Fire Walking in Seattle

Told "it could change your life," the author tries walking through fire for the first time.

| September/October 1990

  • 125-112-01
    The coal beds used in fire walking radiate more than 1,300° of heat, yet it is still possible to walk across them without harm, and researchers still don't know why. 

  • 125-112-01

"Life's not complete without a fire walk now and then," Dan assured me. We were at the dark end of a logging road on the slopes of Mount Rainier under a moonless sky. A full cord of burning wood illuminated the clearing, the fire roaring like a pep rally gone berserk. Light danced on Dan's face, enhancing his Jack Nicholson profile and the hot gleam in his eyes.

Dan McHale, a Seattle builder of backpacks, walks through fire. With bare feet. On bare hands. Unscathed and rejuvenated. Let's see Jack Nicholson do that. "Let's see you do it," Dan had urged me earlier in the day, "or at least just come along and watch. It could change your life."

I like my life pretty much the way it is, thank you, and had no intention of irrevocably toasting my toes. Still, fire walking as a spectator sport held an undeniable appeal akin to watching auto racing for the adrenal rush of witnessing someone else's imminent self-immolation.

In man's musty metaphysical closet, fire walking has made frequent appearances over the centuries, in lands as diverse as Greece, India and the South Pacific. Yet researchers still do not know why tender flesh can be pressed without harm into coals radiating more than 1,300° of heat. It is that uncertainty that makes fire walking an inviting vehicle for any number of religions and cults. Fear of fire is so innate within us that stepping into it requires an extremely large leap of the faith of one's own choosing.

In the late 1970s, seminars in California began helping neophytes confront the fire. In the process, the walkers would purportedly tap the power in themselves to do everything from making more money to losing weight, healing marital strife and finding God. Workshop directors came as far north as Puget Sound to spread the good word in exchange for fees that could range into the hundreds of dollars. By 1985, fire walking was hot enough to merit coverage in a Life magazine article, which noted that "one Seattle resident even made the trip on his hands—across 12-foot beds of glowing coals." That was Dan McHale.

"Someone also quoted me as saying that after what I'd learned from fire walking, I could probably withstand a nuclear blast while standing at ground zero," Dan said as we watched the fire burning down into bushels of embers. "That might have been a little radical, actually." Dan credits fire walking with making him healthier, calmer and less likely to do outrageous things, although for one who performs handstands in the hot stuff, that last point may be one for debate.

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