Wild Life: An Interview With Tim Cahill

The vast wildernesses of our national parks belong to all of us, says Tim Cahill. We should go lose ourselves in them.

| Fri Mar. 25, 2005 4:00 AM EST

Tim Cahill is a firm believer that it's good, every once in a while, to get lost in the wilderness. That, plus a hopeless sense of direction, explains why he spends much of his time in the vast spaces of our national parks, not knowing quite where he is. And why, through his writing, he wants to bring that experience alive to as many people as possible, and encourage them to do the same.

To Cahill's mind, when people directly experience nature in this way they develop a stake, an interest -- a sense of obligation to protect the wildernesses that belong to all of us. He's not preachy about this, though; he says he's less an "issues guy" than a story-teller.

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As a founding editor of Outside magazine and the author of eight books and countless articles, Cahill has had a major influence on the modern evolution of travel and outdoor writing, helping revive a genre too long defined by "How To..." and "Men's Adventure" titles.

Cahill's latest book, Lost In My Own Backyard, recounts the wonders of hiking in Yellowstone National Park. He recently talked to Mother Jones from his home in Southern Montana, while surveying the Mountains of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness out his front window.

Mother Jones: Tell us a little about who you are as a writer and what's driven you over the years.

Tim Cahill: My first real writing job was at Rolling Stone so I wrote about rock-and-roll and politics and the like. At the time, I really didn't know what I wanted to write and I did a bunch of investigative journalism. My first book was called Buried Dreams, about a serial-killer, which was probably about ten years ahead of the serial-killer curve. It was a national bestseller, but it was three years of living in the sewer of this guy's mind. Meanwhile, Rolling Stone had started something called Outside, and since I was one of two people in the office that liked going outside I was pegged to work on it. The concept of the magazine was simple: literate writing about the out-of-doors. I jumped at the opportunity.

It seemed to me that there was a whole tradition in American literature from James Fennimore Cooper, Mark Twain and Herman Melville up through Faulkner and Hemmingway that wasn't being served well by the magazines in the stands at the time, which had basic service-oriented articles that told you basically how to paddle a canoe twelve times a year. There were also magazines with titles like Man's Adventure, or Man's Testicle, which had stories like "Our Death Race with the Legendary Jungle Leper Army or "Jaguar's Ripped my Flesh", or "A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg". I felt we could actually write an outdoor adventure story where if you were scuba diving, for instance, and you saw a great white shark you wouldn't have to battle it to death with a pen knife. We don't need to have Superman in every story. I wanted to write stories about overcoming obstacles, and superman doesn't have any obstacles. You put him at the bottom of the mountain and he's going to get to the top.

MJ: Did your colleagues feel the same way?

No, they didn't like the idea -- at first. It reminded them of the sub-literary genre of men's adventure magazines. But I told them, All you need is someone who can write a coherent English sentence, who is perhaps not entirely competent and easily frightened… and they said, "Well… Tim… you should do it" [laughs]. I haven't had a national bestseller since.

MJ: How did it go?

TC: The first couple of years were kind of touch and go. Journalistic pundits made a lot of fun of our concept because they were convinced no one was going to read it an outdoor magazine filled with stories from Pulitzer-prize winning writers. It was thought at the time that people who go outdoors were knuckle dragging mouth-breathers and don't read literature, so to them this was the stupidest idea that had ever been. But Outside eventually became a great success. It only took 20 years, but our peers in the industry finally figured out that this was a viable concept.

MJ: What makes the wilderness interesting to you, and how do you approach writing about it?

TC: I see many people trying to write well about the wilderness, and essentially failing. To me there are basically two aspects of a failed outdoor story. One is the phony epiphany on the mountain top. Listen, I've got 30 years in this – you don't have an epiphany on the mountain top. You might have it five days later when your down the hill and you're in some third world hotel room with the ceiling fan wobbling around over your head, but probably not. Sometimes you figure out what it all meant when you sit down and write it – often that's the way.

The second thing is that many people go into the wilderness to experience it, and if they experience it in comfort, there's very little in a literary sense for them to write about. Remember, my concept of drama requires obstacles, and there's no obstacles in comfort. So they get all spiritual about it. Sometimes I read somebody's spiritual reflections on their wilderness experience and I think to myself, "Hey! Nothing Happened!"

The way one approaches a wilderness story is to fashion a quest – find something that you are truly interested in finding or discovering. That works pretty well because either you find it, and that's nice, or you don't – and failure often makes just as good a story. So in the context of the quest, this provides a literary element of suspense – it’s a page turning device, and you can slip in those ideas of spiritual renewal or the like in the context I guess.

MJ: Many of your books are about adventures in exotic locations overseas, but this latest book is set in your "backyard." What's that about?

TC: A couple things. It occurred to me that for a long time I tried not to write about my own backyard and my home. I suppose I was selfishly keeping it to my self. And in doing so, I was never able to get out into this incredible wilderness area -- by the way, I live right at the edge of the most incredible wilderness area probably in the northern hemisphere. It occurred to me that I wasn't getting any younger and if I was going to start doing this, I was going to have to start doing it now. So I'm doing more things from home these days.

Another thing that happened right as I was developing these concepts in my head, was the 9/11 tragedy. After 9/11 there wasn't a lot of interest in traveling outside the country. Magazines were not as interested in proposals for far flung stories; they wanted to address the market for domestic adventure, which of course was an easy sell for me.

MJ: I didn't realize that 9/11 had so much to do with it. I thought you were going to talk about a new reflectiveness.

TC: Well, the two dovetailed. Yeah, it was time to turn my gaze in that direction, it had bothered me for years that I know more about certain ranges of mountains halfway across the world than the ones I can see right out my front door. And as the local and domestic stories became much easier sells, I was able to do them a great deal more.

MJ: Its obvious to me that you have a sense of ethic about the outdoors, that it's a place worth enjoying and protecting. But you're not an activist, you're a writer.

TC: Yes. The way I try to get my message across is not with argument or logic. For instance, when I write a story, I try to talk about the thrills the adventure and the pure goddamn enjoyment of being outdoors. What I would prefer rather than contentiously arguing an issue, is to help people care about the wilderness and make them say, "I want to go there, I want to see it, I want to feel that myself." So my approach is more to enlist people in this kind of quiet conspiracy of caring than anything else.

MJ: I definitely get that from your books -- as well as a sense that getting lost is core to the experience.

TC: I think it is. Occasionally friends from Europe stop by to visit and they are always amazed at the great quantity of public lands we have available. We don't really realize this, but if you go to Europe and try to get lost in a forest, you'll have a hell of a time doing it –- they don't have any!

MJ: What does it mean to you to able to get lost?

TC: I have to tell you [laughing] that it's a constant ongoing joke among the people that I travel with –- my absolutely hopeless sense of direction. I'm able to get lost a half an hour from camp. I don't know how I do this.

MJ: So getting lost isn't always a choice ...

TC: No, often its not a choice.

Getting lost is fairly essential. You can go into Yellowstone very easily and follow the trails. They're generally well marked, so if you stay on the big trails you won't get lost. But in the back country the trails sometimes disappear for half a mile at a time and it causes you to search for them and there's -– remember I was interested in the idea of risk and obstacles? –- a certain amount of fear involved in getting lost. Its essential to keep your wits about you and figure out if you don't know where you are figure out how to get a place where you can figure out where you are.

It's like some adrenaline charged drug: everything I see is sharper-edged, life becomes more vivid. And I must say that I am well aware of the consequences of getting seriously lost in this country. For a number of years I was on the search and rescue team here. And search and rescue is, you think "Oh I joined the search and rescue team I'm going to find lost children and be a hero." But in general what you do is recover bodies.

MJ: Yellowstone is perhaps the most heavily traveled of the parks, and so it has a substantial infrastructure to bring visitors close to nature. Quite a few nature writers are turned off by this, but you don't take such a hard line on these more "civilized" aspects of the park.

TC: It’s the same way I feel about organized adventure travel to remote places. People say, "Don't you find that irritating cause you go yourself and figure all that stuff out?" I say "no, that's my job!" I spend my working days figuring out the logistics for these trips and getting all my stuff together. Most people have two weeks a year and are very busy and don't have a whole hell of a lot of time to figure out where they're going to go kayaking in Honduras or trekking in Nepal. And if they go with an adventure travel company that's got it dialed in, nothing's going to go wrong. Of course, for me that's terrible! The dirty little secret about adventure writing is that something has to go wrong.

But I have no problem with that at all. I have my certain beliefs about the value of wilderness areas –- and the more that people see them and experience them first hand, the more they tend to feel they have some stake in preserving that particular area. They've been there, even if they only see it through their car windows.

Recently, somebody wanted to do a program about travel writers and their idea was to interview the travel writers at home. So they said to me, "What would you do at home?" and I said, "Well, I might go out back country skiing in the park." And they said "okay" and we went up there and these people were from NY and LA and had never experienced Yellowstone in the winter. We drove up there and we skied a bit off the road – and I mean a just a bit – to an area where I happened to know there was a heard of bachelor elk. And as we were standing there watching the elk, a great herd of a couple hundred bison decided that this was the area that they wanted to walk by. You can imagine these guys with their cameras. These animals weigh 2000 pounds – the largest land animal in North America – and we're just standing there while the bison go on about their business. The director emailed me a week later to tell me he still had a smile on his face from the shoot.

MJ: Staying with the topic of the balance between nature and tourism in the parks, is there anything that threatens your enjoyment and enthusiasm for the park?

TC: As I say, I don't generally deal with issues. I do think they need to ban snowmobiles in the park. But the park itself is 2.2 million acres. Did you know that the size of the wilderness area around the park is bigger than 13 different states?! So, I have no problem finding solitude in this large area. I did some research on this for the book. Turns out that 99.3% of park visitors never overnight in the back country. And its not because the park doesn't allow you to go there.

MJ: So then there's very little threat in that regard?

TC: Very little. I think the boundaries of the park are not only well understood; they are sacrosanct.

MJ: The park can be dangerous, too, right?

TC: Yeah. Grizzlies are dangerous, though bison probably injure and kill more people in the park. I once read about this woman from Switzerland who visited the park and was attacked by a bear. What parts they found left of her body amounted to twelve pounds. So if that doesn't scare you a little bit, you're not thinking.

I did feel obligated to point out danger after danger in the book – there are many, many people who come to Yellowstone who don't quite get it. I've heard people say things like, "Where do the bison go at night?" As if somebody lets them out for public benefit. Or they might say, "No way, the federal government would allow dangerous animals out there."

The parks guidelines say to stay at least 25 yards from a bison at all time. I stay 100 yards. You stay 25 yards! That's pretty close for an animal that can run faster than a quarter-horse in a quarter-mile.

MJ: What's the most frightening experience you've had in the wild?

TC: Frankly my stupidest story, which I told in the book, was when I fell asleep 200 yards from a grizzly…

I recall walking over this high windswept plateau full of burned lodge pole pines – I call these ghost forests –- and a high wind came up. All around us, creaking and swaying, were these great branchless trees any one of which could come down at any time. When these trees fall they sound like a canon and fall with a huge crash. Now, if you hadn't spent a lot of time in the park and you hadn't seen a lot of trees fall, this scene would no doubt be intriguing. But I was on constant alert and when I got through and sat down after three hours walking through this ghost forest, the adrenaline was pretty intense. If you know certain things about the park it will be scarier -– that's just part of the experience.

One thing I do talk about in the book –- my good friend Tom Murphy and I were walking down a trail and saw some bear tracks across the stream in front of us. We could actually see little bits of water drying up as we looked at them which meant we probably scared this bear up from its day bed and he was fleeing before us probably just out of our sight. The trail took us into a visually limited world of high reeds that reach out far overhead. And I thought to myself that this would be a particularly good time to start singing.

MJ: What were you singing?

TC: I was singing "Hang on Sloopy… Sloopy hang on!" (laughs) At which point Tom said, "Jesus, maybe that bear will come put you out of your misery!"

MJ: What's your recommended reading on the subject of wilderness?

TC: There was a book that I read just out of college that convinced me that it was still possible to write in a literate matter on the outdoors, and that was Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire.

MJ: That's a fantastic book! But your writing is a little bit different than Abbey's.

TC: Yes, it is. And once again he was dealing largely with issues, and my approach would be a little bit more gentle. Ed was never gentle.

MJ: No he wasn't. He took a slightly different view of parks.

TC: Oh, he took entirely different stance on the matter. He would drink beer and throw cans out along the highway saying "beer cans aren't ugly, highways are ugly!" He didn't want anyone else out there, and certainly didn't want highways. But I believe differently. I believe that whatever I have in me that values the wilderness, that everybody has to one degree or another. The more people you can get to experience even part of it, the more chance you have of them being invested and want to preserve those areas.

MJ: Any wilderness-related projects in the works?

New York magazine asked me to write about a domestic backpacking trip and I chose the Wind River range in Wyoming. I chose a particular trail that was really was quite strenuous, and they said, "That's what we want."

MJ: I was in Canyonlands National Park earlier this year, and these two guys camping next to me came over with a case of beer – they had just come from there, and they needed to tell someone about it. They raved about and said it was fantastically beautiful.

TC: It is fantastically beautiful! It takes you from these huge stair-step meadows up over a series of beautiful wilderness lakes and then you cross a glacial river which is astonishingly greenish-blue from the glacial till, a very strangely colored river. Beyond that is an area of great sand dunes just like sand dunes you'd find at the beach. You follow this strange river winding its way through the sand dunes and up and up into a view of the largest glacier of the lower 48 states. And that's just one trail in the winds –- they are full of incredible trails.

MJ: I think I may have to go there…

TC: Oh, yeah, I guarantee it! Do the glacier trail. That's your intro to the Winds. It's twenty-six miles in and twenty-six back. It'll definitely keep you interested.

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