Death didn’t stop this world traveler
In the last 22 months, Ralph B. White’s meticulously logged schedule shows trips to the mountains of Nepal, the Australian outback, the China-Mongolia border, a Rwandan volcano, Iceland, Benin and the waters off Zanzibar.
Ask White’s buddies at the Adventurers’ Club of Los Angeles and they’ll tell you this itinerary could threaten the health of any other thrill-seeker. But White’s stamina is not an issue. He died, at age 66, on Feb. 4, 2008.
It’s his ashes that have been traveling since then, borne to the ends of the earth and the depths of the sea by his fiancee and fellow Adventurers. Thanks to them, tiny portions of White’s remains, carefully measured out in plastic bags, have put in enough posthumous miles to rival King Tut. Instead of a bucket list, he’s got an ash log. It’s six pages long.
“Rather than have people mourn him, he wanted to give people incentive to go have adventures,” said Rosaly Lopes, who was engaged to White when he died and is the keeper of the ashes.
Though White covered a lot of the Earth during his life, said Krista Few, his daughter, most of these scatterings have delivered his ashes to new territory. “The competition is what is the most bizarre place we can take Ralph?”
To appreciate how well this afterlife suits White, you have to consider the life that came before, friends say.
Born in San Bernardino in 1941, White grew up on the Big Island of Hawaii, served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, founded a parachuting school in Lancaster and worked as a free-fall cameraman for the TV show “Ripcord.” As a contract cameraman for National Geographic, he filmed horses, sharks and whales in the wild and searched for the Loch Ness Monster.
When a French American expedition found the Titanic on Sept. 1, 1985, White was there rolling tape. When director James Cameron made the film “Titanic,” White worked as an expedition leader and second-unit cameraman. Though the Titanic wreckage lies 12,000 feet below the sea, White returned again and again on salvage efforts and other expeditions, marking hundreds of hours at the wreck.
“I was born an adult in search of a childhood,” White told the Las Vegas Review-Journal when an IMAX documentary on the Titanic wreck played there in 1998.
For nearly 30 years, White was a member of the Adventurers’ Club, an old-school invitation-only outfit that dates back to 1921. Its 146 Los Angeles members (all men, including Cameron) are invited to convene weekly in an upstairs clubhouse on North Broadway that’s crammed full of tokens from remote travels, including a stuffed polar bear that glowers by the door.
Past members include astronaut Gordon Cooper, director Cecil B. DeMille and actor Buddy Ebsen. White’s face can be found in the photo gallery of past club presidents.
“Ralph had a very outgoing personality. His sense of humor was right on the edge,” said Allan Smith, the current president. “He could toast with the best of them and joke with the best of them.”
In 2007, when a friend asked White what he would want written on his tombstone, he e-mailed Lopes a copy of his answer. He preferred cremation, he wrote, and this epitaph:
“Ralph White is not here. He’s scattered around the world.”
Then he went back to life as usual. But in early February 2008, White suffered an aortic aneurysm. As he lay in Glendale Adventist Medical Center, prospects dimming, many of his loved ones waited outside the intensive care unit.
“There were about a dozen of us there,” said Lopes, 52, who is a senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. “The doctor came in and told us he had passed away. A friend asked what his wishes were, and I remembered that e-mail.”
It was, Lopes said, “like a ray of sunshine coming in the room.”
The global distributions began just 20 days later. First up was Rory Golden, an Irish friend who scattered ashes at the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built.
Six weeks after that, Lopes arrived in Vienna on a journey that White had planned to be part of. Early on “an absolutely beautiful sunny day,” Lopes and a friend found their way to Prater Park and boarded its giant Ferris wheel.
There were three other people in the cabin, but Lopes and her companion had a window to themselves. When the wheel stopped as they reached the very top, 212 feet above ground, she reached for her purse and seized the moment.
“I scattered the ashes out of the window, only a few . . . And I could see a few grains lofting out, and the sunlight reflecting on them,” Lopes said.
“When you lose someone who’s close to you, it’s a journey. It was, I think, good for all of us who were close to him, to feel like we had some kind of mission. It helped me.”
Lopes has scattered bits of White’s remains on three continents, at sites that include the ruins of the Temple of Thor in Iceland and the Fairview Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where 121 Titanic victims are buried.
But as her log of White’s posthumous travels makes clear -- it’s titled “Where has Ralph been?” -- others have carried White’s remains even farther, deeper and higher. The waters of Lake Baikal in Russia. A lighthouse in Norway. A suspension bridge in British Columbia. Blue Nile Falls in Ethiopia.
In September 2009, Rory Golden carried a pinch of White’s ashes on a harrowing climb of Mont Blanc in the French Alps -- “for no other reason than that it was there, it would take effort and they bore the same surname.”
After struggling through nausea, hypothermia and freezing winds to reach the 15,781-foot summit, Golden wrote in an e-mail, he pulled off his insulated gloves to retrieve the ashes, let them fly and shouted, “Fair winds and following seas, my friend!”
The climb was “the toughest thing I’ve ever done, both physically and mentally,” said Golden, 55. “Ralph helped me get there and back safely.”
White’s son, Randy Pixley of Atlanta, hasn’t scattered any ashes yet. White’s daughter, Few, has made deposits in China, Singapore and Japan, halfway up Mt. Fuji.
“I was pregnant with his granddaughter, so I could only take him up above the snow line,” she said.
When her daughter, Kaia Blair, gets to be 18, Few said, she’ll get her chance to take her grandfather someplace interesting. In fact, she said, “I hope her grandfather’s ashes will inspire her to become the explorer that he was.”
More than two dozen traveling companions have escorted White’s remains to various destinations so far, usually releasing “maybe a tenth of a teaspoon” of ashes, Lopes said.
It is possible that laws have been overlooked in the course of these travels. Rather than deal with red tape around the world, Lopes says, White’s friends and family members have scattered his ashes informally or furtively (a few grains of ashes were tucked in a crack inside the Sistine Chapel).
On the other hand, some journeys have involved no scattering at all. In May 2009, a friend put about one gram of White’s remains on a spacecraft operated in New Mexico by the firm Celestis, which, for a fee, offers “post-cremation memorial flights.”
White’s flight was to be a suborbital itinerary, but the launch went awry and the vessel drifted back to Earth, contents intact, chute deployed. White had done 2,997 parachute jumps, Lopes said, “so we figured, well, that’s one more.”
There is still one more place left on Earth where Lopes believes White would really want his remains to be -- the Titanic wreck, 12,000 feet down in the Atlantic.
Lopes has people working on that. But in the meantime, White’s friends and family intend to keep him in motion. If all goes according to plan, they say, some ashes may soon find their way aboard a nuclear submarine.
“I haven’t weighed contents to see how much of Ralph has gone already, but there’s enough for another 50 or 100 scatterings,” Lopes said.
“Some people might think it’s a grim task, but to me it isn’t. Maybe it’s because I’m a volcanologist. I’m used to dealing with ashes.”