SARASOTA--One afternoon earlier this month, Tropical Storm Andrea's blustery back end toppled potted plants, tugged at the tops of palms and yanked people's umbrellas inside out. Nik Wallenda, meanwhile, climbed into the basket of a hydraulic lift, which took him 20 feet above the ground, where he removed his running shoes and stepped with his balance pole and plain white socks onto a taut, 2-inch-thick wire that stretched 900 feet from one crane to another.
Gusts, measured at 20 mph, at 30 mph, finally at 51 mph, glued his baggy black pants to the fronts of his legs. He walked into the wind.
"Golly," he said.
Wallenda, 34, a native of Sarasota, a resident of Bradenton and by now one of the most famous daredevils in the world, was practicing for his Sunday evening wire walk near the Grand Canyon — some 1,400 feet across, some 1,500 feet up — scheduled to be broadcast live by Discovery Channel in 217 countries. Last summer, he walked over Niagara Falls, and ABC drew its biggest Friday night ratings in the past five years. But the network made him wear a safety harness. This walk? No harness.
Here's what Wallenda thinks when he does what he does: There's no difference between walking 20 feet up or 2,000 feet up. The approach is the same, he tells himself. If he's down low, he visualizes himself up high; if he's up high, he visualizes himself down low.
But he's not just working to control his own mind. He's working to control yours.
During the practice session in the storm, as he kept walking on the wire, walking the way you walk to your car, something interesting happened. The photographers who were there started pointing their cameras elsewhere. People started looking away.
For Wallenda, a man who makes his living by getting people to watch him not die, that might be the most dangerous moment of all.
• • •
This is the family business. Uncles. Cousins. His father. His sister. They all did this or do this. His mother did it until four months before he was born. She started again three months after. His great-grandfather did it better than any of the others, or at least with greater fanfare, until 1978 when he was 73 and walking on a wire strung between two 10-story towers in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The wire started to wobble, and his knees started to shake, and at the bottom of his 121-foot fall was the hood of a taxicab.
The latest Wallenda? He started when he was 2. His first professional appearance came at 13. Since then, he has walked on wires, ridden bikes on wires, in Japan, Canada and from coast to coast — in Pittsburgh over the Allegheny River, in Baltimore over the Inner Harbor, over the big race track near Charlotte.
In the '70s, the '80s, even into the '90s, his parents struggled to pay their bills. In between wire walk gigs, his father worked as a carpenter, and his mother was a hostess at a country club. Television, they believed, was killing the circus. His mother was so convinced theirs was a dying trade that she wrote an autobiography and titled it The Last of the Wallendas.
And yet here's her son. He rolls around the gulf coast in a fancy black pickup with plates that say WALNDA.
And TV is what's paying his bills. TV might have killed the circus, but now other things are killing TV, because it has never been easier to look at whatever you want, whenever you want. This has TV producers increasingly desperate to find something that makes you sit still, and watch, and not turn away — even if it means presenting the 30-minute spectacle of a man with a wife and children 15, 12 and 10 years old walking on a wire more than a quarter-mile over the Little Colorado River.
• • •
In 2008, live on the Today show, Wallenda walked 235 feet on a wire 135 feet high from the Prudential Center in Newark to the top of a crane. Then he got on a bike and turned around.
Toward the end of the ride, where the wire sloped up toward the rigging on the building, the pedals locked up. The back wheel started to slip. He thought he might fall. This was a new thought. He let the bike roll a tad backward and then gingerly pressed the pedals. The bike scooted safely ahead.
He conceded to the Star-Ledger it had gotten "a little hairy."
That was real.
Rewind, though, to when he was 15, walking on a wire in upstate New York. The local paper reported he had "lost his balance for a second or two and used his arms to steady himself." True. But he did that on purpose.
Fast forward to a walk last year in Baltimore — his walk over that city's harbor — and right at the end he stumbled, badly, and appeared to catch himself on the wire with one of his shins. It looked real. It was not.
"It's my way of involving the audience and adding drama — a way for them to root for me," he wrote this year in his new book called Balance. "If I appear more vulnerable, the emotional stakes are higher."
He has to convince himself that what he does is no big deal while simultaneously reminding everybody else that it is.
• • •
Downtown Sarasota. This past January. The wire sliced through 600 feet of that resplendent Florida blue, 200 feet up from the pavement of U.S. 41, running from the top of a crane to the balcony of a luxury condo. Boats bobbed. Helicopters hovered. Ambulance workers waited. Wallenda, wearing a yellow T-shirt, Buffalo brand blue jeans he bought at the local mall and special suede shoes with elk-skin soles, stepped onto a wire roughly the diameter of a nickel.
"Feels steep," he said, talking to the Sarasota News Network on live TV.
"It's not too fun to walk downhill," he said.
"It's very windy," he added.
Thousands of people craned their necks and pointed their phones. They held still. They got quiet. Too quiet?
Wallenda paused, knelt on one knee on the wire, pumped his fist several times and then blew a kiss. Primed, then prodded, the crowd got loud.
It took him just under nine minutes to traverse the distance. He told reporters afterward that these walks "absolutely" never get old.
A few days later, across town at Circus Sarasota, he sat outside his RV and stressed that he never thought he was going to fall on the U.S. 41 walk, not even close — but that he could have.
"That's part of the lure of what I do. Today, at 3:30, I'm risking my life," he said, "and then again at 8:30."
• • •
Niagara Falls last summer was the realization of a lifelong dream, but his capstone walk, at least so far, was one of his most frustrating, too.
It looked incontrovertibly awesome, this dazzling natural panorama, Wallenda wending his way through the mist. More than 13 million people watched. Still, though, the safety harness ABC made him wear sapped the walk of its elemental authenticity. There was no chance of death.
"Part of that dream was taken away because I had to wear that harness," he later told NBC's Matt Lauer.
Not so Sunday. No more harness. His choice. Discovery Channel is billing it as "one of the most daring and captivating live events in history." It's the highest walk Wallenda's ever done.
That afternoon earlier this month, dealing with Andrea's winds, he said, was a dream come true for training. Who knows what kinds of unpredictable currents he'll encounter out in Arizona? If he can do this, he told himself, he can do that. He finished walking the 900 feet into the wind. He rested for a few beats, took a few breaths, and turned. The wind was now at his back. He slid his sock feet across the wire.
A hundred feet. Two hundred. Three. Four.
The balls of his feet started to get sore. His forearms started to ache. He paused to take a break and dipped to one knee, then shifted to sitting side-saddle on the wire, then ended up on his front with his chest touching the wire, an animal at ease.
He then got back up and kept going, just walking, only 20 feet high, over damp grass, but working to visualize what he will see come Sunday.
The water of the river.
The rocks of the canyon.
The long way down.