Day Trip into the Abyss

BBC photo

“I really feel like in one day I’ve been to another planet and come back.”

It was noon on March 26, 2012, and the film director James Cameron had surfaced in the Western Pacific ocean. Blinking in the sun, he looked like, well, a man who’d just been as far down as down goes. In a one-person sub built to withstand the crushing pressure of the deepest part of the sea, he’s spent the day descending for a couple of hours, hanging out on the bottom for four hours, and then ascending from what he described to waiting BBC reporters as “absolutely the most remote, isolated place on the planet.”

There wasn’t much to do down there in the Mariana Trench, or frankly even much to see.

But that wasn’t the point. He did it because … he is James Cameron. And he could have a Big Day like that. His bank account allowed it, the technology allowed it, and his ego allowed (okay, demanded) it. You could say that Cameron defined how far out on a limb a human can go in a single day – if not physically, then psychologically.

You could say that, although you’d get some pushback. In we’re talking solo extremity of any sort, more dramatically lonely day trips have arguably been made.

Years ago, for Popular Science magazine, I followed retired French air force colonel Michel Fournier as he prepared to break the skydiving altitude record by riding a helium balloon into the stratosphere and freefalling back toward terra firma.

The venture was absolutely snake-bitten. Fournier’s Big Day turned into a week, then two weeks, as he was repeatedly stymied by equipment failure and the weather, and the whole thing devolved into a kind of Beckett play as each sunset signalled another dashed opportunity for glory (and, honestly, potentially another stay of execution – this was a very dangerous stunt). In the end, this guy beat him to it. Watching that clip makes me think Fournier dodged a bullet. For pure existential vulnerability, Felix Baumgartner may take the prize.

Although other candidates are in the conversation for sure. Like solo sailor Ellen MacArthur, realizing, halfway across the Atlantic, that the closest humans were very likely the astronauts aboard the International Space Station orbiting overhead. Or Goran Kropp, who summitted Everest alone, having bicycled there, also alone, from Sweden. Or Michael Collins, the third Apollo 11 astronaut, who “brought the car around” that July day in 1969 while Armstrong and Aldrin took their giant leaps for mankind, ghosting out of radio contact on the dark side of the moon, utterly cut off from his species.

Psychological “distance” is a tricky thing to measure. Wherever Timothy Leary went in the mushroom trip described in High Priest, it may have been farther than any place you could get to in meatspace. Talk about your “day trip.”

I suppose the ultimate out-on-a-limb sojourn would be a near-death experience – of the sort Bruce Greyson has made a career of investigating. I can forsee, in a kind of dystopian future, an underground “extreme tourism” market emerging for this kind of thing: a guide helps you step over the edge, but not so far that you can’t come back. No doubt Chuck Palahniuk is already working on the book.

All this is on my mind because I’ve been wondering what our appetite for “escape” will be once the pandemic is over and we’re free to escape. Those who’ve been cooped up in a tiny flat with roommates who hum off key and pee in the sink may want to high-tail it to quandrant three of the Big Day matrix.

But I suspect that, for many of the rest of us, alone is the last place in the world we’ll want to be.

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