NORTH ADAMS — When Geeg Wiles arrived to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania earlier this year, he brought an unconventional piece of gear with him: a roughly 40-pound wooden statue of a fisherman named Captain Ahab.
His guide told him that the porters, the people who carry items like tents and food for hikers, couldn’t get it up the mountain.
“No, I plan on wearing it,” Wiles told them. And the group of guides and porters started laughing, Wiles said, “they were laughing at the task I have set before me.” At 19,431 feet, Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano, is Africa’s highest mountain.
But he made it, and in the process, Ahab got people’s attention. “After four days it spread all over the mountain and he became the grandfather of Kilimanjaro,” Wiles said.
Wiles, who grew up and still lives in North Adams, has taken Ahab on numerous adventures — whitewater rafting, skydiving, kissing the Blarney Stone in Ireland, the Iowa State Fair, New York Comic Con, and various national parks. He posts photos of Ahab’s Adventures on Instagram and on his website ahabsadventures.com. Wiles also speaks to groups about Ahab.
He has a message he’s trying to spread: “The focus is on asking yourself how hard your excuses are. And instead of letting them weigh you down, find ways to lighten that load. Whether it’s taking five minutes each day to learn more about a skill you need to solve the problem, or asking your friends for help because you don’t have those answers.
Although Ahab travels across the country and world with Wiles, you may also be able to see him driving through North Adams on the back of Wiles’ pickup truck, appropriately license plate ‘AHAB’. Ahab could ride in the passenger seat, but he’s less conspicuous there, Wiles said.
“Sometimes when I walk past people, they point and laugh or smile or something. And someone around them can tell them their version of our story or add to it. And it’s an icebreaker in that sense, it starts conversations between people that wouldn’t normally happen… It makes people curious. And they drop their guard and I can keep having real conversations with strangers.”
Ahab – named after Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” – and his mission dates back some 80 years to Wile’s grandfather, Frank Schmidt.
When Schmidt was about to enter World War II with the US Navy, he and his friends wanted to play a harmless prank to lift their spirits, Wiles said. They recruited or stole a lawn ornament they named Ahab.
After the war, in July, Schmidt and these friends met at a house in upstate New York where they played a game of cards, Wiles said.
“Whoever won the game didn’t win the pot [of money] in the end, but they won [the right] to choose the destination for Ahab. And they would take a week and they would take him somewhere else every year,” Wiles said. “The point of Ahab was that they always get back together, always find an excuse to get back together.
“They said, ‘We have to get Ahab somewhere,’ and it became this high-priority thing. And while it was a dumb excuse, it’s the dumbest excuses that always make the best stories and the best adventures.”
When Wiles turned 19, he got Ahab.
“It was only passed on to me with the aim of keeping him off the turf as much as possible…putting him out of his comfort zone at all times.”
Hiking Kilimanjaro was one way to do this. He and Chuck Soha, who Wiles met in North Adams, regularly climbed Mount Greylock to train for their journey.
The company running the trip provided lodging and food for the group, but figuring out how to carry Ahab was a challenge. “I usually shoulder it, I just carry it on my shoulder like an ’80s boombox,” Wiles said. To climb the mountain, however, he modified a backpack for big game hunting.
Though Soha walked with him, it was Wiles alone that carried Ahab.
“That was a very specific rule that I made,” Wiles said. “I’d rather turn around than have other people finish this for me if I can’t make it.”
You’ve made it to the top of the mountain, but traveling with a 40-pound, 3-foot tall statue has its challenges, like airport security. Like a bag checked, Ahab rolls around on the conveyor belt, Wiles said, so he takes him on the plane.
“People looked at him like they had three heads when he said he wanted to take it on the plane,” Soha said of her trip to Tanzania. Ahab ended up flying in the flight attendant’s hold, Wiles said.
“Anyone who does day-to-day air travel usually finds it humorous enough to put him in a fun place on the plane or in that extra seat… He even flew first class because people loved it.” .”
Wiles often meets new people through Ahab and helps address items on their bucket lists. After Justin met Jesser Wiles at the Red Bull Flugtag Philadelphia Challenge — a competition where people launch homemade flying machines — they went on a road trip to Kentucky and Tennessee. They went to Mammoth Cave National Park with Ahab.
“I have to say the experience was absolutely amazing. Not because it’s stunning — it’s absolutely gorgeous,” Jesser said, “but people’s reaction was curiosity. Permission for curiosity is wide open when seeing something strange and different.”
When traveling, people will see Ahab and ask Wiles about it, sparking a conversation, Jesser said.
“He tends to draw a crowd,” Soha said, recalling a time they were together on the National Mall in Washington, DC. “When he’s marching around with that thing, people just get drawn to him.”
“It’s just more about showing up in a place and seeing and interacting with people, seeing how we can interrupt their normal daily routine or get people to look up from their phone or whatever distracts them and something to do make a new friend or get motivated to dust off that bucket list, whether it’s written down or just mentally, you know, created in your head. It’s just a reminder that time flies way too fast and that you should pursue these things, even if it’s only five minutes a day.”
He has conveyed this message to students by speaking at a variety of educational institutions, including Western Colorado State University. “That’s when Ahab began to fund his own travels. And I wasn’t just doing odd jobs to do those little extra things anymore,” Wiles said.
Wiles has also spoken more locally. In recent years he has lectured to students at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton. Director Joe Bianca said he heard about Wiles and Ahab from a friend.
“We use it as a setup to establish your bucket list and what your goals are for the next five years and beyond,” Bianca said. The talks are also about “setting your goals and pursuing them. And being your authentic self.” Wiles is scheduled to speak to students there again in the fall.
THE BUCKET LIST
So what’s on Wiles and Ahab’s bucket list?
This summer, Wiles plans to travel to Acadia National Park with Ahab, and a new beer may be on the horizon.
“I won’t say which companies, but we’re working with some breweries … He’s going to have his own grog that’s canned soon,” Wiles said.
Wiles’ long-term dream is to have thousands of photos of Ahab exhibited at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. “We already have over 10,000 photos of him around the world,” he said.
In the meantime, Wiles plans to add another stroke each year to a 19-stroke line tracing his arm from a skull tattoo.
“Every year I get a stroke,” he said. “We’ve planned it to hopefully last another 40 years.”