January 20, 2002 - LA Times: Grand March of an American Misfit

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Grand March of an American Misfit

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Grand March of an American Misfit*

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Grand March of an American Misfit
Pasadena-raised conservationist J. Michael Fay hiked 455 days and 1,200 miles to help save uncharted Central Africa--quite possibly a record for someone running away from home.

By PATRICK J. KIGER, Special To The Times

After hiking through the last great unspoiled stretch of forest in Africa, J. Michael Fay has returned to civilization. It doesn't seem to agree with him. It's a spring weeknight, and Fay--the star of "Africa Extreme," a National Geographic television special last year, and the subject of a lavishly illustrated three-part series in the society's magazine--is on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at the Explorers Club, a vaguely musty, wood-paneled post-Victorian shrine to that era when the jungles and mountains and icecaps of the earth were a stomping ground for hale, hearty aristocrats, the sort you could imagine swapping stories about their rollicking adventures over apres-dinner brandy and cigars. By contrast, the 45-year-old naturalist, who is here to lecture on the 1,200-mile journey he's dubbed the "Megatransect," looks something less than hale and hearty, and a tad shy of rollicking.

Months of subsisting on fufu--a gruel made from a potato-like African plant--Quaker oats and candy bars have left him so skinny that he'd make a supermodel envious. He's clad in wrinkled khakis and a long-sleeved shirt adorned with a fine patina of fuzz, and his steel wool-colored hair hasn't recently encountered a comb. If Fay looks like hell, he feels even worse. While on the trip, he contracted filaria, a blood-borne infestation of tiny, threadlike worms that, if left untreated, can block the flow of lymph inside a victim's body and cause the extremities to swell to a grotesque size. He's not quite that far gone, thanks to a powerful drug he's taking. But scores of the dying buggers are accumulating in his fingertips, treating him to red-hot jolts of pain. Fay grimaces and peers through Coke-bottle glasses--he's had trouble with his eyesight since childhood--into a forest of Brooks Brothers suits and elegant dresses.

"What was your greatest discovery?" someone asks.

Fay grimaces a bit again. "I, ah, didn't go out there to discover anything," he explains with a faint touch of exasperation.

He gets that question a lot. Armchair explorers expect a new species, or 10 new species, or some natural wonder that outdoes Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. How does Fay explain what he really discovered out there during endless weeks of hacking through the foliage, months of hiking farther and farther into the forest, into a place humans had not visited for centuries? What Fay had found out was that he was able to free himself.

Unlike the fictional Tarzan, to whom Fay sometimes jokingly compares himself, he wasn't raised by apes. He grew up in a 1950s tract-house development in Pasadena--the asphalt-paved, ChemLawn-drenched, gas-guzzler-in-the-driveway epicenter of what he came to deride as "10-X America." Ever since he could remember, he had felt ill at ease with the civilization that spawned him, with phone bills and neckties and sport-utility vehicles and paper cups and the relentless, insatiable craving to consume everything in its path.

The Megatransect freed Fay from that. It allowed him to flee into a world in which he wore only shorts and sandals because it was easier to slip unobtrusively through the flora in bare skin. He could drink from unpolluted streams where the only roads were paths hewn by generations of elephants over thousands of years. He could gaze at a 175-foot-tall Moabi tree, its sprawling branches outstretched like the arms of some primitive deity, beckoning him to worship. Silverback gorillas stared at him as if he were some new animal, and not merely another member of that race of highly evolved killers bent on laying waste to their world. How does a guy like Fay explain that what he really discovered was that he didn't want to come back?

Even for someone who resolutely loathes civilization, leaving it behind isn't easy. In one of Fay's journal entries from the Megatransect, composed six months into his journey, he wrote: "It's a world that looks like what a Stone Age man, coming out of his rock shelter, would have seen--no traces of mankind, just wild nature. It's like being transported back in time 10,000, even a million, years."

He composed that missive on a battery-powered notebook computer and then e-mailed it via satellite phone to National Geographic's Web site, which gives a hint of the myriad paradoxes and contradictions that inhabit the tangled underbrush of this explorer's soul. Fay is a sort of 21st century primitive, one foot in the jungle and one on the indoor-outdoor carpet. He is equal parts Thoreau-esque ascetic and gadget freak, serious scientist and media showman, environmental zealot and negotiator who cuts deals with logging company executives and counts conservative politicians as his friends. He's an altruistic lover of humanity in the abstract, and an unsentimental loner who eschews intimate relationships in the particular.

But one thing is clear: Fay is emerging as one of the most important explorers of the age, one who evokes comparisons to figures such as David Livingstone, the 19th century trekker whose journeys across the African interior shaped European views of the continent. "When it comes to a practical knowledge of the geography of central Africa, there is hardly anybody around who knows what he knows, who's been where he has, who's documented it," explains Peter Raven, the renowned botanist and conservationist who heads the Missouri Botanical Garden and served as an early Fay mentor. "In that sense, he's a classical explorer. But he's much more than that. He's living at a moment in time when the last forests are being destroyed, where the opportunity to save that world is fading rapidly."

Fay's Megatransect aimed to document that vanishing wild and to jump-start efforts to save at least some of it from destruction. In September 1999, on a trip sponsored by the National Geographic Society and his employer, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Fay started out from an outpost in the Republic of the Congo with a team of 10 Pygmies and National Geographic photographer Nick Nichols. His goal: to walk across the forests of the Congo and Gabon, through territory he had identified from the air as largely free of human encroachment--for the previous several hundred years, at least.

During the next 455 days, Fay and various companions--he had to hire a second team halfway through after he wore out his first entourage--hacked their way through the foliage, communicating with one another by satellite pager as they searched for spots where airplanes dropped the packages of food they needed to survive. Eventually, in December 2000, they reached the west coast of Africa.

In "Africa Extreme," millions of TV viewers got to watch a nearly naked, bearded, feral-looking Fay howl at wild animals, chase away poachers, exhort his crew in angry bursts of French and curl up in a trembling heap to endure a bout of malaria, and then, finally, exultantly, stride onto a beach where hippos bodysurfed in the waves. It seemed like the penultimate sequel to "Survivor." But Fay wasn't just out to make a name for himself as the svelte successor to the Naked Guy. He wanted to sound the alarm about the threat to central Africa's forests, where trees are vanishing under the saw blades of European loggers as gorillas and other animals are slaughtered by hunters filling urban Africans' hunger for meat.

"I was thinking, 'Let's put these places on the map,' " says Fay. "We've seen so much change in the last five years. Every day that we wait, there's a new road or a new concession given out or a new decree made or a new project that is going to bring a human population to an isolated place. I'd found these blocks of forest, but it wouldn't take long before they'd be cut up, integrated into another direction of this human wave, and it'll be impossible to protect them."

Fay also aimed to do serious science. He wanted to document in detail the differences as he moved from a human environment into the wild and then out again. And he hoped to show the extent to which even seemingly small changes wrought by humans--the harvesting of certain trees, for example--affected the entire system of the forest.

To that end, he meticulously scribbled hundreds of pages of journal notes, recording virtually everything he saw, from the location of fruit trees to the peripheral traces of human encroachment--every machete cut or shotgun shell or mound of campfire ashes. "We know the location of every single elephant dung pile along that 1,200-mile route," Fay boasts, "and what the density of piles was, going from human areas to center and back."

Those notes were augmented by 420 hours of video, 100 hours of digital audiotape and 2,000 rolls of film shot by Nichols. Every written observation, sound and image was tagged by Global Positioning Satellite coordinates, which Fay's gadgetry recorded every 20 seconds. He intends to post his data on the Internet so that it can be used by anyone who wants to study the African wild.

"Mike looked at the landscape at a scale that most people don't get down to," says John Robinson, vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "But the point of view is even more important. You don't usually have the opportunity to be away from the modern world for that length of time. Mike crossed over to the wild side and went in deep enough and stayed there long enough that, as he walked, he could see the effects people on the outside were having on the natural environment he was in."

And while other researchers and conservationists in Africa often have focused on one piece of the puzzle, Fay has roamed across not just miles, but scientific disciplines--he's a botanist, anthropologist and, before the Megatransect, did important research on gorillas and elephants. This has enabled him to develop a rare understanding of the big picture, the matrix of subtle interactions and interdependence among species that allow the forest to be.

"Mike really has a grasp of what makes life work out there," says photographer Nichols, who also is Fay's longtime friend and confidant. "Why you can't have the elephants without the trees, and why you can't have the trees without the elephants. Mike is after the whole web of life and in showing how if you [mess] it up, you'll never get it back."

But when you get past the science, Nichols insists, "at the core of it all is a kid who wants to spend time in the woods. He lives for that. His biggest flaw is that he's so driven that he can't see anything else. He doesn't take a break--after 15 months in the forest, he hadn't slowed down a bit. He wanted to just keep going. His family is those trees, those elephants. This is not a guy who likes to play cards or take a vacation or do anything a normal person needs to do to stay sane. He doesn't have any hobbies, far as I know. But I'll tell you something-- over the past two years, nobody on earth has had as much fun. For him, the hard part was coming back out."

"The first month back, I was kind of in shellshock," says Fay. he's sitting in the patio of a Starbucks in Washington, D.C., not far from National Geographic's headquarters, where, as an explorer-in-residence, he's spent the past few months laboriously crunching data and transcribing notes from his trip. "But now that I'm settling in, I'm coming to the realization that I really feel very left out in the U.S. of A. Spiritually speaking, I really don't have a place here anymore."

He means that both figuratively and literally. When Fay moved back to Washington, Nichols recalls, the Geographic had to dissuade him from simply pitching a tent in Rock Creek Park. Even now, he remains discomfited by sleeping indoors, and the formalities of urban civilization--making sure the electric bill is paid, for example--add to his tension. Don't get him started on flush toilets or drinking water.

"In the forest you just drink from creeks, like you would in a Tarzan movie," he says. "Every one of them is crystal clear and the water is delicious. I drink out of a faucet here and it almost makes me sick, it tastes so terrible. Those plastic bottles of water are even worse. So I don't drink much water." He still flirts with the notion of packing up his bedroll and taking to the streets. "See that guy over there in the yellow pants? He's homeless, sleeps over there. I try to talk to him every once in a while. But he drinks all his coffee at Starbucks--that guy's not hurting. He's fat. I could easily live on the street here and not feel deprived one bit."

The unrelenting abundance of America, in fact, makes Fay only feel more alienated. "People try to feed me all the time, try to give me food. I haven't been to a grocery store since I've been here. They keep asking, 'What did you fantasize about eating when you were out there?' In the forest, that's not the way you think. If it's edible, it's good enough. What you're thinking about is, do we have enough food for 13 people for the next 10 days? Because if you don't, you're going to go hungry."

Fay's iron self-control would make Jenny Craig seem like Diamond Jim Brady. "He can go all day without eating or drinking," marvels Nichols. "He's just got that drive. He's almost inhuman in that regard."

But the Megatransect pushed Fay's stoicism to new extremes. "When you go out on a short expedition you can be miserable, get an infection, feel yourself getting weak physically--and then you're out and you can recuperate. You hear a lot of conservationists say that--'Yeah, man, we did three weeks in there and, God, it was really awful.' But when you're out there for the long haul, you can't be that way. You have 30 worms growing in your foot and it hurts like hell, but you just learn not to think about it."

He hiked for 10 months with a broken tooth. "When I got back to the States, the dentist looks at it and says, 'Uh huh, it's really bad--completely dead, infected up into the bone. You're lucky this thing didn't blow your head right off your body.' " But it didn't. Instead, "my brain kept saying, 'Hey, body, you can't allow this to happen because if it does, it's gonna mean the end of this thing.' "

Eventually, he attained a state of being in which he suspects all humans once existed. "People anywhere on earth who live outside learn it. Even these homeless people here in Washington. They learn how to be comfortable. There's one guy who lives over there"--he gestures toward the doorway of a nearby building--"he's asleep right now. He's found his little spot in the world, he's got his four or five blankets. I walk by him every morning and say hello. He's just, like, hanging out. He doesn't have a problem, far as he's concerned. When you think about the Plains Indians or the Eskimo, or any people who are living in an ecosystem, they get their [spot] for sure. If they didn't, they wouldn't survive."

What of those of us accustomed to air-conditioning and Chicken McNuggets, who perceive reality through the windshield of an SUV? "Lost it 100%," Fay says. "To the point where it's one of the disconnects that I have with people in the States. The Western model, the Industrial Revolution and the path it's taken us down for the past 100 years, was a terrible thing. This planet could still be an amazingly beautiful and functional place, yet we've completely screwed it up. The [American] way of life has permeated the entire world--the vehicles are the same, the buildings, the foods people eat, the language. It's a way of life that, almost by definition, is completely removed from the ecosystem because ecosystems are variable, and it isn't."

Fay finds himself trapped in the middle. He learned to fly a plane to survey the African forests, but despite his auto-centric California roots, he doesn't have a current driver's license, instead preferring to get around on a secondhand bicycle or on foot. As he sees it, if 80% of the vehicles vanished from Los Angeles and other cities, the quality of life would improve. He knows it'll never happen.

"People are obsessed with their cars. That's why I feel like such a stranger here." One can only imagine how torturous it was for Fay to spend his childhood in the then-new suburban development of Hastings Ranch amid the artificially verdant lawns and multi-car garages that were a badge of prosperity for the middle-class families who possessed them. "I can't relate at all to what is going on in California now," laments Fay, the second of three sons of Jim Fay, an insurance executive, and his wife, Helen. "That was just as true when I was there in the 1950s and 1960s as a kid."

The rusty haze in the air made him ill and, afflicted with a vision problem that required surgery, he wasn't much for Little League. Instead he found refuge in the hills behind his house.

"Mike was exploring the woods from the time he was 4 years old," his father recalls. "He was always interested in nature, more than anything else. But California bothers him. I remember when he went back with us to Los Angeles five or six years ago. We drove down the coast to Laguna, and the smog was so thick there was this yellow haze over the ocean. Michael almost had a tear in his eye. To him, all this burning of gasoline is insane."

In 1967, when Mike was 11, the Fays moved to Summit, N.J., but he continued to evolve into a suburban iconoclast. Instead of hanging out at the mall, he became obsessed with the then-uncool sport of fly-fishing and spent his spare moments picking the brains of old guys in fishing shops in the Catskills. ("I always used to fish with barbless hooks, never keeping a fish," Fay says. "It was part of the whole nature thing, learning the ecology.") He worked summers as a camp counselor in Maine, leading other kids on long canoe trips, reading Thoreau and grooving on conversations with older outdoorsy types who worked at the camp.

"I realized you can be a bird guide for a living," he explains, "that you didn't have to worry about having a traditional job to live."

As a high school senior, he wanted to take three months off from school and hike the John Muir Trail solo--"He saw an article in the National Geographic and actually wrote to the man who'd done it," remembers his father, who nixed the idea. Instead, Fay went off to work at a dude ranch near Tucson. He liked the desert and mountains so much that he enrolled at the University of Arizona, though he lived in a trailer because he couldn't stand the party animals in the dorms. He studied botany and graduated second in his class in 1978.

After that, Fay spent six years in the Peace Corps, working as a botanist in national parks in Tunisia and the savannas of the Central African Republic. It was there that he met Andrea Turkalo, a wildlife biologist who became his wife. The two have what might politely be called a long-distance relationship, living together for four of the last 22 years. For more than a decade, Turkalo has lived in a remote 30-acre forest clearing in the Central African Republic, where she has been conducting a long-term study of the complex social order among families of forest elephants. The two communicate mostly by e-mail. "I don't look at it as a sacrifice," Fay says. "For me, that kind of stuff--family relations, wives, kids--are just distractions."

In 1984, Fay enrolled in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis and began working for the Missouri Botanical Garden, where botanist and conservationist Peter Raven was leading an effort to catalog plant species in vanishing forests before they became extinct. Those dual gigs gave Fay an opportunity to return to Africa, where he studied flora in the mountains of western Sudan. But Fay's curiosity couldn't be confined to plants, and he spent the latter part of the 1980s doing research on the lowland gorilla population in the forests of the Central African Republic.

Even then, his methods were intense; one favorite tactic was to set out with a Pygmy tracker and follow a group of gorillas, discreetly observing them from a few hundred yards away around the clock for days at a time. It took Fay nearly a decade to get around to actually writing his thesis. "He's much more interested in doing things than theorizing about them," says Raven.

Instead, Fay spent his time working to create the Dzanga-Sangha and Nouabale-Ndoki wildlife refuges in the Central African Republic and Congo. "A lot of people worked in the effort, of course, but Mike was the core point person," says John Robinson of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "For Nouabale-Ndoki, he sat down with Congolese officials and helped convince them to set aside certain lands."

Fay's conservation work involved more than just politicking. He personally led the effort to eradicate poaching in Dzanga-Sangha, on one occasion barging into a poaching camp to torch the store of meat and skins while his handful of rifle-toting guards held 60 angry people at bay. When Nouabale-Ndoki was created in 1993, he headed the management team and ran the park for three years.

A few days after his appearance at the Explorers Club, Fay was back in Africa for a quick visit, flying the Wildlife Conservation Society's Cessna over the central African forests. What he saw unsettled him: logging roads that didn't exist when he started the Megatransect.

"There was an enormous scar through the landscape. We'd just walked through the place the year before, and it was devoid of human beings. By the end of the year, there's going to be a town of a thousand people in that spot. You think, 'My God, there's no hope.' " In his desperation to protect what remains of the African forests, the paper cup-eschewing zealot has metamorphosed into a dealmaker and lobbyist, one surprisingly adept at cultivating unlikely allies. He may be indifferent to eating, but he's dined with logging company presidents and cajoled them into banning hunters or setting aside blocks of habitats for apes and elephants. He's not above seeking help from the World Bank, an institution many environmentalists view as the Great Satan. He might dream of banning cars, but his closest friend in Washington is a free-market, anti-regulatory Republican from an oil state--former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer of Texas, now a senior tax advisor at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"What sets [Fay] apart from other environmentalists, to me, is that he lives in the real world," says Archer. "He realizes that the reality of Africa is that those countries need sources of income, and one of the most attractive is the logging industry. If you go in and shut that off, you're going to run afoul of their needs. Instead, you need to be able to talk the loggers into working with you."

Fay's latest gambit is raising money to create a new national park in Langoue in central Gabon, and Fay believes he's close to clinching a deal with the Gabonese government. "The forests in this area are very special--the last populations of mega-elephants, naive gorillas who've never seen humans, rivers that have never been fished, abundant with crocodiles. We're trying to work with the government and the logging companies to set aside 750,000 acres, to turn the clock back."

To that end, he's willing to spend more time in the States chatting up wealthy donors, even trading on the high-tech Tarzan caricature that people saw on TV. The amount he needs to save that Eden is surprisingly modest--about $3.5 million. "If I can raise that, I'll feel like the Megatransect had one very tangible result," he says. Already he has raised about $2 million, and he has promises from the government of Gabon to protect 75,000 of those acres.

But what Fay really wants to do is get back to the wild. He hopes to start another, even more ambitious trek in May 2003. "Could be central Africa, all of Africa, South America or North America," he wrote in a recent e-mail. He talks of becoming the first totally wired explorer--equip him with a Web cam and a notebook computer, air-drop some supplies occasionally, and he can pump out real-time words and images of the last wild places to a worldwide audience.

"This time, I hope to be gone for five years," he says.

But you get the feeling that, once he gets deep into the forest, he may never return.

Patrick J. Kiger last wrote for the magazine for a special issue on the repercussions of Sept. 11.

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