Outside magazine, January 1998
Gotham Embraces Gator Reintroduction Scheme; Rats say "Rats"
Remember the good old days of the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction controversy? In retrospect, the set-to between ranchers and naturalists seems almost quaint compared with the recent brawls that broke across the country over various follow-up "animal return" projects. Residents of affluent Grosse Pointe, Michigan, were understandably horrified when "Wolverine Wednesdays" in the public parks went awry. ("Maybe in 1998, we'll have healed enough as a community to get some new dogs," sniffed one local, who declined to give his name.) And in the Southwest, the damage from the short-lived Grizzlies of Downtown Phoenix program is still being assessed.
"Humans feel extremely threatened when you tell them they don't own the world," says Sierra Club board member and evolutionary biologist Grant Winokur. "I was about to abandon hope of ever seeing the successful restoration of a primeval ecosystem. But if ever there was a powerful enough mediator with sufficient public trust...This one just might work out."
"This one" is, of course, Project Gator-Aid, the much-ballyhooed proposal from the Walt Disney Company to complete by June of this year the populating of Manhattan's sewers with live alligators. Already, Disney's influence is ubiquitous in New York, most notably in the recent vice-eradicating overhaul of Times Square. "We're helping make New York more authentic — more like people think of it," says Irene Dalhousie, spokeswoman for the entertainment conglomerate. "Alligators in the sewers is one of the Big Apple's great urban myths, so once again, we're making people's dreams come true."
To kick off the festivities, Disney is collaborating with select McDonald's restaurants in Manhattan. This month, 30,000 lucky New Yorkers will find a recently hatched, freeze-dried infant reptile resting on the hamburger bun of their Flubber© Happy Meals, along with instructions on how best to reconstitute and flush the adorable little menace down to its new underground home.
Some residents are less than jubilant at the news. "Why replace a vital, indigenous, thriving subterranean population with a foreign strain whose claim of residency is completely apocryphal to begin with?" says Tim Hoogstra, founder of New York's Four-to-One Coalition, a rat-rights organization named for the rodents-to-humans ratio within the metropolitan area. "If Disney wants to do something, why not outreach with the rat community and make them more mediagenic? The true Magic Kingdom is already down there: an autonomous, voiceless, cooperative society, all with no government funding, I might add. It's not going to be so magic when the IRT runs over a huge reptile, I can tell you that much. It's going to be a mess."
Isotopes and Avant-Garde Fuse as Plutonium Attracts Art-House Cachet, Mary Boone
Sure, there have been stranger political bedfellows. But not recently. It all started with the endless parade of harebrained schemes for disposing of the nation's growing stockpile of nuclear waste — dropping it into played-out salt mines, shipping it to developing nations, and so on. As the millennium approaches, concerns about a long-term solution have reached fever pitch, eliciting the kind of partisan bickering usually reserved for discussions of federal arts funding. Which got some savvy wonks at the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Energy to thinking: Why not tackle both problems with one grand stroke? Thus were conceived the Thurmond/Mapplethorpe Radioactive Fellowships, in which the nation's artists will continue to receive funding in exchange for taking on a portion of the nation's carcinogenic slag.
"I never really incorporated environmental concerns into my art before," says Seattle performance artist Greta Golfball, one of the first fellowship recipients. "But I lost all my hair about four days after getting my grant, and that felt really big somehow, and it started to inform my work in this really relevant way."
Even among nonartists, early reactions have been enthusiastic. "Now there will be a cultural need and a tangible environmental incentive to spread art all around this great country," says Blaine Fairweather, an engineer at Isotopix, a plutonium-processing plant outside Salt Lake City. "And ticket prices will go down everywhere. Who's going to pay today's prices to see a tepid production of Same Time Next Year if they're also getting 3,000 rads of gamma radiation? A night out in '98 isn't going to set you back 300 bucks. But it will be fun. I saw a glow-in-the-dark Turandot recently that would knock your socks off, or at the very least make your teeth fall out."
Hezbollah Are Friendly, Wish You Were Here: Boom in "Hostage Travel" Figurative, Literal
"It used to be i'd get back from a trip thinking, 'I need a vacation from my vacation,'" says Craig Steel, who owns a high-tech medical electronics firm in Tacoma, Washington. "But that was a good thing. I loved that exhaustion, that rush, and I really missed it. I went barging through France, rented a villa in Tuscany...very lovely. But I don't want lovely. When I woke up on my 50th birthday, I knew I had to do something, and fast."
Steel's story is becoming all too typical, as the nation's baby boomers confront middle age and find themselves leading the same complacent, formerly dreaded and demonized existences as their parents. "I wanted to do something exciting and real, to feel something again," he says. "But I didn't want to just be like that Richard Branson guy, ballooning around like a schmuck. If I'm compensating, I'd like to do it a little less publicly."
Enter Above 'n' Beyond Travel, a Brattleboro, Vermont, operation specializing in alternative tourism. Thanks to a co-venture with various underfunded terrorist and crypto-terrorist organizations worldwide, clients can now choose among a variety of capture/torture packages: abduction by Shining Path guerrillas in the Peruvian interior, Basque separatists (with a complimentary pass to the newly opened Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain), Kurdish rebels in Turkey, or a Hezbollah long weekend. A Tamil freedom-fighter junket is still in the planning stages.
As an Updike-ian wink of sorts, each trip begins with a simulated phone call to the client's wife, informing her that her husband has left her for a younger, two-bit lollapalooza who enjoys leather. After that, customers are on their own. The tours are remarkably low-maintenance for such high-ticket items — averaging upward of $11,000 for a two-week stay, extra for food. "We basically take a completely noninterventionist approach," says Jake Newell, CEO of Above 'n' Beyond. "This is vacation veritï."
Even Newell, however, gets noticeably uncomfortable when questions of liability arise. At last count, roughly half of '97's thrill seekers have failed to resurface. "Yeah, we gotta work on that," he says. "Maybe only collect half until the clients are back."
Client Craig Steel is cagey about his own experience. "Let's just say Asia somewhere and leave it at that. I wouldn't say I have Stockholm syndrome or anything," he says, referring to instances in which a vacationer begins to identify so strongly with his captors that he eventually takes up their cause, "but the Struggle will continue and will rid the land of the bourgeois insects even without my help."
Wee Mushers Tackle Alaska's Fearsome Iditarod; Old-Timers Peeved, Polar Bears Pleased
Nine-year-old Pamela Pfeifer has had another trying day at the Iditarod. She lost a mitten somewhere around Skwentna, had to kill a 1,200-pound caribou in self-defense — and gut it in accordance with Rule 30 of Musher Conduct in the Official Iditarod Race Rules — then burned her tongue on some soup at lunch. And she still has 1,195 kilometers of frozen tundra to cover before she can call it a night at Unalakleet.
Historically, the Iditarod, a grueling, many-day dogsled race over hundreds of miles of barren wilderness, has been the sole province of, if not exclusively Alaskans, Minnesotans, and sundry wide-boned northerners, then at least people of legal drinking age. But as a member of the 3M Junior Iditarod Team, Pamela is part of a new wave that's changing the face of the sport. With her brightly colored team uniform of Important Message© pink, Post-it© yellow, and the unmistakable Scotchƒ tape tartan, she is just one of the juveniles threatening to dominate the field by century's end.
Grumbling about a sport being co-opted by those deemed outsiders is hardly new, of course. Marathon running, for instance, has had to acknowledge many a talented Kenyan over the years. Now the Iditarod has joined the fray, with predictable grousing by some regulars about how vast, unrelieved stretches of frozen terrain might seem unusually inhospitable to children, many of them smaller than their dogs. But supporters contend that it's the course's treachery and unpredictability that make preteens such keen mushers. "Kids are perfect for the Iditarod because they're magical thinkers," says noted trend-spotter Prudence Licorice. "Kids don't need to be taught to think outside the box, because that's where they're coming from already."
And the advantages don't stop there. Lower body weight, smaller appetites, and studies showing that children survive submersion under ice with greater frequency than do adults ("I think their extremities fall off or something," says Licorice. "Anyway, they stay alive a lot longer.") are all powerful draws for the enthusiastic corporate sponsors eager for their very own "Kiditarod" teams.
Good news for Pamela Pfeifer and her pint-size colleagues. But first, there's that small matter of those thousand-plus kilometers. Pamela coughs into her remaining mitten and looks at the crimson traces left there. "That's just left over from that cherry pop you drank," her coach assures her, just before ducking back into the checkpoint's heated saloon trailer. Looking somewhat unsure but no less determined, Pamela murmurs an exhausted "mush" and is off, already a small dot on the horizon, although scarcely 30 yards away.
In Fiery Volcanic Catastrophe, Some Find an Armani Lining
The chocolates left on the pillows at the barely operative Chateau Grand Montserrat are perhaps a bit thinner than they used to be. But they're possessed of a fine flavor and a unique grittiness that is the perfect metaphor for the good-natured pluck exhibited everywhere in this tiny island nation.
Nineteen ninety-seven saw the devastation of Montserrat by volcano, incinerating dwellings, obliterating communities under rivers of molten lava, and blanketing the entirety with untold tons of ash. But — turning life's lemons into proverbial lemonade — islanders are finding that while the volcano was anything but deliberate, it was certainly aesthetically prescient. The monochrome study in grays and taupes that is posteruption Montserrat fits in perfectly with today's mania for elegant austerity. The ubiquitous volcanic ash has transformed the country into a vast Giorgio Armani set, which just might turn Montserrat into 1998's upscale tourist mecca.
Already locals are preparing for the boom after the bust. The entire island is imbued with excitement at the prospect of a flood of moneyed tourists. Says Grace, the laundress at the Chateau, "Demi Moore's trainer told me that all this ash is a natural whitener, so our linens are really going to sparkle once we get the washing machines repaired."
"We did a shoot there and it was fabulous — very stark, very Calvin," says Tiggy Raines, a stylist at Vogue. "I had truckloads of that divine ash sent back to New York — I'm redoing my entire terrace in it. We went cross-country skiing on it. I mixed it up with an egg white and some ground almonds and it was a perfect face mask. Nineteen ninety-eight is going to be telling a very Montserrat story. The rest of the Caribbean is tired, all that garish clichï — the pink beaches, cerulean waters, fresh fruit. So tellement vulgaire."
David Rakoff foresaw the El Nino effect way back in the December Outside.
Illustrations by Mark Matcho