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Spies Like Us

America's drug of choice?Adrenaline. Last year 300,000 Americans went skydiving, 500,000 went bungee jumping, and more than 4 million went white-water rafting. And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. All told, some 45 million Americans felt compelled to do more than just lie in the hammock. For many, "vacation" now means chasing hair-raising thrills and tackling absurd challenges. All of which leads to a single question: How far out there can you go and still make it back alive?

I found the answer in the Arizona desert. Thirty miles outside Tucson, to be precise, on a former CIA training base. There, in the middle of nowhere, eight semi-retired mercenaries run an outfit called Covert Ops. Here you can spend a three-day weekend discharging deadly weapons, practicing karate chops, and doing the kind of driving that voids your insurance. This planned mayhem isn't for everyone: the $3,795 sessions are limited to 20 clients each, and are held 11 times a year. Tailor-made, it seems to me, for superannuated adolescents with a tenuous grip on reality. I signed up immediately.

It's dark as I stumble out to the parade ground. Chris, our granite-chinned drillmaster, lines up the "operatives," as he prefers to call us. The average age hovers around 40; the average belly about a foot out from the waistband. I expect Chris to start shouting and calling us maggots. But when you're paying four grand for the privilege, boot camp is a little more sensitive. After 20 jumping jacks we head over to a steaming breakfast buffet. I'd expected at least a few hardened-adventurer types, but the group's more King of the Hill than James Bond. There's Mark, a security-systems salesman, and Del, a retired strip-club owner, both from El Paso; Charles, a computer salesman from Palatine, Illinois; Mel, a record executive from Chicago; and Mel's retired father, also Mel. The only ones who look as if they could climb a flight of stairs without a tank of oxygen are Nancy and Steve, 24-year-old Goths from Amarillo who won the trip in a TV promotion. Nancy is a massage therapist, Steve a former checkout clerk looking for a new career.

"I think I'm best suited for the service industry," he muses, "because I'm pretty incompetent, but people like me."

None of the group has done anything like Covert Ops before. That's typical, says the organization's co-founder, Jeff Miller. "The number one profession among our customers is financial services, then medicine," Jeff says. "While they're successful in their jobs, they're not getting much excitement in their daily lives, so when they're on vacation they don't want to sit on a beach."


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