I grew up on the writing of Jack London, Beryl Markham, Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, J.R.R. Tolkien, Zora Neale Hurston and Louis L’Amour. For a kid in Colorado, the worlds of White Fang, Huck Finn, West with the Night, the Sacketts and even Middle Earth were easily imagined, and more easily accessed just by heading up a wooded trail.
From a dog named Buck to the vagabond slave-saving son of the town drunk to a hobbit named Frodo, every hero of my bookish youth was forged by nature, and each set out into the unknown on a quest to complete some Herculean task, along the way discovering the deep reservoir of strength he or she possessed.
Even more compelling to me is how when you put all these books together, you realize that nature itself is the main character, influencing almost every turn of the plot—our planet’s chief protagonist. (If you don’t think Lord of the Rings is an allegory about a young treehugger trying to stop a demonic developer in a dark tower from turning the world into a parking lot, you may need to retake your grade-school reading comprehension class).
John Muir’s essays on the timeless trance of being outdoors were also a bit part of my wilderness enlightenment: His Wilderness Essays sat atop my father’s desk. And I was struck by Edward Abbey’s brazen honesty about why he would litter the highway with beer cans—“It’s not the beers cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that’s ugly”—in Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, and this beautiful statement: “The earth, like the sun, like the air, belongs to everyone—and no one.” You can even throw in a little Thoreau, although, to a Rockies native like me, he’s always seemed too citified and milquetoast.
If there’s a problem here, and I think there is, it’s that all these books were written more than 40 years ago—one more than 100 years ago—and all their authors have long since gone to dust. At a time when nature is under withering assault from “greedheads, land-rapers and other human jackals,” as Aspen’s own Hunter S. Thompson so aptly put it, “outdoor writing” seems to be more focused on craft beer, jam band festivals and camping hammocks.
I’ve got nothing against good beer or good music. But we outdoor writers seem to have lost sight of the true reason for being outdoors, and the perspective it gives us about the potential meaning of life. Rather than penning paeans to the transcendent euphoria of standing on a peak, we focus instead on how quickly someone climbed it. We write features on how to train for your fastest ultra-whatever, and fill page after page after page with endless reviews of outdoor equipment.
As the co-founder of a website called Gear Institute, I’m more than a little guilty here. The truth is this: People like to read reviews—of beer, backpacks, and bikes. It also helps pay the bills, and for magazines like Elevation Outdoors, it creates space for more articles about public spaces, wildlands and columns like this.
For writers like me, it creates more space to find, celebrate and even write some of the same kind of outdoor literature that brought me down this path. Which, I’m happy to report, actually does still exist.
There are indeed more than a few shining exceptions in this journalistic wilderness: Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Under the Banner of Heaven, come to mind, as does Elizabeth Kolbert’s harrowing The Sixth Extinction and William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, an excellent odyssey of a life spent surfing some of the world’s best breaks, although when it comes to great outdoor literature, surfing and climbing have always been ahead of the pack.
When I posed the “what’s happened to outdoor writing?” question to my editorially inclined friends, many blamed the low pay and short shelf life of digital media. At the same time, they trumpeted their own torchbearers of the natural world, including Outside, Mountain, High Country News, Orion, The Alpinist, Whitefish Review and the iconic, recently on hold (but ever ready to be revived) Mountain Gazette.
Of course, if you write just to get paid, then you follow the work. If you write to try and explain how it feels to be outside in the world, then, just maybe, sometimes you can create an experience as clear and pure as nature itself.