One of the happiest days of J. Robert Harris’ full and interesting life was the day he turned 33.
During his younger times, Harris had read about the prophesy for Alexander the Great having a choice between a long, boring life and a short but exciting one. Legend has it that Alexander chose short and interesting, which is what Harris also vowed. Alexander lived to 32 years old.
Good thing Harris, now in his seventies, didn’t try to append “The Great” to his name. Otherwise, his book, “Way Out There: Adventures of a Wilderness Trekker,” would have been far shorter. And that would have been a shame.
Believe me, I’ve read more than my share of personal adventure stories. Did I need to read another? Since Harris fits into the subject matter for The Trail Posse—person of color in the outdoors—I’d agreed to co-host one of his readings here in Seattle. As such, I also decided to give his book two hours. That was enough, I figured, to fake my way through an introduction or small talk.
I sat down with “Way Out There” on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, hours before the major college football rivalry game in these parts and a day before a major milestone birthday for me. In other words, it was kind of a busy time. Next thing I knew, I was flipping over the last page of Harris’ book, and it was time to watch football.
This book kept me glued, not just because Harris’ adventures are interesting. A lot of people write about getting lost, meeting strange people or being stalked by polar bears. But not many are as successful as Harris at conveying his inner-most thoughts and emotions, many of which can be translated into life lessons or inspirations in business.
Having now met Harris, I understand the root of his success. He is a fairly typical (from my experience) loquacious native New Yorker, highly educated by books as well as the streets, his having grown up in New York City projects. He’s also a man after my journalistic heart – fastidious in preparation, a note taker and journal writer, and a bit of a pack rat. All of those allowed him to piece together treks and moments that occurred years ago.
That witches brew of compulsiveness also frames one of my favorite passages in the book, when he is problem-solving four different logistical challenges during a trek in and around Glacier National Park. The last, getting from Rogers Pass about 18 miles away to Lincoln, Montana, about stumped him. “All we could do,” he writes, out of character, “was get out there and hope for the best.”
Harris doesn’t do a lot of “hoping for the best.” He also says he wasn’t intentionally trying to be funny, though there is much humor to be found in “Way Out There.” He is followed for days by a dog. He hangs out with six wolves. The night after he accidently hits a deer with his car, he pulls into Killdeer Park, then assembles a tent he purchased, unseen, that turns out to be a child-sized teepee.
Asked at his reading if he carried anything special during his multi-day wilderness treks, Harris said he always packed a pint of Remy Martin cognac, good for 18 slugs at a slug-a-day pace. “Nobody can tell me my pack is too heavy,” he reasoned, “because I’m the only one carrying it.”
It’s that independence streak that adds an edge to Harris’ outings. His recounting of a harrowing chair crossing at Summit Lake gorge, on Baffin Island, above the Arctic Circle, will have you on the edge of your seat. As a black man constantly in the middle of nowhere, he seems fearless, but says his is not an absence of fear, but an acceptance of it.
Harris also says he’s the kind of person that needs a New York City because of the multitude of choices it offers on a 24/7 basis. Still, solo is his preferred mode in wilderness because, he says, “you don’t have to appease, consult, or agree with anybody.”
Read J.R. Harris’ Q&A with Teresa Baker of African American Explorations