A hilly road in Gladwyne isn’t exactly Death Valley. But the thermometer in my car hit 97 on the way over, and here I was on foot, with a harness around my waist and a chain behind it dragging two car tires, mostly uphill, along the pavement of Conshohocken State Road.
Todd Carmichael had courteously shoved barbell weights and water bottles inside my hollow tires, because I guess having just air in there wasn’t enough to make my little whiff of his world as fun and puke-inducing as it could be. Moving steadily ahead of me, like someone who’d done it before, he was pulling just one tire himself – something off an 18-wheeler truck.
Twenty seconds into the workout, I’d started wondering how many days it would take my legs to recover. A couple minutes in, the way my calves felt made me think of a chicken leg when you’re eating it, tearing the meat off the bone. “The first 10 -minutes – that’s what it feels like for the first three days in Antarctica,” Carmichael told me. And he’d know, because there was that time in 2008 when he walked 690 miles to the South Pole, alone in whiteout weather and subzero temperatures, suffering from frostbite and hallucinations, in 39 days, seven hours and 49 minutes, breaking a world record. “The feeling that you can’t go on any farther, like you’re going to die, is just your body’s way of telling you it doesn’t want to do it,” Carmichael says. “But once it realizes you’re going to do it anyway, it adjusts.”
The road we were on, using tires in the least efficient way possible, was one lane in each direction, so the Audis and Lexuses and SUVs veered around us. A few drivers slowed to joke (“Need me to call Triple A?”) or snap photos. Carmichael, who is co-founder of Philly-based coffee roaster La Colombe Torrefaction, must have looked to some like a heat-induced vision: unshaven, in a desert-style turban, dragging his curious load past the entrance to Beth David synagogue.
At 47, Todd Carmichael plans to spend the last 10 days of September walking across Death Valley on the California-Nevada border, about 155 miles, alone, without help, no cheating. That would be a record – actually, a first. There’s a young stud who claims he was the first to walk Death Valley alone, in 2008, but he’d stashed food and water in caches along the way. Carmichael will carry everything he needs, hundreds of pounds (mostly water), as he did in Antarctica. Actually, he’ll pull it behind him, in a cart he’s designed, and that explains his weeks of tire-pull training and also the turban. Unlike a Phillies cap, he says, a desert turban keeps a layer of water on your head, and that conserves maybe a liter a day, about 20 fewer pounds of water to carry.
Carmichael has been asked The Question – Why? – often enough that he has a handy selection of explanations, any of them plausible. There’s the Because it’s there: “If you suddenly got wings, wouldn’t you wonder how high you could fly? Well, you have legs.” There’s the response-to–modern-life: “Most people never have the opportunity to focus on just one thing for a month or two. Normally, your life is fragmented into a million pieces. And so you never get to know what your potential is.”
His wife, Lauren Hart (yes, in addition to owning a swank coffee company and conquering Earth’s frontiers, he’s married to the cute blond musician who sings the anthem at Flyers games), says, “His philosophy is he just wants to be the last guy standing, whether it’s in business, in coffee. He’ll outlast you.”
Anything else? “A lot of men fall asleep in their 40s,” he told me. “And that’s scary shit, man. I take out the recycling, I cook on the weekends, I pack lunches, teach my kids how to swim and ride bikes – it’s all important stuff. But some men just start dozing off, and you gotta put some fuel on the fire, dude, or it’s just checkout time. If you want to shake yourself awake, rip yourself out of everything that’s seemingly comfortable and drop yourself in the middle of somewhere where it’s just, like, Oh my God. And you wake up.”
Carmichael has willed himself across Antarctica and a dozen deserts. He’s traveled the globe working for a Saudi prince, spent months on a desolate South Sea island, tracked elephants in Namibia, worked to save orangutans in Borneo. He’s a gearhead who has designed a revolutionary tankless espresso machine, aimed at the world’s top kitchens, code-named La Bestia (The Beast). He supports coffee growers around the equator. He adopted three daughters from Ethiopia. It’s an epic storybook.
“When I look at him in social settings with men who are his age, I see the looks in their eyes,” says Hart.
It’s great to be restless. Right? To not be sleepy, to crave another adventure story before bedtime. But what if it’s a curse, too? To journey to the ends of the Earth, almost die, beat back everything the world throws at you … and then somehow not be done. To need to go back out for more.
If this is a movie, here’s where the screen goes white. Carmichael is in Antarctica. November and December, 2008. That’s summertime, 24/7 daylight.
“Most days it’s all white, even the sky,” he says, sitting at his desk in La Colombe’s factory in Port Richmond. “You’re in a bubble. There is no reference. … It’s blowing at 40, 50 nauts, and it’s 40, 50 below zero. You have these illusions of what it will be like, and then that first day you just get the shit kicked out of you. Ninety percent of guys call in: Come get me.” In 2007, he’d been one of those guys – about a month in, he’d called for help.
Before leaving this time, he’d arranged to bring a video camera. Nancy Glass’s production company in Bala Cynwyd specializes in reality TV and had Survivor honcho Mark Burnett interested. Reality shows can be more show than reality, though. Glass says tactfully that she and Carmichael “didn’t want to change [the expedition] for what a television network wanted.” Carmichael says, less tactfully: “We could have made some chintzy fuckin’ reality thing.” Instead they decided to make a movie. Glass is shopping Race to the Bottom of the World to film festivals now.Carmichael checked in daily from the big chill via satellite phone – calling Lauren and leaving audio messages for his blog:
Day 4: What’s left of my binding is destroyed. … Trying to jury-rig … to get this binding going … watchband, wire … I just keep telling myself it can’t be over. There’s gotta be a way to fix this. I got so much work into this thing, years of effort. Moving forward without a ski on your foot is almost impossible.
Day 7: Last night was probably the coldest night I’ve ever spent on Earth. It was just brutal [coughs]. Sorry. I stepped outside to find absolutely zero visibility. I mean, I couldn’t see a foot in front of my face. I waited for about an hour and then finally ventured out into it against my better judgment.
A month in, reduced to walking instead of skiing, he’d started referring to his supply sled as Betty the Pig and treating her as a travel companion. “You download all the things you don’t want to own yourself onto this object – worries, stresses, fears,” he explains. “You become the leader, and you constantly begin talking to the sled until it becomes an identity: No, you can’t come in here, the tent is just for humans, ha ha.”
Day 28: It’s Todd Carmichael and the famous pig. December 8. Strong day today for the pig and I. We’re a little bit physically beat up, but mentally we are there. We’re both focused and we’re ready. Soon we’ll make history.
By the time he had the Pole complex in sight, he was delirious. “I saw my grandfather’s house. Everything was green. I was walking in the fields,” he says. The snow was soft – not good. “I had no more food, my GPS was down, my telephones were down. I was on my last fricking breath. I made the decision to unhook from the pig. And I literally got on my knees to apologize.” When he reached the Pole, instead of jubilation, he announced, “I gotta go back for the pig.”
Carmichael considers it improbable that he survived Spokane, where he grew up. His mother was perpetually sick: “She had just fucking everything – heart disease, cancer, blood disorders.” His father, Carmichael says, was “crazy” – schizophrenic. “I never really met him when I was a kid. I knew of him. He disappeared for a long time. It turned out he was living in trailers. He would reach out, and by then, if you know anyone who has a father like that, it means you dig him out of a financial hole. I was there as a rescue. Later on, he just relieved himself of his life. He just shot himself in the mouth.”
In school, Carmichael immersed himself in distance running, keeping precise logs of how many miles he’d need to run every day to improve. His grandfather drove him to meets. On the ride to Seattle, he’d look out the window at the high desert and wonder how far he could go into it. His grandfather told him to find out. “So at 16, he drove me out to the desert, and I just took off on foot, two and a half days in and two and a half days back. Five days later he was there to pick me up, listening to the AM radio.”
Carmichael won a scholarship to the University of Washington as a runner. Seattle was brewing, literally. He got a job roasting for Starbucks and hung in grunge bars with his French-born pal Jean-Philippe Iberti, and they dreamed of starting a European-style roaster, where they’d do it right and not burn the beans until they nearly burst into flames. He graduated in 1986 into a job as a tax consultant at Ernst & Whinney. Then he bolted to Monte Carlo to work for a shipping company, and that’s when it all got started. In a casino, he met Prince Faisal bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and, Carmichael says, they “hung out like two dudes hang out when there are beautiful women everywhere.” Carmichael showed Faisal how to sail. The prince took him to horse races and other insane rich-guy stuff.
“He’d never had a real buddy before,” Carmichael says. “We were on a fucking major yacht in a place called Portofino, and I knew he was gonna ask me to work for him. I said to myself, ‘No matter what number he says, I’m gonna double that.’ And he said a number that just floored me. And I said ‘Double it,’ and he said okay.”
For three years as Prince Faisal’s attaché, Carmichael lived in hotels, planes and yachts, and hiked Arabian deserts. After three years, he’d saved enough salary to start his European coffee company, in Philadelphia.
Neither Carmichael nor his partner, Iberti, had ever been to Philly. “But we had heard of Perrier, Lacroix and Taquet,” Carmichael says, “so we came to take a look. When we arrived, we discovered something we didn’t expect: a major U.S. city, walkable, well situated, and on the verge of a massive awakening.”
In 1994, the pair opened a cafe on 19th Street, near Walnut. They weren’t interested in “street coffee,” as Carmichael calls it, stores selling coffee and music and baloney sandwiches. They wanted to create culinary coffee for restaurants. So, as Carmichael tells it: “We walked down the street with a little bag of coffee, right in the front door of Le Bec-Fin, and we said, ‘We’re here to see Chef.’ We walked into the kitchen. Chef Perrier is right there. He’s like, What zee fuck!? What are you doing here? We said, ‘We’re here to make you a coffee.’ Den go fucking make a cof-FEE. We made him a coffee. He said, What zee fuck is this! We were serving at Le Bec-Fin that night.”
Carmichael tells a similar tale about Jean-Marie Lacroix, then at Four Seasons.
(Both chefs confirm the basic details, though not the exact dialogue.) “It was amazing to have some good coffee after so many years of looking for it,” Lacroix says.
Now La Colombe does nearly $20 million a year, about two million pounds of coffee. It’s on fancy menus in Philly, New York, Las Vegas, L.A., Chicago, embraced by Stephen Starr, Danny Meyer, Alain Ducasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Eric Ripert, Gordon Ramsay.
“Everybody knows La Colombe,” says Assaad Benabid, senior vice president at Cimbali, an international maker of espresso machines. “Nobody thinks it’s from Philadelphia. They think Europe.” (La Colombe means “the dove” in French.) Carmichael – a t-shirt-and-Chuck-Taylors guy – doesn’t look the part. Customers expecting a snooty Eurodude figure he’s been sent to fix the machines. “People meet me and say, ‘Did your dad start the company?’” he says.
There’s a bit of goofball on the flip side of the gung-ho. Some men of achievement enter a room surrounded by an energy field that makes others feel small, hijacking everyone’s testosterone, or serotonin, or whatever hormone it is that separates alpha males from the pack. Carmichael, though he’s six-foot-three, is unimposing. No superhero physique (though I didn’t see everything). When he tells stories, there’s often a character – sometimes he himself – who speaks in a silly, effeminate voice.
He looks at least as old as he is. His toes are mangled from frostbite, and one day he couldn’t think of three words he wanted to say: “asthma” and “diagnosed” and “washes” (deep waves in the terrain that make Death Valley so hard to traverse), which was weird because he’d explained washes to me earlier the same day. It was almost as if tiny bits of his brain still hadn’t defrosted.
He wants to settle down, but wants to keep going. Last year, he and Hart, whom he married in 2005, adopted three girls from Ethiopia: Yemi, who’s eight; Yordi, five; and Selah, almost two. I ask Carmichael if he fears suffering from Hurt Locker syndrome – becoming bored with normal life after the thrill of his journeys. He claims no: His treks are about perseverance, not adrenaline. “It’s not defusing bombs. It’s like wearing something down until you own it. It’s erosion.” He figures raising three daughters may take just that kind of endurance.
Carmichael met Hart, then co–hosting NBC 10’s 10 Show, in 2004, when she was interviewing him just before his first, exploratory trek in Antarctica. They flirted on-camera. “Someone gave me the tape of it and a still photo of me looking at him,” Hart says. “Maybe it’s my imagination, but we were just locked onto one another. It was primal. My co-host at the time, Bill Henley – and I think everyone else in the room – just disappeared. If you look at the photo, you wouldn’t even have to know us to get that, okay, what’s going on in this picture?”
Carmichael called to ask her for a date from the South Pole. You know, because he was there. They married in Africa, at Victoria Falls, with hippos in the water and other over-the-top movie-scene excess. They’ve been to the forests of Borneo, Dian Fossey’s research center in Rwanda. But Hart hasn’t been tempted to accompany Carmichael on his survival treks.
“I’ve already had my brush with death,” she says. In 2000, Hart was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, so she’s beaten back a mortal threat she didn’t need to go out and find.
Her clan has its own history of daring acts. Her parents met as performers on Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. Gene Hart (the late Flyers radio and TV announcer) did high dives while telling jokes. Sarah Detwiler sat bareback on horses that dived off the pier. Says Carmichael: “When people ask what my family thinks about what I do, I say it’s not even on their radar.”
For Death Valley, its rocky terrain and deep washes, Carmichael has welded together a new sled with four fat rubber wheels: the Desert Pig. It should give him a shot at clobbering the lowest, driest and hottest place on the continent. He failed before – last year, when he bailed about halfway through and took the “walk of shame” to civilization down a paved road. He’ll haul 300 pounds of water, plus salted peanuts, sugar patties, oatmeal, gear. To prepare to trek in the heat, besides weight-lifting and pulling tires three or four hours a day, he says he’s been wearing long pants to work all summer.
By late September, he’ll have a full moon to work around; he plans to travel mostly at night. The girls will be in school by then, and home with mom. “Ten days as a new parent with three children, yeah, that will be long enough,” Hart says. She figures this probably is the end of Carmichael’s really long treks. “But Todd’s the greatest salesman on Earth, so I never say never with him.”
As I ride with Carmichael to Nancy Glass’s studio – in his two-ball-blue Mustang Shelby – I tell him it’s a shame that after all the crazy adventures, I don’t have a kick-ass ending for this story. We don’t get to see if he beats Death Valley. He thinks for a minute. He says he’s been asked about Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old who failed in her attempt to sail around the world. Will she be crushed for life by the failure? No way, he says.
“Once you succeed at something, you kill it,” he tells me. “A while ago, my dog achieved his life’s dream – he actually caught a fucking squirrel. He shook the thing and he killed it. And I almost saw this forlorn look in him, ’cause that was it. When you reach your life’s achievement, you’re happy it’s over, but you almost mourn the death of it. It’s no longer something you live with every day. That woman is going to be perfectly fine – she still has the squirrel to wake up to. So the end of the story – ‘He did it!’ – is not as important as ‘He’s got something.’ When I kill Death Valley, fuck yeah, there’ll be a mourning. And then I gotta find my next thing.”
A week later, he e-mailed: “Next year, full crossing of Atacama – oldest, highest and driest hot desert on the planet – still waiting to be cracked.”