met Mark Hays one drunken December night where even if I could’ve seen four feet in front of me I wouldn’t have been able to due to a blizzard. He had come to Toronto to drive the car-crushing, fire-breathing robot dinosaur, Robosaurus - he was the robo-pilot. After the editor of this publication and I crawled all over the dino, now dormant and curled up kitten-esque on the back of a flatbed, we chanced running (stumbling) into Mark and he took us up to the SkyDome bar to buy us a lot more booze while we took in the demolition derby finale of the monster truck spectacle we were covering. He regaled us with stories of vigilante justice, jumping out of planes, blowing up countless cars while maintaining he just lived a normal life in his mountainside home in the woods outside of Portland.
I called him up to take my drunk memory for a jog and expand on his thrillseeking, on things pretty much everyone I know would be too scared to ever do, and got treated to this plus practical, applicable self-help for all us shit talking ne’er-do-well’s.
What do you think is the craziest stunt you ever pulled?
Let’s see, that would probably be back in the early years, what was I, 26? I was one of the pioneers in the sport of powered hang-gliding and I was invited to participate in the Miss Nude America Pageant. So for a 26 year old guy them saying, “Hey! We’re not going to pay you anything but come and do a show at this nudist colony with your powered hang gliders and you’ll get to watch the Miss Nude America pageant”.
You couldn't say no.
So I get there and there are a bunch of sky divers who were also conned into it in a similar fashion. We’re sitting around talking and they say, you know what, we’re going to sky dive naked. And they said why don’t you fly naked too? Aw man, I didn’t know about that, if I go down, I’m going to get some pretty serious road rash. But we’re sitting around, egging each other on, and I have a harness that covers the front of me so... They sky-dive in naked, land in the pool, and I think great, I am going to do this and it’s going to look great.
So these powered hang gliders back then are foot launched, which basically means it’s a lawnmower engine attached to a propeller and you run as fast as you can to take off.
Did you make it?
Well, that’s where it gets interesting. I took off. I’m flying and the engine starts sputtering on me, it’s only about 50ft above the ground and you have to be higher than that to turn safely, otherwise you go in and crash hard. Back then, your throttle was a giant clothes pin you held in your mouth.
The throttle was in your mouth cause your hands are on the hang glider to fly it, so that was the only available orifice to try and control the throttle. So I’m 50ft up and can’t get any higher, and just flying, flying, flying, now I’ve left the confines of the nudist colony. I proceed across Interstate 10.
And you're naked.
I had shoes on. I continue like this and there’s this big open field and I think ok, there’s no one here I’ll just land and work on the engine quick and get it running decently and try and get back to where I’m supposed to be. So I set up my landing and just as I land, I’m committed, I look off to the side and at this house here’s a whole bunch of cowboys having a cookout.
And this is a really unique device back then and draws a lot of attention. So of course what happens is they all immediately start walking over to me. I face away from them, working on the thing trying to get the engine going and they’re getting closer and closer and finally I just go ok, this is as good as it’s going to get. I pick it up and run with the thing on full power, just running right past and as I go past them they see I’m mooning them. But I get up and back to the nudist colony and get to enjoy the rest of the show.
Well my next question was if you'd ever had any "oh shit" moments but that sure sounds like one.
I’ve had so many. I’ve used fifteen of my nine lives. In high school I was a pole vaulter and in college I was in the very beginning of the sport of hang gliding - which is where I broke my back. It wasn’t a serious one.
I dunno Mark, saying you broke your back is never going to sound serious.
[laughs] Yeah, that hurt. It was doing those types of things and going into doing powered hang glider light shows, landing inside the Rosebowl, landing inside these huge stadiums at night with lasers firing all over the place. Dressing up as Santa and landing in mall parking lots. Doing that you realize there’s money in it, but it’s dangerous as hell and you’d better find something else to do in your spare time. But after doing somewhat legitimate business, and making enough money, that’s when I went into building robots.
Can you describe your ideal day as a daredevil, if money and safety were ensured, were a non-issue?
In the morning I’d go diving and ride a manta ray, with ultra clear visibility, and then I would (later morning) go surfing. Then as the wind came up I’d go kite-boarding on a wave-kite, then later day, after the wind died down, I’d base-jump with a wing suit - which I have not tried by the way, which I don’t think I’d try unless I got terminal cancer - then what would I do at nighttime? Probably at that point go to bed.
I think you'd be pretty tired.
The nighttime activity would probably have to involve my wife at that point.
Just to be fair.
Now that I’m all charged up, adrenaline pumping.
Exact answer I expected from you. Is that the basis for why you've done the things you have? The sense of rush and exhileration?
I think that when you hit these zones where you’re doing these things and you’re functioning at a high level physically and mentally that you feel more alive at that point than you do with anything else you do in life. That is the ultimate draw. Literally time can slow down, and you can feel like everything you do is executed perfectly and is under complete control, that’s the illusion, and sometimes it actually happens.
I read a piece about that, how when the brain is in terror-mode it begins to make note of everything around and happening in excruciating detail, which can give the sense of time slowing down completely. I'm guessing you've had that, what were you doing?
Time-dilation. Times where I’ve really needed it; climbing, hang-gliding where I’ve had to make an instant decision because of a mistake that was made, which allowed me to recover. Those are the only two times where it’s really snapped in and it was instantaneous, there and gone once it wasn’t needed.
I'm a minimal risk taker that's afraid of falling.
Falling and being eaten are probably the two prehistorical fears that are genetically ingrained in huma-
Those are my biggest fears! Eaten by sharks, falling down. I used to have a reccuring nightmare as a kid of both of those things combined in one scenario.
I went diving with thrasher sharks in the Philippines, but to be able to embrace that fear and move past it is empowering. There is an argument that if you are able to push yourself in that realm then being able to push yourself in other areas of life that probably affect your happiness more. It’s a lot easier to say gee, I dove with sharks, so what’s the big deal about going and giving this speech in front of 500 people? It shifts your perspective and it allows you to play with yourself to help you accomplish your goals in life.
What are you gonna do when you're finally done with daredevil stuff?
Oh I’m gonna just sit on my front porch in a rocking chair, talk about the good old days and wink at the pretty girls that walk past - what else is an ex-robot pilot gonna do?
I know you, Mark. You're not doing any of that.
Originally published in Spring 2011, Issue 5.2.