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Over the rainbow with JJ and Josh
Josh Thomas and JJ Kelley met out in the wilderness when they were 20 years old, separately walking The 2200-mile Appalachian Trail that spans several Southeastern and Northeastern states. They finished the walk together, stayed friends and together have made documentaries about nature and the people they encounter on their trips. JJ works in Brooklyn for National Geographic Television as a producer (for shows like Battle for the Elephants) and Josh is a producer on Discovery’s The Deadliest Catch.
Let them teach you about things like
“man-feed” and “being hairy”:
At what point on The Appalachian Trail did you guys encounter each other? Was it dude-love at first sight?
JJ: It was close to dude-love at first sight. We’d each been walking independently for over 40-days and 400-miles, which sounds like a lot, but on a 2,000+ mile trail that would take over 6-months to complete, we’d hardly scratched the surface when we met. And we did go on to finish that trail together, with each Appalachian step we sank our adventure-friendship deeper into one another.
Josh: We had both been hiking for about a month. I started solo and JJ started with a friend that had to drop out due to asthma. I was walking by myself one August afternoon near the border of Vermont and New Hampshire. JJ was pumping (purifying) water by a creek and we got to chatting and spent the rest of the day hiking together. We hiked at a similar pace and found ourselves sharing the same campsites every night. Before long we were buds, hiking partners, and sharing food. JJ had planned out all his food months before into boxes that he scheduled into deliveries to post offices along the way. It was good food too; he had liters of this granola that he made – he called it “man-feed” and he ate it like a horse would eat from a food bag. I was eating lots of pop-tarts and nasty gas station food. I didn’t even have a cook stove. Lucky for me all his food drops were packed for two people. If it wasn’t for that delicious “man-feed” JJ and I would probably not be friends today.
One would think most American 20 year olds are focused on other things besides completing a massive walk. Where’d you each get the idea to begin such an undertaking at such a young age?
JJ: I grew up in a small Minnesota town, graduating class of 6. I was valedictorian by the way — that’s not bragging – those are just the facts. I had a hunger burning deep to travel. After I accepted my diploma and told my other 5 classmates to try harder, I hit the road. I went to the Philippines, Europe, Alaska, and out West. I had an addiction to travel, and my arms had major track marks. I was so focused on travel that college didn’t interest me. It was only natural that I attempt to walk the longest continuous marked footpath in the world.
Josh: Most 20 year olds are in college half-way to figuring out a career and locking down a job. I went to college for a year and just had no idea whatsoever what I wanted to do with my life. I always loved the outdoors and knew about the Appalachian Trail – I grew up 15 miles from it in Pennsylvania. I would do weekend solo hiking trips and meet some of these crazy hikers going all the way. They seemed so happy, healthy, and hairy. I wanted to be happy, healthy and hairy too! If these cats are doing it, so can I. The next summer, I sold my car, moved out of my apartment and hitched a ride to Maine. The first 2 weeks were the hardest. There was so much time alone and it was always so quiet. Mosquitoes and black flies tormented me incessantly. My knees hurt like hell and my shoulders were all knotted up. I almost gave up, but eventually the pain faded into a euphoria and I could feel myself getting stronger (and hairier). After a month, it seemed like I had been living this lifestyle forever and I could continue doing it. It felt so right.
A 2200 mile walk and a 1200 miles bike ride 1,300 mile paddle – How much training goes into these things? Best snacks to keep up your strength? Mental tricks to keep going?
JJ: I just imagine that when I’m done, I can get a break from traveling with Josh. Kidding, kind of. No, for these trips we always try to stay in good all around shape. This includes a lot of cross-training (long bike rides, long runs, weight resistance training) whatever really as long as its for a sustained period of time. The only way you can truly acclimate to 8-hours of cardio a day is to actually do 8-hours of cardio a day on the expedition. But going into that endeavor well conditioned is critical to avoiding injury and putting down miles. I think over the course of our 4-cross continent expeditions, we’ve learned how to go somewhere in our minds. This is a place of endured suffering where time really doesn’t exist in the form we know it as — hours go by without recognition.
Josh: It’s hard to train for an expedition. I think you just need to come into it with good cardio and a good diet. Its amazing what the human body can adjust to. When we started the “Paddle to Seattle”, a 3 month long – 1200 mile sea-kayaking trip, we were doing no more than 10 miles a day for 2 weeks. With good food and good rest our bodies had acclimated and 20 mile days became the norm. What’s good food and rest? Lots of whole grains and lots of fats(nuts, butter, mayonnaise) and 10 hours of sleep a night. JJ’s trail name on the AT was “Butter” because he had it with every meal. I prefer mayonnaise personally. When you’re exerting yourself for 6-8 hours a day you need fat. Carbs only get you so far. When you get to the point where you understand your metabolism well, you can feel the moment when that boost of energy kicks in from fat. I like to call that point the “mayonnaise boost factor”.
Tell us about some of your trips. Are you currently planning another adventure? Where to?
JJ: We’ve paddled from Alaska to Seattle in boats we built (documented in the adventure film “Paddle to Seattle“). Then we decided to take our wilderness skills to the most populated and subsequently polluted river in the world, the Ganges (documented in the adventure film “Go Ganges!“). We’ve also grown up in the cable TV world as we’ve made these films and completed these expeditions. I’ve been on staff with National Geographic Television on and off for about 7 years. I’ve just finished a special investigating the ivory trade, Battle for the Elephants. For the film, I went undercover in Dar es Salaam posing as an ivory buyer, requiring some fear blocking skills I developed on our big expeditions. We are now producing programs and a web series under our company, Dudes on Media. Though we don’t have a Josh/JJ trip to announce just yet, we’re confident there will be another.
Josh: Nothing official to announce, but there will be more adventures..
What’re some of your dream trips/destinations?
Josh: I have so many dream trips floating around in my mind. It’s really distracting. I would love to do a bicycle tour through South America or a sea-kayak tour through Europe and the Mediterranean. One thing that I’d love to try is a running tour. I could see getting one of those nice baby strollers, filling it with everything you’d need (food, tent, sleeping bag, etc.) and running it around a foreign place.
Has technology changed how you plot out your big time physically/mentally challenging trips?
JJ: When we made our first kayaking movie we literally suspended a HD camera in an underwater housing on a tripod above our kayaks. Now they make tiny cameras that shoot even better quality like the GoPro 3. We’ve watched the cameras get smaller, but content is still king. You can make it look as glitzy as you want, but if there is no story folks turn away after seeing a few beautiful shots.
Josh: The big thing that technology brings to our trips is how it helps us share our story. We always travel self contained and without support. That means we pack cameras, batteries, a laptop and hard-drives on top of all our camping/travel gear. Every time we do a trip, we’re able to pack less and that’s a big deal when you cover hundreds of miles under your own human power. Everything keeps getting small, lighter and versatile and the quality is still there.
What was your first encounter with “the travel bug”?
Josh: My first encounter with the travel bug was taking a summer job in Yellowstone National Park. I was 18 and had never seen the Rocky Mountains. Growing up in Pennsylvania, our biggest mountain was 1900ft. Wide open spaces just don’t exist on the east coast like it does on the west. Everything is private. If I wanted to go for a hike in Pennsylvania I had to drive 30 minutes. It was very motivating seeing the vast expanse of the west. It was just a taste, but I knew there was more to the world then small town Pennsylvania. Don’t get me wrong, I love small town Pennsylvania, I just love wilderness and wide open spaces more.
How do you dress for such extreme activities?
Josh: It’s very important to gear up properly for extreme outdoor activities. It all starts with a good wicking base layer, something that pulls the moisture from your body. I love thin marino wool.
How do you dress when you’re working and playing in Brooklyn, NY, JJ?
JJ: Williamsburg is actually pretty conducive to outdoor clothing. Fresh flannels, Sorel boots, skinny jeans all go (well the skinny jeans are less practical for the field, especially the arctic). To keep active here you have to be creative. I’m a big fan of running from my apartment through across the Manhattan Bridge and back over the Williamsburg Bridge; the loop is about 8 miles and I make it most days.
How do you dress for work and how for say- an evening out on the town in Alaska, Josh?
Josh: I like to keep it casual and comfortable. Cozy jeans, simple cotton t-shirt, a hoodie, and some sneakers. I know it’s boring, but it feels so right.
Not boring at all- natural, ahhh.
Dude, Where’s My Kayak?