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The Onion vs. Mr. Magoo

On your mark, get set ... hike. Inside a 5,600-mile footrace on the country's hardest trail.

Many hikers might argue that covering so much ground, so fast, might diminish the wilderness experience. But it also afforded the opportunity to see a lot of wilderness, and enjoy moments that any backpacker would envy. Like one summer night in late July, after the Onion had beaten a path into northern Montana.

He was hiking at twilight, well after sunset, ascending an obscure gulch in Lewis and Clark National Forest, when he heard a disconcerting sound. Some sort of snort from an invisible source. "I pulled out my bear spray, and saw a shadow about 30 yards away," he recalls.

The Onion walked a little farther through the woods, then heard what was actually a wolf, letting loose with a full-blown howl. "He was really close. Then another wolf howled east of me, then another. Pretty soon there were four wolves howling," he later said.

At first, the Onion yelled back in defense. But he quickly surmised that the animals posed no threat, and that sharing the night with a pack of wolves was actually one of the most incredible experiences of his life. "Definitely not a moment when I thought about how I should be paying more attention to grad school," he later quipped. "I stopped screaming and maybe hiked another 200 yards. That’s where I went to sleep under the stars. It was awesome."

Likewise, Mr. Magoo had his share of goosebump moments. One early August day, a southbound Magoo ignored the "Closed" sign on the trail that led to Montana’s Chinese Wall–a thousand-foot high, 12-mile-long stretch of spectacular limestone cliffs that’s a justifiably popular attraction. At the moment, hikers had been prohibited from the vicinity: The surrounding Bob Marshall Wilderness was under siege from a devastating fire. Nevertheless, Magoo was intent on seeing the wall and kept on walking, even at the risk of incurring a $5,000 fine.

"Maybe it wasn’t the brightest thing to do," Tapon later admitted, "but I was determined to see the wall." He was so impressed with the rock formation that he decided to spend the night there (also against the rules). In turn, he was treated to an evening concert delivered by a nearby herd of elk, which alternately provided the percussion of their stampeding hooves and the sweet bleats of their young. Even a time-pressed ultra-distance hiker knows how to soak up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Unlike the Onion, Magoo captured an extraordinary amount of his trip’s epic moments on camera. He carried a high-def movie camera that he frequently pulled out to ensure there would be plenty of footage for his website, book images, slide shows, and presentations. There’s Magoo atop Colorado’s Mt. Elbert in a blizzard. There he is at the Canadian border and in the New Mexico desert. Here’s a funny photo of cows humping.

The two hikers also differed in the way they occupied themselves on the trail. Where the Onion made up songs and listened to music on an MP3 player, Magoo’s MP3 device was loaded with books on tape (including inspiring biographies), motivating speeches (like those written by Thomas Paine), and even language lessons. Yes, you could’ve walked up to Magoo in the middle of forested Montana (although few did–he didn’t see a single backpacker for the first 2,000 miles of his journey) and caught him repeating the phrase "I am an American!" out loud in pidgin Mandarin. "There are one billion Mandarin speakers," Tapon later explained. "Someday I’m going to Asia, and I’ll definitely make that trip into a book."

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