At this point, all Chris McKinney has is a positive attitude, because, frankly, the facts do not look too promising. What am I talking about? I'm talking about man against nature, one boy's story. Every weekend, 17-year-old Chris McKinney wades out into knee-deep water, alone, with a shovel, and a wooden contraption, and nylon sandbags. And he proceeds to fill 20 sandbags, 50 pounds each, one at a time.
I take it out of the sandbag holder, and I tie the top to the sandbag. And I carry it over to the sandbag wall and stack it where it needs to be stacked. And that's about it. I mean there's not a whole lot to it.
Doing this for a full day, Chris can add about five feet to his sandbag wall. It's not much. He's putting his wall on a thin strip of beach, a strip that's barely wide enough to stand on in Mason Neck State Park in Virginia. The shore here is eroding at the rate of two feet a year, so fast that the ground has collapsed underneath the trees at the edge of the beach. For half a mile, these huge, 60 and 70 foot trees have toppled over into the water, one after another, because the ground holding them upright is gone. It's complete devastation. And there, in the middle of it, is Chris's tiny sandbag wall.
Do you have a name for this wall?
Yeah, it's the sandbag wall.
He's been at it for a month and a half. And it's just a fraction of what it needs to be. He's trying to protect this one small stretch of beach where there's a path, this pathway that's about to be eroded out of existence. His wall is just 30 feet long. And that's probably-- I don't know-- a third or maybe a fourth of what it needs to be. And Chris has a deadline.
That's December 19. That's my 18th birthday.
Chris is doing this project as one of the requirements to become an Eagle Scout. His fear, by the time he finishes the sandbag wall, he will be too old to be a scout. Once you turn 18, you're out of scouting.
You must be getting frustrated at how long it takes?
Well, slightly. Usually, I'm frustrated when the friends I've known for a while, they'll tell me they'll help out, but they don't always show up. But I understand. There are things I'd rather do on Saturday than do an Eagle project. But it is my Eagle project. And no one else is going come out there.
Have you ever read those stories about people who just get a big mission in their head, and they're just going to make it happen no matter what?
Right. Well yeah, Christopher Columbus was one of them. So yeah, I've heard a lot of those stories. I'm pretty sure I'm one of those people. I can do this.
Do you feel like this is one of those stories?
Yeah. Well, not as big as those. But whatever I set my mind to, I'm definitely capable of doing. And I know I can do it. I'm confident.
Chris said this to me over and over in different ways. And I have to say as an outsider, unless he gets his entire Boy Scout troop in there helping out, it is really hard to see how he is going to finish this wall. But when you're against nature, trying to do something so much bigger than you are, what else can you say?
So positive attitude is 90% of it, right there. And I like to think I'm pretty positive about this. So 90% of it is already done. The worst is already behind me. And it only gets better from here. Anything else?
For somebody who is so confident, you sure are saying it a lot.
Well, I always have to tell myself these things, because sometimes I get unsure. And if I ever let any doubt in my head, it'll just multiply. It doesn't die. It multiplies. And to keep that out of my head, I just have to keep on saying the right thing. Just, oh yeah, you're almost done.
Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, people competing with nature in contests they might not win. Act One, Running After Antelope. We have the latest installment in Scott Carrier's 12-year quest to chase and catch an animal that runs 40 miles an hour by foot. Act Two, children derail a network television show, the true story of how 200 eight-year-olds wreaked havoc in one of the most controlled settings known to man, a late-night network talk show, in this case, Conan O'Brien's. Stay with us.
Act One: Running After Antelope
Act One, Running After Antelope. Humans' dominion over nature is so complete that most of us never get into a competition with nature where we can not come out on top. Well, Scott Carrier has this story, a story about somebody trying to do something that seems, on its face, impossible. And about why he'd want to, and about how he tried to keep a positive attitude. It's also partly a story about how humans became humans, about the moment that we became bipedal, that is the moment that we stood upright on two feet and separated from the apes. For 12 years, Scott wanted to prove that we stood on two feet, as a species, to run.
1963. The hunt begins at dawn, my brother pulling me out of bed onto the floor. "C'mon, c'mon." I'm tying my shoes. And he's out the door. Outside, the fog is lifting off the grass. I'm looking for my brother. But I can't even see the car in the driveway. Then he comes running from the backyard. I jump and run and catch up with him across the street in the Mander's backyard. And he says, "Some animals sleep in the daytime and go out at night to eat. If we hurry, we can catch them before they go back in the ground."
I believe him. I have no idea how he knows these things, but he does. He goes out and runs through our neighbors' yards and catches wild animals with his bare hands, mainly lizards, turtles and snakes. He wraps them in his shirt and brings them back to the cages in our basement so he can study them for science. He's seven years old. I am six.
I'm running along behind him. And when I lose him in the fog, I follow the tracks he leaves in the dew on the grass. I catch up to him. And he's down on his hands and knees, crawling through the juniper bushes in front of the Gooch's house. He says, "There is a garter snake in there. I saw it. It went right in front of me." He's crawling around, breaking branches, and I hear the front door open.
And there's our neighbor, Daisy Gooch, in her bathrobe. She looks 10 feet tall and 900 hundred years old, and says, "What's going on out here?" I say, "There's a snake in your bush." She says, "There's no snake in my bush. You boys get out of here now." And she starts for us with her broom.
We take off running. We don't need to run that far. It's not like she's going to come after us. But we keep running anyway. We jump the fence at Finn Gerholdt's house. And we're on the golf course, heading toward the gully. My brother says, "I think I figured out a way to run and not get tired. It's all in how you breathe. Yesterday, I ran over to the gully and down to the river and back, and I didn't get out of breath. I think I can run as far as I want." "Like the Indians," I say. "Yeah, like the Indians." We have everything we need. The wilderness is unfolding in front of us.
1982. My brother is a master's student in the biology department at the University of Utah. And he works in Dr. Dennis Bramble's laboratory in the basement of the building. He has asked me to help him with an experiment. He shows me the inside of the lab's freezer, full of dead animals, road kill he's picked up or animals he's had to kill himself for science. He is studying to be a vertebrate morphologist.
For the experiment, we walk over to the football stadium, which is empty except for us. He fastens a Styrofoam cup over my mouth. The cup has a wireless microphone inside of it. He straps another microphone to my right ankle. Then he says, "OK, run around the track. Run a mile." I run four laps, and it's not easy. I'm out of shape from smoking too much. I tell my brother, "I'm sorry." And he says, "That's OK. That's why I asked you. We need data from bad runners."
I ask him what he's doing. And he says, "We, Dennis and I, are studying how animals breathe when they run. When quadrupeds gallop-- animals like horses and dogs and cats-- they have to inhale every time they stretch out in their stride and then exhale when they come forward with their back legs. It's because of the way their diaphragm is connected to their backbone. But in humans, our diaphragms don't have that connection. And we can breathe in whatever pattern we want to or need to."
"So why is that important or interesting?" I say. And he says, "Humans are really good endurance runners. I know I can outrun a dog. And I think I can maybe outrun a horse on a hot day. So for some reason, we've evolved this way. And maybe the way we breathe might have something to do with it. Why can we run farther than just about any other animal?"
"Well, how do you explain it?" I ask. And he says, "I think bipedalism might be an adaptation for endurance running, and that maybe our earliest ancestors could run down big game without using any weapons at all. I found ethnographic accounts of primitive people who are able to do it. The Tarahumara in Mexico could run down deer. The Aborigines in Australia could run down kangaroo. The Goshutes and Navajo here in the West are said to have been able to run down pronghorn antelope.
"I tried it last summer with some antelope in Wyoming, just for an hour or so. And they basically ditched me. But I want to try it again. I could use some help, if you want to do it." I say, "You want to try to run down an antelope?" And he says, "I don't know if we can, but I think we should try it."
1984. In the summer, my brother and I go to Wyoming to try to run down an antelope. The idea is not to run faster than the antelope-- only cheetahs can run faster than pronghorn antelope-- but to run longer and farther in the heat of the day. My brother thinks it'll take about two hours, and then the antelope will overheat and collapse. We drive off the interstate and down a dirt road for a few miles. And it's a wide and open high desert of sagebrush, dry as a bone, mountains in every direction. And there are antelope everywhere, in pairs, in clusters, in families, by themselves.
We stop the car and start running after three, a buck and two does. They run very quickly but for short distances, and then stop and stare at us until we catch up. And then they take off again. Sometimes, they run a quarter of a mile, sometimes a half mile. My brother is a much better runner than I am. And I'm way behind, looking out for sagebrush and rattlesnakes and cactus, tired already, but laughing. It's a lot of fun, a lot more fun than running down the street or even up in the mountains. I keep my brother in sight, and although I sometimes lose the antelope, I can tell they're running in a broad arc, clockwise. And so I aim to cut them off. And it works. I catch up with them, even ahead of my brother. And they stand there and let me get within 50 yards of them.
Antelope have big black guys, eyes the size you'd see in a horse. And they look at me like they know exactly what I'm proposing, and they're not in the least bit worried. They look at me, and I stare back, and this goes on for maybe a couple of minutes. I don't know. I can't say, because something happens. It's like being hypnotized or like being abducted by aliens who take me to another planet, where they do things to me I can't remember before they bring me back to the exact same place, and only a few seconds have elapsed.
Then suddenly, the antelopes jerk and fly off running. And I turn and see my brother coming up all red and sweaty. We chase them over another little hill. And on the other side, there are now eight of them. So we follow the eight for a little ways. And then they split into three groups that all go in different directions. We can't tell which group has even one of the antelope we started chasing. They all look so much alike, especially from a distance. But we choose two does, and follow them. And they run over another little hill. And on the other side, all of a sudden, there are 20 of them, running as a herd.
Following this herd is like following a school of fish. They blend and flow and change positions. There are no individuals, but a mass that moves across the desert like a pool of mercury on a glass table. They split again, burst into five pieces, and it's just too confusing. We can't tell whether we're chasing animals that have run for two minutes or 20 minutes or two hours.
I catch up with my brother. And he says, "Man, did you see them run? They just zoom, and they're gone." I ask him how we're going to get around how they group up and split like that. And he says, "I don't know. I've been thinking about it. And I don't know."
"Well, what do you think we should do?" I ask him. And he says, "I think we should try it again. Let's go find some more." And so we do. We chase them on and off for two days. But basically, they just ditch us every time.
My brother has gone away to get a PhD at a big university back east. The campus is flat and surrounded by trees. He no longer thinks about chasing antelope. He studies lizards now. I stay in Salt Lake, pacing my life by the changing traffic lights, the blinking turn signals, the bouncing checks. I have no desire to participate in the market economy or the democratic process. I have no goals or ambitions other than to someday go back to the desert with my brother and try again to run down an antelope.
I have a plan, and I'm trying to follow it. But it's hard. It's a hard plan to follow. I'm trying to get in shape. And I'm trying to live like a primitive man. Sometimes, I feel like I'm not succeeding at either one. I've read a lot about primitive cultures. And I use that term, "primitive," in the sense that it means original or primary. For maybe 99% of human history, a few million years, humans were hunters. They didn't get up and go to work each morning. That started with civilization. And civilization is nothing but a heartbeat of recent time, 10,000 years at the most. And to hell with that.
I want to wake up naked and alone in the desert. I want to eat sand and drink piss and pass out screaming from sunburn and spider bites. But I know it won't work, and I know it won't happen, either because I'm a coward, or unable, or it's just not possible at all for anyone. Even if I were to wake up naked and alone in the wilderness, I'd still wake up thinking and making sense of myself and the world around me in modern English. And there's no way I can get around that. So I'm stuck with choosing not to participate, to live apart in any way I can think of. My wife used to like it. I think maybe that's why she wanted to marry me. But now we have kids, and she sort of changed her mind.
I try to get in shape by running in the mountains and skiing cross country. I smoke marijuana and eat LSD and go out and try to go farther farther. And at best, I eventually get lost and deeply humbled, and almost die trying to make it back. This is my training. And at times, not that infrequently, when I'm out there, I feel like I've made the right choice, and that I'm learning a lot and getting stronger. But most the time, I'm not out there. Most of the time, I'm down in the city slaving away and feeling depressed.
Perhaps my best success so far is realizing that I can get lost and almost die without ever leaving home. And that the best test of endurance is just to persist, or rather to insist from day to day in believing that it is possible to run down an antelope. And that it must be done, and that I am the one who must do it.
1992. I've read everything I can find in the university library that's been written on antelope, which really isn't all that much. They're still somewhat mysterious and unknown animals, even for the scientists who study them. According to Stan Lindstedt, a biologist living in Flagstaff, Arizona, the pronghorn are the best endurance athletes in the world.
They metabolize oxygen at a rate three and a half times higher than even the finest human runners. They have twice as much blood, and their hearts and lungs are three times the size of a mammal of comparable weight. They can run the equivalent of a marathon in 40 minutes, and can easily maintain a speed of 40 miles an hour for more than 60 minutes. They have no body fat whatsoever.
In 1850, there were 60 million antelope in North America, but they were nearly wiped out along with the Buffalo. There are about a million left today. They're said to have 10x vision, which means that, on a clear night, they can see the rings of Saturn. They eat mainly sagebrush, but also rabbitbrush, salt sage, winterfat, fourwing [? saltbush, ?] and fireweed, summer cypress. I'm trying to learn what these plants look like.
1993. I found an old ethnography dated 1935 on the Tarahumara, one of the tribes my brother said can run down big game. And he's right. It seems that they at least used to do it. This is a passage from the book. "The Tarahumara keep the deer constantly on the move. Only occasionally does he get a glimpse of his quarry, but follows it unerringly through his own canny ability to read the tracks. The Indian chases the deer until the creature falls from exhaustion, often with its hooves completely worn away. It's then throttled by the man or killed by the dogs."
But then of course, this was written by a couple of anthropologists who didn't actually go out and hunt with the Indians. And so their report is basically hearsay. There's no way to know whether it's actually true. There seems to be no doubt, though, that the Tarahumara are crazy about running.
Another ethnography I found describes these races they had where a group of men from a village eat peyote and smear themselves with white grease and run as a team, tossing a leather ball the size of a Hacky Sack down a trail with their toes. They run for three days, close to 300 miles. And the winning team gets to sleep with all the available women in the local village. This is the way I want to live.
1991. My brother spent five years in Ann Arbor, Michigan, trying to get a PhD. And it seems like the whole thing is killing him. He's developed a heart condition called a ventricular fibrillation, which means that the upper and lower chambers beat out of sync with each other, and his blood doesn't circulate.
It happens only for short periods. And it happens only when he's really tired or extremely tense and nervous, like when he runs too far or right before he has to defend his dissertation. He suddenly feels woozy and has to sit down. Sometimes he passes out.
I've written a letter to his advisor, and I've come to Ann Arbor to hand deliver it. "Dear Dr. Renzer, I assume that you're aware of my brother's heart condition and probably even believe you understand the pathology involved. Let me be perfectly clear. If my brother dies while under your supervision, you can kiss your own sweet ass goodbye."
I drive into town late Sunday night, and the doors to the biology building are locked. I've been here a couple times before, and I sort of remember where my brother's lab is located. So I take a guess and throw a rock at a window, and it's his, and he's there.
In his lab, on a table, is a three-foot monitor lizard lying perfectly still except for an occasional blink of an eye. Two tiny wires are dangling out of its rib cage. He's anesthetized it and implanted electrodes into its intercostal muscles, the muscles along the rib cage.
He puts the lizard in its box and takes me to the basement, where he has built a long runway of plywood and two by fours. He has another lizard down there, and he takes it out of the cage and holds it and puts it on his shoulder. And it jumps from there through three feet of air and lands on the wall and sticks to the cinder block like Spider-Man. He yanks it off the wall and puts it at one end of the runway. "Watch how its backbone moves when it runs," he says. Then he touches its tail, and it blasts off down the track. Its backbone waves like a plucked guitar string.
My brother says, "I thought that lizards probably can't breathe when they run, that the way they bend like that would make it impossible." "And do they?" I ask. "Nope. Looks like they can't run and breathe at the same time." "So why is it taking you so long?" I say. "Why have you been doing this for five years?" He says he's upset some people, some dinosaur people, and that he's had to go back and do all of his experiments all over again. I ask him why the dinosaur people are upset. And he tells me, but I don't understand a word of it.
I tell him I'm going to Mexico to run down a deer with the Tarahumara. I tell him it could be like science to actually record how they do it, that it would be the first and only record, a first hand experience, and so on. But he says there's no way he can go, no way he can leave his work. He doesn't even seem interested. And I drive out of town without delivering the letter and thinking, now it's just me. Now, I'm in this alone.
Scott Carrier heads to Mexico to run after antelopes with native peoples there. In a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Our program today, people who battle nature with the possibility of losing. We return to Scott Carrier's story about his 12-year quest, Running After Antelope.
1994. I'm always ready to go. I have a map nearly memorized. I have an English-Tarahumara dictionary that I keep checking out from the university library. I'm ready if I can only get the money, and if I can only get the time. But I never do. And it never happens. And now, all of a sudden, the Tarahumara have come to Salt Lake and are staying at my house. There are four of them, men between 25 and 35 years old. And they're here to run in a 100 mile race through the Wasatch mountains.
I'm in the process of tearing the house apart like always. And there's no electricity, because I'm redoing the service connection. We don't even have a wire from the pole. But this is a good thing, I think, something that'll make the Tarahumara feel at home. They don't have electricity. They don't even have outhouses. Their manager is a back country tour guide from Tucson, Arizona. And he tells me he's brought them here to raise money and get media attention for their families back home, who are all starving to death.
The Tarahumara are wearing their traditional clothing of long, white shirts, held at the waste by a belt, and a pair of sandals cut from truck tires. They appear to be healthy enough, but I can't really tell. They're silent. They look mainly at the ground. And they move around my house as a unit, even to the bathroom. They look more frightened than malnourished.
We eat dinner outside, where they seem more comfortable. And afterwards, I ask them through a friend who speaks Spanish if they've ever run down a deer. And they say, no. The deer have disappeared, and they don't know why, but they're gone. I ask them if they know other, older Tarahumara who did do it. And they say, yes, they know it was done. They've heard stories, and that the technique was to chase them for two or three days, taking turns and trading off and even sleeping and tracking them down to start again in the morning. Eventually, the deer would stop and let them put a rope around its neck. And then they'd kill it.
Two days later, three of the four Tarahumara finished first, second, and fourth in the race, all running the 100 miles, up and down through the mountains, in less than 21 hours.
1995. When I drive across the desert, I look for antelope standing by the highway. One time, on I-80 in Wyoming, I saw three of them outrun a freight train. In northwestern Nevada, there were at least 50, a huge herd, running alongside my car. They flew out ahead and across the road like a river going 60 miles an hour. Again in Wyoming, at night, I saw what looked like a cluster of luminescent grapes along the road, and then realized it was antelope eyes, a group of them, hanging out and watching the traffic like a drive-in movie. And then, in the Great Salt Lake Desert, I saw a lone male standing motionless and staring while four F16 fighter jets flew low over its head on their way to the bombing range.
I've been watching that lone male for a couple of years now. He's part of a small herd of maybe 12 to 16 that I can always find in a place called Puddle Valley, a no man's land just west of the Great Salt Lake, just east of the Bonneville Salt Flats, just south of the Hill Air Force base bombing range, and just north of the Dugway Proving Grounds, where the army tests biological and chemical weapons. There's one paved road that runs up the valley, and the antelope are nearly always standing alongside the road, if not right on the asphalt itself. They'll walk slowly away if I stop and get out of the car, but otherwise they just stand there and look at me, only 30 yards away.
I've been thinking that this herd would be a lot easier to chase because there are so few of them. And that I've been watching the lone male enough that I think I could recognize him at a distance, in case he tried to group up and split like the ones did before. His horns are more shaped like a heart than the others. And he has a brown line on his chest that curls around like a question mark. I call him the lone male, because I've only seen him once with the others. And this was in the fall when he was rutting with two does, going from one to the other with a hard-on, kicking up dirt, pissing and [BLEEP] and marking plants with the scent gland on his cheek.
Once, in early spring, I saw him through my binoculars from a half mile away. He was looking right back at me, so I knelt down a little bit so my head was just below his line of sight. I waited for 10 minutes or so and then stood up slowly and peeked. And he was standing there looking at me, but much closer, maybe only a quarter of a mile away. So I sat down and waited some more. And he came to within 100 yards. So I laid flat and waited. And I could hear him in the sagebrush barking at me like a sharp cough. [SHARP COUGH SOUND] He came real close, less than 30 yards away, and I stood up. And he didn't take off. He just stood there and barked at me, scratched the dirt with his front leg, then slowly wandered off.
There are two dominant theories of human evolution, and neither theory involves running. Both theories basically say that humans stood upright so they'd be able to use their hands to pick stuff up, either tools or weapons or food or infants. There's probably some truth in that idea, but I just can't believe that it's the whole story. I can't believe that running isn't part of it. For one thing, tools don't show up in the archaeological record until 2 million years after hominids first walked upright. If my brother's right, and if one of the reasons hominids stood upright-- one of the reasons humans separated from apes and became human-- is that standing upright gave them more endurance as runners for chasing game, this seems true to me at a basic level that's hard to explain. When my brother and I were out chasing antelope, it felt different and more fundamental than anything I'd ever done. I felt connected and whole, as if I had nothing, and nothing was everything I needed.
1997. After two years of passing paper back and forth with the IRS, I have formed a nonprofit corporation to raise money for a trip to visit the Seri Indians in Mexico. The Seris live on and near Tiburon Island in the Sea of Cortez, just inside the Baja peninsula. And like the Tarahumara, they are said to have been able to run down deer. But the Seris are said to be even more wild and more reclusive and more unaffected by civilization. I wrote a proposal for the expedition and sent it out to a lot of foundations and government agencies. And not one responded.
But now, the American Express company, out of the blue, has given me a corporate gold card with no apparent credit limit, so we're leaving. In two months, someone from the American Express company will call and inquire about a payment in full. But two months is such a long time, an inconceivable time when you're driving south into the Sonoran desert.
I would have liked for my brother to come along. But he has just been hired by the University of Utah as a professor in the biology department. He came to town with five dogs, 15 sturgeon fish, four five-foot alligators, and two iguanas. And he's busy setting up his laboratory and preparing his lectures. So I've asked my friend, Creighton King, to come in his place.
Creighton's the best runner I know. He's 43 years old, probably past his prime. But a decade or two ago, he was a virtual wonder of aerobic capacity and endurance, running and skiing, collapsing all previous notions of time and space in the Rocky Mountains. For instance, he once ran back and forth across the Grand Canyon, from the South Rim, down to the river, and up to the North Rim and back-- a distance of 42 miles with more than 22,000 feet of elevation-- in seven and a half hours. I've always thought if anybody could catch an antelope, it'd be Creighton. We've also brought our two sons along, because they're out of school for the summer and old enough now, nine and 11, to come along for the adventure.
It's a long drive down there, 1,000 miles. And it's hot in Phoenix, in Tucson, hotter still as we cross the border into Mexico. And driving through Hermosillo and west to the ocean, it's simply the hottest place I could ever imagine, at least 110 degrees, if not 120. I keep thinking that my tires or my radiator is going to blow up, that my car-- which has over 250,000 miles on it-- is just not going to make it. And we're going to be stuck in the middle of the desert.
I keep thinking I've made a big mistake, that I've spent 12 years being obsessed with a foolish notion, and that I've pushed it to the point of absurdity. And now, we're all going to pay for it, big time.
But Creighton seems to be not worried at all. And the kids are oblivious to everything but the heat and the strange desert, sun-baked and full of saguaro and [? sajaso ?] cacti holding big osprey nests. They're all having a good time. And I try to relax and let things happen without freaking out. [DOG BARKING]
There's a small fishing village called Punta Chueca on the coast of the Sea of Cortez with about 200 people, all Seri. They live in cinder block homes painted white and baby blue, with the doors and windows either open or missing altogether and the yards separated by fences made from branches and sticks and worn out fishing nets.
We drive slowly through the houses and stop at the beach. Five or six women come and surround us and start speaking to us in Seri, trying to sell us some necklaces made from tiny, brightly colored shells and beautiful, dark red ironwood sculptures of dolphins, sea turtles, and iguanas. We buy a few of them. But they clearly want us to buy them all. We tell them, later, maybe later, that we don't have a lot of money. But they're adamant, putting things in our hands, poking us in the ribs, making it clear we have no use or value to them other than our money.
After what seems like quite a long time, we were rescued from the women by a man who comes over and introduces himself as Ernesto Molina, a fisherman and a tourist guide. He's 50 years old and speaks excellent Spanish. He's very calm and soft spoken, a nice change from the women. He says he has been to college in Prescott, Arizona. And we try talking to him in English, and he understands, but he always answers in Spanish.
We tell him that we've come because we're interested in learning about how the Seri hunt deer and would like to find someone who could take us over to the island. He says no one lives on the island anymore, that the Mexican government has turned it into a national park, but he can take us over there for a visit. And as far as hunting goes, the Mexican government also prohibits that, but that he's well acquainted with the old ways as he's the grandson of Francisco Molina, guide to the great Charles Sheldon, an American hunter who visited this area in 1921.
I've read Sheldon's account, and have even brought the book along with me. And I get it out of the car, and Ernesto shows me the photographs of his grandfather, Francisco. He's read the book and knows the passages where Sheldon describes how impressed he was with Francisco's knowledge and strength as a hunter. I'm amazed by our luck. We've been here for less than an hour, and already we've found an excellent guide and translator.
In the evening, we sit with Ernesto on the beach, and he tells us that yes, it's true, the Seris at one time, before they had rifles, would run after deer until they dropped from exhaustion. The young hunter would be given a special drink of two or three types of plants. He wouldn't say which ones, but it was a power food of some kind to give him strength and fortitude. And then the hunter would go off and track the deer alone.
Once he found the deer, he would start running after it in a series of chases. In the first chase, the deer would be frightened and run very quickly and far away. And it took great skill and knowledge to follow it, never losing sight of the animal, making sure he was still following the same animal. And that this was critical and very difficult, to make sure he was always following the same one. Eventually, the hunter would catch up with the deer, and it would run again, this time more slowly and less of a distance, only two or three kilometers.
And again, the hunter must make sure that he did not lose sight of it, and that it was the same individual. The deer would stop again to rest, and the hunter would catch up with it. And this time, the third time, the deer would realize that the hunter was stronger. And the deer would become disoriented, because although the deer is very smart, it doesn't have the intelligence of a human being. Eventually, the deer would become completely fatigued, beaten down, and sometimes it would fall and not get up. Sometimes the hunter would kill it with a rock. This was the method, he said, the technique that was used. And that is all.
We ask him if he's ever done this, hunted this way. And he says, no, that his grandfather Francisco could do it, but that when he died, the technique died with him. We ask him how he knows for sure that it was done like this. And he says that both his father and his grandfather told him about it. And that they were both great hunters and knew very well the ways of the deer, but that now, there are much fewer deer and that, again, the government doesn't allow them to hunt. He says that there are two elders in the village, the Montano brothers, who also know about the technique, and that we can talk to them tomorrow if we'd like.
The next day, we interview Cuy and Chewy Montano. They say they're about 64 and 70 years old, but they don't know for sure, as neither one can remember the month or year they were born. They speak in Seri, translated by Cuy's son. And they tell us basically the same story as Ernesto, that the hunter would chase the deer three or four times. And would take about two, or two and a half hours, and then the deer would collapse.
Creighton asks them if there are any runners in the village, if anyone would like to try this again. And they say, no, that they no longer run, that everything is changed. I ask them if it's better now. And Cuy says, no, not at all. It was better before. That they used to do everything as a family, that the whole community was a family, and that they shared everything and cooperated. But now, there's a lot of arguing and bickering, more like every man for himself.
In the morning, Ernesto comes by our camp on the beach with his boat, ready to take us across the channel to Tiburon Island. It takes about an hour to get there. We land and have lunch, and then Creighton and I fill up our water bottles and head out for the mountains to look for deer, leaving the kids with Ernesto. [RUNNING SOUNDS] We run and walk and weave back and forth through the vegetation, which is all nearly leafless and thorny and offers not an inch of shade for protection from the sun. It's so hot and bright and dry, it's hard to believe anything or anybody could survive here for more than a few hours.
We run and walk intermittently for an hour or so, seeing deer tracks and deer scat, but no deer. After a few miles, we get to the foothills and climb a small peak, only about 500 feet high, and look up to the top of the mountain, 5,000 feet higher and maybe 10 miles in the distance. Dark red and ragged volcanic rock, completely barren and forbidding, like the pictures sent back from Mars. We had talked about maybe trying to climb it, but now it's clear we'd never make it in the heat of the day.
Coming up the hill, we both got stabbed in the shins by cacti, Creighton not so bad, but my leg is a mess.
Ow, that hurts. They got little--
Little barbs on the end. They don't' want to come out. I had to use a stick.
The quills are like a pocupine's, a couple of inches long and with a barb that makes them move deeper and deeper. I start pulling them out, and blood's running down into my socks. And the skin is swelling up with toxin, like I'd been bit by a rattlesnake. As we're sitting there, we realize that just next to us is a small, cleared out circle ringed by a low wall of rocks piled up for a wind break. Maybe it was a campsite. And there are some broken pieces of pottery, really thin but big, like from a jug to carry water. We can see out across the channel to the mainland, and then north and south maybe 100 miles, a perfect place to sit and wait for inspiration.
We sit in silence for awhile. And I'm trying to believe that we're doing the right thing, that we're doing what we've come here for. But really, honestly, I want to go back and leave the island and drive home. I'm hot, so hot my brains are boiling. And I don't care about hunting anymore. Coming down here, I was thinking that maybe the Seris were still like they used to be, and that maybe we could find the last surviving wild men on the planet. But that was foolish, just a dream or a delusion. And I've just woken up. And the whole thing has disappeared in front of me.
There are no more primitive hunters left anywhere. It's a dead thing, surviving only as a story in a few old people's heads. And when they're gone, it'll be gone and lost forever. It now seems ridiculous to try to run down an antelope. I tell Creighton that maybe this is it, that this is as far as we should go, that it's time to go home. And he agrees, and we start back.
1997. On a Sunday in July, I am eating dinner at my mother's house in Salt Lake, and I mentioned to my brother that Creighton and I are going out to the desert west of the lake next week to try chasing antelope again. I tell him Creighton was inspired by the Seri, that he's been running a lot since we got back. And I'd feel like a flake if I didn't go with him, just go out one more time and try it. I tell my brother this without any conviction, without expecting him to be interested. But to my surprise, he is interested. He says he wants to go, that he had other plans but he'll change them. He even seems hurt I wouldn't think about including him. And I say, "Yeah. OK, good. Let's do it."
Does it make any sense to even bother?
To start off in that kind of a--
Yeah, like a net almost.
So everybody starts from the same place.
There are five of us, my brother, Creighton, myself, and our friends Calvin and Brian, who are also excellent runners. We are camped on a hillside overlooking the valley, a wide basin 10 miles in diameter, not a tree in sight, ringed by mountains maybe 1,500 feet tall. It's 2 o'clock and 100 degrees. And we're trying to decide on a strategy.
Don't we want to head them towards that little-- that way?
I think we should try to head them--
They've got a big advantage whenever there are hills.
Yeah, because their Max VO2 is way--
Creighton and I know how the Seri chased deer. They told us. But now, now that we could use the information, neither one of us brings it up. Somehow, it doesn't seem to apply here. What we end up doing is this. We drive down a road in two cars and find the lone male standing 30 feet off the road. We drive by like we're not interested and stop about a mile away, and get out and argue some more about how we're going to do this. Then, we get back in the cars, and drive back to the lone male, and stop on opposite sides of it, and then pile out of the cars and start chasing it. [RUNNING SOUNDS]
It runs due west, and we spread out in a long line that quickly becomes like a V, because Creighton's a much faster runner than any of us. My brother stays behind him. And I start running north, hoping that the antelope will turn clockwise, and I'll be able to cut him off. I run and sometimes stop and look and see the antelope and Creighton and my brother still going west. I run and stop and don't see anything. And I take out my binoculars-- the same power as what the antelope sees-- and search around and finally see a white spot going north. It's the white ass of the antelope with no body attached to it, just a white spot swimming through a mirage, a heat wave above the sagebrush.
I scan to the south and see Creighton, a small beetle in pursuit. Farther behind, another beetle, my brother. They're heading north, so I turn east and run about a half hour. And I come back to the highway. I stop and look around and see my truck two miles down the road, but no antelope, no people. I stand there for a little while and wait, wondering what to do. And then, I just see it as it jumps off the road and down into a sandwash, just see its antlers and white tail, the antelope.
I start after it, realizing that the others are far away, and it's up to me now. The antelope has run for almost an hour and covered maybe 20 miles in 100 degree heat. I've run maybe a quarter of that distance, and I have water on my back that I've been drinking the whole time. If there is any human advantage, like my brother thought there might be, I should certainly have it now.
This is the moment I've been waiting for, and the thought both exhilarates and sickens me. I run, thinking, this is it. He did just what I thought he would. This is the whole thing right now. And I laugh. I laugh and run. And it is, for sure, the best thing I've ever done. I have everything I need. The wilderness is unfolding in front of me.
Scott Carrier, in Salt Lake City.
Act Two: Natural Disaster
Act Two, Natural Disaster. Now, the story of two men battling the forces of nature in one of the most antiseptic, controlled environments possible, the studio of a late night talk show. On August 8, the show, Late Night with Conan O'Brien broadcast-- what I consider, anyway-- to be the single most interesting hour of television this year. It was daring. It was unprecedented. It was an experiment.
They basically just filled their studio audience with eight-year-olds. And it got so chaotic that at times, Conan O'Brien literally had to tell the audience to pay attention to what was happening on stage. A typical moment in the show-- Conan would tell a very adult joke, a normal, talk show, monologue joke about OJ or the economy. And then he would pause a beat. And you could just feel-- even over the television-- you could feel that nobody in the room knew what he was talking about. It was almost like performance art. And then I guess an applause light would go off somewhere. And then the kids would scream and they would clap. It was almost like a critique of a talk show.
And then after a bunch of regular adult jokes, they would throw in a joke like this.
Finally, last thing I'll mention before we get started kids, Barbra Streisand-- you all know her from Yentl, right?
Yeah? Barbara Streisand has asked the E Network's gossip show not to call her Babs anymore. That's right, she does not want to be called Babs anymore. Yeah. The only problem is now they've started calling her poopyhead. And I thought--
Andy Richter is the co-host of Late Night with Conan O'Brien. He sat on stage ad-libbing through the whole memorable, nearly out of control hour. And he says this about poopyhead.
When we're planning, we're ordering jokes, putting them in order or little bits of comedy for a sketch. And there will be one that will feature the word "dumbass" or "boobs." And we'll say, yeah, people will laugh at that word. So doing it with children is just a little easier. And it's less censorable.
Now Andy, we're putting this interview that I'm doing with you into an episode of our program about people battling natural forces beyond their control. And one thing that I think made this particular hour of television that you guys did such amazing TV is that-- watching it anyway-- I always had the sense that the entire thing felt like, at any moment, it could tumble out of control. And I wonder, is that the way it felt on stage?
Probably worse. It probably felt worse. Well, one mistake we made is we had what we called the boredom monster, which was a noise. And we'd say, uh-oh, the boredom monster is coming. And then we'd cut away to tape of this big monster that we created coming down a darkly lit hallway, moving slowly.
He's right outside the studio. Come on. [MONSTER SOUNDS]
And they had to scream and applaud to get the monster to go away and not come in and get us, which we thought, well, the kids will be frightened of the monster. And so that will pimp them into screaming and applauding, which is just another applause light gimmick. What we didn't realize is that the kids wanted the money shot. They wanted to see that monster. They wanted it to come in.
So they wouldn't scream?
Well, they would scream, but we had introduced the word "boring" to their lexicon. So after the monster didn't come in, they cheered because they wanted to help by cheering, and that's what they'd been asked to do.
To keep the monster from coming in.
Yeah, but then when it didn't come in, they were mad. And they started chanting, "Boring, boring."
And on stage, what are you thinking at that point?
Well, I was seriously thinking of just doing a large pratfall just to change the mood.
Right, I will do anything I can.
Yes, exactly. I'll pull down my pants and dance around. And especially when it's with children, you think, what do they like? If they had allowed me to defecate, I probably would have.
There's a point where you guys have Dave Foley come out. And I timed this. It's 29 seconds before it erupts into complete chaos. Let me play this for you.
Oh man, welcome to the show.
Oh, why thank you Conan. Hi.
Oh, I should say, that's Dave Foley of News Radio.
Isn't this nice? Everyone go, hi, Dave.
It's nice, isn't it? It's a nice change of pace.
Yeah, it is. Well, for you. You don't have kids.
No. You have them. So this is sheer hell for you, isn't it?
It's just like being home, because I have, actually, 150 children.
All right. Hey kids, settle down. We're going to talk to Dave Foley for a bit. It's not going to take very long.
I understand you did some traveling lately.
I did. I went to Africa. I flew to Zimbabwe, Africa, and flew into Harare. And then from there, went on to spend Christmas--
I mean did you anticipate that it was going to fall apart that fast?
No, no. And I felt terrible for Dave. He just-- it's humiliating. As much rationalizations as you can do and say, well, they're just children and they don't really know who I am. Still, you've got about 700 human beings screaming at you, "Boring" when you're a performer. So it's your job to be interesting. So I felt terrible.
And actually, I think there was an edit taken out of there, where I think Conan got, actually, a little more shrill with the children. But we took it out.
Why? What did he do? What did he say?
He just said, hey, come on, quiet down. Something like that.
I just thought it was a really tough performance moment for Conan. It just seemed like he had entered into this territory where he had no idea what would be the right thing and the wrong thing. There were no guides. There's no experience to back him up.
No, the only experience in that instance would be grade school teacher or parenthood.
I have to say, this is the most interesting hour of TV I've seen in I don't know how long.
Well, thank you.
Did you guys view it as a success?
I don't think so. It was so hard to think of it as anything but a train wreck, just because it felt so uncomfortable and felt so draining. I think that afterwards, we just breathed such a sigh of relief and felt so exhausted that it was hard to believe that it was good.
See that's the thing, you were in the grip of a force more powerful than you were.
Well, our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself, with Nancy Updike and Julie Snyder, senior editor Paul Tough, contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell.
To buy a cassette of this program, call us at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Our email address, [email protected] This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI, Public Radio International.