“If you haven’t learned to drive by the time you are 7 years old, you are not a real man!”

Second grade school picture

Those were my dad’s words to me in the spring of 1964, about three months before I turned seven. Dad was fascinated by anything with a motor and was happiest sitting on a motorcycle or in a car. He often told us stories about his experiences growing up. Back then if you answered, ”Yes”, to the question, ”Can you drive a car, young man?” you were given a driver’s license. Then it was up to you to learn how to drive. I think my dad drove a few hundred yards for his driver’s test. It was that easy, but he became a good driver. He drove fast and every time he went over 100 km/h mom opened the door and threatened to jump out. She was only joking, of course, but it scared us when we were young. Most exciting was when dad showed us how to turn the car around on a narrow paved road by pulling the handbrake. We burned a lot of rubber, but no one considered the environment back then. (Being able to use the handbrake to quickly turn the car around later saved my life. Read about that on my blog from June 12, 2017)

So, in the spring of 1964 I was nearly seven and if I didn’t know how to drive a car by my birthday, I was not a real man. Before letting me start the car and drive, dad wanted to be sure I knew how to steer and stop. He sat me in the driver’s seat and showed me which pedals were the gas, brake and clutch. Then he pushed the car down a hill about 100 meters and I was to stop the car at a precise spot. I was too little to reach the pedals sitting on the seat so I had to stand up behind the wheel.

I steered the car to the correct place and found the right pedal and, stepping on the brake a little too enthusiastically, rammed my chin into the wheel. But I had stopped the car in the right place. “Now we can try driving with the engine on,” my dad said, laughing. I drove back and forth in our yard, out past my dad’s workshop and into a small forest glen where I had to turn around. I had to learn how to use the clutch, shift into reverse and back up a few yards, and then shift back into first gear to go forward. My dad didn’t give up until I was proficient at using the pedals and the gears.

It was no easy task for a small boy to drive a real car since I couldn’t sit down on the seat. Standing up to drive was tiring and sometimes I banged against the door, or worse, in a tight curve sometimes lost my balance and was thrown to the floor. Falling on the floor was problematic. But, to my dad’s relief, I was able to drive a car by my seventh birthday. He was proud of me and I could call my self a “real man:”

When I was eight years old he gave me my first car, a Dodge. My brother, who was two years older, got a Ford. They were big, 3-geared American cars that we were given to play with. We drove on a small road that went through a forest glade and over a creek, bouncing around as we raced each other.

The cars were gas-guzzlers so we often had to scramble for money. Dad had given us the cars but it was up to us to pay for the gas. We’d bicycle along the highway looking for bottles we could take to the store and collect the deposit. Then we’d bicycle to the gas station and fill a milk bottles with gas. With a liter of gas in the tank we could drive a few more laps.

Before long I was driving on the highway when dad wanted a break. My dad was a bit nuts, but as a boy I thought it was fun and exciting.

Grand Canyon

When I was 20 years old I decided to go west to America. By that time I had already produced a few ”serious” wildlife documentaries that had been purchased by Swedish Television. In America I found the inspiration, that injection I needed. I fell in love, not with a girl (she came later), but with an incredible wilderness. The first exquisite infatuation occurred early one morning in northern Arizona after a few months of crossing the American continent.

In the middle of the night I had parked my Volkswagen camper van in a quiet spot a little ways from the road. The roof of the van was raised to create a tent with openings in both directions. After driving over 600 miles, I was exhausted and not picky about the parking spot. Sleep came as a welcome relief when I had crawled into the bed under the raised roof. I was awakened in the morning when the sun’s rays shown into the tent. Slowly opening my eyes, I gazed, somewhat confused, at the scene outside the screened windows. At first I couldn’t really grasp what I was looking at; it was so indescribably breathtaking.

Suddenly I was wide-awake. During the night I had parked right on the edge of the Grand Canyon. All that kept the van from rolling into the abyss was a few rocks sporadically placed along the edge. The ragged and steep ravine was filled with rock formations of various colors with shadows dancing in the morning light. The canyon spread before as the eye could see. Describing this jewel of creation with words is futile, inadequate, humbling. The Grand Canyon has to be experienced first hand.

After hiking along the edge that first day, trying to absorb what I saw, I couldn’t wait to descend into the gorge. Early the next morning I was on my way down the Bright Angel Trail. I was so excited that I forgot my water and food in the car. Six miles later gazing out over the Colorado River and with temperatures over 100 degrees, I realized my mistake.

On my way back up I stopped to rest at Indian Gardens. As I sat there trying to gather the energy to start the steep and difficult climb, a woman came out of the ranger station and invited me in for some water and a sandwich. At the time she seemed to me to be an angel sent from above. I have often wondered just how horrible that hike up the long, steep trail would have been for me if that woman hadn’t shown up and noticed my predicament. Shortly after nightfall I reached the top, exhausted but exhilarated and wiser, from the experience. (I met the woman who gave me food and water 15 years later on a ferry between Kodiak and Homer in Alaska. We had a few memories to share with each other.)

I spent the next few days exploring the south side of the canyon, hiking and climbing in the most impossible areas. I decided that I would return the next year and begin work on my first film about the Grand Canyon and the area around the Colorado River. In 1979 I returned and produced a film called “Grand Canyon” that Swedish Television purchased and aired the following year. I was already dreaming of rafting the Colorado River through the captivating landscape of which the Grand Canyon National Park is just a part. That dream was realized 12 years later.

Since my first river trip in 1991 I’ve had the privilege of running several expeditions down the river which was once thought to be the entrance to hell, but which is actually a ride through paradise. But, that too, is another story…