There is an interesting photograph hanging in our hallway that reminds me of a very special traveling companion named Fred.
The wooden-framed picture shows a little Buddhist boy crouched on a stone window sill of a house in Kathmandu, Nepal, wearing his dirty flip flops and simple street clothes. He has a serious facial expression and is touching his lips with his left index finger as if to make a “hush” sign to quiet the viewer.
When the Fed-Ex guy delivered the picture about 10 years ago, there was no letter or even a small sticker note attached to the wonderful surprise gift. The only sign of origin was the sender’s name printed on the receipt slip, Fred Stone, and a street address in Seattle.
That was the last time I or anybody else heard from Fred. I followed up with a thank-you note, but did not get a response. Fred had never owned a phone or a computer or established an email address, so the only way to connect with him was by old-fashioned, hard-copy letter sent off in a stamped envelope.
That in itself was a little out of the ordinary—but then again, everything about Fred was unusual. Most important for me, however, was that for more than 15 years, he was one my most loyal clients who followed me all over the Earth exploring. Whenever I sent out an invite, outlining some crazy expedition idea in a far-flung corner of the world, he would be the first to submit his $500 non-refundable deposit—by mail, of course.
Whether it was being the first kayakers to circumnavigate the second-largest atoll in French Polynesia, paddling the virgin shores of the Antarctic Peninsula, or exploring new frontiers in Greenland, Fred stepped up to the challenge without hesitation.
Fred knew when, how and where to show up at the start of an adventure and what to bring. Not only was he ready for anything new to trail-blaze, he was also one of these expedition members you could only dream of having along. Never complaining when the going got rough, always ready to help with common chores and when prodded, he was a treasure trove full of colorful stories that he shared with us after long, hard days of exploring. These stories were tales of extraordinary, convoluted, and sometimes even painful life and adventure experiences.
For example, once he joined a Scandinavian ethnographic guide who had scraped together a small group of travelers to visit the Korowai tree dwellers on the mosquito-infested south coast of Papua New Guinea. The first documented contact by Western scientists with members of these bands of Korowais had been in 1974 and Fred and his cohorts were there just few years later. These native hunter-gatherers numbered no more than a few thousand and were living in tree houses more than 100 feet off the jungle floor. Here, they defended themselves from rival clans, stealing women and children and saving their own from cannibalism and slavery.
Fred and his co-travelers lived in these primitive dwellings for a couple of weeks and made an effort to learn from and adapt to the local customs. They ate grubs, tried out penis gourds, swatted mosquitoes and contracted malaria, the bad kind. Fred loved every bit of it, and it was entertaining to hear his personal gourd stories.
If Fred could not find travel companions to some of these obscure corners of the world, he would go alone. One remarkable trip was his solo journey to visit the Wai-Wai tribals, a group of less than 200 natives who live at the headwaters of the Essequibo River in Eastern British Guyana. The Wai Wai are a musical people and have an affinity for instruments such as guitars, flutes, and hand drums. Fred was taught how to attract jaguars at night by rubbing a taught guitar string stretched over the bottom of a drum and even learned how to night hunt with curare-tipped arrows.
Yes, Fred was curious, shy, unassuming—and even sometimes not totally present, to the degree of being socially awkward. When and if he talked, it was with a stammering falsetto and when eating, he sometimes spilled food on his face and often startled himself out of his own thoughts. Once, on a long expedition in Greenland I had to pair him up (we only had double kayaks) with Boas, our Inuit co-guide, who only spoke a smidgen of Danish. So the two of them got along well—Fred humming his tribal songs and paddling stoically and strongly from the front seat, and Boas quietly sitting in the back scouting for good ice passages and wildlife—each in their own universe. One day after lunch, when their boat was the last to launch from the beach, Fred absentmindedly but dutifully started to paddle full force forward before Boas had gotten into the kayak. That was when we realized that Boas had indeed picked up some English listening to our clients and started yelling from the shore across the waters, “COME BACK TO ME!” I guess Boas realized that a Greenland winter alone on a beach was a bad option and was glad that Fred was not his only trip companion.
Over the years and when liquored up a little bit, we could make Fred open up about his past. Physically and verbally abused by his father and making it on his own through the school of hard knocks had taken its toll psychologically. He survived with an innate brightness, became a chemist and ended up with a government job as an analytical chemist in a remote Alaskan coastal town, studying and monitoring the process of decaying and stinking fish in a lab all by himself. He retired early and spent the rest of his life as a hermit in Seattle—while he was not out hiking, humming and paddling his heart out.
The last time I saw Fred in person was when saying goodbye in Santiago Airport after a crazy and hard kayaking trip in southern Patagonia, Chile.
I did notice that he was a little beyond his normal absentmindedness and was visibly upset that he could not figure out how to find his international departure gate. I helped him, and that is when I realized that his travel exploits were over. And now that I remember it, when he waved goodbye though the airplane window pane—it was with a hushed finger across his lips. Perhaps he was trying to tell me something through his quiet strength. I will never know what.
I do know, however, that it is our wonderful travel companions that enrich our adventures and allow us to learn about things beyond ourselves. Fred was definitely one of these treasured travelers. Hopefully, you too will encounter a ”Fred” in your travels!