On Sunday evening, daredevil Nik Wallenda walked 1,400 feet across the Grand Canyon—1,500 feet above the Little Colorado River—on a two-inch wire without a safety harness. During the just-under-24-minute walk, he contended with updrafts and high winds, dust in his contacts, heat, fatigue, rhythm in the cable, and the specter of death lurking very nearby.
We at the Baltimore Guide have no idea what he was going through, but Erica Saben, director of Charm City Movement Art, a circus school at Clinton and Fleet streets, does. She took time out from her effort to establish a tightwire program in San Francisco to share her insights.
What is going through Nik Wallenda’s mind as he does something like this?
Saben: Wire walkers tend to get incredibly focused. The higher the danger level, the higher the focus. He estimates that if he does fall, it will take him nine seconds to hit the bottom. He’ll be thinking about his family and hoping that he makes it!
What could possibly motivate him?
My thought on this are, when you come from a family like the Wallendas, you start at a level that’s already much higher than other people in terms of the daredevil mentality.
He wants to keep growing and expanding, and he wants to top himself. It’s hard to top yourself when you’ve been walking a wire since you were 2 years old.
Can you comment on how the level of risk affects the wire-walker’s movement?
Of course. First, we don’t think of it as risk, because we practice quite a bit. Most of the time, everything goes according to plan.
I have multiple tightwire routines. The tricks on the lower routines are more advanced.
One thing people don’t think about is that those wires are hard to tighten over really far distances, like over the Grand Canyon. And the wires react to your movement. If you’re nervous and shaking, the wire is going to be moving too—rolling and shaking and swaying.
On top of that, the Grand Canyon has its own climate. There are strong winds, though he dealt with strong winds in Niagara Falls, too.
What are finances like for a daredevil?
I can tell you that the Wallendas [Nik Wallenda comes from a long and large line of circus performers] do struggle financially. It’s very rare that a circus performer is wealthy by any means.
Really, what the family is excited about is that he’s making the name famous again—the first name in tightrope-wallking in America.
[Nick Wallenda] just finished a book, and it talks a lot about how his family struggled. Several years ago, a friend of mine saw him perform at a state fair. He had a very primitive costume and did his routine to a boombox cassette tape.
It was a lot less glamorous than what he’s doing now!
What could be next for Wallenda?
I have no idea how he’s going to top the Grand Canyon. It’s really beyond me. Maybe a tightwire between two helicopters—he’d have to find a couple of really special pilots to make that happen.
by Erik Zygmont