Outside magazine, May 1996
He’s Bad. He’s Windy. He’s a Tourist with an Attitude.
Meet Robert Young Pelton, guerrilla guide to the world’s most dangerous places
By Jack Hitt
Robert Young Pelton is a tough guy. Just ask him. By his own account, the 40-year-old Canadian has tiptoed past land mines, exchanged fire with Kurdish warlords, and “challenged Iban headhunters to a chugalug contest.” Under the imprint of Fielding Worldwide Inc., the publishing company that he owns, he has recently written a travel guide that tells ordinary mortals how to
share these thrills: The World’s Most Dangerous Places, a risk-lover’s Baedeker that offers tips for people who want to prowl the world looking for trouble. Pelton combines high-octane macho baroque with survival hints that you just don’t get anywhere else. (Like: Don’t take a Barbie to Kuwait–the doll’s sultry image drew a government ban.) We caught
up with him at his home in Redondo Beach, California, just as he was about to fly off to trek around the perimeter of Borneo.
Where would you not go?
Algeria. Islamic fundamentalists there are targeting Westerners. They send me faxes saying, “Come on! We’ll cut your throat.” I like countries with intelligent dangerous people–but not crazy dangerous people.
What’s an intelligent dangerous person?
The historical model is Che Guevara or somebody who has a college degree, or the Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan. They are extremely focused people.
The Shining Path’s Pablo Guzman is educated, but given the chance he’d cut your throat.
Yeah, but you’d have an intelligent discussion beforehand.
OK. What’s “danger” mean to you?
Danger is something you don’t know is dangerous. It’s like, if you go into a fire with a firefighting suit and training in fire control, that’s not as dangerous as wandering in a Cambodian minefield taking snapshots.
What should I know about mines?
Don’t step on them.
All righty. I understand you had an interesting school experience in Canada.
Yeah, I was a child prodigy. The first book I read, at six, was the Odyssey, by Homer. So my mom sent me off to St. John’s Cathedral Boy’s School in Manitoba, where we studied Latin and ancient Greek. The school featured a survival aspect, too. You studied and did farm chores, but then in summer you would canoe a thousand miles, and in the winter we did these marathon snowshoe
things. Otherwise, you raised animals, slaughtered them, prepared them into sausages, and sold them door-to-door. It was a pretty wacky school.
Describe your reader.
Dual income, no kids, highly educated. Eastern or western seaboard, large disposable incomes, and in two lumps: We have the geezer group and then the young punks. We’ve maintained the older Fielding crowd, which is the intellectual, off-the-beaten-path crowd. And we’re attracting this new crowd, which is tired of political correctness, the Lonely Planet guidebooks, and all that
A disclaimer in your book says that the publishers “assume no liability, nor do they encourage you to do, see, visit or try any of the activities or actions discussed in this book. This book is intended for entertainment only and should be viewed as being information but not necessarily reliable.” What does that mean?
My feeling is, people will always hurt themselves, they’ll always do something stupid. So I’m going to back off and say, Read this, have a few chuckles, but God help you if you do what I do.
Information that’s entertaining but not reliable–that sounds like the disclaimer the National Enquirer uses.
That’s a cheap shot. There are many exaggerations and interpretations, but we don’t fabricate anything in this book.
But you don’t really stand by it, either. In your rainforest section, you suggest that if the reader is really serious, he should “start by asking for information.” Does that mean you advise against using your information?
No. What I say is, our book is one piece of the puzzle. But when you put the pieces together, you still have a puzzle.
I gather from your book that you have a low opinion of the advice given by State Department officials?
They’re bureaucrats. They don’t wander around the streets. They dress like they’re all from Iowa, trying to get local “intel” in their plaid shirts.
Any other book ideas percolating?
I’ve always wanted to rewrite the Boy Scout manual. So I’m working on the Indiana Jones Survival Guide, the kiddie version of the Dangerous Places book.
Will you teach them to tie knots?
Screw knots–how do you load a gun. I’m serious. How many kids get shot in the head playing with Dad’s firearms? When I was a kid, I was taught survival in an archaic format–how to run rivers, how to endure blizzards, how to kill and eat things. And I thought, I don’t use that in my daily life. I don’t go outside my office, kill something, and eat it because my credit cards are
charged up. So survival is different now–and that’s why I’ve written Dangerous Places.
The ads for the book’s official T-shirts read, “Face fear with style! Look sharp while you laugh at danger in your 100 percent heavyweight cotton T-shirt (makes great bandages) available only in XL and apocalyptic black. Order while there is still time.” Is that your writing?
Yeah, that’s me.
How many have you sold?
Hundreds. Have you seen them? They’re cool. I mean, the president of Marvel Comics wears them. The image says a lot about our attitude–the laughing skull. It’s like Bozo the Clown after he’s been nuked. When I was in Afghanistan, I would use my T-shirts and stickers as gifts to terrorists. People who normally take you out and shoot you thought they were the coolest damn
You’re saying Afghan mujahideen are running around sporting your stickers and T-shirts?
Do you know how many DP stickers are on the barrels of rifles out there? Wherever I go, I hand them out and they slap them on their tanks, rifles, whatever.
So you’re now an indelible part of the world culture?
You know, it’s sad but true. When dangerous people see me wearing this thing, they don’t view me as being a spook or State Department employee. They’re actually a nice little bribe. They get you through a lot of squeaks.
Jack Hitt is a contributing editor of Harper’s and Lingua Franca.