People Who Inspire: Gary Wandel on the adventure of life without limits

Gary Wandel at grand canyon cropped

Gary Wandel is a retired high school Calculus teacher who experiences life without limits. It’s a perspective this world traveler carries with him on every adventure – whether he’s skydiving in Kittanning, PA or exploring the recesses of the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand.

So when his wife, Patty and her friend Fran decided they wanted to take a trip to Las Vegas, Gary and Fran’s husband Bob went along happily, but with a different view in mind than the casino.

“I taught probability and statistics. I won’t put one penny in the machines! Bob and I wanted to do something adventurous instead so we chose a white water rafting tour on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon,” Gary said.

It was a sure bet they’d find adventure there.

“The tour service picked us up in a stretch limo and took us to the airport where we flew by helicopter to the middle of nowhere. That’s where a guy sitting in a transport van picked us up and drove us to the Hualapai Indian Reservation in Peach Springs, NV on Route 66. Once we arrived, another van was waiting for us. We got in and made the one hour 20 minute drive down into the Grand Canyon,” he said.

Loving every minute

As they arrived, the rafting guides handed them life vests and the group boarded one of 10 pontoon boats. The temperature was 105 degrees, but it wasn’t the heat they’ll remember. Gary commented, “The rapids we would go through ranged from class 4 to class 6. The water was 40 some degrees because it was melted snow. It was a big contrast of temperatures.

When we hit the rapids the guide revved up the motor so we dove into the first wave. That water hitting you took your breath away. There was a metal seat at top of pontoon to hold onto. He said ‘if you’re going to fall, fall into the boat!’

This is what it would be like over 11 sets of rapids spanning 47 miles of the Colorado River – and Gary loved every minute of it.

From the inside out

While the rapids took Gary’s breath away, so did the view. It was like looking at the Grand Canyon from the inside out.

He commented, “The grandeur of the Grand Canyon is just as impressive from the bottom as it is from the top. Instead of looking at it from the edge, you’re at the bottom looking up! Even the pictures you usually see are from the observation deck on the rim. This was from a different perspective. I’ve seen the rim. Now I’m in it.

To see what God has created is truly inspiring. These rocks were formed by the Colorado River over eons of years.”

At the end of the six hour tour, they were lifted up out of the canyon by helicopter. “As we went straight up, there were walls of rock on both sides. There was a wind down draft and an up draft that caused the helicopter to be all over the place.

We flew to another location and took a helicopter back to Vegas over the strip. From the ground, the extravagance of Las Vegas is grand. But in the air, it’s just this little oasis in the desert,” he said.  

Working to make it happen

Gary said he and his wife Patty are able to travel through the United States and to places like Alaska, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Costa Rica, and Aruba for adventure because of choices he made long ago.

He remarked, “When we got married 42 years ago, Patty still had one year of college left. I had just started to teach. My grandmother sold us a house she owned for $2,000. We took it sight unseen. As we walked in to see it, Patty’s dad was with us and said we ought to tear it down. The floors were wavy; plaster was falling off the walls; it had a dirt floor in basement; there was a hole in each of the upstairs floors to let the heat up; and there was no bathtub.

It took me one year of working to fix it up. I was fortunate I had an uncle in his 80’s who sat in a chair and told me what to do”.

Gary wanted Patty to be able to stay at home with their three children when they were young. He also had a goal to someday travel, so he chose to be very frugal and worked extra jobs.

“After teaching every day, I did construction for 14 years in the evening till midnight or 1:00 a.m. I always had hand-me down cars and furniture. I took extra jobs and signed on for school activities including Girls volleyball and student council sponsor. Once the kids were in school and she started working then we could really save money.

Having a positive attitude and faith in God is what made the difference. I’d pray, ‘Please get us through another day’. We’ve been blessed with good health, children, and a solid marriage. It’s only by the grace of God that all of this has occurred,” he said.

Giving students goals

The 35 years Gary spent in the classroom allowed him to live out his faith and to give students a different perspective. “I loved teaching. I had a connection with the kids. It was not just my job to teach them a subject, but also to teach them about life.

Kids want direction. They want order in their life; a plan for their life. So I would talk to them about setting goals. I would talk to them about adventures – jumping out of a plane, scuba diving. I would have them make a list of 10 life goals.

Over the years, my students would come back to me and say, ‘I accomplished four of my goals. I jumped out of a plane. I went on a mission trip…’ The greatest compliment is to know that I had an effect on their lives,” he said.

You can do it!

A certified Venture Club leader with Boy Scouts of America, Gary moderated a high school Venture Club and took members on adventures that included biking, white water rafting, and camping with a map and compass in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. His Calculus class wasn’t off limits either.

“I used to take my Calculus class caving 470 feet down. I would rappel them off of a 40 foot cliff. They would shake. I would say, ‘Look into my eyes. I’ve got you. Nothing is going to happen to you. You can do this. Trust me’.

When they finally got to the bottom, it was an epiphany. I wanted them to see they could do things they didn’t think they could do. I related it to Calculus. When they would say, ‘I’ll never be able to do this, they could see that you can do whatever you set your mind to.

You want to travel? Don’t tell me you don’t have money. There’s a way – save. You can do it. There’s nothing to hold us back in this great country to do great things and to experience great things. I’m trying to experience this world as much as I possibly can.

What does this day hold for me?

This 64 year old grandfather is now sharing his infinite love of adventure with his grandchildren.

Gary has taken his oldest grandson, Hunter, white water rafting in Costa Rica where they also rappelled over waterfalls that were 150 to 220 feet high. Last summer, he went snorkeling with his grandchildren in the Dominican Republic among sharks and stingrays and last weekend, he was kayaking with his grandsons, Elijah and Aiden, on New River in West Virginia.

He commented, “I am truly blessed to see what God has created. I thank God every day for my health and family. And I wake up every day and say, ‘What does this day hold for me?”

For Gary, and those he inspires, it will be a day without limits.

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  One thought on “People Who Inspire: Gary Wandel on the adventure of life without limits

  1. Mike Wolfe
    August 18, 2014 at 12:28 am

    This is the kind of person who should be regarded as a hero, not a professional athlete or actor. He set goals and then achieved them by doing things the right way. I was fortunate enough to have him teach me in high school so I know this first hand. Oh, and I still remember a bit of calculus.

  2. August 18, 2014 at 2:34 am

    Thank you for sharing, Mike!

  3. larryorlando2013
    August 18, 2014 at 10:46 am

    Wow, Mary. You really captured the excitement of Gary’s adventures. What a story.

  4. August 18, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks so much, Larry. When Gary is sharing his adventures, I feel like I’m right there with him – so I’m glad that comes through.

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