Not long after I graduated from college in the mid-1990s, I got a job as a cashier at Midwest Mountaineering, a popular outdoors store in Minneapolis. The best thing about it (apart from the employee discount) was getting to read Outside magazine when business got slow.
In those days Outside’s pages were filled with writers I loved: Jon Krakauer, Tim Cahill, David Quammen. Around that same time, the magazine came out with its first anthology: “Out of the Noösphere.” It was filled with classic stories from the previous two decades. I read my copy until it fell apart.
Since then, Outside has come out with a few other collections, all filled with great stories. This year it published another: “Out There: The Wildest Stories from Outside Magazine,” an assortment of “misadventures.” These include everything from working the “groover” (toilet boat) on a Grand Canyon raft, to canoeing the Mississippi River in a 57-foot flood, to an immersion in the strange world of competitive water sliding.
Most of the stories in “Out There” date from the 2000s, which got me thinking about how writing on the outdoors has changed over the years. After all, the genre is one of our great traditions, dating back to the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway and others. Yet for much of the 20th century, the writing was dominated by muscular prose, sarcastically described by Cahill, Outside’s co-founder, as “ ‘Man’s Adventure,’ ‘Adventures for Men’ and ‘Man’s Testicles.’ ” In a recent interview, he said the goal in founding the magazine was simply to write, “stories about the outdoors that were literate. That’s all.”
They were that and more. Since its founding in 1978, the magazine broke new ground, mixing nature writing, personal essays, science writing, political reporting and just plain great stories. But today, in the age of selfies, social media and 7 billion people, I wondered how that original mission has evolved. So I called editor Chris Keyes to get his take.
“One thing that’s different,” Keyes said, “is that we’re living in an era where all the firsts have essentially already happened. And in the last 10 years there’s been a real shift from doing something first to doing it the fastest. There’s a lot less emphasis on just getting out there and experiencing it, and more on, ‘How fast can I do this?’ ”
Keyes said this reflects a larger change in how we experience the outdoors. Few people now have time for a two-week backpacking trip. But that also means that the bar is higher for a good story: Adventure alone is not enough.
“Almost half the people I meet who I tell I work at Outside say, ‘Oh, I just took a trip, and I think it’d make a great story,’ ” Keyes said. “Everybody thinks their adventure is unique and that they can tell it. But writing is hard, and it takes experience and a lot of time to make your own travel experience compelling to the rest of us.”
‘Bring a place alive’
Other writers have their ideas of what makes a good story these days. Stephanie Pearson, a travel writer and Outside contributing editor who lives in Duluth, said writing a story about your adventure is not just a matter of writing it down.
“People dismiss travel stories as a linear kind of storytelling,” Pearson said. (Her story, “The Undisputed King of Dogsled Tourism,” appears in “Out There.”) “They just retell their travel as a kind of blog-vomit onto the page. But when I look at telling a story, I’m looking at the history, the culture, the politics, and the characters — the people — who can really bring a place alive.”
Former Outside editor and writer Kevin Fedarko, whose story “They Call Me Groover Boy” also appears in the new book, agreed.
“Someone doing something cool in the outdoors does not reach the critical mass a story needs,” he said. “And an adventure story has to extend beyond the adventure itself and embrace some larger thing.”
In addition to the bar being raised, Keyes said, today they also have to consider how a story will perform online, which means crime stories, controversial stories and stories about Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan get top billing.
“Having said that, there are a couple of stories recently that surprised us, that have done really well online,” Keyes added. “One was a profile of the naturalist Bernd Heinrich. It was a quiet story about a guy living an alternative life — one that all of us are craving in this digitally saturated world. We followed that up with another quiet story about [the writer’s] uncle who decided to leave the priesthood and live a monastic life in the countryside of France. Those really seemed to resonate with readers.”
Both those stories were written by Bill Donahue, a writer in New Hampshire whose work I’ve admired (and who I’ve known) for years. I called him to get his take on the state of outdoor writing.
“I don’t know if outdoor writing has changed,” Donahue said, “but it seems like today there is this hunger for finding ways to connect. We’re all caught in this technological haze. And those stories are about individuals who’ve escaped that. And everyone wants that at this point.”
In other words, both on the page and off it, maybe we’re all ready to get back outside.
Frank Bures is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.