“It’s pretty simple to do the same things all the time and the next thing you know you’re much older and you haven’t done anything that you’re really proud of in a while except go to work and make money.” Most people have accepted the tedium of adulthood by the time they’ve reached their mid-thirties. That’s just how life works. We start to worry about things like job security and mortgage payments, not to mention the health problems we’ve developed from years of terrible eating habits. There’s no thrill anymore, no real stimulation at all aside from occasional sex with a less-than-attractive spouse. Life gets heavy and the responsibilities pile up. It’s impossible to drop everything and skip town for a few months like you used to; that is unless you never plan on coming back.
And yet, Jeff Vallee and Heath Kirchart manage to do exactly that. Each year they pick something they know nothing about and plan a trip around it. In the past few years they’ve ridden bicycles 3,300 miles across the country, climbed El Capitan and rafted 215 miles of the Grand Canyon, all with little-to-no experience. This year they’re building a 17-foot wooden boat that they’ll row/sail for more than a month, traversing the 900 miles from Southern California to the tip of the Baja Peninsula. So what if they’ve never built a boat before, or sailed one for that matter? They’ll come back with a good story if nothing else, because while the rest of us are sitting around reminiscing about the good old days, they’re out there, still living them.
Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the project and how you guys got started?
It started specifically I think because Heath wanted to leave skating. I’ll never try to speak too much for him, but at the time he was frustrated with his life of filming and deadlines. He’s always had a weird, wanting to go off the grid kind of mentality, so he just wrote me an email asking if I wanted to bicycle across the country with him. It was going to be an expensive trip and I had reservations about how much money it was going to cost, but it didn’t take much convincing. Oftentimes he and I convince each other to do things when we’re a little bit drunk. One night I basically said, “I can’t do it.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Money.” And he just goes, “Screw that.” Whenever you say no to something he really wants to do he’s like, “What if I lent you the money?” He just takes money off the table, “What if money was no issue?”
So I came up with the money to do it and we both did a little research on the internet about bikes that are good for long distance. He found a bike and we both bought the exact same shit, almost identical because we don’t know anything about bicycles. Which sounds ridiculous because a bicycle is a pretty simple contraption, but that was it. We didn’t really train. He rode a little bit, but I came straight off of a vacation in Australia. I was there just eating fried fish and drinking beer and came back to New York with not much time before I flew to LA. I was riding my bicycle around the city a little bit, but I was basically at my peak of bad fitness. Then we just went out there and took little bites off the 3,300 mile trip day by day.
So that’s how it got started. When Heath retired from skating all of a sudden I had this person who was open to anything. Because he has the means money-wise to do what he wants and he has all this free time, we could just come up with random ideas and he would say yes to everything.
At the time did you know it was going to be a yearly thing?
No, I don’t think we knew yet. The second trip only came around because I’d started hiring Heath to do production work in photography and we had all this time to brainstorm. He’d never had a job before and he had this interest in being a regular working person, so I would hire him to work on these photo shoots as a PA. I’d just watched a movie where this rock climber named Timmy O’Neill takes a surfer up El Capitan, a massive granite rock in Yosemite, and that was the first time I realized that a civilian could go up that. I’d always thought it was only for the hardest dudes.
So we’re driving across country for a job and we think, “We should just call that guy and see what happens.” We looked him up on the internet and wrote him an email and we tried to entice him a little bit by making it sound more interesting than it was. He didn’t respond for about a week and a half, but then he wrote us an email back. Heath and I were in the truck just laughing that this random dude got back to us, even though he wasn’t even close to accepting our offer of taking us up El Cap. We went straight to Wal-Mart and bought a pull up bar. He did two and I did I think four.
But once we kind of got into the second one I realized that at that point in my life I would love to be able to do something at least once a year that’s kind of out there and different. So from there it was just, “Lets try to figure out something we can do every year.”
How do you guys come up with the ideas that you want to try to do for each trip? Or does it just sort of come to you?
After the first bicycle trip people would ask us what we we’re going to next and I thought I had no other good ideas. It’s not easy to come up with something that A) you have no experience with, and B) is the right combination of suffering and fun. We don’t really have specific parameters, but people send us ideas and almost none of them are on point with what we like to do. They always suggest something that seems completely off base. They’ll say, “You guys should go work on a crab fishing boat” or they think, “You guys should hike the whole PCT from Canada to Mexico,” and I just think that sounds miserable.
But after the El Cap thing, the next trip was basically the idea of Timmy O’Neill, our rock climber guide. He’d realized that El Cap was not really our style and it was a little bit aggravating for us because we had people telling us what to do and we weren’t accepting our own fate and making our own mistakes. So he sat us down and said, “Here’s what you need to do, you guys need to raft the Grand Canyon, it’s the greatest trip in the world.” At the time it didn’t sound like something that I was really interested in, but the closer we got to it, the more it seemed like something that we could do on our own.
In the end I don’t want to just be a tough guy on these trips. I want to go and have a really good time. I mean the bicycle thing was a lot of tough and not as much fun, which is why I’ll probably shy away from things like that in the future. But there’s a strange mix of trying to find something that’s fun but that we also don’t know anything about. We want to have the rawness of not knowing what the hell we’re doing and just kind look at each other and laugh when we make mistakes. We don’t always laugh right away, but afterwards you look back and laugh. Like on the bicycle trip we both had a handful of days where we were just losing our mind from changing tube after tube in the blazing desert heat all while dying of thirst. You’re sitting there screaming “Fuuuuuck!” at the top of your lungs and wanting to walk away from the bike forever, but later that night you were over it and ready to move on.
Does it ever feel like you’ve gotten in way over your head?
There’s a point in the planning of a lot of these that I definitely wonder if we’re just being stupid, being cocky, and not thinking about real consequences. There are definitely times where I kind of hesitate. Heath’s never called me though and said, “I don’t want to go because I think this is dangerous.” But I’m a different person than him so I have these times where I’m like, “Maybe this is really dumb.”
The lead up to the El Cap thing was a real mindfuck because before Timmy agreed to do it with us he got on the phone with me and had this long conversation where he was basically asking me if I was ok with dying. And I know that sounds overly dramatic because those guys are expert climbers and almost nobody ever dies on El Cap, but it was a weird thing to picture yourself falling thousands of feet and I had crazy dreams where we dropped people and watched them slip away. I think it was just my subconscious just running through the motions and seeing if I was fit to be that high off the ground.
We do get a lot of grief from people that are close to us though. They feel we’re not thinking things through properly, but I think there are so many things that we’re told are dangerous that really aren’t. And believe me, anyone who knows me well will tell you that I’m a huge pussy, but I see all these things Heath and I do as calculated risk, not real danger.
via Monster Children