Six years ago, Mark Kenyon walked out of his job at Google for the last time. After feeling trapped at a corporate job and cut off from his beloved hunting and fishing, he moved back to his home state of Michigan and launched a career as an outdoors writer and podcaster under the brand Wired to Hunt, which has grown into the most popular podcast on deer hunting, with tens of thousands of downloads per episode. Recently Kenyon joined the popular and far-reaching MeatEater network.
Now Kenyon, 32, has published his first book, “That Wild Country: An Epic Journey through the Past, Present, and Future of America’s Public Lands.” Kenyon recounts his many trips to national parks, wilderness areas and Bureau of Land Management acreage, many of which he took in his early 20s with his wife and two dogs. He describes everything from inspiring sunset hikes to terrifying encounters with bears.
Kenyon also passionately argues that public lands should remain public, and he does not shy away from the politics that currently swirl around the issue. In fact, the books opens in 2016 with Kenyon and his wife pulling into a national park in Utah just as Ammon Bundy was leading an occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
Kenyon recently spoke about the motivation for his book, and his recent trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. His comments were edited for length and clarity.
What initially drew you toward public lands?
I took two trips to national parks as a young child, to Glacier in Montana and to Mount Rainier in Washington. They were formative trips, and I had strong memories of these incredible places and how awe-struck I was by these landscape. But we never went back.
For years I had a latent desire to go backpacking to explore some really big wild places, to get into big, wild landscapes to see bears, to see elk. It wasn’t until after college that I started making pilgrimages across the country to various national parks, national forests and wilderness areas, where I could really get deep into the back country and lose myself in a wild place. And I absolutely fell head-over-heels in love with these places.
What was the impetus for you leaving your tech job and immersing yourself in public lands?
All through my life I’d loved the outdoors, but I also was very career-driven during school. But working in San Francisco, I felt hemmed in, I felt claustrophobic. I realized I could scratch that itch for the outdoors by writing about it. That led to me start a website, Wired to Hunt, and to start writing articles for hunting and fishing magazines. That all led to in 2013 quitting my job at Google and going full time as an outdoors writer and eventually as a podcaster.
We’re really fortunate that my wife is able to work remotely and take off for months at a time to work from a different state. So we really prioritized experience in our marriage. We would rather have a cheap mortgage payment and be able to take off for a couple of months a year and experience the things that we love. That’s how we’ve framed our life for the last six years.
Without making it partisan, you tackle the politics of public lands starting on page one. Talk about that.
The impetus for this book was the controversy around public lands, which was political, and was driven by one side of the political aisle. I don’t think it should be a political issue. I come to this as someone from neither political party, someone who’s in the center, and I’m dismayed that public lands are a political football. I strongly believe that public lands are one of the most American things we have: the fact that we have places that no matter who you are or what you do or where you’re from, these public lands are there for you.
There is a subset of the Republican Party right now that is proposing a really bad idea, in my opinion, [to turn federal lands over to states]. I grew up in a very conservative, Republican home, so it’s been particularly disappointing to see some of them who are so misled on this. I don’t care who you are, whether you’re Democrat, Republican or Independent, if you’re trying to knock down these public lands that so many people love, I’m going to stand up and say something about it.
Although it didn’t make the book, you visited the BWCA for the first time just this fall. What did you think?
Two elements of the Boundary Waters really stood out. Number one, the mode of travel is unique — having to portage, having to canoe across rivers and lakes definitely changes the experience. It’s a slow mode of travel, you’re very connected to the water; it’s just a very close-to-the-earth way to navigate a place.
And second, the solitude is on a different scale. The level of silence and the sense of stillness and peace and quiet was noticeable. We remarked on it multiple times. It’s pretty amazing when the absence of something is so profound. We had a morning that was perfectly still, perfectly quiet — we were sitting on the rocks drinking coffee watching over the lake, and then wolves started howling across the lake. Moments like that remind you that there is still something wild out here. Moments like that are rare in modern life.
What do you hope someone gets from your book?
Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, a hunter or a vegetarian, a climber or an angler, if you live in the city or live in the country, these are really special places, so let’s set aside our differences and work together to protect them. I approached an issue that has become so politicized and I hope to convince people to set aside those labels and work together.
Tony Jones is a writer and theologian from Edina. Reach him at ReverendHunter.com.