“It’s pretty simple to do the same things all the time and the next thing you know you’re much older and you haven’t done anything that you’re really proud of in a while except go to work and make money.”
Most people have accepted the tedium of adulthood by the time they’ve reached their mid-thirties. That’s just how life works. We start to worry about things like job security and mortgage payments, not to mention the health problems we’ve developed from years of terrible eating habits. There’s no thrill anymore, no real stimulation at all aside from occasional sex with a less-than-attractive spouse. Life gets heavy and the responsibilities pile up. It’s impossible to drop everything and skip town for a few months like you used to; that is unless you never plan on coming back.
And yet, Jeff Vallee and Heath Kirchart manage to do exactly that. Each year they pick something they know nothing about and plan a trip around it. In the past few years they’ve ridden bicycles 3,300 miles across the country, climbed El Capitan and rafted 215 miles of the Grand Canyon, all with little-to-no experience. This year they’re building a 17-foot wooden boat that they’ll row/sail for more than a month, traversing the 900 miles from Southern California to the tip of the Baja Peninsula. So what if they’ve never built a boat before, or sailed one for that matter? They’ll come back with a good story if nothing else, because while the rest of us are sitting around reminiscing about the good old days, they’re out there, still living them.
Portrait & Interview by Reggie McCafferty / Photos by Jeff Vallee
Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the project and how you guys got started?
It started specifically I think because Heath wanted to leave skating. I’ll never try to speak too much for him, but at the time he was frustrated with his life of filming and deadlines. He’s always had a weird, wanting to go off the grid kind of mentality, so he just wrote me an email asking if I wanted to bicycle across the country with him. It was going to be an expensive trip and I had reservations about how much money it was going to cost, but it didn’t take much convincing. Oftentimes he and I convince each other to do things when we’re a little bit drunk. One night I basically said, “I can’t do it.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Money.” And he just goes, “Screw that.” Whenever you say no to something he really wants to do he’s like, “What if I lent you the money?” He just takes money off the table, “What if money was no issue?”
So I came up with the money to do it and we both did a little research on the internet about bikes that are good for long distance. He found a bike and we both bought the exact same shit, almost identical because we don’t know anything about bicycles. Which sounds ridiculous because a bicycle is a pretty simple contraption, but that was it. We didn’t really train. He rode a little bit, but I came straight off of a vacation in Australia. I was there just eating fried fish and drinking beer and came back to New York with not much time before I flew to LA. I was riding my bicycle around the city a little bit, but I was basically at my peak of bad fitness. Then we just went out there and took little bites off the 3,300 mile trip day by day.
So that’s how it got started. When Heath retired from skating all of a sudden I had this person who was open to anything. Because he has the means money-wise to do what he wants and he has all this free time, we could just come up with random ideas and he would say yes to everything.
At the time did you know it was going to be a yearly thing?
No, I don’t think we knew yet. The second trip only came around because I’d started hiring Heath to do production work in photography and we had all this time to brainstorm. He’d never had a job before and he had this interest in being a regular working person, so I would hire him to work on these photo shoots as a PA. I’d just watched a movie where this rock climber named Timmy O’Neill takes a surfer up El Capitan, a massive granite rock in Yosemite, and that was the first time I realized that a civilian could go up that. I’d always thought it was only for the hardest dudes.
So we’re driving across country for a job and we think, “We should just call that guy and see what happens.” We looked him up on the internet and wrote him an email and we tried to entice him a little bit by making it sound more interesting than it was. He didn’t respond for about a week and a half, but then he wrote us an email back. Heath and I were in the truck just laughing that this random dude got back to us, even though he wasn’t even close to accepting our offer of taking us up El Cap. We went straight to Wal-Mart and bought a pull up bar. He did two and I did I think four.
But once we kind of got into the second one I realized that at that point in my life I would love to be able to do something at least once a year that’s kind of out there and different. So from there it was just, “Lets try to figure out something we can do every year.”
How do you guys come up with the ideas that you want to try to do for each trip? Or does it just sort of come to you?
After the first bicycle trip people would ask us what we we’re going to next and I thought I had no other good ideas. It’s not easy to come up with something that A) you have no experience with, and B) is the right combination of suffering and fun. We don’t really have specific parameters, but people send us ideas and almost none of them are on point with what we like to do. They always suggest something that seems completely off base. They’ll say, “You guys should go work on a crab fishing boat” or they think, “You guys should hike the whole PCT from Canada to Mexico,” and I just think that sounds miserable.
But after the El Cap thing, the next trip was basically the idea of Timmy O’Neill, our rock climber guide. He’d realized that El Cap was not really our style and it was a little bit aggravating for us because we had people telling us what to do and we weren’t accepting our own fate and making our own mistakes. So he sat us down and said, “Here’s what you need to do, you guys need to raft the Grand Canyon, it’s the greatest trip in the world.” At the time it didn’t sound like something that I was really interested in, but the closer we got to it, the more it seemed like something that we could do on our own.
In the end I don’t want to just be a tough guy on these trips. I want to go and have a really good time. I mean the bicycle thing was a lot of tough and not as much fun, which is why I’ll probably shy away from things like that in the future. But there’s a strange mix of trying to find something that’s fun but that we also don’t know anything about. We want to have the rawness of not knowing what the hell we’re doing and just kind look at each other and laugh when we make mistakes. We don’t always laugh right away, but afterwards you look back and laugh. Like on the bicycle trip we both had a handful of days where we were just losing our mind from changing tube after tube in the blazing desert heat all while dying of thirst. You’re sitting there screaming “Fuuuuuck!” at the top of your lungs and wanting to walk away from the bike forever, but later that night you were over it and ready to move on.
Does it ever feel like you’ve gotten in way over your head?
There’s a point in the planning of a lot of these that I definitely wonder if we’re just being stupid, being cocky, and not thinking about real consequences. There are definitely times where I kind of hesitate. Heath’s never called me though and said, “I don’t want to go because I think this is dangerous.” But I’m a different person than him so I have these times where I’m like, “Maybe this is really dumb.”
The lead up to the El Cap thing was a real mindfuck because before Timmy agreed to do it with us he got on the phone with me and had this long conversation where he was basically asking me if I was ok with dying. And I know that sounds overly dramatic because those guys are expert climbers and almost nobody ever dies on El Cap, but it was a weird thing to picture yourself falling thousands of feet and I had crazy dreams where we dropped people and watched them slip away. I think it was just my subconscious just running through the motions and seeing if I was fit to be that high off the ground.
We do get a lot of grief from people that are close to us though. They feel we’re not thinking things through properly, but I think there are so many things that we’re told are dangerous that really aren’t. And believe me, anyone who knows me well will tell you that I’m a huge pussy, but I see all these things Heath and I do as calculated risk, not real danger.
Can you tell me about the trip you’re putting together now?
So this next trip is something that I’ve always wanted to do which is to go down the coast of Baja in Mexico. For some reason I always pictured myself doing it in a kayak because that seemed like a pretty simple, one man kind of thing. Then a friend suggested that we do it in a dory, which is a classic kind of short wooden fishing boat. I think that Heath was way more into the idea of a dory because it has us back together again. I don’t know, I’d have to ask him. So he went and found this company that sells kits where you can make your own dory and I was really into it because we were back to the real idea behind the trip, which is that everything is in our hands.
Right now we’re building our own 17-foot wood boat that we’ll be able to row and it’ll have a small sail on it. So we’ll be able to sail and row. The logistics aren’t actually finished yet because we really don’t know exactly where we’ll take off from or how we’ll get the boat back if we’re even able to get it back. We’re going to leave from somewhere close to the border in San Diego and then we’re going to row and sail for 30 to 40 days down the coast of Baja almost to the tip but not quite to Cabo, where we’ll have a house and a bunch of friends meeting us there. It should be about 900 miles.
Do you have to worry about the Coast Guard stopping you as you cross into Mexico?
That’s a good question because I don’t actually know that. We’ve looked into it and we think we’re legal in the sense that we have the boat registered; we’re the legitimate owners of it from the DMV of California. But I don’t know. I don’t know what the US border is like on the ocean. So I’m picturing us rowing and running into the Coast Guard saying, “What the fuck do you think you guys are doing?” Technically I think you’re allowed to do that because that’s what boats do all the time, like big sailboats. So we’ll have our passports and we’ll have our boat registration and hopefully they won’t stop us. Then when we get down to Ensenada, Mexico we’ll have to pull in and register with the Mexican authorities and get tourist visas. These are the parts of these trips that I like the least. The little legal details that can tank the whole trip if you don’t watch out for them.
Are you going to be going into shore at all or staying out at sea the whole time?
The idea is to go to shore each night to camp, to have a fire, to cook food and to do all these regular things. We’ll need to be able to resupply on fresh water and food, but there may be times when we’re not able to. So when we get to these sections that are rock bluffs or rough rock with waves breaking and no beach, then maybe we can’t go into shore. That’s when we’re going to have to come up with a plan B I guess. We’ll have to throw down a little anchor and maybe just sleep on the boat, and that boat is not equipped to sleep on. It’s set up it’s like a rowing boat so there’s a bench every two or three feet. You could maybe curl up in the fetal position or lay down some bags and make a bed. We’ll have to wait and see.
What has the building process been like?
We ordered the kit in December and we’ve been building it in Heath’s garage in LA. I’ve had to fly out there twice from Brooklyn just for boat building time. It’s taking a lot longer than we thought it would just because a lot of these little steps are super tedious and you have to wait for shit to dry. It’s all this epoxy and wood and then you wait for the epoxy to dry so you can move onto the next step. But it’s almost finished, so we’re on schedule. It’s just taking a little longer than we thought, and it’s definitely eating a lot more money than we though it would.
When are you planning on taking off?
We’re planning on leaving April 25th and then we’ve given ourselves about 42 days to do it. We just don’t know how long it’s going to take and so we don’t know how to gauge it. We read this book about these guys that did it in kayaks and they made it in 33 days. But it’s tough to know and so we’ve given ourselves extra time.
Are you going to be updating the blog along the way so people can follow the trip as you go?
We won’t have phone service and internet to tell the story on the blog and via Instagram, so I’ll just start doing that when we come back. Just like on the rafting trip it will be impossible to do the blog from the actual trip because there’s not enough phone signal down there. And that was a part I really liked about the bicycle trip was the fact that people were following us live, but it just simply isn’t possible with spotty coverage because then you’d get a really fragmented half-assed story. I really enjoy the story-telling part of it and so now I come back and I develop all the film, I look at all the video, put it all together and am able to take my time and dole it out day by day and let people follow along. One day hopefully we can do everything live with something like satellite internet, but right now that’s too expensive. Who knows, it’s probably better this way. I get to shoot film and I get to rest at night instead of writing.
Do you feel like you learn things from each trip that help you in the planning stages for the next trip? Or is each one so different that’s its kind of just it’s own thing?
They’re all pretty similar in the sense that we’re always camping. So the living part of it is just doing most of the same things that you always do and bringing similar gear. I’ve definitely learned that planning ahead just makes things way easier, that if you do everything last minute it just makes it more difficult. Especially if you’re trying to get people involved, like people who are interested sponsor wise. All the trips are pretty expensive in the grand scheme of things, so having a sponsor or two helps cover costs and it also spreads the word. We never want to blow it out though…
But you at least want people to know about it …
Yeah. It’s a strange in-between balance of feeling like you’re being super self-obsessed and being more humble. We’re taught to think that that’s really lame to be “me me me”, but I guess that’s maybe what every writer and photographer deals with. You’re just trying to get people to notice your work and hope that they enjoy the story that you’re trying to show or convey. The hard part about that is that my copilot is such an introvert and has built a 20-year skate career about not saying shit to anyone and just letting the skating speak for itself. So I have to be sensitive to that because he and I do these trips for different reasons, but at the same time I think it’s a rad idea. Enough to where I spend a lot of my free time planning this and doing this. So obviously I believe in it being something that’s worthwhile telling. And so it’s a mix between that and trying not to be too fucking corny.
I feel like especially coming from a skateboarding background that’s something that so many people go through as they kind grow up and they try to figure out how to balance whatever kind of professional life they have with their ethics.
Right, because we’re given the tools to completely blow the shit out of the water in a bad way, with Instagram and everything else. You can write your own blog and you can essentially publish yourself for free now. There are so many outlets where you can make your own content. Whereas before the filter was that you couldn’t just get anything published anytime you wanted.
One of the greatest things about surfing and skating is that there’s a built in filter. You can’t just rock up to a skatepark and rip; it takes years to learn that. Everyone remembers trying to surf a beach break for the first time and never even making it out to the lineup. It kind of weeds people out naturally. But with photo or writing anyone can just hop on and just start taking off and doing it. So I try to find the middle ground and Heath is sort of my barometer. I try not to do things that I think he would be too offended by. That’s also a good reason why I try to tell the story afterwards. It allows me to look back on it and kind of go, “Ok, well, here’s what I wrote down in my notes, here’s the photos, here’s the video I got and with a little bit of hindsight here is how I see the trip.”
What are you planning to shoot it all on?
I’ll shoot it on 35mm, a blend of both digital and film because film is expensive for a month long trip. Some people may give us a little bit of money to cover the trip but that might barely even cover the film, let alone all these other expenses you have, so I’ll try to do a little bit of both
Do you find it hard to balance work stuff with doing these trips?
Yeah this one is really long because after we finish we’re going to hang out with our friends for a week or so down there. So it’s essentially stepping away from work for 60 days, which is something that a lot of people are just not willing to do, and is a tough pill to swallow.
I’m sure you’re clients don’t really understand that either.
Yeah, it’s a balance for sure. But it’s like, what am I going to do? Am I not going to live my life and do these trips because I want to be constantly trying to suck at the tit of the New York commercial photo scene? I know it’s important to try to keep up relationships, but in a sense there’s also another side of it. Now the people I shoot for at home know that I’m not this one-dimensional person. They know that despite the risk of losing some jobs that I go off and do these things that are exactly what I want to do. Who knows? But I’d be pretty bummed if I looked back and didn’t go and do things that I wanted to do because I wanted a little bit more of the pie. I guess I have a little bit of faith that it’ll all kind of work itself out.
It’s something that I think about all the time. Believe me, as a freelancer in New York we’re basically trained to be obsessive about how are we going to get our work, our next job, how are we going to keep our clients. But I guess I made a decision a couple years ago that I couldn’t live like that. It would just eat at me.
What are your expectations going into this thing?
Since it’s such a long trip, I’m hoping to come back with a lot of photos that I’m into. But I also think there’s going to be a couple of unexpected hiccups because beaching a boat is something we know nothing about and I think it’s pretty easy to flip a boat even in small waves. That and the fact that Heath and I don’t know how to sail, so that’s part of the deal. Granted, we have two sets of oars, so we’ll never be without a motor. Also, we just don’t know how fast we can row and sail. So my biggest fear is that we can’t row and sail that fast, and because we have people meeting us at the end that we might get screwed. The next thing you know we’re doing nothing but rowing and not doing anything fun. No time for surfing, fishing, or jumping off the boat with a camera and trying to take pictures. My overall expectation is that this will be something that goes on the short list of the greatest trips of my life. I’ve had a fascination with sailing for the past ten years or so and this trip finally gets me a little closer to actually doing it. The ocean can be amazing and generous, but it can also be a relentless bitch too, so we’ll see what we get.
Any final thoughts you want to leave us with?
Every trip ends up being a little different than we think it’s going to be, but I guess that’s the idea. It’s my rare opportunity where there’s nobody telling me what to shoot and it’s just simply what Heath and I want to do. There’s something attractive about keeping it that simple and going off the grid for a while.
There’s no one else I know that’s like Heath in the sense that he almost always down for something different. I think he just really understands that you have to put yourself out there if you want to get good stories. Not in the sense of published stories, but just in life. It’s pretty simple to do the same things all the time and the next thing you know you’re much older and you haven’t done anything that you’re really proud of in a while except go to work and make money. So yeah, I’m hyped on doing these things with him as long as I can, and hopefully we’ll manage to get ourselves into a real boat one day and sail across the Pacific for our “ender ender.”