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Rep. Jeff Flake Spends a Week Alone on Deserted Island

Fulfilling a childhood dream, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) spent seven days alone on a survivalist trip to the Pacific's Marshall Islands earlier this year.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Rep. Jeff Flake, serving his fifth term in Congress, is a fifth-generation Arizonan, raised on a ranch near the town of Snowflake. He served a Mormon mission in southern Africa, worked for a public affairs firm in Washington, and as director of the Foundation for Democracy, monitored Namibia's independence process. In 1992 he returned to Arizona and was named executive director of the Goldwater Institute, promoting smaller government. A few weeks ago, Flake, 46, spent a survivalist week alone on an island in the Pacific Ocean. Here's his story.

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The dreams of island life started when I was a child, the fifth of 11, growing up on a dry, dusty ranch in northern Arizona. Being surrounded by water might have appealed to anyone raised under similar circumstances.

When it came time to leave home and go to college, I traded boots and Hank Williams for sandals and Jimmy Buffett, ending up on Hawaii's North Shore. In one motion I threw my suitcase into my dorm room and my snorkel under my arm, heading for the beach. Minutes later, there I stood, slack-jawed, staring at the two most beautiful views I've ever encountered -- crystal-clear water lapping over a pristine reef and a transplanted California girl.

Some dreams come true, others are deferred. Our life's journey took us from Hawaii to Utah to Washington, D.C., to southern Africa and ultimately back to Arizona, where we are happily raising our five children. Along the way I managed to get elected to Congress. I have the best job in the world, but still the islands beckon.

So I decided to spend seven days in August, sandwiched between town halls and constituent meetings, on an uninhabited key in the Pacific's far-flung Marshall Islands. I would take the bare minimum with me. No food, just mask, fins and a pole-spear to obtain it. No water, only a manual desalination pump to create fresh water. No matches, only a magnifying glass. And a hammock, knife, hatchet, sunscreen, cooking pot and salt and pepper. Oh, and a satellite phone and Coast Guard beacon should I eat the wrong fish and a Sharpie pen to scrawl a desperate message for rescuers.

The common reaction from friends and colleagues was: "So tell me again why you're doing this?" I tried but failed to assign a noble purpose -- I wasn't trying to discover myself, and while I remain confused about many of life's vicissitudes, my religion informs me of the broader purpose of my existence.

No, this long bout of Crusoe-envy seemed to be more physical than spiritual, an appreciation for what Teddy Roosevelt called the "doctrine of the strenuous life." Roosevelt bemoaned the "timid man," the man living "a life of slothful and ignoble ease." The man I fear I've become. As a kid, I used to snicker when I shook an uncallused hand. Now I've got two of my own. I used to bathe in the evening after a hard day's work. Now I shower in the morning.

But if I was really looking for physical exertion, I could have just trained for a marathon. Perhaps the greatest appeal was not knowing what was behind the next wave. Maybe I would learn something about myself.

Day 1

The flight from Hawaii took me 2,200 miles southwest, midway between Hawaii and Australia. After a stop in the Marshall Islands' capital of Majuro, I flew another 400 miles north to the Marshallese atoll of Kwajalein, where the United States still has a lease for missile testing.

There, we loaded a boat and headed north 50 miles -- 2 1/2 hours -- to the island of Jabonwod, which in Marshallese means "the end of the reef." We floated my gear to shore in an ice chest.

And then I was alone. Completely alone.

I began by scouting for a campsite. At high tide, Jabonwod is a third of a mile long and 100 yards wide. Facing north, the massive Kwajalein Lagoon was on my right, the open ocean on my left. All islands in view were, like Jabonwod, unoccupied.


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