In the summer of 2009 I traveled to a small village in the Ramsdalen valley of Norway to shoot a story for 60 Minutes about a group of adventurers jumping off cliffs and flying to the ground in wingsuits. We hired one of them to shoot video while they were in flight. He was from South Africa but had been living for the past few years with his girlfriend in a VW Bus in the French Alps. Julian Boulle was his name.
I lived with Julian in a farmhouse for two weeks during our shoot. We were together morning, noon, and night. Julian proved to be incredibly knowledgeable, not only about the techniques and mechanics of wingsuit flying, but also some of the greater existential aspects of living so close to death. As the days wore on, and the nights became longer, our conversations branched out far beyond the story we were shooting. The more we talked, the more it seemed Julian had been everywhere and knew something about everything we talked about – war, politics, world culture. Picture Forrest Gump in dreadlocks. That was Julian . . . if he was to be believed. Halfway through our shoot, I decided I didn’t.
Julian Boulle flying in Trollveggen, Norway, June 2009.
I left Norway a day before the end of our shoot to get back to New York to be with Angie for a prenatal checkup. Julian also had to leave early because a prince of some sort in the United Arab Emirates had hired him for a pre-game skydive onto a football pitch. (Of course he did . . .). On our three-hour ride out of the mountains, we talked about my home in New York, and North Carolina before that, where I grew up, went to school, and worked before becoming a journalist.
“Where did you live in North Carolina?”
I told him I lived in Raleigh.
“Ah, Raleigh. I’ve been there.”
Of course you have, I thought. Why were you in Raleigh?
“My girlfriend died in a plane crash near the airport in 1994.”
Julian went on to explain what happened and described his memories of traveling to Raleigh when he got the news. As he did, I remembered the crash he described. In that moment, I realized I had been wrong about Julian. After I decided he was a fabulist, I lost my objectivity.
Coleman Cowan, left, with son Julian, right, at Wrigley field, Chicago, in June 2021.
Our brains are wired to process information based in part on what we already know or believe, whether or not our beliefs are correct, or even grounded in reality. It’s human nature. But it also creates bias. Which is why it’s important to step back and reevaluate things objectively, so we don’t lose sight of reality.
Will I have a Julian Boulle experience again? Probably not. But I remember the feeling I had listening to him talk about the plane crash at RDU, and it reminds me to always try to be objective, no matter where I think the truth may lie. Had I not done that with Julian, I would have missed someone who became a lifelong friend. And my son, whom I came back early to see on an ultrasound, would have a different name.