Look Ma, No Shame

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1997

Look Ma, No Shame

With their exploits comes a plaintive cry for attention. Who are we to argue?
By Elizabeth Royte

To be heard above the din of like-minded expeditioners and gain the attention of a fickle Web- and channel-surfing public, seekers of immortality must now invent ever more creative ways to appear unique. Still, today's "explorers" tend to break down into four distinct strains: worthy causers, who add heft to their exploits by "raising awareness" for some favorite charity; personal questers, who claim to venture forth solely for their own satisfaction (and then share their epiphanies on the World Wide Web); re-creators, who go to great lengths to emulate famous journeys of yore; and of course, microdistinctionists, those intrepid souls who give rise to such feats as the first oxygenless, backward ascent of Mount Whogivesadamn by a left-handed dermatologist. Alas, there's no room in the history books for most of these folks — but that doesn't mean they don't deserve their proverbial 15 minutes. Herewith, our favorites in each category.

This summer, to name but a few, well-meaning expeditioners have attempted to canoe the length of the Mississippi for cystic fibrosis, scale Mount McKinley for lymphoma, and traverse the width of South America for AIDS. All worthy causes, to be sure — but can they pull our heartstrings as strongly as the travails of the long-suffering salmon? To find out, Idahoans Jo Shepherd, Gail Ater, Roy Akins, Jamie James, and Paul Lundgren — otherwise known as the Sockeye Survival Swim Team — devoted four weeks last July to shimmying down the Salmon and Snake Rivers, the historical migration route of juvenile sockeyes, to draw attention to their ever-dwindling numbers. "It's a sad state of affairs when you have to swim 459 miles to prove a point," says Ater, "but the plight of the salmon kept us going when things got tough. We were like little smelts on our way to the sea."

Lacking any such altruistic intentions, former Grand Rapids, Michigan, TV news anchorman Bill Allen, 79, and his wife, Catherine, 52, set out in June on the ultimate voyage of personal discovery, an attempt to paddle from the headwaters of the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico without watches. To what end? "Americans are too dictated by time," says Allen. "We want to escape call waiting, cars, fast food, and airport lounges, to escape the clock itself." A notion further explored on their World Wide Web home page (http://www.fcinet.com/riverlog) — to which they've posted updates via a PalmPilot personal digital assistant.

Fueled by high-profile attempts to retrace the journeys of Amelia Earhart and Leif Eriksson, re-creators have been enjoying a renaissance of late. But for sheer imagination, none can top Spaniard Kitin Mu˜oz, who in homage to the ancient, seafaring Incas of South America, not only re-created their epic voyages, but re-created Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 re-creation. Taking a page, so to speak, from Heyerdahl's legendary Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft, Mu˜oz launched an around-the-world tour from Easter Island last May in a 99-foot boat constructed entirely of Totora reeds. Alas, Mu˜oz fared not nearly so well as both his ancient and modern predecessors: His Mata-Rangi broke apart in high seas three weeks later, after sailing just 180 miles.

By 1993, plenty of folks had already climbed the highest peak in each of the 50 States. So Kevin Foster, microdistinctionist extraordinaire, decided he'd be the first to do it by mountain bike — sometimes atop his steed and sometimes, where rough terrain or park regulations prohibited him from riding, with his 23-pound bike atop him, hanging from a frame pack. At Mount Rainier, he was arrested for bringing a mechanized vehicle into the wilderness. On Montana's Granite Peak, he dangled from a rope on a sheer 500-foot wall during a lightning barrage. Battling a fierce storm that killed four other climbers, he took nine days to reach the 17,200-foot mark on Mount McKinley before turning back, leaving him that one peak shy of completing his dubious quest. Why endure such hardship? "Because it was ridiculous," he says, with candor unbecoming a modern-day expeditioner. "And I wanted the publicity."

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