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Thrilling Advice from Peter Heller

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 Peter Heller isn’t one to shy away from an adventure. In fact, he’s made a career out of thrill seeking. Voyaging to Antarctica with eco-pirates, white-water kayaking in Tibet—you name it, he’s likely done it. 

Recently, at our request, he put his survival skills to the test on a 10-day Caribbean cruise for Spirit’s November issue. You can read how he fared here. We caught up with him when he got back to talk about others of his quests for excitement, particularly those we might consider tackling ourselves—emphasis on might. It went a little something like this: 

Austin Morton: Many of your trips seem to take you out of the country. Tell me about some of the domestic adventures you’ve embarked upon—and I’m not talking casseroles.

Peter Heller: I prefer the drink-from-the-fire-hose learning curve. Once, after reading a lot of Louis L’Amour westerns, I bought a couple of horses and set out to ride from Paonia, Colorado, to Wyoming. Did I mention that, other than that one time at summer camp at age 12, I had no riding experience? My neighbor, who’s a rancher, showed me how to put on a bridle and tie on a pack. I practiced around the ranch for a few days, then took off on a monthlong journey. All in all, it was an exquisite trip and a great way to get to know western Colorado. We rode across the Flat Tops. Nobody really knows about them, but they are made up of a high plateau—11,000 feet up at parts—that’s all wooded and rolling and full of lakes. There are herds of elk and good fishing; it was incredible.

AM: What do you recommend for those wanting to experience the Flat Tops, perhaps sans packhorse and tent?

PH: Yes! Trappers Lake Lodge is right there if you’re craving a rustic getaway. You can enjoy all the same scenery without having to sleep under a tarp.

AM: Any other zero-to-hero trips you’d like to share with our readers?

PH: Having ridden a motorcycle around my neighborhood just enough times to get my license, I picked up a huge cruising bike—a Honda Shadow 1100—and rode it from Brooklyn, New York, to Denver, Colorado. I have to tell you, going through the Holland Tunnel was a trip. When I got to the tollbooth on my first morning of riding, traffic backing up behind me, I told the lady, “Give me a second. I’m just not sure what I can let go of.”

AM: Yikes! You really were a novice, huh? Did you get better as the trip progressed?

PH: Somewhat, but not really. I ran into a Hell’s Angel in Nebraska who taught me how to steer. That was pretty cool. I kept going off into the clover leafs on the shoulder, and I couldn’t figure out why. The Hell’s Angel explained to me that I was counter-steering or, in other words, doing the opposite of what I needed to do to keep the bike straight.

AM: If you made the journey again, what would you change?

PH: Everything. I wouldn’t recommend any of that. The way to do it would be to start in Denver and get a cross bike, which maneuvers well on dirt roads. Go on the county roads and the state highways, not the interstates. You could ride from Denver over to Granby and up through Rocky Mountain National Park. That’s what I would do now.

AM: I understand you’re quite the kayak enthusiast. What would you recommend for someone wanting to get his/her feet wet?

PH: The Arkansas River Valley in Colorado has everything from easy Class II and III stuff to a Class V. Go for a day through Browns Canyon. It’s a lot of rollicking white water, and you can get a real feel for a western river. You don’t have to have experience; just show up and take commands from your guide. When you’re done, head to the Mount Princeton Hot Springs.

AM: And for those interested in more than a day’s worth of white water?

PH: The Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, North Carolina, runs raft trips and offers kayak instruction on numerous rivers in the Appalachian Mountains, including the Chattooga River, Cheoah River, Ocoee River, and others. It’s one of the top instructional places in the country. As someone who used to be a guide there, I recommend taking the weeklong kayak class or a white-water canoe class.

Peter Heller’s debut novel, The Dog Stars, is a New York Times best seller. He lives in Denver with his wife.