"Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it, you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.
If, for example, you put to sea on a wooden raft with a parrot and five companions, it is inevitable that sooner or later you will wake up one morning out at sea, perhaps a little better rested than ordinary, and begin to think about it."
Years ago, I found a yellowed copy of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft among the crammed, cramped shelves of a strip-mall used bookstore. Giving it a second glance--mostly just wondering who would name their kid Thor--I read those first lines and found myself drawn into a very odd situation.
Kon-Tiki tells a true story. In 1947, Heyerdahl, a Norwegian ethnographer, was studying Polynesian culture. Noticing similarities between the crops, sculpture techniques, and myths of Polynesia and South America, he got the idea that, around 500 A.D., refugees fleeing a war in Peru populated Polynesia.
But no matter how much evidence Heyerdahl gathered to build up his theory, his colleagues insisted it would have been impossible. 4,300 miles of rough ocean separate Peru from Polynesia, and at the time, the sailors wouldn’t have had ships, just balsa wood rafts held together by hemp rope.
Finally, Heyerdahl was left with two choices: either give up on his theory or build a stone-age raft himself and prove it could be done.
The Kon-Tiki expedition was a balls-out adventure, no question, but it's the men who took it on that really fascinated me. None of Heyerdahl’s crew had experience sailing or ship-building. They were scientists and wanderers, linguists and radio operators, all risking their lives for a theory. Specifically, a theory based on the global distribution of yams.
They were a type of character I’d never encountered before: the heroic nerd, men so driven by the urge to know, to see and understand, they make bold, mad leaps into uncharted territory.
The creed of the heroic nerd is, No experiment is so insanely dangerous that it can’t be made slightly more insanely dangerous with a side experiment. Over the course of their 101-day journey, storms howl and the sun beats down, two men are almost lost at sea, and they must fend off a whale shark that nearly capsizes their raft. And when all that gets boring, they decide to try catching sharks with their bare hands.
"When the shark turned quietly to go under again, its tail flickered up above the surface and was easy to grasp. The skin was just like sandpaper, and inside the upper point of the tail there was an indention which might have been made solely to allow a good grip. Then we had to give a jerk and get as much as possible of the tail pulled in over the logs. For a second or two the shark realized nothing, but then began to wiggle and struggle in a spiritless manner with the fore part of its body, for without the help of its tail a shark cannot get up any speed."
This man has doctorates in zoology, ethnography, and total badassery.
For the purposes of this article, I ran the numbers through multiple computer simulations. It turns out that the only thing more macho than catching a shark with your bare hands would be storming a Nazi machine gun nest using you own lit farts as a flamethrower.
Heyerdahl doesn’t waste time bragging, though. He’s a scientist, and through the book, he writes with the steady observational eye of a scientist, a genial, almost disturbing calm better suited for detailing the mating habits of the golden-rumped elephant shrew. Even when describing the lonely beauty of the ocean, Heyerdahl keeps verbiage to a minimum, letting the scene speak for itself.
"The sea curved away under us as blue upon blue as the sky above, and where they met all the blue flowed together and became one. It almost seemed as if we were suspended in space. All our world was empty and blue; there was no fixed point in it but the tropical sun, golden and warm, which burned our necks."
The author’s copy of Kon-Tiki, scrawny chicken leg.
A couple years ago, while re-reading Kon-Tiki, I decided to get a tattoo of the Tiki image painted on the raft’s sail. I wanted to think that I had a bit of heroic nerd inside me, that wild urge to see and know. I’ve never been to Polynesia or caught a shark with my hands, but I’ve made expeditions to the west Texas deserts, the Louvre, and elsewhere. I’ve worked on an ambulance and in a mental hospital, glimpsed sights as awesome as the blue upon blue sea, and once spent a long night in Heathrow Airport with four stitches in the back of my head.
And every time, sooner or later, the words come. Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation...