Twenty Years: The Editor's Note

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1997

Twenty Years: The Editor's Note
By Mark Bryant

Legend around here has it that following the publication in our fourth issue of a refreshing but undeniably experimental adventure story set in the cloud forests of Peru, a certain suit on the magazine's business side shot off a memo charging that the author, a young associate editor by the name of Tim Cahill, had been allowed to romp wild through our pages and clearly needed a whopping dose of editorial discipline. "What are we going to do," the missive demanded, "about the Cahill problem?"

The editors' response: "Re the Cahill problem. Let the big hoss run." And with that vote of confidence Mr. Cahill — now an esteemed editor-at-large and the author of six books and some 150 Outside columns and features — was out of the gate, along with a great many other writers and photographers and illustrators. And Outside was off and running with them. To be honest, we knew less than we thought we did back then. But one thing we did know is that the best magazines are made by people who are free to indulge their curiosity and embrace their passions, who refuse to be bound by convention, who are encouraged, even urged, to hang it out there on what Cahill refers to as "the raggedy edge of risk."

This was a good attitude to have for other reasons, too. While the idea of a literate general-interest magazine about the outdoors now seems pretty obvious, in those early days there were plenty of pundits who were openly dismissive. The outdoor world, these critics were happy to inform us, was populated by two types: illiterate, gun-toting misanthropes and shrill, ecologically over-the-top misanthropes, and that was that. Which led the editors to wonder briefly whether maybe those carpers were right. After all, we had commissioned no demographic studies, no focus groups, no market research — none of the vanilla prep-work that wiser magazine people simply did as a matter of course, and the sort of thing that 20 years later has come to rule magazine thinking, for better or for worse. We simply had a hunch that somewhere there were readers who shared our interests and values, people who were probably much like ourselves, who reveled both in the world at large and in what Wallace Stevens called "the wild country of the soul."

From the start, however, the magazine had the prescience to map out a lot of territory in which to operate. Outside, the editors wrote in the first issue, would be "dedicated to the people, activities, hardware, literature, art, and politics of the outdoors. We believe that one cannot enjoy the outdoors without understanding it, and that to understand it is to be committed to its preservation. The idea is at once as simple and as complex as nature itself. And this is where Outside begins." It's still where Outside begins, every month. To be sure, over the years we've continued to interpret our mission rather broadly. We've worked to push the definition of what an Outside story is, to resist any preconceived notions of what the magazine should cover, celebrate, get angry about, gently chide or — on occasion — lampoon. All to make a magazine that is, we hope, surprising, inclusive, and engaging. Our readers, to their everlasting credit, have usually been willing to travel as far afield as we have. And when they haven't, well, we've heard about it. Still do.

Twenty years isn't really very long, of course. As we were putting the final touches on this issue, the media were humming with the 20th anniversary of Elvis's death, which seems like only yesterday. But as swiftly as the time has passed, we can't imagine a more rousing couple of decades. In 1977 the environmental movement was still wearing short pants, endurance sports remained largely the province of maladjusted loners, "health and fitness" simply meant jogging, and the adventure-travel phenomenon was little more than a notion simmering in the heads of some postgrad vagabonds looking to underwrite a few more crazy jaunts abroad before getting down to the dreary task of becoming a grown-up. As so often happens, however, the prevailing culture itself began to shift. Instead of hustling to leave presumably adolescent ideas like play and adventure behind, many of us realized it was possible to integrate them into our lives — more physically, emotionally, and intellectually engaged lives.

And so it is that when the editors are now asked to explain Outside's "sudden" popularity, our reliable sound-bite response tends to be something about the times having caught up with the magazine. No longer is this a publication about passing phases and fringe pastimes; rather it's a journal of the times in which we live and the way we conduct our lives. At the most basic, we want the stories in Outside to be as smart and lively and discriminating, as full of wit and grace and independence, as we believe both our mandate and our readers to be. Whatever we've accomplished in our better moments — six National Magazine Awards and 15 consecutive years of nominations, a committed and growing readership, a record of reflecting and influencing the debate over how we care for the earth — has flowed directly from those simple aspirations. Of course, serendipity has also played a part. "Throw a lucky man in the sea," says the Arab proverb, "and he will come up with a fish in his mouth." Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez put it another way: "I'd rather be lucky than good."

That said, this anniversary issue is intended as a celebration both of our great good fortune and of the great outdoors as we see it. We called up many of our most talented hands — some who have been with us since the early days, others who have joined the enterprise more recently — and asked them to do what they do best: to get out and explore a world in flux, to help us gauge where we've been and where we're going. They've returned with stories that are inspiring, stories that are poignant, and — keeping in mind the artist Russell Chatham's precept that "it takes more of a sense of humor to live happily today than it used to" — stories with a keen appreciation for the absurd.

In Alaska, a place we've often returned to in our pages, "outside" is what they call the rest of the world. Here at Outside, it's what we call the world. Lucky folks that we are, we have a stable full of horses, and it's our great pleasure to turn them loose out there and let them run.

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