The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
The WildeBeat edition 126 & 127: Scared Indoors
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They came, they saw, they almost bought it. Are these the kind of stories that inspire you to get into the wilderness? This edition of The WildeBeat; Scared Indoors.
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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
This is a combined version of program numbers one twenty six and one twenty seven.
I'm Steve Sergeant.
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STEVE: Ask an African bushman whether he has any fear of sleeping outdoors, and I suspect he wouldn't understand the question. If you went back a couple of hundred years and asked the original people of North America the same question, I'll bet you'd get the same response. Noted author Richard Louv puts it this way.
RICHARD LOUV: For tens of thousands of years, for eons, all of human history and prehistory, children went outside and spent much of their formative years either playing or working in nature.
STEVE: Richard is focused on children in his comments, but he might as well be talking about anybody. These days, it's not at all hard to find somebody who thinks quite the opposite of that African bushman.
RAYMOND GARCIA: No, I really don't really want to be in the middle of complete nowhere.
STEVE: I met Raymond Garcia, from Norwalk, California, in Yosemite Valley last summer.
RAYMOND GARCIA: Pitchin' a tent right next to nature, I mean over here, ...there's bears... but at least you kinda have a place to go or run, but... I wouldn't really necessarily want to spend my night in the middle of complete nowhere... I mean, I just like to take at least a shower once a day... and you really can't, you know, bathe up in the river I guess.
STEVE: I don't mean to pick on Raymond, because he's actually pretty typical of people I meet in the more developed areas of wilderness parks. They can't really imagine themselves spending a night in the wilderness. They're afraid of things they're not familiar with, like Yosemite's relatively tame black bears, and they can't really envision the other skills they'd need to get along without the conveniences of modern living. So how did so many of us become scared of living in the wilderness, even for a just couple of days?
STEVE: Well, I have a theory about this. And I'll need your help to figure out whether it accurately explains this phenomenon. I'll start with a couple of rather obvious assumptions. First, most of what the majority of Americans believe and understand about the world just beyond their immediate sensory experience comes from mass media. And secondly, if you say something to people often enough, even if it's not really true, if they don't have a reason to question it, they'll probably believe it.
STEVE: And so my theory is that the media sensationalizes the tragic things that happen to people visiting the wilderness, and that they portray most outdoor activities as extreme sports. By extreme sports, I mean hazardous activities involving great physical risk. And because these are the kinds of ideas we get most from mass media about outdoor adventure, many people are scared indoors by these messages.
FITZ CAHALL: I've worked as a freelance journalist for a lot of years writing for... sort of like extreme sports publications...
STEVE: Fitz Cahall is the creator and producer of the popular Internet audio program, The Dirtbag Diaries.
FITZ CAHALL: ...and I really found that there was an emphasis placed upon sort of, not the personal aspects of being in the outdoors, and doing these kinds of sports in the outdoors, and yet there was a ...really great cultural side to ...a lot of these things we do, a lot of these places we visit, and the experiences they create for us.
STEVE: Fitz tells some stories in his show about people going out for extreme fun, and barely making it out alive.
FITZ CAHALL: Yeah, I think that ...one of the really good ones we have is actually a story by a National Geographic photographer, who's name is John Burcham. And John was doing the first traverse of the Alaska Range. You know, six hundred and fifty mile long traverse, ...and the story, essentially is John has to leave the group ten days early to get back to his sister's wedding, and, ...he's obviously very, very experienced in wilderness travel, and especially at this point is ...in very great shape, has the skills to do all this, and has been doing it for the last three months.
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FITZ CAHALL: He rolled up over the ridge, and looked down into the small valley, and immediately, he knew he was in trouble, a couple of hundred feet below him, a mother grizzly with three cubs in tow sniffed the air.
JOHN BURCHAM: When you're by yourself all of a sudden, that's a big problem. When you're in a group of four, your a group of four strong, and a bear, you know we had accounted several bears along the Sang rivers, everything, you know, we were a strong group of four. That's when it just, my gut sank, you know, I am by myself out here.
STEVE: And when you first heard this story, what was your reaction to maybe setting out to do something similar for yourself?
FITZ CAHALL: You know, I have to say that a traverse of the Alaska Range to me does not sound that much fun. I don't know why, it sounds grueling. You know, certainly I love being out in the backcountry, I love spending a week at a time, but spending four months of carrying eighty pound packs on my back doesn't necessarily want to make me get out and re-traverse the Alaska Range.
STEVE: Another person who did traverse a large swath of the Alaska wilderness in a rather spectacular adventure is Ryan Jordan. Ryan is the founder and publisher of Backpacking Light Magazine. Backpacking Light, as the name makes clear, is about going into the backcountry with less gear, sometimes far less than is traditionally considered necessary.
RYAN JORDAN: Well, ...we went out there knowing full well that we weren't going to be a model for everyone's future backpacking adventures. And the goal with that trek was really an internal one between myself and my partners, Roman Dial and Jason Geck. And our goal was to see how far we could trek, by pushing the envelope, using light gear, light footwear, etc. So there was an element of risk that was inherent in that, that, you know, I don't see to be the everyday model of outdoor adventure, and that certainly wasn't the intention.
STEVE: I suppose an average member of the public looks at the bulk of the media they see about a wilderness trip; they don't see the family that walks three and a half miles into Sequoia National Park, or somewhere even easier to travel in. They see the spectacular stories of an adventure like yours as an example of people that do get into the wilderness.
RYAN JORDAN: Absolutely. And I think there's a difference in responses depending on who these people are, and some of them will look at an adventure like that and say, "there's no way I'd do something like that." It just doesn't interest them, there's too much suffering or risk involved, and it just doesn't connect to them, and that's OK.
FITZ CAHALL: Certain stories are always going to attract people. I mean, there are stories about... skiers that are killed in avalanches, and then for some reason that inspires some segment of our community to get involved in backcountry skiing, ...and on the other hand, it to a lot of others it sort of repels them from going into the backcountry... And I think that there's also a lot of mainstream journalists aren't always that familiar with being outdoors, and doing these kinds of sports, and that not everything is about being extreme, or getting radical... There are ways to have incredible, empowering, and safe experiences in the wilderness, that are really fun, and are completely worthy of telling stories about afterwards.
STEVE: Andrew Skurka is another extreme adventurer. For almost seven months, he walked six thousand, eight hundred and seventy five miles from the Grand Canyon, across the desert, up the Pacific Crest, along the Canadian border, and back down the continental divide.
ANDREW SKURKA: The thing that probably bothers me most is the media's portrayal of the outdoors and extreme outdoor adventures is the epic component, that danger factor... And the media constantly reinforcing the image of the outdoors being this wild scary place that's full of grizzly bears and rattlesnakes, I think ...that's really where I get concerned. And even some of the television programs that are on this week will present the outdoors to you in a way that's very dramatic, and dangerous, and in order to be out here ...you need all these survival skills, and that's just not the case. For most people, their outdoor experience is very calm, and safe and fun and that sort of thing.
STEVE: Fitz Cahall, in his own way, agrees with Andrew Skurka.
FITZ CAHALL: I think that certainly somehow in the mainstream American media, there is a tendency to grab onto the really heavy, tragic, stories. ...For instance, what jumps to mind is the three climbers that were lost on Mount Hood two Christmases ago. And... when you cover that in that way with that sort of, let's send all our T.V. reporters to ask, why, why did this happen. I think that yeah, you maybe turn people off to it, because ...it's taken out of context. And it seems like a huge waste, and it arguably is a huge waste to loose your life to mountaineering, but certainly I don't think that the people up there, you know, would believe that all was for nought, or they never should have set foot in the mountains because this would lead them to there. I mean, thousands of people climb that mountain every year. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people climb it, and they have really powerful experiences... So going and covering it like this sensational, what a tragic loss of life this was such a waste, this was terrible, it's telling only half the story. So I think in that regard it is somewhat irresponsible by the mainstream media, not to sort of present both sides of that story, that you know, people choose to take risks, people choose to be outdoors... but most of the time it's safe to be outside.
TOM MANGAN: I have to tell you that from a news person's perspective the news media can be blamed for pretty much everything because the news media is not really in the business of being totally balanced.
STEVE: Tom Mangan called-in this comment in response to the first part of this story. Tom is a newspaper editor, and on his free time he blogs about hiking at Two Heel Drive dot com.
TOM MANGAN: The truth is the only way a hiker gets his name in the paper is when he dies traumatically, stupidly, wastefully, or otherwise fully. But the problem with the blame the media argument is that it can be applied to pretty much everything, because the media deal in sensation. You know, conflict, absurdity, pathos, voyeurism, because sensation drives eyeballs, and eyeballs keep media people in rent and hiking shoes. There's never been anything remotely newsworthy about the hundred and fifty hikes I returned home safely from, so anyway, while it's true that a harrowing adventure tale scare people away, these tales always attract people as well. We had a gold rush despite tales of gunfights, wild indians, and grizzly bears.
STEVE: Thinking that sensational stories would attract people to the outdoors, Scott Graham wrote a book entitled, Extreme Kids.
SCOTT GRAHAM: The subtitle of the book describes it best, and that is, "How to connect with your children through today's extreme, and not so extreme outdoor sports." Essentially the book is a way of talking to people about the importance of getting their kids outdoors, and enjoying all of the outdoors has to offer... The book works to offer examples to parents of families who are tackling these sorts of outdoor sports that younger children especially can do that seem extreme to those younger kids but in fact are really safe and really fun to do with parents and kids together.
EMILY WHITE: In the early planning stages of this book, Scott Graham, and our whole office were very excited about this, what seemed like growing movement, of extreme sports coverage.
STEVE: Emily White is a marketing and publicity specialist for Wilderness Press Books.
EMILY WHITE: So we thought this was something to be excited about, and we thought other families would be excited about it too. And so we went with this idea of, you know, putting this word, extreme, on the front cover, and making it Extreme Kids. But then when it came out we realized that rather than resonating with parents, the word, extreme, coupled with images of kids rock climbing, or kayaking, actually wound up really intimidating parents. So never mind that the book also covered day hiking, llama trekking, things that I think most reasonable parents would think are quite safe. The only word that parents seemed to focus on when they saw that cover was the word, extreme. And this was feedback that came from outdoors stores, and also from general books stores. So it was quite a broad spectrum of parents who had that reaction.
ANDREW SKURKA: I think the more that people know about what they're getting into, the more comfortable they become with it.
STEVE: Andrew Skurka.
ANDREW SKURKA: Part of the problem with the outdoors ...and declining involvement is because it's becoming a unknown thing. They don't know enough about it, they don't have the backcountry skills they don't know the area very well. So I think if people get to know about these places, it's easier for them to get in there... You're definitely afraid of the unknown, and if we can make that unknown not so unknown then we'll be much better off.
STEVE: What's the most common fear that people ...you've known fairly well before you set out on these adventures, when you get back to them now, what's the most common fear they express to you about getting out there themselves?
ANDREW SKURKA: The most common fear depends on the demographic groups, so when I present before school kids, it's usually sleeping on the ground and bugs and, you know, like grizzly bears and things that kind of our imagination and some of that dirt and grit and that sort of thing. With older groups, particularly women, it's all safety issues. I constantly get asked by mothers, "how did you check-in," like, "what was your check-in system? What would happen if you broke your leg out there?"
STEVE: I asked Ryan Jordan, the founder and publisher of Backpacking Light Magazine, how he thinks media should combat the scary, extreme messages we get about the outdoors.
RYAN JORDAN: As media we're in a unique and privileged position to influence the mass market, but the bottom line is if you don't have somebody who actually takes an interest in teaching and training you, and takes you by the hand and you show interest in them and you go out and do it, you're not going to impress that philosophy on very many people... It comes right down to take your kids outside, take a cousin outside, take a nephew or a niece outside and show them how to do it... I personally don't want to hear about the most extreme adventures all the time. I am training my son to be a backpacker, and we're backpacking as a family, and I want to connect with other families who are learning and doing this as they go as well, so that I can have those experiences with my own family.
STEVE: The mainstream mass media does present some radical, risky outdoor adventures as if they're normal. And they do tend to highlight the most tragic and sensational stories about the predicaments only a few people get themselves into. And in that way they're just doing their job, getting your attention. But we think the most important news is the story that doesn't get told often enough. And that is, that most people who spend time outdoors never experience a newsworthy calamity; they just have a good time.
FITZ CAHALL: I don't think you're ever going to be passionate about the environment unless you have a real, real, powerful connection to wild places. I just don't think you can be, until you've actually gone out there and experienced it and seen how beautiful, and how wild, and how terrifying, and also how humbling and peaceful some of the wild places can be.
STEVE: The story we want to tell is that getting into the wilderness is good for you physically, emotionally, and many would even say spiritually. There are a lot of not-so-extreme ways to do it that are no more dangerous than anything else you'd do in town. So don't think what you hear in the mainstream media is normal; it's weird, that's why it's news. So as I've said before, don't try this at home, try it out there!
STEVE: What scary stories of outdoor trauma, or extreme examples of outdoor sports have given you the urge to stay in? We'd like you to share your comments with us and your fellow listeners. And we always want to hear any other comments you have about our show. You can call our toll-free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can find links to more information about our guests, more comments from listeners like you, and an extended combined version of both parts of this show, on our web site.
STEVE: WildeBeat members can download extended bonus interviews with Andrew Skurka and Ryan Jordan from our WildeBeat Insider's web pages. And please check our web site for other benefits of being a WildeBeat member.
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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.
This has been The WildeBeat, combined program numbers one twenty six and one twenty seven. Thank you for listening.
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Next time -- more skiing.