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Is Outdoor Writing Dead?

I grew up on the writing of Jack London, Beryl Markham, Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, J.R.R. Tolkien, Zora Neal Hurston and Louis L’Amour. As a kid growing up outdoors, 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. One way to read the Lord of the Rings is as an allegory about a young tree hugger trying to stop a demonic developer in a dark tower from turning the world into a parking lot.

John Muir’s essays about the timeless trance of being outdoors were part of my wilderness enlightenment, too, his Wilderness Essays sitting atop my father’s desk. As was Edward Abbey’s brazen honesty about the beauty of littering the highway with beer cans—“It’s not the beer 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 mountain man 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—some 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 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 do 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, people like to read reviews—of beer, backpacks, and bikes. It also helps pay the bills, and for magazines like Blue Ridge Outdoors, 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 voices in this journalistic wilderness: Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air and Under the Banner of Heaven, comes 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. Of course, if you write just to get paid, then you follow the work. If you write to 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.

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