In the spring of 2012, I got a long, rambling email from a guy in New Orleans that basically said:
Hi Francis, I was researching the idea of hiking El Camino de Santiago, when I stumbled on your controversial article about it. I laughed my ass off. Then I learned about your plans to go to Africa. I want to go with you and film you.
That email was from Joshua Huval, a 21-year-old who is obsessed with cinematography.
Many people have proclaimed to me that they would like to hike/travel like I do (or that they would like to join me on my adventures), but almost nobody makes any serious effort to make that happen. So when I got Josh's email, I gave him a friendly reply, but I figured he'd eventually fade away once he seriously contemplated what it really meant to follow through with his offer.
Therefore, I was surprised when he persisted - he really wanted to film me in Africa. What made me raise an eyebrow was when he proposed flying halfway across the country (from New Orleans to California), on his own dime, to spend one week hiking with me in the Sierra. He was putting his money and time where his mouth was. I was curious about this bold man, so I agreed.
I'll confess: my goal was to break him. Sure, Josh was half my age, but I didn't think he could keep up with me. And certainly not with a smile. Traveling to all 54 African countries over four years will be hard on the mind and body. I needed to see how tough Josh was and where he would break down.
I plotted a trail that would take us high in the Sierra Nevada, to places that would be filled with mosquitoes. If the bugs didn't break him, my hiking pace would.
He slept on one of Gossamer Gear's thin pads and in a Jacks R Better quilt. Since he wasn't used to sleeping at 11,000 feet with such an austere sleeping system, he didn't sleep like a rock. Instead, he just slept on a rock.
At 4:00 a.m., I mercilessly kicked him out of bed, saying, "C'mon, dude, get up. We have to do 28 miles today."
Josh suppressed his groan, but I could hear his bones and body creaking as he stumbled to his feet. It didn't help his ego that a girl was outdoing him. Christine Martens, who had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail with her husband, was also along for the trek. Her backpack weighed twice as much as Josh's (and even slightly more than mine), yet she was banging out the miles.
Left to right: Joshua Huval, Francis Tapon, and Christine Martens. We were backpacking in the Sierra Nevada June 13, 2012. This shot was at sunrise, soon after leaving our camp which was above the lake in the background. Although his body complained, Josh's spirits were still up, as he managed to smile in this photo.
Although I wanted to break Josh, I didn't want to crush him so badly that he would collapse on us. I made sure his backpack was super light. In fact, in our last 10 miles to Yosemite, I carried nearly all his gear, so his backpack weighed just 1.5 kg (3 pounds).
When hiked by this creek, I told Josh, who was still somewhat groggy, to take a pretty photo of it. If he could take such a nice shot while in his weakened state, he'll surely do amazing work in a more rested state.
When Josh saw places like this, he said, "This is the most amazing trip I've ever done in my life."
2012 was an abnormally low snow year.
As we approached Yosemite Valley, Joshua was looking pretty spent. Therefore, I gave him the option to exit our 28-mile day early and do just 20 miles. The trail had broken him. He happily took the early exit, while Christine and I pushed on.
Before that day, Josh had never hiked more than 10 miles in one day. That day, he did 22 (because he walked an extra 2 miles instead of waiting for the Yosemite bus).
The trail may have broken Josh's physical stamina, but not his spirit. That's what sold me on Josh. It's a lot easier for someone to train themselves to become physically stronger than to become mentally stronger. More importantly, we got along well throughout the journey. Josh passed my test.
For the rest of 2012, Josh and I collaborated on creating the Africa54 Project. Together, we plan to produce a TV show about our 3-year trip to all 54 African countries. We hope to make 54 episodes. Although what you've seen so far is just photos, Josh's focus will be on video. I will reveal more details about this project in the coming months. Sign for my newsletter to be the first to know.
EPILOGUE: Christine had never hiked more than 27 miles in one day. She and I did 28 miles (45 km) that day. Her feet were in utter agony, but the rest of her was elated.
Right to left: Joshua, John, Francis, Dave. Dave, who has hiked most of the Pacific Crest Trail, hosted us all in his Sacramento house. We gorged on Mexican cuisine.
Learn more about Joshua Huval.
CREDIT: All photos on this page (except the first and the last) were taken by Joshua Huval.