The Best Outside Stories of 2012
People often ask me what my favorite Outside stories are, to which I reply, "The one I'm working on." That's partly true and partly a gutless cop out. I love so many of our writers and the work they do for us that I'm wary of offending any of them by leaving them off my personal canon. But in honor of list season—and as a head start on my New Year's resolution to practice radical honesty—I decided to put together a top 10 roundup of our best writing for 2012. Looking back, it was a pretty fantastic year for longform storytelling at the magazine, which means a lot of great stories aren't mentioned here. So as a qualifier to cover my ass and smooth over any hurt feelings, I'll paraphrase my old boss at Texas Monthly, Evan Smith: I love all our stories equally; I just love these stories more equally than others.
The Beautiful Game
I don’t know what I’m a bigger fan of, soccer or travel writing by Patrick Symmes, but this one combines both, so it was destined to make my list. Travel writing is a difficult art; most of today’s correspondents are only able to give you their own narrow perspective of a place, leaving you less informed than you are jealous of their opportunity to travel on someone else’s dime. Symmes, on the other hand, has a gift for making you feel as if you’re with him for the whole experience, visiting places—like the middle of the fan section for one of Argentina’s most notorious and violent soccer gangs—you’d be too scared to ever go on your own. After reading "The Beautiful Game," I’d swear on my life I’ve actually been to a Boca Juniors game in Buenos Aires—and I have enough vivid details to pass a lie-detector test.
Breaking the Rules
A great essay synthesizes ideas and opinions you never knew you had, making you nod along in agreement, imagining you’d written the words yourself. That’s how I felt about this little gem, which appeared in our June issue. Marc Peruzzi takes on America’s obsession with “helicopter parenting,” arguing that occasional rule breaking and risk are good ways to instill a sense of personal conviction in our children.
“If you’re afraid to break a few laws when there’s nothing on the line,” he writes in one of my favorite lines, “how will you speak out against authority when it’s life or death.” We got a lot of mail about this one.
The Devil on Paradise Road
Proof that the news cycle really has been permanently compressed: This incident, involving an armed gunman terrorizing Mount Rainier National Park, was bumped off Americans’ front pages in only a few days. Most readers—myself included—had forgotten the details of this New Year's Day tragedy by the time Barcott’s investigation was published in our September issue.
But that’s where magazines thrive, providing depth and context that daily news coverage can’t match. By going deep and reporting the hell out of this incident, Bruce Barcott honored acts of heroism and bravery that should never be forgotten.
Stories about obscure sports often have just one note: Hey, it’s hilarious that people take this seriously, right? Ha ha! Eric Hansen avoids that trap by taking Quidditch very, very seriously—learning how to play the real-world version of the Hogwarts pastime, forming a team, and playing so hard he ended up being carried off the field.
The sport is played by a generation of rabid Harry Potter fans who have tried valiantly to bring to life a fictional game, and the terrestrial version happens to involve running around with a broom between your legs. So, yes, it’s an easy target. But when Hansen assembles a team to compete in the 2011 Quidditch World Cup, held in New York, he’s not shy about his desire to win. The joke is partly on him, and that’s when the story becomes truly funny.
Take a Number
For some reason, many of our readers have “going to Everest Base Camp” on their life list. Trust senior editor Grayson Schaffer when he tells you that it’s not a very fun place to spend more than a couple of hours. It’s cold, crowded, lacking in oxygen, and generally miserable. Schaffer was embedded there for five weeks in April and May of 2012, and considering the working conditions, he produced an astounding body of work for Outside Online while he was there.
When climbers started dying and all the rules of mountaineering seem to dissolve in 48 hours, Schaffer was on the scene providing valuable context and real-time reporting for the rest of the world. This piece is powered by great reporting on and off the mountain, and serves as an indictment to the conditions—including cut-rate outfitters and woefully inexperienced climbers—that led to the season’s shockingly high death toll.
Catch Me if You Can
This classic missing-person story is made unique by the unusual circumstances of the subject at its center. Robert Wood, who went missing in 2011 in a forest in Virginia, is eight years old, autistic, and unable to speak. His condition made him more likely to evade rather than seek the hundreds of volunteers trying to find him, and it’s possible that he never even recognized that he was in danger. Dean King does a wonderful job recreating the six-day hunt and reveals why autistic children have become one of the greatest challenges in the field of search and rescue.
Open Your Mouth and You’re Dead
Nothing I say here could do a better job of selling James Nestor’s story than the brilliant headline, written by Outside editorial director Alex Heard. Who wouldn’t want to read a story with that title? Even better: the piece lives up to the name. It scared the hell out of me.
It’s Not About the Lab Rats
I’ll always remember 2012 as The Year the Lance Armstrong Myth Died. But if USADA had never pursued the doping allegations against him—and so many former teammates hadn’t finally come clean about the widespread cheating on the U.S. Postal Service team—I might remember it another way: The Year Armstrong’s Lawyers Gave Me My First Gray Hairs. We assigned this piece as an institutional profile of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, giving Bill Gifford free reign to report on the iconic organization’s cancer work and program spending—good, bad, or indifferent. A lot of people interpreted this piece as a takedown, but it wasn’t one at all. Gifford reported on plenty of good things LAF—now Livestrong—was up to, including its important role in helping cancer patients navigate our labyrinthine health care system. But he also looked at the complicated marketing and financial relationship between the organization and its celebrity namesake. The unsavory truths he discovered were jarring, simply because no one had bothered to examine them before. Needless to say, the LAF lawyers didn’t like that, and I’m proud that we went ahead with the story anyway.
Who Pinched My Ride?
I’d never wish for anyone to have a bike stolen—but I’m sort of glad it happened to Patrick Symmes. He channeled his outrage into the reporting equivalent of EPO, powering a year-long, cross-country odyssey to expose the massive underground market for stolen bikes. In ways that are sometimes funny and sometimes infuriating, he answers every question you’ve ever had about what happens to the bikes that get ripped off in broad daylight.
Why Noah Went to the Woods
Mark Sundeen’s tale of an Iraq War veteran who disappeared in the Montana wilderness is a rare case of a magazine story reaching perfection. He does a masterful job of slowly revealing the mystery of what happened to Pippin, and, as the saga unfolds, the story becomes a subtle indictment on America’s utter failure to take care of veterans upon their return home and our general apathy toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “America is not at war,” says one of Pippin’s former platoon mates, “America is at the mall.” Mark Sundeen is never able to say definitively what happened to Pippen, but by the end, we know, and that’s why this magnificent story still haunts me.
Next Up: Felix Baumgartner's Record-Breaking Jump