The World Is Just Barely Enough

by Jeannette Cooperman
published in St. Louis Magazine
May 29, 2009

John Wall—cliff-scaler, car-racer, skydiver—is convinced we’re all extremophiles. (Perhaps he’s projecting.)

We’re in the dining room of the Racquet Club East, John Wall’s laptop open on the white linen tablecloth. At the top of the screen, a tiny skier pushes off, whooshing down a 60-degree slope in what’s almost a free-fall. It’s controlled, though—has to be; jagged rocks edge the narrow, twisting path of smooth white snow. Behind the skiier, a shadow follows, an exaggerated gray echo of the helicopter that hovers, ready to pick him up at the bottom. Ascent would be impossible.

Wall clicks to a second video, and I watch him jump from a plane, sense the two extra seconds he waits before pulling the parachute release. Then come a series of photographs: Wall at a North Pole research station. In a whiteout on the Matterhorn. Hanging on to the tail of an airplane as it flips in midair. Climbing over the bridge railing to jump into Idaho’s Snake River Canyon. Running off a cliff in Mexico.

The waiter returns to inquire what kind of salad dressing Mr. Wall would like.

“Oh, just something light,” he says. “Something that won’t kill me.”

Wall moved to St. Louis in 2000, stalled for six years (there was always another mountain to climb), then entered Washington University School of Law at the age of 31. By then he’d also written to Lotsie Hermann Holton, granddaughter of Gussie Busch, to inquire about joining the legendary Explorers Club.

Holton, then president of the club’s St. Louis chapter, has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, summited Kala Patthar, tracked lowland gorillas in the Congo, and flown a Russian fighter jet to 80,000 feet, reaching Mach 2.6. “He found me on the Internet,” she recalls, and reads the letter aloud: “Dear Mrs. Holton, my name is John Wall… My credentials as an adventurer are somewhat more interesting…” She rattles off his list: ski-patrolled in New Zealand and Argentina, flew cargo into Angola, logged 3,000 sport parachute jumps and 6,000 flight miles (the numbers are higher now), filmed aerial stunts, taught wilderness medicine and rescue techniques in Alaska… “I would cherish the opportunity to meet you over lunch and discuss the possibilities, however remote,” she finishes. “He’s humble, too! Oh, and I met him, and his family knew everyone I know in Memphis, and he’s such a personable guy. So once I knew he was legit, I submitted him for membership.”

Members of the century-old club have been first to the North Pole, first to the South Pole, first to the summit of Mount Everest, first to the deepest point of the ocean, first to the surface of the moon. “Gretchen [Freund] is just off to Mongolia,” Holton remarks, “where horses are going extinct. She lives there with the reindeer people.”

No one outside the club is quite sure what the membership criteria are, and application is a grueling process: “It took one woman eight years to muster the courage and the materials to apply,” Holton confides, “and the last guy up Everest didn’t get in.”

Wall, however, did.

“We often meet here,” he tells me, leading the way across the club’s dark lobby to point out the table where Charles Lindbergh proposed his transatlantic flight. “It’s the perfect place for the Explorers: It has the breakaway rugged individualism and also a slight cultural elitism that goes along with it.”

“I was always drawn to folks who explored the wilderness,” Wall says. “The one I most remember, because it got me a trip to the psychiatrist when I was 10, was Roald Amundsen, who led the first expedition to reach the South Pole.”

Amundsen prepared for the expedition by fasting, letting snowballs melt in his hands, and sleeping with his windows wide open in the dead of winter. Young John opened his windows, too—but he was in Memphis. So he clutched ice and stopped eating dinner, and his mother hauled him off to the doctor. Diagnosis: an overactive imagination.

His godfather fed that imagination. Lucius Burch, a lawyer who once represented Martin Luther King Jr., was also an amateur explorer who flew a single-engine plane to South America and searched underwater for a scuttled slave ship. “He used to take me traipsing around with him,” Wall says. “We searched the Mississippi River for pirate treasure, whether there was any or not. My title on the boat was the Grand Assistant Luggage Tender and Distinguished Neat Scotch Mixer.”

Burch’s lineage rivaled the Kennedys’, but his friend Jack Wall, John’s father, had grown up “in a one-room, dirt-floor house in Arkansas, with a very young mother and a drunk for a father. He was a World War II pilot, fearless,” Wall says. “But he was trapped by his Depression-era work ethic and his attempts to build his empire.”

Wall’s mother, on the other hand, was one of those wonderful anomalies: a well-bred young woman from an old Memphis family who explored Europe alone, worked as a canoe guide on the river, and was one of the first 100 women in the world to learn to fly a helicopter.

Studious and methodical, she was regularly exasperated by her firstborn, who is, as his younger brother, David, puts it, “the poster child for ADD. He was voted the most intelligent in his high-school class, but he graduated with a C average because he’d never turn his homework in. Not too long ago, one of his friends said John called him up and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing this weekend?’ The guy said, ‘I’m going to Europe with you, you jackass!’ John had forgotten all about it.

“He’s great to know at first,” David adds, “and then he’s a pain in the ass, and then you learn to appreciate him. He’s quirky as hell, but he’s the most charismatic person you’ll ever meet.”

As kids, inspired by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, the brothers built a primitive raft and wound up paddling alongside as it sank. But by high school, they were flying one of their dad’s planes (he owned aerospace companies) to Colorado for weekend ski trips. They’d fly back Monday at daybreak and shower in the school locker room.

Their father didn’t heap cautions on their heads; instead, he gave them dizzying freedom, the only counterweight his emphasis on responsibility and self-reliance. Again and again, he’d warn them that “nothing is more pathetic than self-pity.”

And so, at 17, Wall took his multiple-engine licensing exam in his old man’s King Air. He managed the huge craft fine, but on his return flight, the electrical system failed. No landing gear descended. The radio went dead. He kept circling the tower, trying to hand-crank the landing gear down. Finally, he grabbed the clunky, early-model mobile phone and called the operator to get the tower’s land line. The air-traffic controller talked him down (it took 300 cranks; the manual had said 50). Emergency vehicles were waiting on the airstrip, and someone had called Wall’s father at his office.

“He didn’t come,” Wall says, his expression hard to read. “He told them, ‘John will know how to handle it.’”

One of his photos is of a cliff in Mexico, the treetops so far below, they photograph as a green mist. That’s all you see, rock and mist—unless you pull out a magnifying glass and find the speck of orange clinging to the side of the cliff, halfway down. Wall.

There are dares, guns, hunting trophies, scars he won’t discuss—yet what he seeks from his adventures is not machismo. It’s the sensation of being very small, dwarfed by nature’s immensity. Skydiving, for example, he describes as “a very relaxed feeling of being in control but not being in control at the same time. There are things that are bigger than me that I can’t overcome and things inside me that want to be bigger than me—laziness, distraction—that I can overcome.”

Isn’t it perhaps a bit foolhardy, all that risk?

“I always go into things as prepared as possible. If I am responsible for people, I am extraordinarily cautious. I’ve never had anybody seriously hurt in any of the trips I’ve led. When it’s just me and a couple buddies, we will often take greater risk—but it’s always measured.”

Might he have a bit of a death wish? “It’s a life wish,” he corrects. “If we are not growing and expanding, our humanity has died. I often think that if an alien were looking down, humans would resemble ants; our coming and going has become so repetitive.”

But repetition can be soothing…and safe.

“The only thing I get about that,” he tells me, “is the value of the human relationships you form in that sort of existence. Or the learning that can be done; an academic is no less an adventurer than Sir Edmund Hillary.” He shakes his head. “But the being content with what you are and being so terrified of discomfort—that, I don’t get.”

A few years ago, he decided he’d grown too comfortable always being the expert. “So I tried to find something I had very little interest in and would be very bad at doing: golf.” And how did he do? “Horribly,” he says happily. “I’m a miserable golfer. Every time I went, I was the worst in the group. I got myself comfortable with not being in charge.”

And does he still play?

“No. It’s too slow.”

Arctic sunrises, whitewater froth—as he clicks through photos, I murmur, “So beautiful… That light!… Amazing!” I sound like a bad and possibly drunk poet. Wall just shrugs. “I’m not one to sit around and fawn over sunsets,” he says. “Nature’s something to be lived in and used.”

So maybe—I need a theory here—he’s an adrenaline junkie? “I think that’s cheapening it,” he says slowly. “For the most part, people who place themselves in these situations are those who are the best equipped for self-denial and the least affected by addiction. For all the endorphins you get at the top of a summit, there are hours and hours of misery. For that brief moment of endorphins, I wouldn’t do it. It’s actually the misery that draws me to it.”

His personality’s a tug of extremes, held in careful check. He’ll freeze or roast for days, happily doing without plumbing or a pillow, yet he orders his shaving cream from England. “I’m very sensitive to the need for sensory comfort,” he admits. “The thing I hate—more than anything else in the world, other than being told what to do—is need. I try to eliminate every sense of need from my life, turn every need into a want so I can take it or leave it.”

His grin’s reluctant, conspiratorial. “I’m not an ascetic. I just require myself to have the abilityto be one.”

Wall’s eyes, a clear sea green edged darker green, glow when he talks about carrying a stretcher out of Death Canyon in Wyoming. “There’s nothing more exciting than battling the elements and battling death at the same time,” he says. Yet he complains bitterly about the people in Hurricane Katrina who “didn’t do anything to help themselves, just stood and waited for government to come and protect them.

“We as a society overvalue human life,” he says abruptly. “The most disgusting thing I’ve ever read is the lyrics to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine,’ where there’s nothing to live or die for, nothing bigger than you.”

He’s an elitist but not a snob; his yardsticks are strength and courage, not money or blood. “I’ve been on a ski trip with an Italian count and a couch-surfing ski instructor, and I have never recognized those things as differentiating,” he remarks. And yet he finds the idea of equality, the idea of a sort of sameness or necessary fairness, “unpleasant, because it takes away the chance to succeed or fail.

“It’s easy for me to say that, being born into the degree of privilege I was born into,” he concedes. “But I’m espousing my father’s philosophy, and he grew up in very mean circumstances.”

“Doesn’t inequity bother you?” I ask, thinking of his Porsche and his planes, and how different his life would be if he’d been born in Somalia, maybe to an HIV-positive mother, in a village hard hit by civil war.

“Equity bothers me. We’re not supposed to be equal. Can you imagine how reprehensibly dull things would be if everyone had an equal measure of talent and ability?” He looks into the distance. “What I like is the greatest amount of individual choice and individual responsibility. People need to be able to fail and suffer consequences, otherwise there’s no drive to push past it.”

So would he take the ultimate risk, give up his wealth and live in poverty? “Absolutely not. Because that eliminates choice.”

In this shot, the sky’s a Disney blue, and Wall is floating, his body horizontal, his left hand holding a novice jumper steady, his right curled into a fist against the rush of air.

“It feels like swimming,” he says. “And then you’re falling at about 120  miles an hour, and the first jumps go by like that [he snaps his fingers], because your senses are so overwhelmed. There’s nothing in the world that feels like it. Now, after 3,000 jumps, I feel like I’m hanging up there all day. But the first time, I was acutely alert; I think I probably left fingernail marks down the side of the plane.”

Cute but not true, I decide. Then I remember that he was terrified of heights as a boy—“afraid of climbing trees,” his brother snorts.

Wall nods. “Every time I would feel that fear welling up,” he says, “I would cram myself into it as full force as I possibly could. Now, I couldn’t tell you if the sensation I get is a fear or a lust.”

Maybe he did leave those fingernail marks.

Wall and two friends were climbing the Matterhorn, trying to be the first that year to reach the summit, when a storm blew up without warning and whited out everything around them. The wind was about 75 knots (86.4 mph), Wall says, and they made a sort of last-statement video diary: “We’re headed out, and we’re not sure where we’re going.” They finally backed off; the summit wasn’t reached for several more weeks.

“It’s usually the disastrous trips that are the most memorable,” he says now. “There have been plenty of easy summits, bluebird ski trips when the conditions are perfect, skies are blue, the fun is memorable, and that’s about it.”

Wall likes adversity. He thinks we need it. “There are creatures in nature called extremophiles that are biologically designed to thrive in difficult conditions,” he says, “and they languish in more moderate conditions. I think the human species is extremophile. We’re like the wild turkey: Ben Franklin wanted it to be the national bird, because it’s very intelligent and very tough and agile. However, when it’s domesticated, it becomes inept. A domesticated turkey will eat itself to death or drown in heavy rains by looking up.

“If you look at what we call our Great Generation,” he continues, “it was the generation that faced the most adversity. People are more neighborly in times of adversity; they are happier. Their choices are reduced; they are made more pertinent and more logical. When there is no adversity, we lose the ability to grow.”

I am beginning to have dark thoughts about this man’s guts and gusto. With a delicate shudder of schadenfreude, I imagine him clinically depressed, unable to trade his bathrobe for an anorak.

“Nah,” his brother says. “You’ll never see him upset for more than five minutes. Even when things are bad, he finds something funny about it. He’ll say, ‘I don’t want to live in a world where things go my way all the time; what’s fun about that?’”

But what if the serotonin fails him someday? What if something so awful happens that it zaps his will to explore?

“Describe the loss that would occur,” Wall says, his voice low but the challenge unmistakable. “Because I’ve lost 25-plus friends or family members to death.”

O-kay.

Wall has no regrets, but he has had a couple of “Shit, I shouldn’t have done this” moments. Like the time Hurricane Ivan whipped North Carolina’s Nantahala River, normally a docile Class II river, into a monstrous fury, swollen 23 feet above flood stage, and there was Wall, kayaking with two buddies, Eric Snyder and Dave Pederson, whom he met when he moved to St. Louis.

“The minute I moved from the still water into the current and felt its speed and warmth—it’s normally very cold and clear, and it was warm and muddy brown, so I knew there was a whole lot of extra water, and it was moving at a high speed—I knew we had made a very big mistake,” he says. “But there was no place to exit. I looked over at Eric and kind of grinned and said, ‘This was a terrible idea.’ He called me an unpleasant name, and Dave just sort of grinned and said, ‘Well, at least we’re having fun.’”

They made it, swept alongside roofs and cars and dead cows—and wound up rescuing the only other person fool enough to be out there, the owner of a rafting company who’d lived there 15 years and never seen the water anywhere near that high. “We peeled ourselves out of the water and then saw him, wedged into the opposite bank. He had a broken femur, and he was hypothermic, pretty much out,” Wall says. “We ended up backboarding him on a boat, using it as a long body splint.”

He pauses.

“It was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken.”

Wall still can’t quite believe Snyder got married. “John’s got a new girlfriend all the time,” Wall’s brother sighs. “Sometimes he’s got one driving in someplace and another one driving out. He’s always on the lookout for something exciting, and they can’t keep up with him.”

They try, though; can’t help it. He’s handsome, and his gallantry’s not overdone or flourishy, but he’s always paying attention. “He gets out of the car and helps little old ladies—it’s almost embarrassing,” his brother says.

Wall insists he’s a romantic at heart—and says he probably romanticizes adventure, too. “There’s not much utility in what I do—unless you add the utility of joy, which I think is the ultimate utility. Other, perhaps, than honor.”

His Southern disingenuousness lets him say things like “I just love little critters” with a straight face. Still, he’s blunt. Asked how women react to him, he groans. “Do we have to get into that?” Long silence. “I tend to be appreciated in the immediate and loathed in the long term.” A moment of silence. “You can call it being set-in-your-ways or selfish,” he says finally, “but I’ve never been likely to put off the pursuits of the lifestyle I like to lead for the sake of any sort of relationship.”

(A month later, he makes sure to email a caveat: “Recently began seeing a very remarkable girl—don’t want to elaborate too much yet, but it may prove to be significant in one way or another.”)

Wall’s brother “got a wild hair” and joined the Army Special Forces. “George Bush used to go over and hang out with them,” Wall says, pointing to a photo of his brother with the recent president. “And here’s a buddy of mine hitting a golf ball off a chunk of Saddam’s grass.”

Wall took the shot; he spent last summer in Iraq with a private military company. “I can’t talk a lot about Iraq,” he says, and clicks to the next photo: explorer Steve Fossett’s memorial service. Wall flew out to New Mexico to help look for him.

Next to all this, you’d think law school would have proven too tame. Or impossible, given his ADD. “Law I find very interesting, and the things I don’t, I avoid,” he explains. “One thing I like about intensity is, it commands focus. When I’m bored, my brain almost itches.”

His classmate Daniel Tierney remembers the first day of law school: “We go around introducing ourselves, and John gets up, with this Southern drawl that’s right out of a John Grisham novel, and says he’s been living in Alaska for the past 10 years and skydiving and flying planes in the bush. He drives sexy cars, he jumps out of airplanes. I’ll say I might visit my parents in Wisconsin, if we have a long weekend, and John’s flying to Monte Carlo to drive race cars.”

Tierney’s politics are about 179 degrees from Wall’s: “His is not a code everyone can live by. It’s more of an ideal. He expresses a lot of frustration with what he deems a welfare state; it’s hard for him dealing with people who have received things they don’t deserve. If there’s one argument you could make against him, it’s that his upbringing…well, that he’s a bit out of touch.

“But it’s hard,” Tierney adds quickly, “to argue with how the man has lived his life. He doesn’t often say things and not back them up. We were volunteering at a group home for troubled students, the kids were rowdy and throwing books, and I don’t want to say I was scared, but… I was kind of scared. The first thing John does is lift up his shirt and show them this long scar up the side of his body.” Tierney pauses. “He acknowledges that he’s lived a fairly charmed life. But he still felt obligated to go out and make something of himself. If he had this ‘Let them eat cake’ attitude and didn’t have the scars…”

Tierney’s prepared to admit Wall’s extreme: “He’s the only person I know who has his blood type tattooed on his arm and tattoos on his feet indicating that he shouldn’t be resuscitated. He’s nuts. But he’s not a caricature. He’s a real person with real beliefs.”

John Kershman, an attorney who coaches Wash. U.’s national moot court team, was struck by Wall’s ease in difficult team situations, his courtesy and lack of ego. Asked to name one of Wall’s flaws, Kershman hesitates, then says, “Maybe he speaks his mind more than people are prepared to deal with it.”

That might be an understatement.

“I’m constantly being punched in the ribs by friends and told to tune up my appropriateness meter,” Wall says with a grin. “Politically, I’m to the right of Genghis Khan, and I’ll often say things that, especially at Wash. U., are extraordinarily unpopular.” He regularly dismisses suggestions that he enter politics: “I’m too irascible.”

Instead, he graduated this May and went to work for his friend Doug Morriss’ private-equity firm, tickled by the idea of flying around in the company helicopter. Yet he’s also helping with the defense of Johnny Briscoe, who was unjustly imprisoned for 23 years. “Even though he’s been grievously wronged, there’s no sense of entitlement on his part, and that makes me very excited to help fight for him,” Wall says. Oh, and in his spare time? He’s launching an archaeological expedition to the Himalayas to search for Allied aircraft missing since World War II.

This last photo looks like bad irony: blue sky and fluffy clouds and bright-colored jackets, happy as a children’s book, in a memorial jump for dead skydivers.

“A plane crash down in Sullivan, Mo., killed a bunch of my friends,” Wall says. “I ended up speaking at five funerals in four days. There was an engine failure, just very bad circumstances all at once. Had I not been out of town mountain climbing, I probably would have been with them.”

He says it calmly, no drama. Later, asked if he thinks he’ll fear death when he gets old, he says, “I fear getting older. I don’t fear death. I firmly believe that if I know it’s coming, I’ll be excited.” Dopamine, I remind myself. I’ve just read a theory—Wall would hate it—that explorer types are bold because there’s an abundance of dopamine flooding their neural circuitry, propelling them into the unknown.

He couldn’t care less. “Death’s something no one has ever explored and told about, except the occasional loonies you hear on the Discovery Channel,” he says eagerly. “So if I have the cognitive ability, I’ll meet it with a grin.” I must look dubious. “My primary sorrow will be the pain it will cause my loved ones,” he adds hastily, “and the fact that I enjoy things so much here. But if the enjoyment is what puts me in that situation?”

He shrugs. “That’s the cost of the ticket.”

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