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Cover Story : The Power of One

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

January 20, 2002|PATRICK J. KIGER | Patrick J. Kiger last wrote for the magazine for a special issue on the repercussions of Sept. 11

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.

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