Thursday, October 2, 2008

Steve Fossett

Searchers have found the wreckage of missing adventurer Steve Fossett's aircraft, high in a remote part of California's Sierra Nevada mountains.

So far they haven't located his remains.

On September 3, 2007 Fossett took off from an airstrip in Nevada and disappeared into history - I thought that was somehow a fitting end.

On February 15 of this year, he was declared legally dead after one of the largest and longest search efforts in history. The search resumed Wednesday last, after a hiker found Fossett's pilot license and other identification while hiking far off the beaten path in the area around Yosemite National Park

I'm of two minds about this.

I very much admired Steve Fossett. Mild mannered and a genuinely nice guy, in our modern age, he was an anachronism, an adventurer and explorer on par with the great names of history, James Cook, Roald Amundsen, Richard Byrd, Robert Peary, Sir Henry Stanely, Ernest Shackleton, and all those others who set out into the unknown and for far horizons - many never to be seen again. Fossett set many records in the air and on the earth, but he discovered no new lands and journeyed to no new worlds, and in that way he was more like Robin Lee Graham who set out as a teenager to sail around the world in a tiny sloop called Dove, or perhaps the person he most resembles is Amelia Earhart, who also disappeared on a flight over unknown territory.

In recent years, the horizons of our universe have become close and small, there are few places on our tiny world that you can go and not find prior evidence of man. There are very few places on the Earth that we have not been to or looked into with our instruments or explored in detail. We've long since passed the great ages of exploration, and we've long given up grand adventure on strange and distant shores. Oh, there are still frontiers, vast and unknown, out there beyond Earth's puny gravity well, just out of our reach. And we've send robots to see what's out there, mechanical unthinking proxies who dare nothing and feel no wonder or awe and do little to stir the soul. But as a people, we've long given up the thought of exploration and daring and great dreams, and limited ourselves to near Earth orbit.

There are still dreamers though, and men who dare to do more than just dream, and Steve Fossett was one of them.

As I mentioned, I thought it fitting that he should simply vanish into the trackless wilderness, rather than die old and ignobly abed. The word needs legend and mystery, those are the very things that drive us and inspire us to push the boundaries of our world. Fossett spent his entire life inspiring others to seek beyond their self-imposed limits, and I thought it fitting that his death should do the same.

But Steve Fossett left behind many who loved and admired him, and for them today's discovery of his plane's wreckage may bring them solace and closure. His remains have not yet been located, but it is highly unlikely that he survived the crash and it won't be long before his body is found and returned home.

For the rest of us, we are left with one less mystery in the world, one less dreamer, one less adventurer who dared to do things others cannot or will not - and horizons that are just a little smaller and closer.

Voyage well, Steve, wherever you are.


  1. You might be surprised what's sort of under our noses. The seafloor remains a vastly unexplored frontier. And central Africa and South America are still offering up new frontiers that have at most rarely seen humans, if ever. Even places we think we've explored--Antarctica comes to mind--are proving to be mysterious and unvisited (we continue to find complicated and alien worlds within the ice sheets we'd walked over and flew over and thought were "covered"). That's not to diminish the vast frontiers beyond our gravity well; if anything, it's to accenuate them by pointing out that our own world is vaster than we can get our little apish brains around, and the universe is only vaster. We know less than we give ourselves credit for, and wonders remain to be found.

    Fossett, from the sound of things, lived well, and his life celebrated and not mourned. Thank you for the fine tribute.

  2. "Vaster"? That's not even a word, is it? Dammit.

  3. Small mini-tangent..

    Why is it, when asked to name a hero, my children think of Johnny Depp, Nathan Fillion and George Lucas? People who spend their whole lives int he entertainment industry?

    Rather than Fossett, or Richard Branson, or other adventurer. Or a scientist, activist, martyr, revolutionary, tycoon or etc. Because really - what do actors truly contribute to our world at the end of the day, but 1s and 0s on a DVD somewhere?

    Fossett was an awesome man. I hope he and Amelia Earhart are hanging out together at that great saloon in the sky, telling stories with their feet up.

  4. Jeri: is that a bad thing? You sound as if it is.

    One of my heroes is Chuck Jones, because he brought such joy into the world. Sure, MLK is a hero of mine, too, and Charles Darwin. But so is David Gilmour, just because his guitar playing so often has expressed what I felt but couldn't say--especially when I was younger and really needed that to get through living.

    Artists make life bearable and the future worthwhile. Nathan Filion isn't likely to be a hero to me, personally, but I'm not going to knock what he does: the act of merely making somebody happy for the length of a Firefly episode is significant and important and means something, no matter how small it seems.

    One other personal note: tho' I'm likely to curse George Lucas whenever his name comes up these days (that fucking bastard), when I was a kid I wanted to make movies in large part because of what Star Wars did to me when I was five. That obviously didn't happen, but: if I love to write today (and I do) and to make visual images (and I do), it's due in no small part to the ways in which Lucas inspired me when I was a child. Do I think that's as significant as discovering the double-helical structure of DNA or launching the first powered heavier than air flight (or even, for that matter, writing Hamlet? Of course not. But that doesn't make it unimportant to me or to anybody I happen to pass a splinter of joy to in my turn.

    Sorry for the hijack. I can shut up now.

  5. Eric, Jeri - I don't know that popular stars necessarily make poor heroes for young people.

    Some do, some don't. Typically, young people have little or no experience in the world, music and TV and movies nowadays often raise horizons that kids might never otherwise see. Because they have little other points of reference, those media stars (or more realistically, the characters they play) often become people we admire and wish to be. So, from the perspective of opening vistas and driving youngster towards discovering who they truly wish to be, I think that they are indeed a role-model hero-archetype for many of us. For me, it was books - and in particular the Heinlein Juveniles - I don't recall a TV personality or a musician I particularly identified with, but I felt as if I was every protagonist in RAH's YA book, it was if he wrote them with me particularly in mind.

    My admiration for Fossett was not necessarily for the things he did per se, but because he we willing to do them, to push the edges of the envelope, to do the things people said could not be done - because he inspired me, and filled me with wonder and awe for what human beings can accomplish, and for what one man alone can accomplish.

    If a musician or a media personality can inspire other to push beyond their self-imposed boundaries, well, perhaps they too deserve the same admiration.


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