Keeping Up With Our Freelancers in the Field

Since this magazine started sending writers and photographers all over the world back in 1970, they’ve had more adventures than most of us can dream up

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.

Trefil was checking out story possibilities in Waxahachie, Texas, right after it had been chosen as the site for the late, lamented Superconducting Super Collider. Out of deference to local sensibilities, he was trying hard to resist stereotyping Texans. But when he visited a ranch, the foreman told him, "Wait here and I'll go turn on the waterfall." A minute later, Trefil saw him tugging on a wheel high atop a nearby limestone cliff, and soon a river started plunging down the cliff face. "Dammit," Trefil said, turning to his host. "How am I supposed to resist Texas stereotypes when you folks do stuff like this?"

Stereotypes aren't the only thing freelancers try to resist. Consider pets. Several years ago, we asked Enrico Ferorelli to take the pictures for a profile of the celebrated animal trainer Vicki Hearne. "She's an old friend and I cherish the opportunity to spend any time with her," says Ferorelli, who has worked on more than 15 stories for us since 1977, from expatriates in Rome to endangered animals in Belize to a spaghetti factory in Italy. "The only problem with that job was that Vicki had five dogs and I had none."

Ferorelli's kids had been asking him for a dog for along time. "Seeing her living happily with five, I thought I could handle one. So now we have a beautiful wire-haired dachshund, but after two years we still have not managed to train him worth a damn."

Any freelance writer worth his salt wants to try his hand at whatever he's supposed to be writing about. This imparts a certain credibility to a story, but it can also lead to sensational embarrassment, as Richard Wolkomir knows full well. Auditing a course one day for a piece on a school for butlers, he had to carry a tray of cocktail glasses while balancing a tumbler on his head.

Poise! Presence! Crash.

Wolkomir's self-esteem sank even lower when, working on a story about hedge mazes in Britain, he managed to get hopelessly lost in a big one. Too proud to yell for help, he wandered around for what seemed like years until he finally blundered out.

Did someone say something about ineptitude? On a variety of demanding assignments over the years, Jon Krakauer was the very model of proficiency, ascending a 650-foot icicle in Alaska, operating a motorcycle full throttle during Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Florida, and circling the summit of Mound McKinley in a small plane on a rescue mission. But then he decided that, in order to write about surfing, he needed to know how to surf.

After renting a board, Krakauer paddled into the waves off Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. When he paddled back much later, battered and bleeding from numerous encounters with sand and reef, he had yet to stand upright on his board. Next day, after practicing for hours in his hotel room, he tried again. "It wasn't long," he reports, "before I caught a wave, stood up and rode that gnarly two-footer for four or five seconds before a rogue piece of chop pitched me into the drink." Thus at age 34 did our intrepid correspondent become a surfer. Cowabunga, dude.

When it comes to resourcefulness, Michael Parfit has few peers among the writers who work for us. He spent a month bobbing down the Mississippi River in a rubber boat, jumped out of a perfectly good airplane at 12,000 feet while working on a story about parachutes and made three trips to Antarctica. Then there was the time he and two companions had just taken off in his single-engine Cessna from a small airstrip in the Amazon when the engine began to act up. It didn't just sound funny, Parfit recalls. It went BANG! BANG! BANG! "As professional journalist, I have an alert and analytical mind. I soon guessed that something was wrong. I think Sue and Alex came to the same conclusion."

Back at the airstrip, Parfit discovered that an exhaust manifold had broken. If he flew the plane like that for long, there would be a fire. As it happened, a missionary who lived in a nearby village liked prunes, which came packed in a very strong can. "A second missionary, who was a mechanic, helped me hack an empty can apart. We wrapped it around the broken pipe and cinched it down with two clamps borrowed from another part of the plane. It took us 2 1/2 hours' flying over solid jungle to reach an airport. For that whole time, the prune can hung in there. So did Sue and Alex, but I was a wreck."

Thrills, chills, spills — our freelancers have done it all. But what, you may be wondering, about romance? Chiori Santiago found herself the object of affection while researching her 1993 story on the tango in passionate Buenos Aires. After boarding a bus, she endured an interminable ride. Other passengers came and went until she was the only one left. Finally the youthful driver pulled over at her stop, invited her to visit his home and cheerily proposed marriage. "He was unfazed when I declined," she says. "He insisted I write down his phone number in case I changed my mind."

When William MacLeish embarked on the cruise aboard a research vessel that produced his first article for us, he too had just fallen in love. "I had to spend a month thousands of miles form her, thinking of her day after day." But our man coped with his lovesickness better than a fellow sufferer on another long oceanographic cruise, who ended up jumping overboard. "He told his rescuers that he had spotted his wife," MacLeish says. "She was, he claimed, paddling by in a blue canoe."

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