Tigger and Eeyore battle the Grand Canyon: Pete McBride and Kevin Fedarko at Aspen Winter Words
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Feb. 28 Yaa Gyaasi
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April 4 Stephanie Danler, Anna Noyes and Molly Prentiss
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It took 71 days of hiking over the course of 13 months, totaling some 800 miles by foot, in temperatures ranging from -5 to 111 degrees, wearing out seven pairs of shoes and two girlfriends, before Pete McBride and Kevin Fedarko completed their sectional traverse through the Grand Canyon late last year. The pair shared the rough-and-tumble saga with an Aspen audience Tuesday night.
McBride and Fedarko are now on the national lecture circuit and have put together an entertaining and visually stunning multimedia presentation that combines their “odd couple” onstage shtick with arresting photographs, video and many, many (probably too many) stories about how difficult it was to complete this hike. They gave the presentation to a sold-out Paepcke Auditorium crowd at the Aspen Winter Words author series.
McBride, a Basalt-based photographer and valley native, and Fedarko, the bestselling author of “The Emerald Mile,” undertook the arduous hike on assignment for National Geographic, with the stated mission of illuminating the multiple existential threats against the Grand Canyon: uranium mining, massive new residential development plans, a rim-to-river gondola proposal and a helicopter tour operation that now sends as many as 800 daily flights into the canyon.
“The concept was to use our hike to highlight and shine a light on all the threats that are circling all four sides of the compass right now,” McBride told a hometown audience that included his boyhood schoolteachers and friends. “We wanted to look at the park itself but also its neighbors: the Forest Service, the BLM and the neighboring tribes that are all a part of this thing. … We knew the challenge was going to be severe, but the whole concept for us was talking about how this place could change.”
They published their first story on it in National Geographic this fall, while they were still working on completing the hike, which also drew attention from this newspaper and the international outdoors community. Fedarko is now at work on a book about the hike, while McBride is making a film.
The charming duo has a winning rapport onstage that’s been forged through ill-advised journalistic misadventures over the years, from skiing in Chechnya to shadowing the sherpas of Mount Everest to this rarely attempted Grand Canyon hike (more people have walked on the moon than have done what McBride and Fedarko have now done, Fedarko noted). In their polished stage show, McBride plays the sunny smiling goofball with a camera, while Fedarko plays the brooding writer (“Pete is Tigger and I am Eeyore,” Fedarko deadpanned as an image of the “Winnie the Pooh” characters flashed onto the big screen behind them).
This was a different kind of event for the Winter Words series, which normally features authors discussing books and stories that have already been published. In this case, McBride and Fedarko were talking about a film and a book that are in progress. It was exciting to hear them — little more than two months out of the canyon — starting to work out how to tell their tale and how to translate the meaning of their long walk. This extraordinary journey, in the hands of two very gifted storytellers, promises to make for a hell of a movie and book.
But my hope is that, by the time these texts are complete, the story is less about McBride and Fedarko and more about the canyon itself. The majority of this hourlong talk was about these two men and their self-imposed suffering. There was a photo collage of blisters and open wounds on their feet, video of Fedarko covered in blood after falling into a cactus and video of McBride pulling a thorny piece of fauna out of his calf, descriptions of cold, snowy nights and deathly hot days, of severe weight loss and McBride’s hyponatremia. There were photos of them passed out in the shade and baking in the sun, footage of them desperately searching for water in arid stretches of the canyon’s western reaches and footage of them nearly running out of food before reaching their next cache.
That’s all compelling in the “Man vs. Wild” sense, but it’s more entertaining than enlightening. These guys didn’t go on their brutal journey just to tell us how brutal it was.
I hope that as McBride’s film and Fedarko’s book come together, these two artists begin to look outward rather than inward, that they can tell us more about the Grand Canyon — about those environmental threats, about remnants of ancient civilizations and about the native peoples who never left — and less about how it ravaged their bodies. They sound like they’re on their way.
“If we had undertaken this purely for the sake of adventure, this would be the end of the story,” Fedarko said after McBride described the final steps of the hike. “But really this marks the end of one aspect, which is the physical journey, and the beginning of something much more challenging, which is a story that confronts a series of questions: What did we learn? What did this place teach us? What insights did the land itself share with us? We are still working our way through that process.”
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