Crazy Adrenaline Junkie. I heard this label a lot as a bomb technician returning from Iraq, and movies like The Hurt Locker only reinforce the stereotype. It is dangerous work, true, but the characterization is generally unfair, especially compared to the exploits in Matt Higgins’ new book, Bird Dream. Next to BASE jumping and wingsuit piloting, bomb defusing work can look as risky as knitting.
Bird Dream is about the techniques and history and tragedies of the sport, culminating with the 2012 race between Jeb Corliss, the famous American with a bevy of endorsements, and Gary Connery, the British out-of-work stuntman without two quid to rub together, to be the first man to land without a parachute. Recently Higgins and I spoke about what drives these men and women.
OUTSIDE: You take great pains to explain that BASE jumpers and wingsuit pilots are calculating and not crazy. The rest of the book provides a mountain of evidence that challenges this claim. Do you come down on one side? HIGGINS: I've made a conscious decision to give BASE jumpers and wingsuit pilots the benefit of the doubt, as far craziness is concerned. I talked to psychologists and read research from geneticists and neuroscientists, and determined that, no, people who take tremendous risks are not necessarily nuts. There’s a genetic component to risk-taking, so wingsuit pilots and BASE jumpers are likely born with a predisposition for dangerous thrills.
But even with this genetic predisposition, the risk tolerance of the elite pilots really varies. Jeb calls Gary’s plan to land in a pile of boxes "crazy." There's a big difference between "crazy" in the colloquial sense, and in the clinical sense of the word. When we see something spectacular, or that defies our understanding, we're liable to call it crazy.
So I don't believe Jeb thought Gary was crazy in a clinical sense, although he didn't know Gary personally, and it was always possible that Gary was one of those rare, slightly unhinged folks who doesn't care if he's injured or killed. Jeb was probably having a hard time wrapping his head around how Gary planned to do something that Jeb had devoted a lot of thought to, and dismissed for himself as too dangerous.
In the BASE jumping and wingsuit culture, how much does a sense of competition, or a need to be famous, factor in? Certainly there's a kind of drive, but we're talking about more of an internal competition, to test one's capabilities and see how far one can go. There have been few opportunities for actual competition. Recently there have been some wingsuit races created, and these events appeal to a small segment of pilots, usually the elite. Yet Jeb, who is certainly one of the elite pilots, has no interest in traditional sports and avers that he's not competitive. Gary has a competitive temperament; he was a competitive downhill skier and he takes part in grueling distance runs.
The culture of BASE jumping has always shunned fame to some extent, and those who seek it are still controversial. BASE jumpers were actually expelled from skydiving clubs into the 90s. One BASE pioneer explained that jumpers learned that they couldn't tell people what they were doing or they wouldn't be permitted to do it. So secrecy became ingrained in the culture. Some of that started to change with the creation of small POV cameras and YouTube. Suddenly you could clip a GoPro to your helmet and produce HD video of stunning flight lines along mountain terrain and put it out to the public online. But the footage is still a difficult thing to monetize. Even if you pull off some incredible wingsuit flight, there's usually no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow, probably only a 15 minutes of fame scenario. Jeb is the rare person to have transcended his sport and sustained a career as an athlete without augmenting his income with some other job. He no doubt enjoys the attention, yet he also must continue to pull of feats that attract notice to satisfy sponsors. Even people who fly are governed by some of the same concerns as everybody else.
Gary was a paratrooper in the UK Army, where he learned to jump. Is the sport full of ex-military guys? I know that many skydivers and BASE jumpers have come from the military, but it’s worth noting that Gary clashed with the prevailing culture and his superiors. It was a BASE jump that finally precipitated his leaving the paratroops. I assume that if you're so single-minded that you're willing to attempt a wingsuit landing without a parachute, chances are you're probably too individualistic to thrive in the military.
The group that I was embedded with mostly came from civilian backgrounds. What bound them was that they all had achieved a high level of performance in another extreme or adventure sport. Jeb is an accomplished scuba diver. There were several skiers, racers, and backcountry specialists. One wingsuit pilot was a motocross racer. Joby Ogwyn is a high-altitude climber, and was the youngest to reach the world's Seven Summits. Roberta Mancino is a blackbelt in kickboxing and a champion skydiver. There were several experienced surfers. They all brought skills and a mindset honed in these other disciplines to bear as BASE jumpers and wingsuit pilots.
BASE jumping’s motto is "The only way to not die BASE jumping is to not BASE jump." This reminds me of our motto in the bomb squad, "Initial Success or Total Failure," but even more fatalistic. The motto remains. There are no guarantees, and unless you're prepared for the possibility of giving your life, don't do it. I heard that over and over again. Fatalities still occur regularly. There are more than 200 recorded deaths on the BASE Fatality List, which is not even a comprehensive accounting. In 2013, there were a record 22 confirmed wingsuit pilots killed -- that's BASE and skydiving. And so far this year I can think of four more wingsuit deaths, and these men were among the most experienced and talented fliers in the world.
Since the first and only successful landing, the wingsuit landing craze has generally faded. In the future, will we look back at this little era and wonder what people were thinking? My editor suggested that there's something about the zeitgeist -- a possible combination of economic prosperity, a rise of technology, and maybe anxiety about the outcome of world affairs -- that will help explain the era in the book to future generations. I think of the 1960s counterculture, and having grown up with skateboarding, BMX freestyle, and snowboarding, I saw the X Games as my generation getting its Woodstock. BASE jumping and wingsuit flying just takes it to a further extreme.
Brian Castner is the author of “The Long Walk.” Follow him on Twitter at @brian_castner.
Every family has a favorite place. One of ours is the Rio Chama, a 31-mile stretch of wilderness whitewater that slices through the red-rock canyons of northern New Mexico. I've rafted, kayaked, or otherwise floated the Chama nearly every summer since I moved to Santa Fe 19 years ago, for what was supposed to be a three-month internship. My husband and I have camped and run and biked along the river, and when our daughters were born, we started bringing them, too.
It's not hard to love the Rio Chama. Its banks are lined with 100-foot-tall ponderosas, peachy cliffs that Georgia O'Keefe used to paint, and striated, 700-foot sandstone walls with the faintest outlines of arches beginning to form. Nearly 25 miles have been designated a Wild & Scenic River, flowing through Class II-III rapids and a roadless wilderness that's one of the few places left in the country where you're guaranteed not to get cell service. Floating the canyon—for one day or three—is the ultimate mental reset.
This year, we scored a permit to raft the Chama for three days in the end of May. The first call we made was to our boating friends from Durango, Rob and Amy, and their two adolescent kids. They'd accompanied us on our first multiday float with our then 10-month-old daughter, on the remote San Juan River, in southern Utah, reassuring us the whole way that we weren't insane for bringing an infant. On that trip, they became our de facto family rafting mentors, and we've done a trip with them, sometimes two, nearly every year since.
Amy and their son, Henry, couldn't come, but Rob and his 11-year-old daughter, Ainsley, and her 10-year-old cousin, Max jumped at the chance to raft the Chama for the first time. They invited their friend Kevin, and his four-year-old-daughter, Sage, whom we'd met two years ago on the San Juan with Rob. From Santa Fe, we enlisted our friend Win, a Grand Canyon river guide who would have brought his wife and their two-year-old daughter if they hadn't been out of town.
Our group of ten launched from just below El Vado Dam, almost exactly a year to the date that Steve and I and the girls set off last year. After late-spring snow, it felt like the first real weekend of summer, and we drifted downstream, through the first small riffles and into the wilder, deeper canyon. So much was the same, and yet even more was different. We had Pete now, our black Lab puppy, who like our daughters, was making his maiden raft voyage at ten months old. Our three-year-old, Maisy, had broken her foot jumping off a wall a month ago and was wearing a walking cast that seemed destined to be destroyed by three days of mud and river water.
Like children, rivers mark time. No matter how familiar and dear to us they may be, they are constantly in flux, never the same from one week to the next. River levels rise and fall, revealing sand bar camps at low water and then reclaiming them at high water, swollen by spring runoff or summer flash floods. Side canyons disgorge boulders, altering rapids, making them bigger or smaller or more technical or less, and sometimes completely unrecognizable. Logs and branches sail downstream on the current, forming snags that catch more flotsam, stray fishing bobbers and tangled tree stumps, soggy old baseball caps. Someone's wrapped a canoe around a rock in the middle of a long and bony Class III rapid; it will stay there until it gets pushed off or its owner comes to claim it.
Children on river trips only underscore the water's natural fluctuations. They are a month older, or a year older. They have a broken foot. They've started reading. They are stronger swimmers. They can get by, but barely, without their afternoon nap. They've figured out how to reach the zippers on the tent and crawl out on their own. They demand S'Mores, not bottles, before bed. They jump from one raft to another, ride with the big kids in the inflatable kayaks, and are strong enough to paddle the SUP standing up through tiny wave trains.
At the first night's camp—by coincidence, the same wedge of beach on a wide bend where we camped last year—we set up our chairs in the sand and watched the stars come out. I marveled about how much had changed since our first family river trip. Putting Pippa to bed in a Pack 'n Play in the tent, swaddled in a sleep sack and soothed by pacifiers—a small army of them, invariably sandy and all too often misplaced. Nursing her in the middle of the night, hoping her hungry bleats wouldn't wake the whole camp. The season when we wedged not one, but two portable cribs into our massive two-room tent, pacing outside in the fading light to make sure all was quiet. The fall trip on the San Juan when 14-month-old Maisy weaned herself, too busy to bother with the distraction of nursing and unimpressed with breast milk that tasted suspiciously like muddy desert river water. And now this trip, when both girls lie side by side in sleeping bags in their own tent (attached to ours), one reading to the other until, exhausted, there's only silence.
In a good summer, we might take three or, if we're lucky, four river trips. That's maybe 12 nights sleeping outside under gnarled old junipers, among the sage, sheltered beneath canyon walls, deep in the backcountry. In the scheme of things, this is not much time. You could argue, and people have, that young children and babies, as ours were when we began, don't belong in the backcountry and are too young to appreciate wilderness rivers; that it's selfish to bring them, that they won't remember the few days they spent bobbing through gentle rapids, held in arms, sleeping against our chests, soft toddler arms taking a turn at the oars. That the risks far outweigh the benefits of those few days.
But as we sat under layers and layers of stars, and the thinnest wisp a moon hung above the canyon rim, with Saturn beaming beside it, I knew these trips, those few fleeting days, add up to so much more. Our girls are growing up on the river. With each year, the Chama and the San Juan, the Green and the Rio Grande, are becoming familiar to them, known and beloved, like the rafting friends we see year after year. The rivers—like all favorite places and family traditions—hold our memories and mark our milestones. They release us from the busy clutches of routine life, the overstimulation, the schedules, the screens, and offer us deep comfort within ourselves and the world.
Our days on the Rio Chama blended one to the next as the river miles slid by. Maisy crawled barefoot in the mud at the edge of the water, rafted Class III Aragon for the first time, and managed not to trash her boot cast after all. We inched past a rattlesnake, its tail going clackety-clack from its safe haven under a rock ledge, and hiked a slot canyon, the youngest among us clamoring up the pour-overs. And Pete, after desperately flinging himself from the raft into the very first rapid and coming up bobbing like a little black mink, learned to sit stoically at Steve's feet while he rowed. He's becoming a river dog now.
We can boat the same backyard river twice, three times, a dozen or more, and it will never get old. No two trips on the Rio Chama will ever be the same, because the river is always changing, just as we are. This is why we keep going back—why wilderness will always be a constant in our life—to be reminded that nothing stays at it is, the beautiful impermanence of it all, and to be glad for what we have right now.
No, 12 days is not nearly enough.
Three Perfect Family "Lightwater" Raft Trips
Rio Chama, New Mexico Do-it-yourself with a lottery permit from the BLM, or hook up with Los Rios Riverrunners, which provides luxury walled safari tents for the two-night, three-day Class III trip.
San Juan River, Four Corners Like the Rio Chama, the 84-mile stretch of San Juan from Bluff to Clay Hills requires a private-boater permit. Class II-III rapids make this a fun, splashy river for families. Break the distance into the Upper or Lower trips, or float the entire length in seven days. O.A.R.S and Wild River Expeditions offer family trips.
Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons, Green River, Utah There's not a single rapid in 100 river miles between Ruby Ranch, through Canyonlands National Park, to the confluence with the Colorado River, making this the most mellow of family flat-water floats. As on other desert rivers, summer heat can be intense. DIY in rental canoes or rafts (permits required through Canyonlands or contact Tex's Riverways for guided trips.
It took six pairs of boots, 240 horseshoes, and 24 months for Filipe Leite to ride on horseback from Canada to Brazil. The cowboy traveled 10,000 miles through 10 countries to reach his home in South America, an epic journey that has earned him a spot in the historic Long Rider's Guild,an international association of equestrian explorers that requires its members to ride at least 1,000 continuous miles.
We last caught up with Leite back in 2012, when he was only three states into his journey and about to cross the infamous and treacherous Million Dollar Highway in Colorado. Since then, the cowboy has snuck through jungles full of drug traffickers, ridden bulls, encountered endless bureaucratic obstacles, and experienced unending generosity on the trail. As he nears the final stretch of his journey, we asked him for an update.
OUTSIDE: Aside from countless miserable border crossings, what has been the most difficult part of the ride? LEITE: Keeping my horses healthy. I have spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week with these animals for the past two years. As we made our way south, we created a bond only comparable to that of father and son. When I didn't have the basics to offer them, like water or a pasture to graze, it broke my heart. We crossed many countries where vets were extremely hard to find and medication for horses even more so. Keeping my animals healthy required me to work extremely hard and become a bit of a vet myself.
This Long Ride has also been full of dangers. We crossed paths with a grizzly in Montana. One of the horses (Bruiser) fell in a deep ditch in New Mexico. The other (Frenchie) was hit by a truck in Southern Mexico, and the third (Dude) walked into a cattle guard in Nicaragua—nearly breaking his leg. I remember having Dude's head on my lap after finally calming him down while he lay there with his front right hoof stuck in that cattle guard thinking I was going to lose him. These were by far the worst moments of the trip. These horses are an extension of my soul; they are my children, my heroes, my everything.
What type of schedule do you maintain to give the horses, and yourself, much-needed rest? On a Long Ride like mine, there can be no set schedule. You must always listen to your horses and let them rest as they need it. I always try to ride no more than 30 kilometers [nearly 19 miles] daily and allow my ponies to rest for a day or two every four to five days of riding. This has been a good system for us. I have also stopped for a month at times in order to give them ample time to rest or recover from an injury.
Scariest moment of the ride? Hearing a husband trying to kill his wife with five gunshots just outside my window in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I will never forget her yells of desperation as the gunfire silenced her pleas.
What about the loneliest moment of the trip? The loneliest moment of the trip was crossing a mountain in southern Wyoming. I spent several days riding without seeing another human being. It was only the horses and I, and I had an extremely hard time finding water for them. I remember coming down that mountain into a town of 25 people, swallowing my tears. I ended up staying with an elderly gentleman who lives by himself in a ranch home. It's funny how life works out. It was one of the deepest connections I made on the journey.
You've traveled through jungles infested with drug traffickers and passed through dangerous cities. Was there ever a time you've been afraid for your life or the life of your horses? My entrance into Honduras from Guatemala was with the protection of a major Honduran drug lord. He not only rode with me but also hosted me in his fortress for two days. His house was in a little village in the mountains and sat behind high walls and a thick metal gate. His house was a mansion with plasma TVs, a home gym, and even a small petting zoo. While trying to sleep the first night, I kept imagining the shootouts and killings happening at the hands of the drug cartels in town nearby. Needless to say, it made it hard to get some shut-eye.
You've been posting video segments throughout your journey. Tell us how you film while riding alone, edit footage, and post updates while on the trail? Filming my Long Ride has been extremely difficult! I have to get off my horse, set up the tripod and turn on the camera, get back on, ride by the camera, then go back to stop filming and fold up the tripod—all while making sure all three horses are watched after. My girlfriend, Emma Brazier, has helped me a lot in this aspect. The moments she has traveled with me, we have been able to capture moments I couldn't otherwise. The dispatches are edited in Nashville by OutWildTV. I'm very thankful for having such an amazing group of professionals behind me. It makes all the difference.
Most of your nights are spent camping in a tent. What key items have made this possible for two years? My Leatherman is always on my belt. Other items include a one-burner stove for preparing dinner, my MEC Tarn 3 tent, MEC Mirage sleeping bag, and peanut butter. I've also been carrying Naomi's ashes. In Colorado, a gentleman who hosted me asked if I would carry his sister's ashes to Brazil with me. He told me how she loved horses and adventure and had recently passed away. He felt as if faith brought me to his home and that Naomi had to go on one last ride. I have carried Naomi's ashes all the way to Brazil and will spread them in the field where the horses will be retired.
You're trying to pass through the largest rodeo in Latin America, the Festa do Peao de Barretos. Think you'll make it? Definitely! Because I left from the largest rodeo in Canada, the Calgary Stampede, it has always been my goal to pass through Barretos. This past year, they began sponsoring my trip and are currently building a monument of the horses and I that will be forever in the rodeo grounds for people to visit. On August 23, I will ride into the rodeo's arena as more than 50,000 people watch from the stands. I imagine it will be a very emotional moment.
What are your plans for after you arrive? I will retire my horses at my parents' farm in Espirito Santo do Pinhal, Sao Paulo, and work on a documentary on my ride. I will also be writing a book on my two-year journey from Canada to Brazil.
Can we expect to see a Journey America documentary from your travel? Absolutely.
Catch all of Leite's Journey America videos at OutWildTV and follow along as he finishes his journey at @FilipeMasetti on Twitter and Instagram.