CLAYTOR'S OFFICE - Skeleton Coast, Namibia, Africa.
This is Tom Claytor's "office," his "car," and his "home." The Cessna 180 is normally a six-seat aircraft, but Claytor has removed the back four seats to make room for an auxiliary fuel tank, computer, cameras, clothes and supplies.
Survival gear is very important. Claytor carries an inflatable life raft for crossing the ocean, a survival suit for freezing arctic waters, a locator transmitter to be found if needed, a lot of water for crossing deserts, a long length of rope to lower himself from the trees if he crashes in a jungle, 35 pounds of tools and spare parts so that he can do his own maintenance on the plane, and several books to read, so that he never wastes time while waiting for weather or third-world bureaucracy.
He has designed a video camera mount to suspend his camera beneath the wing. It is electrically operated from inside the plane, and has a sighting system so that the camera's image can be seen while looking forward through the window. Filming with a wide angle lens, it is possible to create dramatic shots by flying close to the ground and letting the world swirl around the lens.
The tent serves several purposes. In a place like the Skeleton Coast, Claytor's neighbors are lions and hyenas. The tent provides a barrier, so that they can approach in the night, but not close enough to bite your face while you are sleeping. At large international airports after a long flight, it is sometimes easier to drop the tent and collapse from exhaustion behind some jet, rather than to try to find somewhere to stay in an unfamiliar place. Claytor has had malaria five times; the tent helps cut down on the number of mosquitoes.
The most often asked questions: (1) Do you ever go home? - No. (2) How do you do your laundry? - In a bucket. (3) Is it lonely? - Yes, sometimes very. (4) How do you pay for this? - Work the plane on conservation projects and find sponsors. (5) Why? - Perhaps this is the most interesting of all the questions. I think in life if we have dreams, and we can either try to realize those dreams or we can let them pass. I like the quote, "happy are those who dream dreams then are willing to pay the price to make them come true." However, I am not always happy. Sometimes, this hurts - and hurts a lot. Sometimes, I wonder what the emotional cost will be. It is hard, and I have become hard; but I have also become softer. The most important thing about doing something like this is to laugh at yourself. If you can't do that, go home. You must never take yourself too seriously.
Strangely, I find that I have a lot of time for little things. I like to talk to the guy who drives the fire engine at the airport; I like to watch a bird or learn a new language. I have become extremely intolerant of "BS." If someone tells me something that isn't absolutely straight, I start to get a little agitated, then I get a lot agitated. Sometimes, situations are too critical and too dangerous to try to deal with vagueness and interpretation.
I am always on the lookout for guys who want to eat me. I go to a fair amount of bad places. These are the places where you find bad people, but I have a trick. I usually pretend that I am pretty friendly and naive; this is fairly effective in disarming the bad guys. You can then ask them all sorts of questions - then look in their eyes; you can read a lot from someone's eyes. When the next guy comes by, you can ask him questions about the previous guy. If anything doesn't match, then you know one of them is a bad guy. It is more a feel, than an exact science, and it doesn't matter what language you are speaking. It is true, "you live by your face;" we all do.
I have four jobs: The first is to fly the plane and fix it - fairly technical and unforgiving. The second to write, photograph, film what is going on - fairly artistic. The third is to raise money - very humbling; I am not very good at it. The fourth is the most important, and I wish I had more help with this. It is vision - where to go and when and who to meet. It is all important.
They say, "the teacher appears when the student is ready," and one of the most important things I have learned on this trip was written to me by a chap I met in Iceland. He gave me a book of poems by Walt Whitman. The plane was 600 pounds overweight with all the fuel, so I gave the book to someone else, but before I did, I looked inside the cover: "Tom, wherever you go in this world, remember these words - BE HERE NOW." Suddenly, this made a lot of sense to me. It didn't matter where I was, as long as I was there in spirit. I have met a lot of people who are going places, but sometimes, they don't look you in the eye or even listen to you. They aren't there, so they are never really anywhere. This could have been a real danger for me. I had a map of the world and could go anywhere I wanted whenever I wanted; I didn't even remember the name of the guy who gave me these words. this is the danger - to be in a place and to miss the opportunity of being there and learning, however subtle the experience might be.
It was then that I started to carry a spiral notebook in my back pocket. Now, anytime someone tells me something, I write it down. If it is a good joke, I write it down - a place to visit, a good quote, someone's name. Our brains are too small, and there is too much to learn. Write it down and sift out what you need later.
I believe strongly in having mentors. When I met a well-known author in England, I asked him for advice about writing a book. He said, "Tom, the mind is a natural filter, and what is important will come out in the end." I think he is right. He also said, "to hasten slowly," but you can't hasten so slowly that you stop. A woman once told me, "don't travel in circles, move in straight lines." There is a lot of wisdom in that.
A few times I have been asked, "how does one get to do something like this?" I have figured out an answer for this. The first thing is to dream. We all do when we are little, but then we tell ourselves we have to grow up. Hold onto the dream. Second, seek out mentors - old guys or women at the ends of their life. Ask them for advice on how to realize your dreams. They will give you ideas and tell you how you can do things - they can live vicariously through your enthusiasm and not be jealous of your ambition. The third and most important thing is never to let anyone say "no." You can tell yourself no, but don't let anyone else tell you something can't be done. The most dangerous people can be your family and close friends. They care about you or will be jealous of you. They want to keep you right there with them - they don't want you to drop down nor shoot past them. It's hard, but that is what it takes.
About twenty of my pilot friends are dead now. It is one thing in life to learn from your own experiences, but it is quite another thing to listen to someone else's experiences in such a way as to make them painful and to make them your own. I met one rugged old pilot in Ethiopia. He used to fly for Air America in South America, and he used to work with some rough characters. Every time he would go to a new place, he would ask, "how does a guy get killed around here?" and people would tell him. He would then avoid all the things that had killed the other people. I have used this trick to fly safely through places and conditions that I have never experienced before - like Greenland in the winter and the Sahara in the summer. Strangely, this trick is as applicable for life as it is for flying. Listen carefully with empathy or pain - and then learn.
Another thing I believe in is that you don't have to have a good memory if you always tell the truth. I am in way over my head on this trip; there is no way I can remember everything, and so it is easy - always tell the truth. It was proven to me again just recently when I was put in jail for "violation immigration act" in one of these African countries. I might not have gone in jail in the first place if I had invented a little story, but it is just too much work and can be very dangerous if you get caught. I told the truth; I went to jail. The next day I was interrogated plenty of times, but always the same story. Every time I have been arrested, it has been like this. Painful for the moment, but worthwhile in the end.
Someone once said to me, "This is a good trip, and one of two things will happen: You will either make it, or you will be just another guy who tried and failed." I love the truth in that statement; It is humbling, and all I have to do is to get home.
I too have stood at that place in the wood where two roads diverge; and as he, so I to live true, chose the only path I could: the rougher road, "the one less traveled by." And oh, I have paid well for that proud choice; have learned too that the gods do not applaud but merely whisper, through an inner voice, that a life lived such is its own reward. Yet though I walk with eyes turned to the floor, solemn as a druid round a stone ring. I would choose again what I chose before - the lighter life is a much lesser thing. This I have: the road walked is mine to keep. That, yes, and "miles to go before I sleep."