5 Epic Quests to Track Down Strangers Using the Vaguest of Clues
In 1988, a Scotsman pledged to walk 500 miles to prove his love. Not only would he walk 500 miles, but he would follow that up by walking 500 more miles, for no purpose other than to prove his capabilities and dedication. Further details remain unknown.
Was he seeking to walk 1,000 miles toward the object of his affection? Was he going to walk 500 miles away from her, and then 500 miles back? Was this purely a test of endurance, or did this quest also include a long, difficult search for his beloved? We may never know the truth. In fact, some people insist this was never a real proclamation at all, and the “Proclaimers” who offered it were just a band.
Fortunately, we have for you some confirmed stories of people (including some Scotsmen) who really did track targets down, through quests that spanned the globe.
A Catfishing Victim Hunted Down and Hooked Up with the Catfish Model
You talk to a partner online, without meeting them. The other person shares their photo, a photo of someone attractive. Then it turns out that’s a photo of someone else entirely, to trick you into falling in love. It’s a tale as old as time. Or at least as old as online dating, and possibly as old as the 16th century. In 2015, it happened to Emma Perrier, who was corresponding with a guy with this as his dating profile pic:
She liked the look of him, and the photo also wasn’t so absurdly stylish to be unbelievable from an electrician living 100 miles away from her London suburb. That’s more than we can say for this next photo she received of the guy, which is surely from a professional shoot, but by this point she was hooked:
The man she was chatting with was not a 34-year-old electrician like he claimed. He was Alan Stanley, a 53-year-old shop decorator. The guy in the photo also wasn’t a 34-year-old electrician. He was Adem Guzel, a Turkish model whose pics Stanley had grabbed on the internet. After hearing a bunch of warnings from her friends about this guy who refused to meet in person despite supposedly living so close, Perrier eventually reverse image searched the pics, then followed that up with more detective work till she identified whom she’d really been chatting with.
If you’ve heard of catfishing before, it’s a pretty standard story up to this point. Except, Perrier went further and found the model’s contact info and reached out to him, initially just to warn him of this semi-impersonator. Guzel, unlike Stanley, was up for video calls, even though when he wasn’t in Istanbul, he was in a small Turkish village with bad internet. They stayed in touch for around a year. Then Perrier invited him to come be with her in London.
Guzel said yes, because this was an amazing opportunity to leave his village and move to the U.K. Wait, sorry, did we say “move to the U.K.”? No, he surely said yes solely because this was a chance to be with his soulmate, not because it let him come to London and pursue his dreams of being an actor. Though, if he did have other motives in mind, eh, who cares? Win-win, right?
A Balloon With a Letter to Santa Got Answered
If you get stranded on an island and try sending a message in a bottle, it will probably reach no one. Unless you’ve specially designed yourself a bottle for max floatation and reach, marine organisms will likely grow over the glass and sink it long before it lands on some distant shore.
But what if, instead, you try sending a message via balloon?
The balloon will likely pop before it travels continents away. Still, depending on your starting point, this short distance might span international borders, taking it somewhere far removed from wherever you are.
In December 2018, Arizona man Randy Heiss was hiking through the desert when he spotted a popped red balloon in the brush. His dog accompanied him, so you’re welcome to imagine that the dog spotted it first. The ripped rubber contained a sheet of paper, and a little elementary knowledge of Spanish revealed it was a list of toys. A Mattel playhouse was on there (“Casa Enchantimals”), as were requests for clothes, art supplies and several items that sound like gibberish unless you have children.
This was a child’s Christmas list, concluded Heiss. And he vowed that he would fulfill those Christmas wishes.
Seeing how close he was to the border, he gauged that the balloon had likely floated over from Mexico, with Nogales 20 miles away a likely candidate for the origin spot. He contacted a radio host in Nogales, asking him to put out the word. The station then took to social media, where the biggest clue they could offer was the name with which the child signed the list, Dayami. It took barely an hour for the request to blow up and reach Dayami’s family, the Leivas.
Heiss bought the gifts on the list and presented them to Dayami at a show hosted by the radio station before Christmas. And since the real gift is the friends we made along the way, the Leivas then had Heiss and his wife come spend Christmas with them. It was such a heartwarming story that Mattel themselves swooped in and announced plans to adapt it into a movie called Christmas Balloon. Because you know what’s better than one guy seeing a balloon and buying toys? Millions of people seeing a movie and then buying toys — Mattel toys.
Anyway, this all ended much more happily than the last time a kid released a red balloon. We refer, of course, to the armies of the world overreacting, resulting in nuclear war.
‘Airplane!’ Found the Original Announcers for LAX’s Public Address System
Airplane! didn’t find its humor from wacky actors behaving wackily. It found its humor from serious actors offering deadpan delivery. Let’s put it this way: Leslie Nielsen was famously a straight man and did serious roles before Airplane!, but he was an ace comedian with considerable comic experience compared with most of the others in the cast.
The script opens with cars pulling up at LAX to the sounds of public address announcements. This joke builds off the airport’s real (at the time) announcements about parking zones. To recite these lines, the director team held auditions, with “actors and voiceover specialists and comedians.” None of them managed to do it just right. So, they dispensed with auditions and hunted down the actual people who’d recorded the airport’s real announcements.
These people were not voice actors (most people who do such announcements are, even if they never do Hollywood work). They were a husband-and-wife team, who had sold the audio equipment to LAX and who’d therefore recorded the announcements themselves. Now presented with the chance to read these new lines, they did so with zero preconceptions of the correct way for an actor to deliver them. Not only was the result authentic, it was funny, unlike every single take the auditions provided.
The announcers’ conversation transitions from arguing over the parking zones to bickering over their personal lives. These lines, too, were funny because of the absurdity of the authenticity rather than just being written as punch lines. The director team got this conversation by going into a drugstore and grabbing a “dime store romance novel” and paraphrasing the dialogue from there. The couple in that book were arguing over a past abortion, and Airplane! just grabbed that and used it.
The airport announcers (“Betty” and “Vernon”) were, weirdly enough, not the only real-life obscure people the movie dug up to reprise their non-Hollywood voice roles. A running gag in the movie about a woman puzzling over her husband’s behavior plays on a then-famous ad campaign, where a wife notes her husband’s uncharacteristic choice to have a second cup of coffee. Airplane! got the actress from that ad, Lee Bryant, to play the same part in the movie. That layer of the gag is lost today since you had to be around at the time to have any familiarity with the original ad campaign at all.
A Random Dog Joined a Marathon, Then a Runner Hunted Him Down
The 4 Deserts Ultramarathon Series sends competitors across some of the most unforgiving deserts in the world — the Gobi, the Atacama, the Sahara and Antarctica. (Yes, Antarctica is a desert.) In 2016, Dion Leonard from Scotland was doing the Gobi March, which was at the time a six-stage ultramarathon across 150 miles of China. On the first day, a random stray dog showed up at the campfire. On day two, it ran alongside him.
He didn’t expect it to keep up for long. Leonard was running to win. The dog (whom Leonard named “Gobi”) was running for no clear reason and with no obvious incentive to keep going. But Gobi stayed with him the whole day. The next day, Gobi managed it again for miles more — except for the parts where they had to cross water; Leonard carried the tiny dog over these. At this point, it became clear that Gobi planned to accompany him all the way, even though the remainder of the race ran through 125-degree heat, which could kill any runner not cursed with human insanity. So, Leonard now got a vehicle to take Gobi ahead of him, and then the two would meet at each day’s end.
After the race, Leonard decided to adopt Gobi, a choice complicated by all the red tape keeping you from bringing random feral animals from China to the U.K. He left Gobi in the town of Urumqi in China, with a friend, while he figured all that out. That friend lost the dog during this time. Leonard now had to fly back to China to organize a search.
Urumqi may be a small city by Chinese standards, but it’s bigger than Chicago, and Leonard was a stranger there. Five days into the search, he had no leads. Luckily, he ended up finding the dog — unluckily, with an injured hip and a giant head wound. After this came a period of recovery, including three months together in quarantine, before Leonard was able to take Gobi home.
Naturally, we have to accept the possibility that this was all Gobi’s elaborate plan to move to the U.K. to pursue his dreams of being an actor — because his story became a book, which was optioned as a movie by 20th Century Studios. That means we shared with you not one but two tales of movies based on true stories about a man and a dog in the desert. Congratulations.
A POW Tracked Down the Japanese Officer Who’d Tortured Him
Let’s mention one last movie for you: The Bridge on the River Kwai. This 1957 film covers the building the Burma Railway during World War II, focusing on one specific bridge. At the time of the film’s release, funnily enough, there was no real “bridge on the River Kwai.” The story of the bridge was true (other than its destruction, which was fictional), but that river wasn’t called Kwai. Afterward, the Thai town of Kanchanaburi renamed the river to Kwai because they knew tourists who came to see the bridge expected to see a bridge on the River Kwai.
The movie excelled at showing the dilemma facing collaborators during war. It utterly avoided, however, showing the realities experienced by the laborers on the Burma Railway, a rail line also known as the “Death Railway” for the 100,000 forced laborers who died during its construction. Eric Lomax, a Scottish prisoner of war who worked on the railway, laughed at the movie. It was a fine enough adventure movie, he said, but he’d never seen such well-fed POWs as those.
Lomax, like many prisoners, underwent torture during his time in Japanese custody (in addition to the forced labor, which some might also characterize as torture). The torture came when the guards found the prisoners jury-rigging a radio out of scraps. Note that this was not a radio transmitter. It was a simple receiver, on which they listened to All India Radio broadcasts. The guards beat Lomax and four others, breaking their bones and knocking their teeth out. Two of the five prisoners died, and the guards threw the corpses into a latrine pit. They put Lomax in a 5-by-2-foot bamboo cage, where red ants swarmed over him.
Then came interrogations, questions about uprisings for which Lomax had no answers. Out of all his torturers, one man stood out. Lomax remembered the interpreter most, for the simple reason that he was the one who spoke English. While it was another officer’s job to beat him with a tree limb, another’s to hold his head underwater and another’s to shove a hose down his throat and pour water down his lungs, it was the interpreter’s job to sit alongside and say over and over again, “Lomax, you will tell me. Lomax, you will tell.” Before these torture sessions could kill him, Lomax managed to throw himself down a flight of stairs, injuring himself enough to get sent out of the prison and into a hospital.
Lomax survived the war. For the next four decades, he didn’t just feel bitterness toward his torturers; he hated all Japanese people, and he made sure never to speak to any of them. As for the torturers specifically, he fantasized about meeting them and beating them to death. Then in 1991, he and his wife discovered a Japanese book called Crosses and Tigers. It described his torture in detail — it didn’t mention him by name, but he was sure the British officer in the book was him. That meant the author, named Takashi Nagase, had to be the interrogator Lomax remembered so well.
Lomax now arranged a meeting with his former interrogator. It did not go as he’d imagined.
Takashi Nagase had become a Buddhist priest. He’d worked as an interpreter for the Allies after the war and had helped them find the graves of various Burma Railway victims. He’d returned to Kanchanaburi a hundred times, for trips of atonement. When they met, he bowed formally, cried and said, “I am so sorry, so very sorry.”
While preparing for the trip, Lomax had read something about Nagase’s turnaround, but he still came there “with no sympathy for this man.” Then the two met. In the video above, you’ll hear Nagase apologizing and then Lomax saying, “Well, we both survived.” They became friends after this and stayed in contact till Nagase’s death two decades later in 2011. Lomax died the following year.
If any of you got through most of this article and thought the dog reunion would be the most uplifting story we had for you, nope. It was the one about the Death Railway and the caged man with broken bones eaten by ants.
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