8. J. Robert Harris on a Lifetime of Adventure
In an interview recorded in June, Dan Aspel tracks down the irrepressible New Yorker J. Robert Harris, author, public speaker, successful entrepreneur, and veteran of dozens of backpacking journeys around the world. "When I first saw grass, I tried to smoke it" he recalls. So what drove a kid from the inner city projects to embark on a lifetime of adventure in the wild outdoors?
Since 1966, JR Harris has undertaken more than 50 multi-week trips into the world's wild places: "all unsupported and most of them alone". He's driven to where the US road systems end (or did in the late 60s), 120 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, and he's since been above the Arctic Circle 15 times ("there's a lot I want to see up there", he says). He's tracked down caribou migrations in the Yukon, lived amongst Inuit people, and walked some of the finest hiking trails in the Dolomites, on New Zealand's South Island, in Chilean Patagonia and in the North American Rockies.
And, after a lifetime of making dramatic journeys an annual habit, in 2017 he published his first memoir: Way Out There: Adventures of a Wilderness Trekker.
I knew somebody who went to the North Pole in 1909 was a black man. But they never taught us about that in school. I had to find my own inspiration. If I can do it, you can do it
Perhaps most impressively of all though is this: he's just a regular guy from New York. Well, perhaps not so regular. He grew up poor in one of the city's many low-income housing projects with a lot of family love and support, but no money to make his ambitions happen… and the outdoors wasn't even a part of his thinking until the Boy Scouts introduced him to landscapes without pigeons, concrete and cockroaches.
He got a job, earned himself a scholarship and put himself through university at Queen's College. He founded his own marketing company and then settled into a life of work, family, and meticulous planning of audacious adventures all across the planet.
Since 1993 he's been a member of the prestigious Explorer's Club, and in recent years he's dedicated himself to giving motivational talks to schools, clubs and social organisations. JR's message is simple: if he can do it, then you can do it too.
I needed to know what was out there, and to find out by seeing it for myself, up close
Get ready to meet the inspirational JR Harris in Mountain Air episode 8:
00:00 - Introduction
02:35 - Welcome, a native New Yorker with a 50 or 60 Grateful Dead t-shirts
05:45 - Growing up in the projects, "life was tough, but you get a certain knowledge that doesn't come through books or school"
07:40 - A "kicking and screaming" sign up for the Boy Scouts, "it was not compatible with growing up in the city".
09:00 - "The first time I ever saw grass I tried to smoke it"
12:20 - Requisitioning food and heading out into the wild to be alone with nature: "I would spend most of my time in the summer off by myself"
14:00 - "There were very few black kids there. It was probably a combination of parents who couldn't afford it, and a crazy notion that Boy Scouts wasn't really the kind of thing that a black kid from the street in New York city would want to be in. That was the mindset back then".
15:05 - "I was a different guy when I came back… and I got a lot of respect somehow".
16:45 "My folks told me when I was young that they would give me everything they could that I would need to be successful. But they also told me that everything they gave me would not be enough, and that if I wanted to fulfil my dreams - whatever they may be - I was pretty much going to have to make that happen", working, being awarded a scholarship and attending Queen's College to study Psychology.
20:40 - First travels: "a piece of crap Volkswagen Beetle" and a 9,000 mile road trip as far north as roads go, 120 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska ("there would be no vehicles between me and the North Pole").
23:50 - "I want to know what's behind those mountains. I want to know what rivers, valleys and wildlife… and what it's like to be back there."
26:00 - "... sitting on the back of my car holding two coins: a quarter and a dime. And that 35 cents was the last money I had."
30:20 - A career in market research, starting a business "Don't convince yourself that it's impossible. If you want to do it, just figure out how to do it and go do it". JRH Marketing Services is now "the oldest African-American-owned marketing consulting firm in the United States".
33:40 - Mixing multi-week global trips with an adult life ("it's funny how they add up to 50 so quickly")
36:30 - What makes it special to travel alone? ("I've never been lonely out there, and I've never come back early from a trip")
40:20 - "I'm a curious guy with a valid credit card"
44:00 - "The smartest thing I ever did in all these trips was to keep a journal… now I'm pushing 80 I'm still doing trips, I'm still writing journals"
46:18 - Contrasting the different environments around the world.
49:00 - "I plan very intricately, and I take the time to send away for topo maps", researching long-distance trips in the pre-internet age.
51:10 - Gear chat, testing outdoor kit for Backpacker magazine ("nobody can tell me my pack is too heavy, because nobody's carrying it but me")
54:50 - "I'm using the same Thermarest mattress that I was using in 1980"
55:45 - Hand-rolled cigars and a pint of Cognac ("it's going to last you 18 days")
59:30 - Is there anyone that's inspired you? "To be totally honest: no. And the reason is: there was nobody. I always wanted to be an explorer, but there was never any explorer I could look up to. I knew somebody like Matthew Henson who went to the North Pole in 1909 was a black man. But they never taught us about that in school. I heard about (Robert) Peary, but I never knew there was a guy with him that looked like me… I had to find my own motivation, I had to find my own inspiration"
61:30 - Motivational talks to New York schools: "If I can do it, you can do it"
66:45 - Greatest mountain memory… 10 March 1992, losing the trail, a backpack, a lot of body heat, and nearly everything in the mountains of south-west Tasmania ("the hardest trip I ever did, by the way").
71:15 - All the time, money, freedom… what would you do? Five places: the top of Everest, the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the North Pole, the South Pole, the moon.
- Find out all about JR Harris at jrinthewilderness.com
Mountain Air podcast is made, recorded, hosted, edited, released and occasionally sworn at by Dan Aspel (he didn't, however, do the theme tune). Dan has teamed up with UKHillwalking to produce a new series, his second, and we'll be publishing regular episodes over the next few months. You can listen to the ten episodes of his first series here: