A life of adventure

Boats, planes, horses – all have figured in to Hank Young’s life of adventure. The 84-year-old recently penned a book of a long sea journey via sailboat – Voyage of the Scimitar. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Boats, planes, horses – all have figured in to Hank Young’s life of adventure. The 84-year-old recently penned a book of a long sea journey via sailboat – Voyage of the Scimitar.

He helped scientist Wernher von Braun design rockets. He dodged boulders while climbing a spewing volcano. He sailed the Americas on a 36-foot cutter called “The Scimitar.” For a decade, he lived in a tiny, remote village in the Canary Islands.

You half expect him to crack open a Dos Equis in the middle of the interview and be surrounded instantly by a pair of beautiful women.

Hank Young might not be the most interesting man in the world, but he’s up there on the list.

And reality, of course, is a bit different from a beer commercial. Injuries from a car wreck have slowed him some. He spends much of his days taking care of his second wife, Carolina, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Young, 84, lives in a self-designed and partly self-built Spanish villa on the Florida Mesa, the La Plata Mountains beautifying the scene. A tour of the home, Cotijo Jerez, reveals the depth of Young’s attention to design and detail. He oriented it to the sun and wind. He curved the door and window arches not in half-circles, but in a wider curve, a “perfect” curve, he says.

Banisters are hollow spun steel tubes imported from Spain. Fireplace and kitchen tiles are from Spain. Walls of the horse-training ring – forgot to mention, he’s a well-respected trainer – are sloped outward to give the trainer room should the horse decide to crush him against the wall.

Young and his first wife, Diane, bought the property in 1986 and moved to Durango two years later. The climate suited them, the view drew them to the property. They met in California in the 1950s when Hank was working as an aeronautical engineer, specializing in rocketry, for Northrop Corp. It was during his engineer career that Young helped von Braun, the famous German-turned-American scientist, improve V-2 rocket engines by tracking their paths with a telescope.

After their wedding, the Youngs bought a 53-foot schooner and spent the next 14 years sailing the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean and Baltic seas, and the canals of Europe. He’d grown up around horses – as well as planes (next to the Newport, R.I., airport) and boats (Atlantic Ocean) – and when Hank met the Andalusian breed of horses in Spain, he fell in love with them.

In the early 1970s, they sold the sailboat and leased a ranch in the mountains of the Canary Islands, a Spanish possession off the coast of northwest Africa.

Why the Canary Islands? Might want to jot this down: In his days at Northrop he’d studied weather data from around the world and deduced that three places had the most premium weather: Hawaii, New Caledonia (island group 1,000 miles east of Australia) and the Canary Islands.

The Youngs brought tourists in on burros to their small village, reached via a 2,800-foot descent on a narrow cliff-hanging footpath. Importing outsiders didn’t make them popular with all the natives – “30 percent of them wanted to stick a knife in my back” – but it supported their stay.

In 1988, they moved to Durango, remote and climate-friendly enough for their needs.

Diane died in 2000. Young remarried in 2007 to Carolina, a La Plata County native, whose birthplace is now under Navajo Reservoir.

He gets around fine, but he’s had to cut back on his big love – working with horses – because of an automobile accident several years ago near Shiprock, N.M. A bus pulled out in front of him on U.S. Highway 491; he aimed his car between the front and rear wheels and ducked. The car’s top was sheared off, and it took an hour to extricate him, and he suffered several cracked bones in his back. But he survived.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been close to death. Young hasn’t spent his life seeking the next death-defying thrill, but he has spent it with an eye on adventure.

He was too young to remember, but he was told that at age 2 he escaped an outdoor pen by digging under a fence. He disappeared for a day, and when found, was reportedly still smiling.

In 1955, he and three others departed California on The Scimitar, hitting ports all the way to Panama.

Among the highlights, chronicled in his recently completed book, Voyage of the Scimitar, was a climb of Izalco, a 6,400-foot volcano off the coast of El Salvador. He worked a deal with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, which wanted samples of plankton in the local waters as well as sound recordings of the volcano, erupting in spurts throughout the day.

Young and fellow adventurer Jack Pugsley got high enough for good photos, then kept an eye out as red-hot boulders soared and bounded toward them. A huge storm rolled in at night with what Young estimated were 90 mph winds. They were trapped on the bubbling mountain.

“That was terrifying,” Young recalls. “That whole 12 to 14 hours was probably the most terrifying thing.”

They returned with photos, 16-millimeter video and sound recordings. Their story was described in True magazine, a popular periodical in its day, and Young later put together an award-winning TV adventure film.

We’ve just scratched the surface of an eventful life, but some of us, unfortunately, feel compelled to keep an eye on the clock.

“Oh, there’s a lot more,” he assures.

No doubt there is. Perhaps for another time.

johnp@durangoherald.com John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

Hank Young designed and was involved in construction of his Spanish-style villa on the Florida Mesa. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Hank Young designed and was involved in construction of his Spanish-style villa on the Florida Mesa.