New Eddie Bauer Adventure Travel Guide Richard Wiese has traveled the world in search of science, culture, and adventure as a journalist for outlets such as The Huffington Post and as the Emmy-nominated host of his Born to Explore television series on ABC. Wiese is a fascinating character who has traveled to more places in a year than many of us will see in a lifetime—and man, does he have some stories to tell.
The combination of character and experiences makes him someone we’d all like to sit down and have a beer with. So, in our first ten minute conversation on the Live Your Adventure blog, Wiese describes the early experiences that drew him to adventure travel and the storytelling mindset that motivates him to seek out rich travel experiences that translate across cultures and continents. -LYA Editor
What first drew you to adventure travel?
Well, in each person’s DNA, they have a bit of curiosity. But I had two very good role models in my life. My father, who was a Pan American pilot, was also the first man to solo the Pacific Ocean in an airplane. So a normal after-dinner conversation would be standing on the lawn, looking at stars. He took me to Mount Kilimanjaro when I was 11 years old, and after that I was sort of hooked on the subject. I’ve been there 18 times since and adventure’s one of those things: the more you do it, the more you want to do it. I’m lucky I’ve been able to make a career out of it.
I also have an uncle who’s the head of MIT’s Nuclear Physics Department, Dr. Richard Lanza. He was always very accessible to me if I had a question about something. He’s not just a scientist but a good guy. Two people made the difference and then that one pivotal event of going to Kilimanjaro in the 1970s, it just set me off.
Academically, my background, I went to Brown University. I studied geology, biology and physics. And so having a science degree from there also armed me with the ability to be a scientist.
Do you find that the science background and general inquisitiveness lend a different character to the type of travel that you do?
Yeah, I think that I’ve gotten away from travel that is centered around me. I like to have what I call “a nobility of purpose” or a mission to everything I do. I’ll give you an example: The last few times I’ve climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, I take people up and it’s very rewarding guiding people. But we’ve always set missions. Like we put the first weather stations ever on Mount Kilimanjaro. I’d seen the movie An Inconvenient Truth, and I know that Kilimanjaro was emblematic of global climate change, but I knew that no one had ever done any really conclusive or substantive studies on it. So we put up weather stations.
Then working with extremophiles: we did something and it’s a fancy term called “bioprospecting for extremophiles.” Basically, what that means is you look for forms of life in extreme environments. So my small group, we went and did this in the crater of Kilimanjaro and found 26 unique organisms—organisms that had never been identified to science. I’ve repeated that experiment in Central Park, where I was a co-discoverer of 206 new life forms and also at the North Pole and in Ethiopia.
I always like to wrap the trip around a mission. I think it makes it much more rewarding for people. So whether someone gets to the top or not to the top of a mountain, that doesn’t make or break whether they think it was a successful trip.
Does having a mission allow you to connect with the culture in a different way?
No, not necessarily. I mean sometimes through the scientists, but I think that becoming a father and maybe having less testosterone then.
Less whitewater and more flat-water now?
Exactly. I think that I always felt that when I traveled, some of the most interesting aspects of travel were the people I met along the way. I shared with you an article I wrote on Mount Everest about meeting Rob Hall’s daughter, just by chance, on the tenth anniversary of that whole “Into Thin Air” incident.
And meeting her was much more memorable to me than being on the mountain—I could go chapter and verse on this—so I thought that when we started doing Born to Explore that it would be less about me beating my chest and contriving some sort of danger or adventure, and really highlighting some super interesting people. Like a couple of episodes ago, we interviewed the only professional fisherwoman in all of Chile.
Any other interesting examples of that different approach?
I did an episode with a horse whisperer in Chile, where I rode a horse that had never had a saddle on it, much less been ridden, in under two hours with this guy’s gentle persuasion. In Australia I’ve traveled with some of the Aboriginal people, who are very difficult to get to know because they think in a non-Western way. And so to travel through the bush and not only look for petroglyphs that were 40,000 or 50,000 years old, but doing some food-gathering and foraging with them, to me was as interesting as that other portion of it.
Through Born to Explore, do you hope to shift the perspective of what travel can be?
Yes, I think that the perspective of travel is really how you view things. And I’ll give you a very close to home example—every day, half a million people travel through New York’s Grand Central Station. But when I go there, I sit there, I look at the floor, I look at the walls, and I look for little fossils. And so I go on my own little “Jurassic Park” journey of my mind by doing that.
I can give you other specific examples where if I told you something about something that you’ve seen all the time, you’d look at it differently. Growing up, the language that I shared with my father was weather, so I look up at the sky, to this day, and when I see clouds, certain clouds or winds, those are words to me. So I look at things, like a sunset or a moonrise, in a different perspective too.
Even an example using food foraging—when we were in Cyprus on a recent trip this past summer, this organic farmer made dolmades, stuffed grape leaves. And I looked around and there were grape leaves all over Connecticut and New York. They’re in Central Park, they’re on people’s air-conditioning units, on telephone poles. They don’t necessarily have grapes, but you can roll those and make stuffed grape leaves.
Where else have you foraged for food?
I also did some foraging in British Columbia with a First Nation woman, right along the seashore with the different kelps and seaweeds. So now, when I travel around, I think of food everywhere. Or there was even a type of coffee that grows in New York’s Central Park that I make. No one would know this. How would you know that you could brew a cup of coffee from these odd-looking pods that fall off the tree?
It’s the same as if you’ve ever built a boat from wood or started a fire without matches. You look at trees and wood differently. So the whole idea of travel is really to see life through different eyes. To find excitement from sitting in a parking lot of a supermarket because you saw a bird that you can add on to your life list that you’d never seen before. It’s not just going to the North Pole or to Kilimanjaro or to Everest or Ethiopia or any of these places we’ve been. I get immense joy out of seeing very little things.
Photography is another example of an outlet in which I can communicate with people, I can spend time in what’s considered maybe a mundane portion of the trip, and find excitement because I’ve now taken an artistic approach to where I am.
The whole element of seeing your own environment in a different way is interesting, I’ve never really thought about the impact of travel in that way.
There was a little article I wrote in The Huffington Post where there was a local priest we asked to bless our expedition, and we took a picture with him and we showed him the picture through the monitor. And because there was a crosshair set up, he thought that there was a miracle occurring. It was a kind of humbling experience. I can just go place by place and I have those kinds of experiences left and right .
The other real mission to the show is, whenever possible, we profile strong women or women who have overcome odds to accomplish something.
Why is that the case?
We thought we’d let that be an inspiration. For example, I just mentioned that fisherwoman She was a single mother in her 50s and she’s never taken a vacation day in her life. I look at that and suddenly little things in my life don’t seem so big.
We went to an Argan Oil cooperative in Morocco, and if you know anything about Morocco, it’s not likely that you would find women in that kind of position where they could have their own business. And that was something new.
There’s a couple of really world class scientists: Dr. Laurie Marker, who’s the head of the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, we worked with her; and this woman, Dr. Joan Connelly , who they call “Indiana Joan” in Cyprus. So hopefully my audience sees these women and they think, “Oh, there are possibilities for me.”
I know you recently traveled to Iceland. What was unique about that location?
Well, I find the people in Iceland pretty incredible. It’s the most literate country on earth. It’s really beautiful. They have their Viking heritage and the Vikings were great explorers. They overcame obstacles. They were poets. They were mapmakers.
And I look at this little country and there are a couple of memorable things. Eating shark meat, rotten shark meat. But it was in September and they were herding sheep out of the mountains, back into the valleys for the winter. And the whole idea of the whole village, from five-year-olds to 80-year-olds, all running through the mountains, getting these sheep down the hill. It was nice to see the cooperation of it. It was great to see little kids enjoying the outdoors. It’s a stunningly beautiful place. And I think one of the things that I’ve liked most about Iceland is if you see a farm field and some horses and you wander over there and take pictures, the farmer doesn’t come out there with a gun, ready to shoot you like they would here. People are very warm there. I mean, they really are warm and accommodating.
The whole issue of land ownership and public access to private land is really interesting.
That’s right. I noticed that. I went there right after 9/11 and I sat in a farm field and some horses came over to me. And I thought: This is something that I really miss, from how I felt I grew up that I could just sort of wander through a neighbor’s yard. I was reminded of some freedoms that maybe I don’t have, or used to have or maybe another way of living.
The one other thing that’s always struck me about that culture is the tie that Icelanders have to storytelling.
Yes, yes, yes! And if you get at the heart of the exploration, one of the roles of an explorer was to go someplace or come back and stand over a fire and say, “You’ll never guess what happened to me!”
And I really enjoy the role of trying to be a storyteller. I know I’m using the medium of TV and sometimes you go to places and you have PowerPoint presentations. But every once in a while, I have an opportunity to speak extemporaneously, just over a fire, or to a group of people, and I love the feeling of people bending forward, and you can see that in their eyes: “You’ll never guess what happened to me.”
And I think the art of storytelling is something to celebrate and they do. I think that I enjoy a good story. I enjoy telling good stories, and to me, that’s one of the most wonderful aspects of adventure exploration.
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