I sat on the couch with my knees tucked up under my chin, half hiding behind my husband, Ryan, half doing that thing where your hands are in front of your eyes, but your fingers are separated. You can still see, but you can snap them back together if something happens and shutting your eyes isn’t enough protection. Our 3-month-old was asleep, something I required before my husband turned on the show so we wouldn’t scar him for life if he saw Nik Wallenda fall into a volcano, and somehow I’d gotten sucked into the broadcast of the famous tightrope walker as he traipsed across a thin line draped over an active volcano.
I scoffed when Ryan came home early to turn on the TV.
“He’s a Wallenda, Jessie,” he said half exasperated, like every person on Earth knows about the Wallenda family of tightrope walkers.
“What’s a Wallenda?” I asked, prompting a very long explanation from my husband who somehow knows all about this family even though he has never once expressed an interest in the circus or aerial acrobatics. How does he know this stuff?
I came into the living room around the 10-minute mark and got hooked. It took more than 30 minutes to walk the 1,800 feet across the active Nicaraguan volcano known as the “mouth of hell.”
We cheered when he made it, but it also made me curious as to what makes a person want to wake up and risk life and limb — actually just life because once you fall in a volcano you’re pretty much done — just for the sake of adventure.
Who is Nik Wallenda?
Nik was born to the Flying Wallendas, a circus troupe focusing on aerial arts dating back to 1905. His great-great grandfather, Karl, was born into a circus family in Germany, and started walking the tightrope.
Walking turned into riding unicycles, doing stunts and other tricks while dangling high above the ground. Karl and some of his family members started the traveling troupe, the Flying Wallendas, and made a name for themselves when they continued performing after losing their safety net.
The thrill-seeking gene carried on for seven generations until Nik used his skills to make headlines. In 2008, he broke the record for the longest bike ride on a tightrope. In 2012, he crossed Niagara Falls on the tightrope. In 2019, Nik and his sister, Lijana, crossed Times Square in New York City on tightrope.
None of that compared to his most recent feat, crossing the Masaya Volcano only 12 miles from the capital city of Managua. He wore a mask and goggles to protect himself from the noxious gasses rising up from the lava pit.
What kind of person does it take to marry a daredevil? She certainly couldn’t be a worrier. For Nik, his true love was someone who really understood his need to push the limits — another performer. In a match made under the big top, Nik married Erendira, an eighth-generation aerialist, who once broke one of his world records by hanging from her teeth on a spinning loop over a waterfall.
Read that last part again: Hanging. Teeth. Loop. Spinning. Waterfall.
Nik even proposed to Erendira while on the tightrope in front of 32,000 people.
She actually went first last night, performing an aerial ballet whilst hanging from a rope suspended over a pit of doom.
Is saying “girl power” still a thing? If so, she definitely deserves a girl power.
Never Give Up
Any time you have a significant number of people obsessed with doing really dangerous things, you’re statistically going to have some accidents. The Wallenda family isn’t any different.
Karl died in 1978 when he fell from the rope in Puerto Rico. Mario, Karl’s son, was paralyzed in 1962 when he fell doing a stunt. Lijana, Nik’s sister, fell in 2017, breaking every bone in her face.
All of the adversity made Nik want to speak out about why he keeps going. Once, when he was traveling, a TSA agent asked about the purpose of his trip.
“To inspire people around the world to follow their dreams and never give up,” Nik said.
Those words became his mantra as he tried new stunts, eventually breaking 11 world records.
“Three words I live by: Never give up,” Nik said.
The video isn’t for the faint of heart. If you want to watch it, fully knowing he made it across without falling, you can check it out here.