One of the many joys that brings me out of the doldrums of the backpedaling, the obstacles to overcome and the deals to be done prior to starting an expedition are the incredibly special people I get to meet along the way. In March, I met both Elon Musk and the American who’s spent the most time in space - Captain Michael Lopez-Alegria - albeit under circumstances I didn’t at all expect.
I met Mr. Lopez-Alegria at the Explorer’s Club Annual Dinner, my first time experiencing what it was like to be in the presence of so many fascinating people all at once. This particular year was focused very heavily on space travel, although it must be said that I loved it when Sylvia Earle got on stage and brought it back down to Earth and exploring our oceans. I think she said something along the lines of “Guys, there’s still a lot left to do down here!” It was great. It was grounding. Talking about the culmination of all of these incredible people’s sacrifices, research and exploration fills me with what can only be described as hope. And awe, there was definitely a lot of awe. Nothing moreso than when then the Master of Ceremonies, Brian Greene - and incredibly hilarious string theorist (I feel like you have to have a great sense of humor to be successful in that field) - asked for some audience participation. To paraphrase, it went something like this:
Can everyone in the room [of 1000+ people] who’ve been to space, please stand up. Can everyone who’s been to the bottom of an ocean, please stand….
And it went on from there… By the end there was at least 50 people standing in the room, all of whom had such an incredible life and a long-lasting impact.
I want to be one of them.
I digress. The purpose of this story was to show you what a comedy of errors my life can be by virtue of my mouth. The real story begins in January 2013, it was when I met the two men who nominated me for membership into the Explorer’s Club: Chris Welsh, a guy who’s going to take Steve Fosset’s submarine to the deepest part of every ocean (no big deal) and Don Walsh. And because I think the underlying theme of being hugely embarrassed suits the story, I’ll tell you a brief story about how we met.
I was in San Francisco at the time with my ocean rowing boat, the Limited Intelligence. Aptly named, I know, but I can’t take credit for creating it, only keeping it. That honor goes to the dry British humor of Paul Williams and his crew, the original rowers of the boat prior to myself. I was in the graciously donated temporary dry docks at the St. Francis Yacht Club measuring out all of my line, cleaning my boat and generally taking care of the most tedious parts of boat ownership throughout that whole day.
It was coming on 8 pm at night, when a car drove by, a guy cracked a window and said, “Hello. What the hell is that?”
I told him it was my ocean rowing boat, he closed the window and to my surprise, parked the car and came over to talk more. To anyone that’s met Chris, he’s kind of gargantuan in size - - an imposing figure to say the least (especially when he dons a tux with red tails at the ECAD dinners). Next to him was Don Walsh, who in my absolute historical infancy, I did not know at the time. We chatted casually, me squatting on my rough-looking dry-docked boat in a sweat suit and both of them looking on and smiling, probably ironically. I told them my story in brief and then asked them what they did - the embarrassment begins.
Chris told me (and I think I can quote this directly) that they were both “explorers, of sorts” as well, and handed me his card, and then I turned my attention to the 70-year-old Don Walsh and asked what he did. Yeah, I asked Don Walsh, world renowned oceanographer and the first man to dive to the depths of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, what he had explored. While squatting on a boat. In a sweat pants. It was not my proudest moment, to say the least. I asked him what he’d done most recently and he mentioned he’d been on a boat in the Antarctic.
I said, “Oh, I know some guys who run dive rescue boats on research vessels down there - what’s the name of the boat?” “The Lindblad” “The National Geographic Boat?” “Yes” “What were you doing on board there?” “Some presentations.”
Yeah, some presentations. Now that I know Chris much better, I can categorically say he was laughing at me. They had to run into dinner, they were meeting a group of people and bid me adieu. I called my father immediately and told him the names - and he said, “You just met DON WALSH?!” He told me about him, then I googled, the entire time growing more and more horrified. At the same moment, Chris walked back outside and said, “I don’t think you know who that was, do you?”
Before he could even finish, I was spouting apologies and turning beet red. A 20-something-year-old jerk is what I felt like. Chris’s response was to invite me to dinner with them. Again, I was wearing a sweat suit. The St. Francis is one of the top 10 yacht clubs in the entire world. Good thing I was living out of my truck traveling like a vagrant at that point to get the boat in order. I quickly changed in the truck (it’s tinted), although not much could be said for the state of my hair after spending all day adjacent to San Francisco Bay in January. I got to sit at a table with Chris, Don, an artist that pioneered removing air bubbles from plastics, a man building autonomous submersibles and a female sailor competing in the next Olympics. And to this day, despite somehow managing to make very close friends out of Tina and Chris through that blundering experience, I can’t get over the fact that I asked Don Walsh what he did.
Now that I’ve painted an appropriate picture for you around my obvious foot-in-mouth disease (pun intended), I can get back to the Explorer’s Club Dinner. The average age was a bit higher than mine at the event, I wasn’t near the playing field that anyone else was. I felt like a complete amateur. I did get to say hi to Don again, thank him for the nomination and apologize profusely again (as I always will). He congratulated me on getting in [to the Explorer’s Club] and said something to the effect of “now go do some good.” Words to live by.
I loved each speaker, everyone of them brought an energy of hope and vigor to what they said. And steadfastness. I recognized it immediately because it’s how I feel when I set my mind to do something that others can’t fathom. Elon Musk’s presentation had all of those things, but I’d also done some homework on him. My initial interest was in the alternative green energy many of his businesses were focused around like Tesla and Solar City. Green energy drives all of my expeditions and I value people who take active steps in moving us as a global society toward all forms of green energy as a primary rather than alternative source of fuel.
I wanted to meet him. I thought about it all night and, after befriending some other younger people who, like me, felt like chicks fallen from the nest, I finally had my chance. There was an almost paradoxical dance floor in a side room off the main ballroom. They were playing 1990s rap. I had to go in. The gal from the young couple I’d been hanging out with grabbed my arm and said, “Look! It’s Elon Musk! You have to go talk to him.” There was a man standing by the bar adjacent to the dance floor. It was Elon. I couldn’t bring myself to at first; I was incredibly nervous. Cliff jumping, sky diving, space travel, whatever-brings-you-the-most-anxiety sort of nervous. But, as I’ve been told by a psychologist friend, I like to “flood” my brain in order to get over anxiety. Which means doing that thing immediately to face the fear of it, sometimes over and over and over again. Trust me, I hate myself for it at first every single time, but it’s the only way I know how to process and get over the anxiety.
I took one last ill-fated sip of my drink and walked over to the man who was laughing at the dance floor and blurted something along the lines of
"Mr. Musk, I just want to say it is an absolute pleasure to meet you and I’m in awe of the work you are doing to move our planet away from fossil fuels." Without missing a beat, the man who I thought was Elon, said "Oh, thank you, it’s nice to meet you, too. I’ll tell Elon you said that."
Horror ensued. It was not Elon.
I stammered, “Oh my gosh, you aren’t Elon Musk? You look just like him.” The man laughed and said, “No I presented right before him, but thank you for confusing us - Elon’s only 40 something - I take it as a compliment. My name is Michael [Lopez-Alegria].”
He shook my hand. I blushed profusely. The man who’s clocked the most consecutive days in space for an American, who’s got the second longest space walk in history, who’s been on 10 space walks and 4 missions, who’s parameters for staying calm under pressure are beyond 99.9% of our species- - - that’s the man who I confused with someone else.
There few expletives that can describe the level of embarrassment I felt, so it wouldn’t do the situation justice to try to formulate a phrase.
The only thing I could say in the moment was, “You don’t look a day over 40 to me.” He laughed, I cried (on the inside). And because all of my oblivious cards were already on the table, I told him I’d have to blog about the moment. He handed me his card and offered, “I’d like to read that when you finish it. Email it to me.”
It’s taken me a while to get around to quantifying the humility of it all, but I hope I’ve done it justice. Life’s a string of moments and I dedicate that one to the charm, ease, humor and humbleness of Capt. Lopez-Alegria.
To Michael, thank you for putting up with me that evening and I’ll never make the same mistake twice [with you].