Meet seven local residents who want to discover the world beyond their doorsteps
Melissa Berkoff and Sam Fleming of Silver Spring have raced motorcycles all around the globe, climbed the Dolomites in northeastern Italy and gone scuba diving off the Galapagos Islands.
They rarely shy away from adventure. Planning their 2015 trip to the Galapagos, off the coast of Ecuador, Berkoff, 47, suggested, “Hey, there’s a 15,500-foot volcano that we can hike up while we’re in Quito.”
“We’ve already got bags full of scuba diving gear,” replied Fleming, her longtime partner, “and now you want to bring backpacks, layers and boots to go on a volcano hike?”
“Well, I mean we’re there,” Berkoff said.
But Fleming, 52, who grew up in Chevy Chase, is no stick-in-the-mud. The license plate on his 2011 Mustang GT reads, “Memmori,” short for Memento Mori, which is Latin for remember you must die. And they do remember. Constantly.
Next year they plan to scuba dive at the Wall of Sharks, a section of the Pacific Ocean in French Polynesia where hundreds of gray sharks gather to feast. “It’s like a lot of sharks,” says Berkoff, who can hardly contain her excitement. Then she adds an afterthought: “I’m pretty sure there are no great whites.”
Berkoff and Fleming have been to more than 30 countries. Do they ever take a trip just to sightsee? “We did go to Italy once and just did tourist stuff,” Fleming says, “but that’s because Melissa broke her foot.”
Their day jobs are at Fleming-AOD, a health care consulting firm he owns in Silver Spring. Fleming’s office is a blend of brag wall (lots of motorcycle trophies and awards) and photographic travelogue—like one of Berkoff swimming with a manta ray during a diving trip to Indonesia.
They’ve had a willing enlistee to their penchant for risk and reward—20-year-old Hiyori Yoshida, who Fleming became the legal guardian of five years ago. She and Fleming were diving at night in shark-infested waters off Australia when they experienced an unforgettable moment. After marveling at the undersea phenomena known as bioluminescence—the flickering cadence of light, like stars beneath the waves, that some marine creatures produce—they surfaced, Fleming says, “to stare into the depths of the Milky Way.”
Fleming’s wanderlust began when he was 5 years old and his parents took him on an African safari. The world was suddenly much bigger than his leafy Washington, D.C., suburb, and more adventures followed. For Berkoff, who grew up in Bethesda, the globe-trotting was triggered by the Jack London books she read as a child. “That made me want to go to the Arctic,” she says. “It just sounded so exotic and really appealing.” She especially wanted to see Kodiak Island off the Alaskan coast, home to some of the largest bears on Earth.
Berkoff left home at 16, worked for a few months to pay for her trip, and headed north. She eventually earned her GED diploma and became a certified BMW motorcycle technician. She met Fleming in 1992 at Daytona International Speedway in Florida. Soon, motorcycle magazines were sending them to tracks around the world to road-test new bikes. “An editor asked if I was available to go to Spain, Italy, Portugal and France and Australia and Britain,” Fleming says.
Berkoff and Fleming acknowledge that danger can lurk in what they do, and they’ve paid a price. Like the time they misjudged a rock climb in Mexico and had to rappel 700 feet at night with just a single headlamp. Or when a stingray’s barb pierced Fleming’s forearm during a dive in Australia. “It was like being stabbed with a Phillips-head screwdriver that is serrated and dipped in poison,” he says.
Between them, they’ve probably endured more than a dozen injuries and surgeries. Elbows, necks, shoulders, ankles, feet. So they train hard. “Because,” Berkoff says, “you never know when you’re going on a scuba diving trip and then you’ve got to throw down on a 15,000-foot volcano.”