On a cutover California hillside thick with scrubby redwoods, Scotch broom, and poison oak, Mike Fay missed a step, started to slide, and felt a stiletto jab the top of his left foot. After bushwhacking hundreds of miles in sandals, he was used to such insults to his 52-year-old feet. But this was the mother of all splinters. It bounced off a bone, lodged in a tendon, and refused to come out. Finally his hiking partner, Lindsey Holm, grabbed it with a pair of pliers and after several sharp tugs, yanked it free.
"You could hear me yelling from mountaintop to mountaintop," Fay says. "It was one of the most painful things I've ever experienced." Which is something coming from a man who was once gored 16 times by an elephant. He taped up the wound, shouldered his pack, and as he had for the past three months, kept walking.
After three decades of helping save African forests, Mike Fay, a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist and National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, now has redwoods in his blood. His obsession with the iconic American trees began a few years ago after he completed the Megatransect—his Livingstone-like exploration of the largest intact jungle remaining in Africa. (See the October 2000, March 2001, and August 2001 issues.) One day while driving along the northern California coast, he found himself gazing at swaths of clear-cuts and spindly second-growth forests. Another time in a state park, a six-foot-tall slice of an old redwood log on display caught his attention. Near the burgundy center a label read: "1492 Columbus."