Of Rambo, Rimbaud and the Snooze Button of the American Dream
Colton Harris-Moore, teen airplane thief and Web folk-fugitive, once rode a Midwestern tornado into town “two steps” ahead of the law and practically picking the pocket of American lore as a modern day outlaw of the stolen skies.
Which is slightly exaggerated. Colt didn’t actually ride the twister. That was Pecos Bill, back in the Nineteenth Century. Colt did, however, arrive on the lam in an Iowa town the same day as a tornado driving a stolen SUV, but if the storytellers have their way the details will eventually merge. Give it a few years.
Bob Friel’s book The Barefoot Bandit recounts, sometimes to the minute, Colt’s eponymous, shoeless and autodidactic escapades, first across the San Juan Islands in northwest Washington State, then spanning the diagonal width of the land of the free. Friel, already an experienced freelance adventure writer, just happened to be living on Orcas Island, a kayak’s paddle from Colt’s home island of Camano, and the kid drove Orcas plum loco for years. To paraphrase Cypress Hill, when the shit went down Friel was most definitely ready.
… he is a motion-based innovator, that bird that cannot wait for the permission of evolution or politics to fly …
Colt was born at grunge’s grungiest, 1991, almost as if he were a deleted scene from My Own Private Idaho or Drugstore Cowboy. He is vague, elusive and contradictory; he is a motion-based innovator, that bird that cannot wait for the permission of evolution or politics to fly, Nietzsche’s monster of energy; he is that hand in the dark, the one that reaches up and prevents you from hitting the snooze button of the American Dream.
Colt is the anti-hero with a thousand faces. He is the mustachioed and cowboy-hatted black Trans-Am driver Bo Darville, aka the Bandit, the fictional horse-powered moqueur of Southern law enforcement in the Smokey and the Bandit films. He is Billy the Kid, whooping it up while claiming one airplane and luxe SUV after another instead of banks and innocent lives. He is the holy con-man Neal Cassady, Beat muse and Great Western hero of the mid-Twentieth Century, manic folk preacher and stealer of over five-hundred cars before his twenty-first birthday, pulled apart by his desire for a life of white picket fences and the life of ill-repute that desired him.
If there is a What To Expect When Expecting template for raising an outlaw then Colt’s mother (we’ll call her Calamity Pam) reveals few surprises, even reveling in her role as a shotgun-toting, Oedipalicious and toe-dirted cheerleader. In the end she resists complete responsibility, both through her own self-absolution and by facts that include a revolving door of successively hideous father figures and Colt’s own reputation as a local cat-and-mouser.
Damn if reputation is not a tricky thing. It is the black gold that flows through the outlaw’s veins, but in the hands of an irresponsible and prescient youth like Colt it becomes the Puckish evergreen forest between fact and fiction.
Any serial burglar that resists capture attracts an ethereal quality, but Colt’s trademark bare footprints made him a phantom, positively ghostlike. Just ask Paul McCartney what going around barefoot does for your soul. At least authorities knew they weren’t chasing Air Jordan, but that’s not saying much for the attitude of securing light aircraft in a post-9/11 landscape.
This adrenal kid, this straight-edge junk food junkie, left in his wash nearly every law enforcement entity he encountered, catching the police either bungling or with their britches down. With his smarts and audacity Colt could be the next Chuck Yeager or Amelia Earhart when he gets out of prison. He might even grow into the ideal derring-do candidate for the first human mission to Mars.
… Colt wrestled the popular imagination from the corporate media and gave people a folk hero, whether he meant to or not.
This raw marker of mythos, this angelic punk pilot was, for a brief time, more necessary than Norah Jones’ debut album. Using the instruments that have haunted the popular imagination since 9/11 (stolen aircraft) he did what most everyone else is afraid to set down their soy lattes and Entertainment Weekly’s to do: Not only fight the law and (proportionately) win, but to be able to moon the whole rotten system while doing it.
Colt is the wanted-poster child for Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook motto: “Move fast and break things.” He is Johnny Rambo in First Blood running through the sunless forests of the Northwest, eluding and mocking the yokel badges that stepped on his neck. He is Arthur Rimbaud, understanding of symbolism and disdain for authority. He is the ultimate seducer, answering your questions with exactly what you want to hear, capturing your imagination with feats of daring, all the while plotting ten steps ahead of what you thought would happen. The fact this kid did not get laid on his adventures is a damn shame.
He certainly won’t have any trouble getting some strange once he gets out, much like Sean Parker did after Napster crashed into a wall of corporate docket jocks. He has the entrepreneurial spirit, and those folks are always orbited by benefactors. Where Parker took songs owned by copyright holders and made them available free to the world, Colt wrestled the popular imagination from the corporate media and gave people a folk hero, whether he meant to or not.
His story is one of biography by force, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit self-mythologizer. He has managed to have his story told already by book, countless articles, internet arcana and most likely a future feature film, but by court order in no way will he be able to profit. Doesn’t matter. Years of fun on the run, plus seven years or less in prison (where he will most likely be signing autographs as a con’s con) and walking before his twenty-seventh birthday, seems like a drop in the oil pan compared to legend and immortality.
He reclaimed the tragedies of sky-borne death and apocalypse from Mohammed Atta, and turned them into a truly Marxist-American farce, one with a tint of property crime irony, becoming liberator of consumer fetishism by offering himself as a cultural hacker-hijacker and technological martyr. He did what he did so we don’t have to, and used our own mechanical and digital toys as the impertinent means to do it.
Colton Harris-Moore represents a huge Johnny Cash-style bird flipped into the camera of authority. In the end it was a combination of hubris and impatience, and possibly a very lean mixture of death-by-cop, that prevented him from becoming the next D.B. Cooper.
As an outlaw who created his own luck Colt wrote his own story that was larger than everything else in the world, if only for a brief time. His exploits and taunting self-portraits with the Mona Lisa smiles forced the American superego to accept him on his own terms, a bargain only dreamed about by so many millions of internet trolls and smartphone slaves.
As for the establishment media and paparazzi Colt had three eternally classy words on his way out of the Bahamian courthouse following his capture and slap-on-the-wrist deportation hearing:
“Go to hell.”
For more on Colt, including maps and photos not included in the book, go to www.bobfriel.com.