Authors: Tim Cahill
“It is like no night on the face of the earth: in this cave the darkness is palpable and it physically swallows the brightest light. The air underground smells clean, damp, curiously sterile. It feels thick, like freshly washed still-damp velvet, and I am about to rappel down a long single strand of rope into the heart of all that heavy darkness. This is the second deepest cave pit in America: the drop is four hundred and forty feet, about what you’d experience from the top of a forty-story building. If you took the shaft in free-fall you’d accelerate to one hundred and some miles an hour and then—about six seconds into the experience—instantly decelerate to zero miles an hour. And die. Wah-hoo-hoo over and out. With six bad seconds to think about it.”
Books by Tim Cahill
Jaguars Ripped My Flesh
A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg
Pecked to Death by Ducks
Pass the Butterworms
Hold the Enlightenment
Copyright © 1973, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1989 by Tim Cahill
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Portions of this text were originally published in
Outside, Powder, Rolling Stone, The San Francisco Examiner
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A wolverine is eating my leg.
“A Vintage original.”
1. Adventure stories, American. I. Title.
PS3553.A365W65 1989 910.4′53 88-40122
Author photo copyright © 1989 by Tom Murphy
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:
“The Marquesas” by Tim Cahill. Copyright © 1985 by Islands Publishing Company. Reprinted with permission.
Far Musikverlag GmbH:
excerpt from the lyrics to “Rasputin” by George Reyam, Frank Farian and Fred Jay. Copyright ©
1978 by Far Musikverlag GmbH
For the Board of Directors
he following stories, I see, span a sixteen-year period. Rereading all these pieces—especially the less-recent efforts—was like encountering good friends, old army buddies, for instance, after many years. I had a sense that it might be fun to take a few of these stories out for a drink, bring them home to dinner. What a bunch of guys.
Some of them are simply good-time stories, fun-time stories, stories that are going to find the humor in any situation. These are the guys who want to make us laugh, who will help us keep our perspective during dinner. Because other guests are obsessed with the tether line, that razored precipice separating rational behavior from irrational, good from evil, heroism from sainthood.
A very few of the more somber guests are vaguely haunted individuals. They are obsessed with the darker regions of the soul, with frightening places on the earth or in the mind. They seem to feel a discordant resonance and appear to see the darkness of the physical world reflected in the psychological.
Healthier, perhaps, to find beauty in the physical world and feel it expand inside of us. We call that feeling paradise. Certain of our guests are seekers, and they have suffered varying degrees of success in their quests. I’m sure they’ll want to talk about it, maybe over dessert.
A couple of the partygoers will regale us with long, convoluted stories that build to the outrage of a bad pun or a good hoax. We will likely groan in a kind of pain that is very close to laughter sometime during dinner.
The last group to join the party will come swaggering in late, just in time for a few glasses of cognac. Some of them may be limping just a bit or have an arm in a cast. These are guys who have been lost in the desert, who have had a crisis of courage in some underground cavern, who have been beaten up by sacred Himalayan rivers. They seem like daredevils, this group that rides the raggedy edge of risk. And they are problematic individuals, these fellows. Some of them drink a little too much or laugh too loud. They are in entirely too good a mood.
Over the years, a lot of people have asked why I’ve invited them to any parties at all. I suppose I owe these old friends some explanation.
Look at them from my point of view:
They are, to be sure, often an embarrassment. The subject matter—adventure travel—is sometimes considered fodder for the old Action for Men type of magazine, the kind with articles that take place in the present tense, right now, as you are reading them: “A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg!”
The adventure story—or, more properly, the impulse that drives it—is often difficult to describe. A few years ago, I spent some time trying to explain myself to the media. I didn’t do that hot of a job. “Various insane adventures in the out-of-doors have helped me preserve my sanity,” I pointed out, “during a time in which my sanity was at substantial risk.” Or somewhat less-precise words to that effect.
I was supposed to be promoting a book I’d written about a serial killer, a book that takes the reader on a tour through the twisted sewers of the monster’s mind. My publisher had scheduled me to appear on a lot of radio talk shows. (“The caller is either misinformed or a moron, Jim.”) I chatted with print reporters (“Let’s get another round; publisher pays”) and appeared on several local TV talk shows: Good Morning Detroit and Chicago and Cleveland and Toronto and Boston and Los Angeles. The subject matter required that I dress in a funereal fashion, so the audience saw a large bearded man who, I’m sure, didn’t seem entirely comfortable wearing a suit and tie. I looked like a gorilla in a tuxedo.
Worse, I found that the bright lights of a television studio seemed to have a paralyzing effect on my body and my powers of speech. There was a stiffness in my performance on these shows that I am sure was not lost on the viewer. “This guy wrote a book? He can’t even talk.”
The question most asked by those reviewers who had read the book and comprehended its psychological nuances was: “Tim Cahill (they always use your full name), how did you maintain your own sanity during the four years it took you to write
The temptation to drool and gibber was always very great at this point; to say, quite seriously, that the constant litany of horror “never bothered me, bothered me, bothered me, bothered me.…”
In fact, looking inside the mind of a murderer was terrifying, and it did bother me. It bothered me a lot. It played on my mind during racquetball games; it hit me halfway through short treks in the mountains. There was really no release from the dark parade of horrors that marched over the pages of my research. I was enduring a kind of psychological Chinese water torture. In those bad, shaky times, when I realized that one more morbid detail, one more sordid fact, would send me screaming around the bend, I knew it was time to go out and risk my life for no very good reason.
So I told interviewers across the country that I sought psychological relief in risk-sport. Actually, I’ve been flirting with serious risk for just over a decade, and when the “wuffos” (wuffo you jump out of an airplane?) have asked me in the past why I choose, say, to climb mountains, I have generally denied that there is any risk at all. Sometimes numbers help: in an old issue of
, for instance, experts and lay people were asked to rank the risk of dying from thirty activities. The experts’ ranking closely matched known fatality statistics, which showed that more people die yearly from activities the public considers innocuous (using home appliances, power mowers, spray cans, food colorings, food preservatives, and contraceptives) than die climbing mountains (rated twenty-ninth in terms of death risk by experts; skiing was thirtieth).
No one with any sense believes statistics, however, and an argument can be made that fewer people die climbing mountains because fewer people climb mountains than use spray cans. The law of averages legislates against the users of spray cans. More to the point, most of us perceive mountain climbing as a dangerous activity, and we take precautions precisely so we won’t go plunging to our deaths. The question then arises: why do something you perceive as dangerous, even if the numbers suggest it isn’t? Why go out and purposefully scare yourself silly?
Well (I should have said), there are some emotional and even biochemical rewards. Danger, or the perception of danger, releases opiate-type natural drugs into the nervous system. Endorphins still sloshing about in the brain after the first skydive complement the sense of accomplishment: people often mention an overwhelming sense of euphoria.
Ralph Keyes, in his book
Chancing It: Why We Take Risks
, mentions this euphoria along with a feeling of control. The skydiver, for instance, is the only one who can pull his own ripcord. The skydiver controls his or her own destiny and, according to Keyes, “those who feel more control over their lives are less likely to have accidents, commit suicide.… Taking extreme and even death-defying risks can actually reduce one’s sense of being at risk because it increases a sense of control over one’s destiny.… Fear is sought because (unlike anxiety) it feels as if it is subject to our will. In islands of created danger, the danger creator is king.”
A third benefit of perceived jeopardy is total concentration. Quoting Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who has studied risk-takers from professional dancers to rock climbers, Keyes says that “concentration could become so total that it resembled a state of religious transcendence.”