Super Subcultures

Twilight of the Adventurers

They’ve flown around the world, dove to the greatest depths, and hiked to the ends of the earth. In a windowless building on the edge of LA’s Chinatown, explorers from another era relive their glories over meatloaf and apple pie.

Twilight of the Adventurers

In 1986, Dick Rutan flew with a co-pilot in a Rutan Model 76 Voyager, a custom-designed and built aircraft, covering 26,000 air miles and taking nine days to circumnavigate the globe — unrefueled, non-stop.

After taking off from Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, the plane headed west, making two passes over the Equator, avoiding a 600-mile-wide typhoon, and doubling back over inhospitable Libyan airspace. Rutan piloted the plane without a break for the first three days of the nine-day flight. When the plane finally landed it had a damaged wing and 1.5 percent of the fuel with which it originally departed.

Rutan’s Voyager aircraft now hangs in the Smithsonian, part of an exhibit celebrating human accomplishments in flight. Once in a great while, the tanned seventy-six-year-old will share his story, but only for those select members of The Adventurers’ Club of Los Angeles. The by-laws of the club, which caps membership at 200, make it very clear that only “those who have had an unusual adventure on land, at seas, or in the air hunting, trapping, exploring, flying, or those who have attained a distinctive reputation in the field of arts, music or science are considered eligible.”

North of downtown Los Angeles, just past Chinatown in Lincoln Heights, it is easy to miss the building where the Adventurers’ Club meets. Absent of signage or décor, the windowless, anachronistically beige structure sits opposite a ninety-nine-cent store. The rest of the intersection of Daly and North Broadway better resembles the visual patois of Tijuana or Rosarito.

The look and feel of the club’s interior could best be described as a ramshackle museum of both living and recently deceased world lore. At the top of the stairs, a massive polar bear greets visitors, posed by a taxidermist mid-swipe. Elsewhere, there are animal trophies from around the world: lions, gazelles, boars, even a mammoth skeleton, replete with enormous tusks. The walls are lined with chevrons, war medals, model airplanes and wooden plaques with handsome brass nameplates holding successive etchings dating back decades. There are photos everywhere: primarily of previous and current members clad in pith helmets, diving gear, flight suits, trapper hats, tuxedos, double-breasted blazers; an even mix of neat moustaches, full beards and cleanly shaven faces. There are many, many maps, alongside knives, swords, spears, canoes, flags, coats of arms, portraits of sea captains and sailing ships, native adornments and jewelry, vintage pictures of airplanes, actual propellers, and at least one mannequin of a diver in chain mail.

These are the collected histories and exploits of men. The Adventurers’ Club the occasional gender dispensation (ladies’ night, on which women are permitted to attend), but remains first and foremost a men’s club, with only male members.

Founded in 1921, the core of the club’s membership is older, many in their sixties, seventies and eighties. Past members include Los Angeles philanthropist John Anson Ford and polar explorer Roald Amundsen. Filmmaker and explorer James Cameron is listed as esteemed member #1129.

Discussions of business or politics here are strictly forbidden. Embellishment of exploits is not tolerated. If you misrepresent facts about your adventures, you are likely to be humiliated by someone who traversed the geography you’re attempting to embellish, and if you’re discovered, you’ll be quickly repudiated in front of everyone.

Despite all this, there is a jovial, warm-hearted tone during Thursday night dinners, when twenty bucks buys the guest of a member a home-cooked meal — meatloaf, rice, veggies and apple pie à la mode on one recent evening. A can of beer goes for two dollars, a soda for one. Some of the club members are pilots, surfers, documentarians, former servicemen and commissioned officers. They carry with them war stories, obscure geographic references, a sense of momentum unhampered by age, and bucket lists bordering elite-level completion.

Ask anyone who’s visited the club and they know Pierre’s stories. Seventy-four-year-old Pierre Odier is a two-time club president who has also sat on the board of directors for twenty-three years. Odier speaks seven languages and estimates that he’s traveled to somewhere between 160 and 170 countries.

“When I was seventeen, I wanted to see the pyramids, so I went to Africa,” he says. “My parents were against it, but they didn’t try to stop me. It started early and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Most recently, he built a school in Cambodia and taught students to live off the land on the Yucatán Peninsula. His frequent travels make Odier one of the most esteemed members of the club, but his attitude is calm and welcoming. He wears a goatee, frameless glasses and a short haircut. The tales he shares are exotic, but they are not fish tales. They feel more like reportage.

In 2010, Odier presented a talk about his adventure on Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana, surrounded by jags of rock and currents so strong they offer hospitality only to sharks. Odier was able to get to Devil’s Island only after befriending a helicopter pilot who had responded to an emergency call in which a member of the French Foreign Legion had “cracked open his head” while carousing with friends in a recreation area on nearby St. George Island. The helicopter pilot later forgot about the planned pick-up rendezvous and Odier was forced to make camp overnight.

Ordered built by Napoleon III in 1852, the penal colony, a series of sites around French Guiana, once housed more than 70,000 French prisoners — anarchists, felons, repeat offenders — sent to the tropical wasteland amid the nineteenth century European population boom and commensurate rise in crime.

On average, roughly one in ten inmates survived.

In 1938, René Belbenoît — one of a tiny handful of prisoners to successfully escape Devil’s Island — wrote a book called “Dry Guillotine” about the atrocious conditions on the island, which led to vast public outcry and the prison’s eventual closing. Belbenoît later became a member of The Adventurers’ Club of Los Angeles.

Recounting his own adventures on Devil’s Island, where he was researching a small cemetery that had no official record, Odier expounded upon the importance of reading a map (a talent vanished by omnipresent smartphones) and how to bond with perfect strangers when dealing with gaping language barriers, to put them at ease. Pierre’s affect is decidedly disarming, owing perhaps to his Swiss origin. It seems abundantly clear, as with virtually all of the gentlemen members, he is a man of the world.

It doesn’t take long to realize that every individual between these hallowed walls contains within them a library of life experience. The more senior they are, the deeper the library goes. Although I am in my early thirties, I felt after a while like a boy scuttling low among towering giants. My international belt-notching ends at thirty or so states within the U.S., parts of Mexico and the U.K.

My first encounter with the club included a talk from 2012 standing president Marc Weitz, an attorney who resides in downtown Los Angeles. Weitz’s recent trip to Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana placed his total number of countries at eighty-seven. Weitz showed the club photos of tropical overgrowth near Jonestown (of seventies cult lore), where he traveled through on foot; shots from inside Devil’s Island; and images of the European Space Agency Launch of an Ariane rocket (only five degrees from the Equator).

One of the younger adventurers at age thirty-nine, Weitz had joined the rank and file of the officially adventurous six years earlier, after reading the African exploits of John Goddard, who once kayaked the entire Nile River and later wrote a book about it. Weitz contacted the club when he heard Goddard would be presenting.

Though Weitz represents the new guard, his demographic is largely outnumbered. Without an infusion of lifeblood of new members, The Adventurers’ Club is very likely to fade entirely. How many Gen Y/Millennials can tell you what an SR-71 is, or understand the archetypal machismo of a man like Teddy Roosevelt? As the globe grows ever more tightly connected, the skills of individual resiliency, camaraderie and courage that each member clearly holds dear have faded from prominence.

One night in January 2014, Rich Abele and Nancy Miller presented on a trip to the South Pole. As this evening proved, if TED Talks provide insight and wisdom, an Adventurers’ Club talk provides tactics and logistics.

Abele and Miller departed on a Russian-made IL-76 wheeled transport aircraft from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Union Glacier Camp. (Antarctica is bound by a treaty enforcing no sovereign ownership, only permitting spheres of influence to exist near where research stations are based.) En route, they passed a nuclear-powered ice-breaking freighter.

Once on Antarctica proper the pair spent at least a short part of their time in sub-zero weather searching for meteorites using prototype metal detectors. Miller recanted finding one, roughly an inch long, but scientific rules state that you can’t take them with you. Onward they went to the officially marked South Pole, denoted by a placard that shifts every January 1 (the geographic pole shifts roughly ten meters each year due to tectonic movement).

Throughout their presentation, both Abele and Miller fielded questions from the audience.

· Q: “How long is that runway?”

· A: “12,000 feet of groomed ice.”

· Q: “How much gear could you take?”

· A: “It breaks down to about $1,000 per pound.”

· Q: “Where’s the adventure?”

· A: “Well, we did get trapped due to weather for nine days.”

Tough crowd.

Inside the club’s quarters, during a recent meeting, Al Enderle carried a tri-folded pamphlet filled with Xeroxed copies of the story of his life. Closing in on eighty, Enderle, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1952, boasts twenty-plus children, either biological or by marriage. In his life story, he recounts his experiences as a “private pilot, hang glider enthusiast, scuba diver, water skier, motorcyclist, hiker, lecturer, [and] editor-at-large.” His personal and professional exploits covered in the pamphlet include personally selected Bible passages, as well as a staunch commentary defending the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Another member, Gary Hareland, now in his sixties, has served twenty years in the Navy, the Coast Guard and the Air National Guard. His first adventure came at age eleven, when he hopped a passenger train, riding on the back steps of the last car from the city of San Fernando, California to the Mojave Desert. Hareland has an adventure resume heavy on verbs, with categories like “Ships I Crewed On,” “Aircraft Flown,” “Boats Sailed” and “Mountains Climbed.”

With a current tally of thirty-nine countries under his belt, his adventuring experience came to him first in the military and then as a merchant mariner, when, following his return from service, he grew restless at his desk job.

“They had me in this little office and I just couldn’t stand it,” Hareland said. “Your life is more exciting in the military. You don’t know where you’re going to end up.”

He has since sailed for Military Sealift Command and Maersk Line, the largest shipping company in the world with more than 20,000 employees supporting 600 vessels, the largest of which hold up to 18,000 shipping containers during one voyage. In 2004, Hareland’s voyage on a Norwegian Cruise Lines was thwarted when a fluke accident sank the 900-foot vessel while berthed at the Lloyd Werft Shipyard in Bremerhaven, Germany.

Officially, Hareland is a retired electronics and communications officer, but he recently applied for a communications technician position on the Titanic II, a replica of the original RMS Titanic currently being planned, financed and built by Australian billionaire Clive Palmer. Despite Hareland’s military service, international travel history, flight hours logged and mountains climbed, he’s unsure if he’ll find a position on the ship.

“It’s something I would really like to do,” he says. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

The spirit of gutsy provocation that flourished when he traveled around the world in nine days still thrives in Rutan. These days, he teaches flight lessons out in the Mojave. I recently went up in his two-seater Cessna and sat in the co-pilot’s seat. The door of this propeller-driven, fixed-wing plane had been removed so that I might take a few pictures.

The stretched desolation extended into a thin lip of asphalt, windswept and faded by the near-constant sunlight, amid hundreds of miles of hot scrub-brush and a jagged horizon of Tehachapi Mountains.

From around 5,000 feet, under the right aerial maneuvers, you can squeeze all of the Mojave into the frame of a twenty-two millimeter lens. The view includes some of the most advanced spaceflight technology companies in the world — XCOR, Masten, Virgin — and an aircraft boneyard littered with the giant ruins of permanently grounded commercial airliners.

After an hour of flight and taking hundreds of photos while hanging in relative precarity, despite my queasy gut I still couldn’t with a clear conscience qualify this excursion as a true adventure. Not compared to Rutan’s resume.

While flying over the desert, the instruments on Rutan’s Cessna revealed a warm column of vertical air — an updraft — that we rode with steady ease to higher altitude. The globe that Rutan circumnavigated hasn’t changed in size, yet seems incalculably smaller today. Territory once foreign now seems familiar. Towering over the Mojave, Rutan pointed out a gold mine on Soledad Mountain, the Ivanpah Solar Generating Site, and the Alta Wind Energy Center with its massive white turbines. At some point in human momentum, the logistical needs of the adventuresome might appear to give way to the less thrilling elements of mere tourism. If it’s all known, where might we turn to discover the unknown?