When writer Donald Dale Jackson and photographer Terrence Moore set out in 1985 to do a Smithsonian story on cabooses, they arranged to ride in one that was attached to a Santa Fe freight train bound from Los Angeles to Barstow, California. Much of the trip was through unremarkable country, but at a certain point three of the train's crew members converged on the same side of the caboose and stared intently out the window. "Nudist camp ahead," one of the men explained. The train slowed down, but apparently all of the happy campers were under cover that day. The only unclad creature Jackson and Moore saw was a coyote.
In their never-ending quest for the naked truth, the freelancers who produce the bulk of the words and pictures that appear in this magazine seldom allow themselves to get sidetracked. Over the past quarter-century, they've hobnobbed with fabulous characters and taken on more adventures that most of us mere mortals could dream up in a lifetime. Recently, setting envy aside, we asked a number of our longtime contributors to tell us about some of their most memorable experiences in the field, which, it turns out, they were happy to do.
Many of their stories resemble a remake of the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Only add snowmobiles, mules, trucks, dilapidated buses and any other conveyances you can think of, and put them on some of the most harrowing thoroughfares known to Man. The road to the top of the Khyber Pass, for example.
Rob Schultheir, who wrote about the Pass in a 1988 story, made the trip one drizzly afternoon in an old jeep with several hulking (and not entirely sober) Afghan guerrillas. "We roared through villages, horn blaring, sending children, old men and animals racing for safety. We passed buses on the wrong side, two tires off the tarmac, six inches from hundred-foot dropoffs. We squealed around hairpin turns and squeezed between overloaded trucks like toothpaste squirting out of a tube."
Photographer Kay Chernush knows about the hazards of long-distance travel, having journeyed from England to Baghdad by Land Rover and truck in 1985 during the Iran-Iraq war. She had previously fallen into a Sri Lankan river while photographing gem miners and climbed a construction crane towering 700 feet over downtown Chicago. Doing the story for us on English truckers, Chernush was detained by police in Yugoslavia and Turkey (for taking pictures of bridges), slept in a refrigerated truck on top of 21 tons of candy bars and found herself, at journey's end, in the middle of a desert with, she recalls, "no water, no facilities and not even so much as a bush to hide behind."
Speaking of discomfort, let's not overlook poor Richard Howard. Aboard a fishing vessel to photograph our 1985 Georges Bank story, he remained so violently seasick for days that in desperation he finally begged the captain to find a way to get him off the boat — a helicopter, anything. "I even offered to pay for the return trip myself," Howard admits. The next day the seas calmed, and he was able to complete the assignment. Back ashore, however he discovered that "terra" was no longer "firma"; it took several days for him to regain his equilibrium.
When it comes to globetrotting, Michael Freeman deserves a special award. After engineering a spectacular series of special-effects photographs for our stories on the beginning and end of the Universe, Freeman flew from London to Bangkok to start work on a piece about people who collect nests for bird's-nest soup. Taking a small boat across the Andaman Sea to a tiny island, he photographed collectors at work high up in a huge cave. Then he flew from Bangkok back to London, his home base, before going on to Washington, D.C. for a publicity event on his Universe pictures. From there Freeman flew to Borneo to seek out yet another bird's-nest collector's cave. After traveling across mountains in a jeep, he found it — "bigger than a cathedral's interior, with a 500-foot ceiling."
The best place to take his shot, Freeman decided, was standing in the cave entrance, knee-deep in tons of foul-smelling bird and bat droppings. He realized that the tingling sensation he felt on his bare legs as he worked was nothing to worry about — just the jostling of millions of cockroaches feeding on the surface of the guano.
Freeman felt a different kind of tingle one afternoon when he was in war-torn Cambodia for our 1990 story on Angkor Wat. As he pushed through high grass toward the ruins, a Cambodian guard ran past him and stopped to fiddle with something. "What was that?" Freeman asked. It was a booby trap, a mine attached to a wire that the Cambodians had set out to trip the Khmer Rouge.
If we were handing out a prize in the "I couldn't believe my eyes" category, writer Jim Trefil and photographer Randall Hyman would have to share it. Hyman went to Iceland for our story on volcanoes. In the dark hours of early morning, he hitchhiked up to a remote eruption. As he began climbing toward it, he noticed in the eerie orange glow another person keeping pace on the ridge above him. "I never saw him again after I arrived at the eruption and never heard of another soul having hiked in there at that hour." According to Icelandic folktales, there are more ghosts than sheep on that lonely island.