Lord of the Big Guys
Adventure man. Freedom fighter. Brat. Meet Jack Wheeler, the Indiana Jones of the Right
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
“This is going on now! My god! She has that girlfriend. Mary, uh, Steinbogan? Steebogan? That actress, yeah. That's one of her squeezes.” The speaker is a hale, smiling man who's looking gray after too many days of swallowing road dust. He pauses to wheeze, dropping the grin for an insider's poker face better suited to what follows: “Two Secret Service agents walked in on them in an anteroom of the White House–in flagrante delicto. I mean, right then and there!”
“That actress,” it emerges, is Mary Steenburgen, a skinny brunette best known for playing Steve Martin's wife in Parenthood. “She” is Hillary Rodham Clinton. Happily defaming both is Jack Wheeler, a 49-year-old adventure-travel impresario and right-winger extraordinaire who cheerfully insists that the First Lady is carrying on reckless “lesbian affairs.” This story sprouted on the Washington, D.C., rumor vine during the Clinton administration's early days, then died for lack of fertilizing evidence. But Wheeler says it's fact, citing unnamed Secret Service agents who've allegedly told him that they can scarcely walk through a White House door without tripping over naked, wriggling she-tramps.
“It's hard to describe how disgusted they are,” he sighs, gesturing weakly. One agent, he says, confided to him over a beer that thanks to Hillary's forbidden lust he doubts he could “take a bullet” for her. “And that,” Wheeler groans, “is a verrry serious state of affairs.”
Wheeler stops talking and sinks back into his cushioned seat, the grin reanimating a face whose lines remind you of a younger George Bush, but with deeper, darker eyes that make him look a tad more menacing than Poppy ever did. At the moment Wheeler, seven adventure-travel clients, his ten-year-old son, Brandon, a crew of outfitters, and I are bouncing around in two buses as they grumble up and down the road from Srinagar to Leh in the Indian Himalayas. We're on the final half of a Jack Wheeler expedition–this leg consisting of a drive-camp-and-raft trip amid Buddhist splendors of Ladakh and Zanskar. After a few days of snaking through the area's martian landscapes and frosty peaks, we'll arrive in Padam, a remote village where we'll board rafts for a four-day float down the canyon-flanked Zanskar River.
It's a thrilling itinerary, though a little “soft” given the reputation of our leader, a man who's been dubbed the Indiana Jones of the Right. Wheeler's name may be unfamiliar to you, but in some decidedly non-PC circles he's a legend, both as an adventurer and as an offbeat brand of freedom fighter. Coursing through Wheeler's fit-at-50 frame are two grand, defining currents: a deep love of daredevil travel and a bottomless contempt for numerous isms and individuals, chief among them communism, environmentalism, feminism, that old demon Jimmy Carter, and Admiral Stansfield Turner, Carter's CIA director, who according to Wheeler turned the agency into “a bunch of goddamn clerks.”
Such a comment might lead you to wonder whether Wheeler is a CIA man himself. Many people have said so, especially in light of a series of adventures that represent his chief claim to fame: a five-year period in the eighties when he traveled among third-world anticommunist guerrillas in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia, Mozambique, and other “colonies” of what was then the Soviet Union. Wheeler denies ever having been in the employ of the CIA, and so far no one has served up evidence to the contrary. His was a citizen crusade, he says, its purpose to gather pictures and information that might awaken the Reagan administration to the full potential of what Wheeler believed was a groundswell of anti-Soviet agitation. Did it amount to anything? Wheeler thinks it did. For years he's billed himself as “the creator of the Reagan Doctrine”–the policy, officially launched in the mideighties, of providing weapons and cash to most of the rebel groups that Wheeler supported.
This subtext of mystery and danger is part of what has attracted people to Wheeler's trips since the seventies, long before “active travel” was the sprawling business it is today. Wheeler runs a small, one-man shop, but the selling point, ironically, isn't ultrarugged adventure. (On this trip all the work is done for us, and the hiking and paddling are relatively tame.) Rather, it's the unique, many-angled experience of going along for the not-always-smooth Wheeler ride.
We had already hit a lively string of bumps back in Leh, Ladakh's capital, where Wheeler had an entertaining fracas with the local taxi union, which insisted that we sightsee in its cabs. This tortured Wheeler's free-market side (“It's not even a union–it's mafia!”), but he suffered quietly, putting our buses out to pasture on the outskirts of town. The last straw snapped when the union cabbies said we'd have to ride with them for dozens of miles out of Leh. The issue wasn't money–they'd already been paid. It was the principle of the thing, and the night before we departed, Wheeler took an impassioned, crabby stand.
“Go tell them,” he told our outfitter's field boss, his firm, khaki-clad body tensing as he spoke, “to screw themselves. I don't like mafia!” The man cringed at the thought of conveying such a message, and in time a compromise was forged: The taxis would follow along for a symbolic ride, but we and our luggage would be on the buses.
Result? Right now, on the road west of Leh, four empty cabs are lined up behind us, their drivers pouting as they eat our dust. Needless to say, Wheeler's clients–six prosperous middle-aged-to-elderly men and one sporting wife, happy capitalists all–are enjoying this. “Hey, they're still back there!” one shouts, as excited as a kid playing tail-gunner.
Shortly after that, Wheeler roars back to life with similar gusto, foaming now about Bill Clinton, who he says is displaying “behavioral symptoms of severe neurotransmitter depletion.” Wheeler says he learned this from an “extremely bright brain scientist” who concluded that the president is gibbering toward a nervous breakdown. Wheeler has predicted in writing that because of this and other maladies, as well as various debilitating political scandals, Clinton will resign before 1994 is out. He's even shared the view with officials he knows back home in Washington.
“I wrote to Newt Gingrich,” Wheeler says brightly. “He said, 'I like it! It's interesting! But I don't believe it!' I said, 'I'm not asking you to believe it! I'm just asking you to remember that I told you it may very well happen. So when it does, you won't be surprised. You'll be prepared.'”
“How,” Wheeler laughs, “did I get this way?” As an adventure guy, Indy of the Right comes from the old school. His inspiration as a boy was Richard Halliburton, an American who made his name in the twenties and thirties by writing soaring, corny, first-person books about vintage outings such as swimming the Hellespont and attempting Hannibal's elephant-crossing of the Alps. Wheeler launched his own career as a rosy-cheeked, flat-topped lad of 14. Already a legend for becoming the youngest Eagle Scout in history at age 12–a feat that earned him an invitation to the White House for a handshake from Ike–young Jack approached his father, a Los Angeles TV personality named Jackson Wheeler, and told him of his burning desire to climb the Matterhorn. “The amazing thing,” Wheeler says, “was that he took me seriously.”
In the summer of 1958 the entire family went on a European swing that climaxed at the base of what Wheeler–in The Adventurer's Guide, his 1976 travelogue-cum-instruction manual–Rat Packishly called “this Lady.” “It was exciting, exhilarating,” he wrote. “It grabbed at your innards like a double-shot of day-old moonshine on an empty stomach.” Wheeler overcame his jitters, gave a farewell hug to his mother (“the trembling distaff side of my family”), and summited. Up top, he and his guide were touched to see his dad riding in a hired plane, buzzing the pinnacle in salute. “I am proud of the fact that I can still feel the tears that streamed down my face,” Wheeler wrote. “It was the most glorious moment of my life….To this day, it still is.”
In the years ahead, Wheeler kept after it. In 1960, at age 16, he spent his summer vacation among Jivaro headhunters in Ecuador. That same year, on a long-weekend break from college, he tried to swim the Hellespont–an event covered by Life–but came up 200 feet short. (He returned in 1973 and made it.) During a 1961 trip among Montagnard tribesmen in South Vietnam, he shot a fearsome tiger known as the man-killer of Dalat. In the seventies, after earning a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Southern California, he began trying to convert his adventure hobby into the career that he's followed off and on since. He “turned pro” in 1978, when he escorted six people on the first American commercial expedition to the North Pole. The pole has been his mainstay since. He's been there 15 times, landing there once via parachute, and, in keeping with his credo that adventure is for everyone, at various times has taken along Brandon (then six), an 84-year-old woman, and a man in a wheelchair.
In addition, Wheeler has taken an incredible number of trips all over the world. “Let's seeeee,” he begins. “There's Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, South Africa, Mali, Tanzania, Zaire, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Zambia, Brazil, Peru, French Guiana, Easter Island, Bhutan, Yap…” In all, he's been abroad some 100 times and has marked territory on all seven continents, in more than 200 countries and political regions. “Some people collect stamps and coins,” Wheeler says of his obsessive globe-trotting. “I collect travel experiences.”
The obsessive politics also date back to the Matterhorn trip. Before hitting Switzerland, the Wheelers visited Moscow, where Jack fumed at the dreariness of the Soviet Union. He already harbored an anti-Soviet grudge, thanks to the brutal quashing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, but Moscow bolstered an “epiphany, a teenage fantasy” that he would one day “return with a guerrilla band” to give communism a steel-toed butt-kick. He became a devout anticommunist, with his first (and for a while only) political dabbling coming in 1966, when he was state chairman of Youth for Reagan during Ronald Reagan's successful California gubernatorial bid.
Much later, when Reagan won the presidency, Wheeler was stuck in a personal and professional trough, which he calls “my hermit phase,” following the 1980 cancer death of his fiancée, Jacqueline King. He wasn't totally idle. Among other things, he introduced studio executive Franks Wells to resort developer Dick Bass and helped them in their famous Seven Summits quest to climb the highest peak on each continent. Yet he lacked direction. “I was,” Wheeler says morosely, “one bad-off guy.”
The Gipper's ascendance slowly brought Wheeler back to life, and it occurred to him that he could combine his two passions–travel and commie-hating–in a project that might help bust the Soviet Union. The catalyst came one day in the spring of 1983. Wheeler, then living in Malibu, was on the telephone with Dana Rohrabacher, a friend from the Youth for Reagan days who had signed on as a White House speechwriter. (Rohrabacher is now a congressman from California.) Gazing at the big wall-map of the world where he records all his trips with broad markered lines, Wheeler experienced “another epiphany,” a realization that “a spontaneous outbreak of revolts in the Soviet colonies” was in progress and that nobody had grasped its potential. Properly nurtured, he told Rohrabacher, such revolts could help destroy the Evil Empire's “very core.”
“There was silence for several seconds,” Wheeler recalls dramatically. “Then Dana said, 'Nobody here where I work has ever said anything like that before.'”
With funding from the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, Wheeler left in June 1983 for the first in a series of anti-Soviet rambles that continued through 1988. He launched a nonprofit outfit, the Freedom Research Foundation, whose purpose was to study rebel movements around the world. As an explorer-advocate, he assembled his soon-to-be-famous slide show of guerrilla forces in the field. Some of these pictures show Wheeler looking tanned and dangerous as he stands alongside various “freedom fighters,” weapon in hand. (He says he's never fired in combat.) He used these images to craft a theatrical policy pitch that he threw at anyone who would listen in the White House, in Congress, and on the Republican right.
In the midst of all this, Wheeler's personal life got back on track–he married the appropriately named Rebel Holiday in 1986–and he reentered the commercial travel business, forming a partnership with James U. Blanchard III, the wheelchair-bound New Orleans businessman whom he later took to the North Pole. Their now-defunct company, Wheeler-Blanchard Adventures, issued a brochure that represents the baroque height of the Wheeler style. Along with standard listings (a Kilimanjaro climb, a Ganges raft trip), it offered Wheeler's first and only experiment in merging frontline combat observation with commercial adventure touring: an “Expedition to Liberated Angola.” The trip's brochure entry was stamped CONFIDENTIAL in bright red ink and promised a two-week jaunt in the bush with the “50,000 well-armed guerrillas” of UNITA, Jonas Savimbi's anticommunist National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola. “Arriving by specially chartered aircraft,” it said, “the group will…receive an impressive demonstration of UNITA military training (using live ammunition) and a comprehensive military briefing by the UNITA General Staff.”
That trip took place in April 1986 with what Wheeler calls “a group of ordinary people” who traveled without incident. But he decided not to repeat the experience “because of the obvious risks.” Since then he's mounted two different types of trips: Jack Wheeler Expeditions does “straight adventure.” Freedom Research Foundation does “the tie-and-suit stuff,” fact-finding missions to politically significant countries, such as Israel, which offer clients “serious discussions with government officials.” Even these relatively staid affairs bear the Wheelerian stamp. In 1990 he took a group of fervent capitalists on a “Death of Communism Victory Tour” through six newly liberated Eastern European countries, which climaxed with his leading a Bucharest crowd in a cheer of jos communismul! (Romanian for “down with communism”). In 1992 he took a similarly minded group to Cuba. The main event was supposed to be a private chat with Fidel Castro. Unfortunately, el jefe canceled.
“My fantasy,” says Wheeler, “ha-haaa, which my wife made me swear and promise I would not do–ha-haaa–was to look Castro in the eye and say, 'The Cuban people will piss on your grave.'”
“It would take more than that to kill my ego, ha-ha!” That's Wheeler, in the holy confines of a Buddhist monastery, jerking a thumb at a wall painting that depicts a fierce Buddhist deity impaling a tiny, pink, G.I. Joe-size human–symbolizing the ego–with a spear.
“Brandon, come here! I have to tell you, my biggest dissatisfaction with you on this trip is that you will not eat.” You-know-who again, at a campsite, nagging his stepson for the zillionth time on such topics as diet, raft safety, and toilet protocols.
These moments are notable because the stack of profiles written about Wheeler, in outlets ranging from People to Soldier of Fortune, portray a stereotypical superguy who roams the planet to the clanging rhythm of his own steel gonads. There is that side to him. He works out six times a week and stokes his system with vitamins and mystery compounds prescribed by his devoted friends from college, “life extension” experts Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw. But he's also, as Tammy Wynette put it, “just a man,” loaded with human foibles. This is obvious at Alchi Monastary, an assemblage of ancient Buddhist temples that we visit west of Leh. There, the scourge of communism almost pitches a bitching fit because a monk asks him not to use his camera's flash on the crumbly wall paintings. (Wheeler then does it on the sly.) After that he holds everybody up while he stomps around looking for his lost bush hat.
Puzzling over such behavior, you realize that there are two Jacks occupying the same body–one larger than life, one a brat. Freud had names for these dueling personality forces, but a more useful analogy is found in Highlights for Children, the beloved magazine that for years has published a cartoon strip called “Goofus and Gallant,” which analyzes good and bad traits as represented by a pair of towheaded boys. Goofus Jack is a sexist pig who, within earshot of rucksack-toting trekker women, blares: “I've never seen a good-looking hippie chick.” But Gallant Jack is an enjoyable companion whose inner drive to explore new horizons is the source of genuine joie de vivre. Long after the rest of us have wearied of temples, he continues to hit them with an eager bellyflop of perception.
“Fannntastic,” he says each time. “Wow.”
The clients on this trip are a happy, spirited crew who take both the Goofus and the Gallant Wheeler with a wise mix of seriousness, mirth, and (when he goes on too long about his exploits) sighs and eye-rolling. Healthy, active, steak-fed USDA-choice Big Guys, they are people one would be lucky to have as uncles–thick-limbed, jolly carnivores who pound tables when they want something and yawp loudly about hunting, fishing, camping, boating, scuba diving, sailing, skiing, money-making, and Rush Limbaugh. The lineup consists of five Wheeler veterans (John, Dave, Art, Ken, Carol) plus two newcomers (Art's brother, Mike, and their friend Russ). By the time I catch up with them in Leh, limp with jet lag, nausea, and altitude sickness, they have been on the road for ten days and are coasting along in a happy routine that consists of zealous sightseeing, after-dinner boozing (our river guide, Akshay Kumar, proudly pronounces this “the most alcoholic group” he's ever worked with), fiery debate about Big Guy technical arcana (“Are dive computers trustworthy?”), and a connoisseur's delight with the two Jacks, especially Goofus Jack, who is analyzed with good-natured intensity.
“There's a klutziness there that's surprising,” one Big will tell me during the raft trip, as we watch Wheeler stiffly spooning the water with his paddle.
“For such a tough guy,” another says, squinting at the intricacies of the topic like it's a tricky snooker shot, “Jack can be kind of a wuss.”
Wheeler's ways aren't always perceived lovingly. He led two trips to Tibet during the eighties, and both saw mass defections by paying customers who decided they just had to get off the bus. Among the unhappiest was Patricia Carlson, whose husband, Richard Carlson, served as director of the Voice of America under Reagan. Incensed by his wife's dour report about what she got for her $10,500–bad food, bad lodging, and hungry lice were all alleged–Carlson sent an anti-Wheeler blast to the Chinese embassy in hopes of interfering with his ability to get future trekking permits. “Wheeler…refused to lead [and] acted like a hypochondriac,” Carlson wrote. “He wore blue booties to bed each night, along with earplugs and a satin eye-mask….This is a man who bills himself as a modern-day 'Indiana Jones.' Obviously, self-aggrandizing hype.”
The incident still rankles Carlson. Now chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, he believes that Wheeler is “a deadbeat” and was “probably a draft dodger” and thus warrants exposure for his tough-guy posturing.
It's a fact that Wheeler, who was of cherry-ripe combat age in 1965, didn't serve in Vietnam, the ultimate anticommunist crusade of his youth. He cites astigmatism, which foiled his “life's dream” of becoming a navy fighter pilot. (“What was wrong with his feet?” Carlson asks.) As for Tibet, Wheeler says that adventure travel, by definition, is rough and not for everybody. Patricia Carlson, he argues, failed to understand that his trips aren't joyrides and “went around the bend mentally” after she stopped eating midway through the journey.
There's no such ugliness on this trip, and even the rough moments are amusing. Two of the finest days come during our south-by-southeast swing out of Kargil, a glum Islamic town on the Suru River that we pass through during our roundabout meander to Padam. By this time the Bigs are ready for the long stretch of camping and paddling that lies ahead. They've had enough of scraggly trekkers and bad hotel food, and long for the open road. Hence all thumbs are high and waggling as the crew pitches bags and loads up. As an added bonus, we're now accompanied by Narinder Kumar, Akshay's father, who flew from Delhi to Leh yesterday and rode all day by jeep to catch us. Kumar, a 60-year-old retired Indian army colonel, former Himalayan climber, and maximum boss of Mercury Himalayan Explorations, is a jovial sort whose presence is like a shot of B-12 to the group's morale.
Despite all this, we seem jinxed. Winding slowly through passes in the shadow of two 23,000-foot peaks, Nun and Kun, we round a corner to find our way blocked by a huge boulder slide. A local crew is languidly clinking with a sledgehammer and chisel to chip a dynamite-blasting hole in the biggest rock, and it looks like we might be stuck here overnight.
Luckily our team's spirit bullpen is deep. John Perrott, a lumberjack-size Wheeler fan who's followed him to Tibet (twice), Soviet Georgia, Cuba, the North Pole, and Botswana and was along for the Death of Communism trip, takes over as Goofus Jack fumes and paces. John, Art, and some crew members pitch in with a clinic of red-faced, high-altitude Big Guy chiseling, and their example inspires the locals, who start making like pint-size John Henrys. After a dynamite blast slices a heavy sheet off the largest rock, the bulldozer operator artfully clears the road and we head for camp, arriving by dusk at Shafat Meadow, a beautiful, grassy, 14,000-foot spot near Rangdum Monastery, hungry and tired but exhilarated.
In the mess tent that night, fueled by rum, the group's mood actually soars. It is Colonel Kumar who defines the moment. Raising his teacup (he and Carol aren't drinking) he decrees, in a tone of singsong command, “I tell you what. I did not get bored or upset or agitated in the roadblock. In fact, I enjoyed it! It was fun. Yes?”
Yes. And everybody slurps to it.
This attitudinal boost helps, because the next day offers plenty of ream but very little romance. Carol is growing demonstrably weary of the road jolts and frequent stops for picture-taking. Colonel Kumar's back is going south. And a Hindu crewman accidentally eats some meat at lunch, prompting a hair-pulling frenzy of guilt. Things don't improve much as we approach Padam. We've imagined it as an isolated Shangri-La, but in fact it's what Big Guy Dave calls “a dungrila”: a town of wild dogs, dust, belching diesel trucks, and creepy, gone-too-long trekkers.
We're to roost here for two days while the raft preparations are finalized, and during this time Gallant Jack steps into the breach, gamely trying to keep everybody amused. “Hey, this is all right,” he says, surveying our campsite, a greasy square of grass in the middle of town. But it isn't all right–shortly after he says that, a despised “hippie chick” is spotted darting to our outhouse tent for a clandestine squat. That night the mess-tent conversations, despite the rum, are depressing: Dr. Kevorkian, genetic engineering, nuclear accidents. Wheeler tries to turn the corner with his own happy theories about human mating–“For women, each egg must be carefully husbanded, but men are bursting with millions and millions of sperm cells that they want to unload!”–but he gets nowhere. The next day we schlepp to yet another monastery, and on the way back, with our bus apparently heading for the same loathed campsite, there's a blizzard of kvetching from the Big Guys. The Colonel keeps his silence, presumably because his back hurts too much for interpersonal management. It's up to Jack.
“Trust me,” he says. “The crew's found a great new campsite down by the river.” No one seems to. Grumble, whine. Then, suddenly, we take a sharp left, cross a bridge, and see…a great new campsite, down by the river. That night everyone partakes deeply of rum and crow.
Padam turns out to be the final mood-challenge. Once we hit the Zanskar River all cares vanish, thanks to our crack paddling guides–led by Akshay and his Nepalese right-hand man, Navraj Magar–and the river itself, a frigid, pale-green glacial spill that is brisk enough to entertain and slow enough not to terrify.
There is the customary amount of intraparty razzing about how dorky everyone looks in their bulging life vests and tiny egg-cap helmets, but once we shove off such antics cease, as Wheeler, the Bigs, and I get down to business (Brandon, Carol, and the Colonel ride but don't paddle). Manliness at stake, we overreact so vigorously to the paddling commands (“All forward!”) that a new one is required to prevent group herniation: “OK! Relax!”
We quit the river early and set up camp on a meadow carpeted with lush grass and BB-size pellets of sheep dung. Taking advantage of the lazy afternoon, I amble over to Wheeler's tent to feed a few quarters into the Jack jukebox. In this and later talks he genially discusses religion (his creed is that we only live once and “that it's a shame, a damn shame, if we are lowered into the grave without once having experienced high adventure”), where he parts company with the right wing (“on antipornography and stuff like that–deal me out, ha-haaa”), and his new book, which he hopes to finish this year. Working title? How We Got Rid of the Soviet Union: A Personal Account of the Twentieth Century's Greatest Adventure.
We settle in. Wheeler lolls on his sleeping bag, sighing comfortably. Brandon is using saliva-soaked raspberry-drink powder to adorn himself with Bozo lips. He giggles like a kid hearing a fishing story when Wheeler recounts a conversation he says he had with the late Nicaraguan Contra leader, Enrique Bermúdez, which supposedly went like so: “He said to me, 'Jack, you mean we're not alone?' And I said, 'No, Enrique! The Soviets want you to think you are alone and that you're a reactionary struggling against the inevitable forces of Marxism. It's all bullshit! You are on the leading edge of history.'”
This wooden dialogue summons forth a familiar worry: Are we in Hillary-as-lesbian land again? Many of Wheeler's yarns are uncheckable, but boastful book titles aside, he's actually fairly modest. He sees himself as just one voice in a rising choir that eventually prevailed in directing American foreign policy. And whatever you think of his loyalties to people like Jonas Savimbi, who in 1992 lost a fair election and responded by renewing Angola's civil war, give Wheeler this much: He was on record early saying that the Soviet Union not only should but could be destroyed. Way back in 1983, in the libertarian magazine Reason, he published an article called “How to Dismantle the Soviet Empire.” And he drew plenty of flak from his conservative buddies for predicting that the USSR would be kaput before the dawn of the twenty-first century. With that, many thought he had at last gone around the bend.
By the time his Reason article appeared Wheeler was nearly finished with his inaugural Let's Go: Guerrillas tour. His first stop had been Honduras, where he roamed with a band of Contras into Nicaragua. From there he went to Pakistan, where he contacted representatives of the mujahideen. He talked his way into Afghanistan, hooked up with roving field combatants, and traveled around in various hot zones. Between 1983 and 1988, he says, he returned for a total of five in-country excursions, often seeing combat. The action highlight occurred in 1984, when he says he witnessed a nighttime attack on a Soviet fortress and power station in Ghazní that resulted in two dozen Soviet casualties. During the getaway, as the Soviets fired back in response, Wheeler says he and an Afghan rebel named Adam Khan were “running like hell. At one point we just looked at each other and we laughed so hard that tears were rolling down our cheeks, because they hadn't hit us. It was just one of the most fun times I've ever had.”
After a stop with Savimbi and another swing into Central America, the long march ended in Washington in November of 1983. By then, says Wheeler, Dana Rohrabacher was urging him to come back and spread the gospel to some panting Reaganites. Recalling his first major slide presentation, Wheeler says: “I showed them pictures, and that was what had the impact. All of a sudden to see the reality of what actually was going on–that blew people away. And that was the birth of the Reagan Doctrine, that meeting.”
Again, could it be? Wheeler's interpretations–especially the post hoc, ergo propter hoc stuff–are debatable, and Richard Carlson for one growls at the idea that Wheeler laughed under fire. “I know a woman who saw Wheeler fall down on a carpeted floor,” he says. “He started moaning and saying, 'The couch! The couch!' Much like that short fellow on Fantasy Island.” Still…
“It's fair to say,” says Paula Dobriansky, a former National Security Council staffer who attended that first slide show, “that Jack's briefings were a catalyst and contribution to the discourse and ultimately the tenets of the Reagan Doctrine.”
Historians can sift the finer details.
The final days of our rafting trip are a voyage into deeper realms of outdoor beatitude, with most of us enjoying the dirt, the water, the camping, the easy pace, and the knowledge that, all of a sudden, everything has come together to make a perfect experience. The best night is the second, when we make camp on a rocky bluff overlooking the Zanskar. For the first time there's enough kindling and dried dung scattered around to make a decent campfire, and after dinner the whole greasy-haired gang gathers in a circle for a long session of stargazing and blather. Goofus Jack is gone, blissed out of existence, and will not be seen again until we return to Leh, where his pushiness at the airport will almost spark a riot among security personnel and disgruntled European trekkers. I seize the moment to explore one last question with Gallant: What next?
Not surprisingly, he's planning to spring boldly into the future. Call it Adventures in Geezerdom, but Wheeler makes it clear that his days of political swashbuckling are behind him, partly because he has zero access to the White House. Instead, he's concentrating on frontiers of leisure. Wheeler has a plan–and, he says, deep-pocketed financial backers–to buy a Grumman Albatross seaplane and convert it into “an expedition motor home” that he'll use to reach difficult, remote locales all over the planet. This is one reason he's swallowing so much Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw product: He intends to keep going well into his dotage, reliving his youthful high times all over again by watching Brandon and Brandon's 16-month-old brother, Jackson, perform derring-do of their own. (Wheeler intends for them to climb the Seven Summits together.) He says with regret that it's probably too late for him to realize the ultimate gains of life-extension theory. “People born today will live into the twenty-third century and beyond,” he says. He'll have to be content with “going until I'm 100.”
The clear sky and rum eventually give rise to boozy theorizing about intergalactic travel. At one point Wheeler offers that “Pearson has been telling me about a physicist who says that there are certain anomalies in Einstein's equations”–namely, anomalies that open the theoretical door to traveling faster than the speed of light, which physics currently says is impossible.
“The maximum would be ten to the 28th power times the speed of light,” Wheeler says. “Now that's fast–ha-haaa. And if this is correct, then you could go from almost any one point in the universe to any other point. In an instant.”
Wait, I ask–is he working up to a new “epiphany” here, a vision of twenty-first-century Jack Wheeler flitting around the cosmos in a bubble helmet?
“Well,” he sighs. “I'd love it to be true.”
Alex Heard is a senior editor of Outside. He wrote “I Know Why The Caged Dove Grieves” in the April 1993 issue.