Having always been interested in the extremes of human activity and behavior, I would periodically read interesting tidbits over the years. It was only later that I actually moved from idle contemplation to serious consideration. Dipping my hands in molten lead, lying on a bed of nails, or rolling around on broken glass gave me a certain frisson.
However, choosing the right experience was not easy. By researching such marvels further, I ruled out the lead gloves - not of fear of scorching my poor knuckles, but rather out of concern of inhaling the toxic fumes. Piercing sensitive areas was now quite quotidian, almost passe one could say. Hanging from hooks placed through these piercings sounded painful and potentially infectious. The glass and nails things seemed less than thrilling the more I thought about it. Then, I heard about walking on hot coals. I was fascinated with the idea in a demented sort of way.
So there I was, feeling the heat emanating from the blaze. I wondered what insane process stimulated the first firewalker to take that initial step. The heat was intense, and though it was a brisk April evening in the Pacific Northwest, I was freely sweating. Hours before, I had started a bonfire. Adding cedar, oak and fir, I told myself that I was really only re-releasing the carbon that was only temporarily stored in the wood. Furthermore, I contended that I was also getting rid of brush and extra flammables that were a fire hazard. Lastly, I heard that the succulent Morel mushrooms often grew better after such a fire. Appeased, my environmental conscience retreated.
Truth be known, I enjoyed accelerating entropy. As the flames got higher, the nearby trees voiced their disapproval by drooping their branches. Watching the flames lick the woodpile and feeling the heat, I feared an explosion of our "support vehicle", an aging six wheel John Deere all terrain vehicle. Prudently, I moved it away from the intense heat.
The intensity was actually starting to scare me. As a white-collar worker who spends all day taking care of the needs of medical patients, I wear shoes all day. My soles are admittedly baby soft, I rarely even walk barefoot at home. Certainly not the stuff to conquer nearly 2000 degree coals. On the other hand, I had meticulously done loads of research in preparation for tonight. I did not have to report to work for two whole days. Enough time to heal if my calculations were slightly off. It was also not fire season, so I didn't expect a visit from a nice Fire Marshall worried about my conflagration. I had arranged for a photographer wielding a video camera, and not one but two cameras. I even remembered the flash and film. I was set and stoked.
My ultimate goal was to show that firewalking was based on simple physics, and not psychological conditioning or magic. My feet were going to prove science over pseudoscience.
Nonetheless, the extreme heat was rapidly wearing away at my resolve. Initially, I had used softer woods to start the fire with the hope that I would end up with relatively cooler coals. Having run out of the quick burning pine and cedar, I had to use the hotter burning madrone and oak since there were not enough coals to use yet. My literature review described an eight to ten foot trench of glowing coals. Being an overachiever, I planned a 20-foot stretch. If worse came to worse, I reasoned, I could always jump off to a side.
The theories were varied as to why firewalking was possible. Currently, the two prevailing ones were the Leidenfrost effect and thermal mass theories.
Have you ever observed a drop of water dancing on a hot griddle that seemed to last a lot longer than you would have expected? Instead of evaporating, it actually floats on a thin layer of water vapor, effectively insulating the droplet from the heat. Similarly the sweat on the walkers' soles acted as a thermal barrier. Great in theory. However, when one looks to cultures which practice firewalking, some actually wipe off the moisture from their feet before their stroll. So, toss that theory out.
The next deals with the difference between heat and temperature. The thinking was that certain materials hold and transmit heat differently. Think about opening an oven where a pizza is cooking on an aluminum pan. Few would hesitate to put their arm in the stove. However, how many of us would actually grab the pan in an ill-advised attempt to remove the pizza? Well, boys and girls, the air temperature and the pan temperature are exactly the same, yet the air does not hold the heat as well as the metal. Another example is the heat shield on the space shuttle. Its high tech skin is sheathed in ceramic composite tiles. Though they may be heated to a few thousand degrees, the shuttle is safe. I once saw a photo of someone holding just such a tile at the edges though clearly the center was glowing.
Careful review of firewalking individuals on videotape show them lifting their feet fairly high so that their soles have time to cool between contact with the coals. Furthermore, the feet do not stay applied to the coals for very long. According to a Rolling Stone magazine survey, the average time on the coals was reported as 1.5 seconds with the maximum at 1.9. We are not talking a slow stroll here. We are talking a brisk ambulation so that the feet only touch twice each.
Still, these are theories and my feet are very real to me. To complicate things further, burns do occur. One reads about the aging woman who attempted the walk aided by her canes, with predictable poor results: she apparently lasted seven seconds. Reviewing the psychology literature, colorful theories and flamboyant descriptions abounded. Some of the more memorable ones describe the mental clarity which somehow protects the feet, or how pain becomes evanescent in the face of an altered state of consciousness (a variation of the endorphin theory that helps the walkers endure the embers). Or how about the ones dealing with the mind telling the skin not to blister? One can even evoke the idea of a bioelectric field, etc. Some entrepreneurs have even made a living out of firewalking. Hours of pep talk and psychological conditioning before the actual walk were usually necessary. A hefty initiation fee also helped get a novice through the trial by fire.
I was committed to doing this alone, without drugs, aboriginal soles, advance training, or an altered sensorium. No artifice was my motto.
The fire had burned down to the large stumps; all other flammables had been consumed already. I still could not actually get near enough to rake out coals yet due to the radiating heat. And I was going to walk over that? Rationality threatened to disrupt this experiment. After six hours of burning, a nice pile of glowing embers was growing. I had long ago taken off my shirt due to the heat. A depth of two to three inches of coals was called for. Of course to me, that meant that I had to go to four or five.
By now, it was dark and Lisa, my girlfriend/photographer, was bored. If I was going to do this stupid thing, I'd best be getting it over with so that she could go back to normal things, and I could tend to my blistered feet. I set her up about ten feet beyond the end of the strip and slightly off to the side for the best viewing angle. I was really warm now, having reached into this large pile of burning embers to create the glowing runway. Searching involuntarily for a few good reasons why not to proceed, a hundred came flooding in. Tuning out these internal voices, I announced that I was ready. Was she ready? "Ready". OK, here I go. I counted to three aloud so that I could not back out and strode on out.
It was hot but certainly not scorching. A few short seconds later I was at the end of my pass. I was ecstatic; I had done it, with photographic evidence! I felt vindicated. Science prevailed! My research had been validated. I had walked the walk!
Then came the disturbing news whispered in a small voice that there had been a slight malfunction. The camcorder had apparently focused on the flames and not on this brave soul. What was a man to do? Should I be content in the knowledge that I had done it even if I could not prove it? Was this inner knowledge enough? Rather, should I yell and scream as any testosterone junky would in these trying circumstances?
I was torn. Ultimately, the realization came that I would have to do it again. Yes, it was the only way. A second pass. Again I was successful. Perhaps it was slightly warmer or was it the adrenaline dump? This time I walked directly back to Lisa and checked on the documentation. Unfortunately, this time I had been facing the wrong way, having walked back to the beginning and the camera had trouble following with the autofocus. Overachiever that I was, a third pass was needed. This time she got a photo and I got a blister.
Stay tuned, vitreous supination next? The theory seemed solid...