Member of the Month: Michael “Mel” Melner Carries the World

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To know Mel is to like Mel.

If you don’t know Mel, you probably know and love someone like him. He’s the guy humbly hiding behind the scenes, lifting everyone else up, and not taking as much credit as he deserves. Often, when friends of Mel achieve some sort of greatness, he is the one to thank. In fact, I know that these words are making him blush as he reads them (while wanting to go retreat to a yoga class, or two). Please, take a moment to get this rare glimpse inside the head of someone you really should get to know…I’m sure glad I did!

These days, in a world sprinkled with skydivers, base jumpers, alpinists, climbers, highliners, and other altitude-driven sports enthusiasts, “getting high” means different things to different folks. What do you feel personally fuels your passion for “getting high” and how do you find personal satisfaction in these activities?

One of the things I enjoy the most about the activities I like to do is that they put me in high places with incredible views. I am not as talented as some, but I like to be outdoors and experience new things. I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve rigged highlines I haven’t tried to stand on, packed in gear to the cliff and not climbed, walked my boat down to the river and decided to not get in the water, and taken my board up just to walk off. I’ve backed down off climbs, off all highlines (so far), sideslipped down chutes, portaged, etc. To me, it is a success if I gain knowledge, conscientiously control risk, and push myself in the places I love most, without sacrificing safety.  

Do your own pursuits of adventure take you to certain places that you feel have changed your perspective on daily life or finding happiness?

There is definitely a humbling aspect to these natural features of the planet we enjoy so much, and you hear this and other variations of the same sentiment from individuals much more qualified to speak on the subject than myself. Laird Hamilton has expressed a similar sentiment about big wave surfing; Dean Potter and numerous other climbers and highliners about climbing and highlining. Any problem in daily life seems far less monumental when juxtaposed with experiencing these features and spaces, of and in the world, that seem to outlast time itself. Sometimes events seem monumental, but then they are put in a broader perspective; I feel the things I like to do on land, ice, water, and air definitely give me a healthier perspective.  

Over the years, where have you been fortunate enough to call home, and how are each of these places different from the place in which you were born?

It’s been a fun little run! Born in Nashville, TN, then to Miami, FL, then to Portland, OR, then back to Nashville, then to Reno, NV, then to Atlanta, GA, and finally to my current residence here in downtown Sacramento. Nashville is a great city that I will always love, with the nicest people on the planet. I’ve been really lucky to have lived in some amazing cities, and found people that provide daily inspiration in each. The glaring difference between the South and pretty much everywhere else is the sun. The 300-ish days of sunlight per year they get is CRAZY! We are super spoiled out here. Oh, and then there’s the food! Something happens when you cross the Mississippi River; it just tastes better down there!  

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Do you feel that time spent out in nature positively influences us as humans?

It does for me, that’s for sure. One of the reasons I continue to return to these things, sometimes after years of absence, is due first to the experience itself, which to me is a physical expression of art and beauty. There is something about the focus these things demand. The challenges (overcome or not) are not the wall climbed, but the battle fought within my own skin; and I feel it helps me grow as a person, whether I back off or finish the route, line, etc. It’s hard for me to answer for all humans, because I think there are people that probably feel the same way about collecting stamps or something. It’s about passion and love, and if mine is different than yours, great! I would love to hear what moves you!

Where was your personal best highline/slackline that you have set up and/or walked, and what made it the best? Was it also the longest line?

I have helped rig two lines in Yosemite that were over 400ft, at both Vernal Falls and the Rostrum, but I didn’t stand on either. I am still working on my first highline send. I have stood on two, fallen standing on another four, and rigged a lot more than that; no walks yet. I actually have a tremendous fear of heights, and am still getting used to the head game of highlining. The longest slackline I’ve walked from end to end without falling is only 150ft. I am working on closing the 200ft gap in the park, and I am working on two highlines within the 70-80ft range.  

If you could describe yourself in three words, what would they be and why?

Dorky, awkward, and hungry.

I feel like dorky is “nerdy” without the implied super intelligence. No need to explain awkward if you have met or spoken to me. Lastly, hungry because I can always eat; it can be a problem.  

What advice would your 18-year-old self have readily given to your 35-year-old self?

To never lose those dreams I had as a kid (and still had at 18 years old), to not even try to be practical and fully to follow my heart, and to fall in love every single day.  

What advice would you tell today to your 50-year-old future self?

I feel like I would ask for advice rather than offer, but I guess to make sure to always keep up the adventures, no matter what they are. I would remind myself that every time I sacrifice passion for practicality I have regretted the decision.  

Please fill in the blanks in the following sentence: I would rather _____ than _____.

I would rather fall than never try to stand.

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Lastly, would you please tell us about the time you saw the president and got kicked out of Vernal Falls by the secret service?

I was helping my buddy Ryan Jenks and his now-fiancée Kim Weglin establish a highline on natural protection across Vernal Falls, in Yosemite. We had planned for Father’s Day weekend, and, coincidentally, the president was in Yosemite that same weekend. We didn’t think the president would be anywhere close, because the hike up the Mist Trail is kind of sketchy. We set up the line and a couple of my friends gave it a go. I slid out and mantled on top and then chickened out.  

At about 7am the next morning, Yosemite Search and Rescue shows up at the line saying they have orders to cut it down. We told them we would take it down, but it was going to take a while (it took six hours to set up and was over 400ft long). They gave us an hour before “the secret service and snipers come in,” and we were warned that we “didn’t want to be there when they came through.” Then, Ryan started to walk across the line. When he got to the other side we started taking everything down. In about an hour and a half we had taken the line down, packed everything up and reconvened, and began the walk down the path.

I was moving slower than the group, because I was carrying the big pig and am less accustomed to carrying that much weight. Sara and I were walking together when we saw a few guys with huge guns walk by. I said, “Looks like we’re getting out of here right on time!” Then, a few guys that looked like Yosemite rangers (but had ear pieces) walked up to us and said we couldn’t stand on the path, and that I needed to drop my hiking poles.

I was explaining that I was not trying to be a problem, and would do whatever they need me to do, when Sara tapped me and said, “Do you see what’s happening right now?!” I looked down the path, and before I really knew what I was looking at, I heard President Obama’s voice: “How you doing?” Barack and Michelle were walking directly toward me and Sara! I said, “Pretty good! How are you?” The president said “Good!” Sara couldn’t contain herself and said, “You’re an amazing president!” Mr. Obama smiled and said, “Thank you!” He then shook her hand, and as his daughters walked by they apologized to us. “No no, it’s my pleasure,” I said as the entourage passed. When he reached the bend in the path and the remainder of our group, Scott Hong and Elana, he greeted them as well, and said, “Looks like we got some serious climbers here!”  

It was pretty surreal! Great way to get booted out of the park, though!

Interview by Jason Bove.