Man, we’ve got to find ways to see each other these other 11 months.” Because we both lived in Nashville. We made that promise for many, many years.

Gabe Scott and Andy Gullahorn stand in a park, leaning on a sign that reads "Sevier Park"
Gabe Scott (left) and Andy Gullahorn (right) (Courtesy of Andy Gullahorn)

Beck: It seems like it was almost like a camp friendship for a while—where you see each other once a year and you’re best friends in that specific environment, but it can be hard to bring the relationship into “real life.”

Andy: In the music world, being on the road, you’re sleeping in bunks two feet from each other. It totally feels like a camp thing. You spend a lot of time together. And then real life comes back, and there are so many variables.

Gabe Scott: You have the routine when you’re on the road, and then you have the routine when you’re home. And we hadn’t gotten those two aligned yet.

Andy: It wasn’t until 2014, when we were both at the same party and having that same conversation—“Man we’ve got to hang out”—that Gabe told me he had moved just a mile and a half down the road from me. I said, “Gabe since you live so close, what if we just walked [toward each other] and high-fived in the middle? If we do that every week for 10 years, that’s the kind of story they would do on CBS Sunday Morning [our wives’ favorite TV show].”

Beck: Walk me through the high five’s early days.

Andy: The first was probably a day or two after that party. I have it right here in my high-five journal.

Beck: Oh my gosh. [At this point, Andy pulled out a notebook with the outline of a hand on it.]

Andy: It was 8:05 AM on April 30, 2014. We texted and said, “All right, let’s leave our houses.” We met at the middle point, gave a high five—and then weren’t sure what to do, so we talked for three hours. The only rule in the beginning was that we had to do it one time each week. The middle point happens to be a park, so we’d give each other a high five, and then we would shoot baskets, talk for 15 minutes or so, and go back home.

Beck: Gabe, I know you were sick recently and had some memory issues. Are you feeling better? Do you remember the origins of the high five, or is it fuzzy?

Gabe: I feel better than I did three months ago. But what I’m dealing with is … I’m still me, but I can’t define “me” as my memories. As Andy talks, a few of the things he said are things I couldn’t have told you, but as soon as he says it, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I remember that.”

Andy: I’m not normally one who would just do all the talking.

Beck: It’s now been more than six years of weekly high-fiving. Has the process evolved at all?

Two men mid-high five, walking past each other on the sidewalk
Courtesy of Andy Gullahorn

Andy: Yes. I’ll talk about our signal. One person sends the high-five emoji; then the other person responds with the hand. Then you respond with a walking emoji, and the other person does the walking emoji. That’s the only communication.

By the time of our fifth high five, we were both too busy that week to take the 30 minutes of walking and then also shoot baskets. So we started something called the silent high five. If you just gave each other a high five without talking, then turned around and walked past each other again, that would surely be awkward. So the rule was: You have to first pass each other without looking at each other, and you can’t smile.

Gabe: As though you’re strangers.

Andy: You take 20 paces, then turn around and come back. You still don’t acknowledge each other till the very last second. Then you just stick up your hand, give a high five, and walk home.

Gabe: You can’t speak.

Andy: There’s no acknowledgment of the other person’s existence other than the high five.

Beck: Were you able to maintain a straight face?

Andy: The first time was hard.

Gabe: We got really good at it. We thought, What if a car is driving by right now, or there’s another family walking behind us—and they see two random guys walk past each other, then turn around at the exact same time, walk back, give each other a high five without looking, and then just keep walking?

Andy: It would be a weird thing to witness, so we saw it as a gift for anybody who happened to be driving by.

Gabe, talk about the mechanics of the high five.

Gabe: [It started as] a pretty standard high five. But over time, we started adding other moves to it. It eventually became a clap, a snap, and then you open your hand and high-five.

Beck: Could we talk about the journal that you have with the hand on it? Was that instated from the beginning, or did you go through the archive to get these details?

Andy: Early on, we would shoot baskets, and I wanted to keep score of who was winning. So I started the journal, and I would just go back through our text thread and document who sent the signal and, if we played a basketball game, who won. And anything else interesting about it. We’ve done a few high fives walking across the stage at the Ryman Auditorium here in Nashville when we were doing shows there, or other places when we’ve been on tour.

Friends started to ask, “Can I go on the high-five walk with you?” So I mark down any special guests. It isn’t rare for our wives or kids to come, too.

On the first birthday of the high five, we probably had 15 or 20 guys [come with us]. Some walked with me, some walked with Gabe—so there was a long line of guys walking and giving each other a high five. Another gift to the people driving by.

Beck: Over these six years, how often would you say you’ve missed it?

Andy: Probably two or three times a year, [when we’re out of town].

Gabe: This might sound funny, but for the last six and a half years, it’s been one of the most consistent things in my life.

Two men mid-high five behind the counter at a restaurant
A high five at Gabe’s restaurant, Ladybird Taco (Courtesy of Andy Gullahorn)

Beck: Walking 30 minutes to high-five each other is not the easiest way to regularly connect with your friend. It would be a lot simpler to just have a weekly phone call. So what makes it so meaningful to you?

Andy: It’s the kind of thing that sounds really stupid at the beginning, and it only sounds cool if you’ve been doing it for a long time. There’s something about the aggregate of it that feels special. It’s a commitment. It feels like an intentional waste of time, and I mean “waste of time” in the best sense.

So much of what makes it special to me is really hard to put a finger on. I look forward to it all the time. Thirty minutes of walking for me is good for my brain; it’s good for my soul to get outside. And this is an excuse to do it.

Gabe: “Childish” is not quite the right word, but “child-like” maybe is. Remember when we used to do things that just felt special? The standard deal is when you’re a grown-up, you don’t do those things anymore. The high five has a child-like aspect to it, and that’s been beautiful. And adult things come out of it, too. When I’m going through hard times, I’ve got a buddy that can walk and talk through it with me.

Beck: How did the high five evolve, Gabe, when you were sick? Can you tell me what happened to you, as much as you’re comfortable sharing?

Gabe: This [past] year, I had opened this taco shop, Ladybird Taco. The location is on the way to the high five, on a path I’d been walking for years to high-five my buddy. We were supposed to open in March, but postponed it until June. I’ll just be straight with you: One of the things that’s almost completely gone from my memory is that entire period of my life.

But I was working there one day, and I started feeling weird. Fortunately a doctor was there. Am I telling the story right?

Andy: Yep.

Gabe: Anyway, he said, “I think you guys need to go to the emergency room.” I don’t know the details, but it turned out I had encephalitis. A particular variety, a much less temporary version.

Andy: That first week that he was in the hospital, there was a special high-five moment. He was allowed one visitor a day, and I stayed overnight so his wife could go home and be with their daughter. That night, I asked him, “Do you know who I am?” He’s like, “Yeah. Andy. Did I get that wrong before? I’m sorry.” I asked him if he knew anything about the high five, and he said, “No; what are you talking about?” So I told him the basic story.

The next morning he got up to use the restroom. At that point, his short-term memory was really, really bad, so he wouldn’t have remembered the conversation the night before. I said, “Okay, Gabe, this probably isn’t going to make any sense, but on your way back from the bathroom, I’m going to walk toward you. I need you to give me a high five.” He was like, “Okay.” We did it with his left hand because his right arm had all the IV stuff in it.

I started walking toward him, and then right before the high five, he did the clap, and the snap, and I just started crying. I said, “I can’t believe you just did that.” He was like, “Can’t believe I just did what?” It just blew my mind. I didn’t expect him to remember anything about it.

Gabe: That’s one of the things I love about the routine of it. Not just the mechanics of it, but the friendship part of it is so burned into my body memory that that’s what came out.

I was in the hospital for three weeks. I got out around the beginning of October, and I’ve just been trying to … find my life again. This guy is a huge part of it. This thing that we started years ago has come back to be so important.

Andy: Since he’s been out of the hospital, the high five has looked different. We don’t do the normal route. I’ll go over to his house; we’ll walk around the neighborhood together and talk. And then at the end, I’ll be like, “Okay, you walk 20 paces that way, I’ll walk 20 paces this way, we’ll give a high five.”

Beck: It’s interesting that you have this special, sacred tradition you’re carrying on that, for a while, one of you couldn’t remember. Andy, did you feel like you were remembering for both of you? And Gabe, what did it feel like to learn anew about something that was so special to you?

Gabe: It felt comforting. Revisiting it, and it feeling real again. I don’t know the right word other than recovery. Getting better. It felt like getting better.

But also, even in the hospital, in the midst of something I’ve never felt before where my brain is swirling, there was some kind of routine. It brought a little less chaos into what was a pretty chaotic time for me.

Andy: There are a lot of entries in this journal of days when everything was great and life was normal. I think every single one of those entries was building a safety net. Something you can pull out on a rainy day. There have been seasons for me where I needed more emotional support, and Gabe was there to walk me through it. During this time, I was carrying more of the memory. But that’s the normal ebb and flow of a relationship. This feels like a time I can repay Gabe for ways that he’s carried me in the past.

Andy and Gabe hold up a baby's hand to high five them in a hospital room
A high five in the hospital with Gabe’s newborn daughter (Courtesy of Andy Gullahorn)

But the thing about carrying the memory, is that if I told him that every week we would walk and have a sword fight, he would be like, “No, that doesn’t feel right.” I think his wife tried to convince him that he really liked Hallmark movies.

Gabe: I was so confused.

Andy: He could tell if it rang true inside of him or not. His memory of the essence of relationships has been really spot on.

Gabe: Typically, when I think about routine, it means something that comes automatically. And the high five is routine in that we do it every week; we know it’s coming. But the joy and the reward that comes out of it—that’s not routine. Even after six years of doing this, every time I see my wonderful buddy walking down the side of the road toward me, that’s special. We’re dedicated to each other, and we’re showing each other in a way other than just calling and saying, “Hey, I love you.” We’re actually doing something, and that hasn’t gotten old.

Andy:. Most weeks we see each other multiple times, not just for the high five. Gabe, his wife, and his daughter are my family’s favorite people. His daughter calls me “Uncle Five.” We started doing this so that we would see each other more often, outside of the Christmas tour. And we’ve achieved that in spades. It’s already given us so much more.

Ultimately, we’re both people that like a good story. There’s something I love about the idea of telling my grandkids, “I’ve been giving Gabe a high five since 2014.” There are a lot of people who would like to say, “I’ve been having lunch with my buddy every week for 60 years,” but it’s a lot harder to actually do it.

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.