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Anya Miller on Climbing, Cancer, and Creative Strategy

The winding path to a dream job

Anya Miller talks growing up on her own terms. (Photo: Aidan Haley)
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Everyone finds their way into adventure storytelling in a different way, but Anya Miller’s journey to working on film projects, creative campaigns, and podcasts for Duct Tape Then Beer is definitely one of the less straightforward ones. It started with a career in architecture, then bedbugs, then cancer, then a mid-career internship making the same salary she made as a lifeguard in high school, then a job at a big design and creative firm, then finally going to work with two of her longtime friends, Fitz and Becca Cahall. Oh, and lots of climbing, snowboarding, and mountain biking.

You’ve probably seen something Anya had a hand in making, even if you didn’t know it. As the director of Brand and Creative Strategy at Duct Tape Then Beer, she does a little bit of creative strategy, art direction, graphic design, film production, story development, photo editing, and whatever else needs to be done as part of a small team that makes two adventure podcasts (The Dirtbag Diaries and Safety Third), and films like Follow Through and Paul’s Boots.

Duct Tape Then Beer’s client list includes a lot of the biggest names in the outdoor industry: REI, Outdoor Research, Patagonia, The North Face, the Access Fund, Protect Our Winters, National Geographic, Black Diamond, Chaco, Arc’teryx, Subaru, and others. I’ve been lucky to work with Anya on a short film project and see how she works (and draws), and why Fitz and Becca invited her to be part of their creative team.

I asked Anya to sit down for an interview a few weeks ago—here’s our conversation, edited for length:

On Growing Up in Chattanooga

I’m the youngest of four kids. I was born in Canada in a small town called Hespler, Ontario. I have two sisters and a brother, and they are the best. My siblings really shaped my ideas of what I thought was cool, what I wanted to do with my life. Be good at school. Be good at sports. Be able to talk with anyone with curiosity. I always wanted to do everything that they did. My brother says that my super power is absorbing other people’s super powers. I think of it more as just learning from rad people.

My parents were divorced when I was five—it was a really rough relationship and so I was a pretty stressed out kid. When I was 12, my mom decided to move from Canada back to her home town of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Moving to the South was probably one of the best things that happened in my life because it put me in a more nature-focused place. In Canada, we lived in a small old town with stone buildings and neighborhoods full of kids. Getting outside meant going to the local school and hitting a tennis ball up against a giant brick wall, cruising on bikes in the street, or watching my brother and his friends skateboard in the Taco Bell parking lot. When I moved to Tennessee, we moved in with my grandmother, Gigi, who was like a second mom to me. She lived on a small acreage that had been part of her family farm for three generations. She lived and passed on the same plot of land where she was born—so land was important. There were tomato plants, frogs, lightning bugs, fresh mint and magnolia trees—space to just run around. We were close to a lake, so I would run down there to feed ducks and swim.

There were a lot less kids nearby, so I spent a lot of time with my sister Michaela and Gigi outside—working in the yard, playing checkers, and drinking sun tea. Moving to Tennessee really set a different tone for the rest of my growing up and for my life.

My family was not an outdoor adventure family at all. My mom was a single parent with four kids, so she got us into as many organized sports programs as possible to deal with our energy levels and probably just to free up some personal time for her.

I did gymnastics, played soccer and tennis, and eventually got into diving. Those sports were great for strength and discipline, but I experienced a lot of injury in high school, specifically in soccer. It seemed like I was working really hard athletically, only to then be at the mercy of some overly aggressive hack on the field.

I broke my leg the summer before senior year of high school and basically was just done with soccer—I hated every bit of it at that point, so I washed my hands of team sports. My sister was a pro cyclist at the time and gave me her old aluminum Trek 1500 and I started riding all the time. It changed my idea of distance and freedom. At this point, I was figuring out where I wanted to go to university. I hadn’t ever even been west of the Mississippi at that point—but somehow I thought that I where I wanted to be.

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(Photo: Anne Cleary)

On Moving Out West

There was an image—and this does not sound that deep at all, but it was an image on the old rubber-banded Patagonia Capilene packaging. Steph Davis was climbing some crack. I had never rock climbed in my life and I didn’t know who Steph Davis was at the time, but what I saw was just a super-strong female and she had chalk on her face and her hair was whipping in the wind. Didn’t look perfect, looked like she was trying hard in a wild place, and I wondered where she was. I was inspired by her, but I was also inspired by the place and the sea of rock she was moving through. I’d never been to a place so arid or stoic.

None of my family lived out west then. All of my siblings were either still in Canada or in the southeast. I just thought the west seemed amazing. I was the last of four siblings at home, and I made no secret of the fact that I wanted to go far away, not have a support network, and just see how it would go.

I remember sending away to University of Colorado and getting this information packet that had a VHS tape in it. I wish I still had it! It was so ridiculous. It had 80s synth music and this dude rollerblade shredding around the campus, giving a sort of tour. It wasn’t a causal rollerblade tour. The guy was getting rad on campus and pointing out different buildings! As I said, I was kind of a stressed out kid in school. I made straight A’s and was valedictorian. From that rollerblading video, I guess it seemed like CU was a good place for a stressed out, sometimes-too-serious kid to go.

So I applied to the School of Environmental Design and Architecture, and went.

On Drawing

I can’t remember not drawing. I was always drawing things. In hindsight, I probably just should’ve gotten an art degree. But I think when I was making the college decision, all of my siblings were sociology majors or history majors, which can be cryptic majors to develop a career from. I think I went into school with a practical driven idea that I would know exactly what I was going to do when I got out of school if it killed me.

Considering the different programs that CU offered, it looked like their environmental design program was good. It focused on sustainable architecture and reusing old buildings, which I was interested in—my mom collected antiques and loved making old things new. Plus, I thought architecture was practical. Theoretically, that major equals a decently clear career path after school. Maybe almost too clear of a path—it can be hard to stray from.

I was always drawing as a kid. I remember getting Calvin and Hobbes cartoon books for holidays. I’d go through the pages and duplicate all of the cartoons, hundreds of them. I didn’t trace them—I just redrew them identically, right down to the word bubbles and writing. I did that with Snoopy, Garfield, and Far Side comics, too. I really liked cartoons in general. They were funny, they had a dry sense of humor that reminded me of my brother. He cultivated my sense of humor, for sure. He helped explain some of the more complex cartoons and cultural concepts in them.

I would draw on my own, too. For hours at a time. Sharks and birds. My own hands. I’d look at magazine covers and draw them. Time magazine’s person of the year. National Geographicthat woman with the crazy aqua eyes. There were a bunch of skateboard magazines sitting around the house—my brother was a skateboarder. I’d try to redraw the Thrasher logo, which is a really tricky logo to redraw, by the way! I liked looking at that stuff because it seemed raw and cool, for whatever reason.

On Finding Climbing

My first time climbing was on Flagstaff in Boulder. The granodiorite up there is this weird conglomerate rock—it is pretty grippy until its little embedded pebbles get polished. I remember just thinking how cool it was up there. It was so accessible! And at that point, it was pretty quiet there. I lived close to the trails, so I could jog up Flag. I loved that I could go whenever I wanted to. Even at night. I didn’t have a car in university. I didn’t have a car in high school, either, so I fell in love with things that I could do right out of my door with little equipment or support from anyone.

Climbing wasn’t like skiing or snowboarding—you needed a good chunk of money and a car to do those things. Climbing, and bouldering in particular, was something that I could walk out my door, do on my own and have complete control over my experience. With team sports, I couldn’t control my experience. It felt like other people could injure me. At least I (kind of) had control over whether I hurt myself.

The transition from bouldering to tying into a rope was pretty quick for me. I ended up stumbling into a really good group of people that were better climbers than I was. Probably within the first few months of climbing, I drove with them out to Wild Iris. I remember not really understanding the concept of grades that much, just deciding what I wanted to try based on aesthetics and the encouragement of my friends. I’d say, “That thing looks good! I’ll try that.” It was really important to me to know that my friends believe in me. They did, and I got better quickly.

It was within the first month of climbing that I wanted to try to lead something. Everything about the sport was exciting—I just wanted something of my own. And it seemed like something I could have, in terms of just being able to develop my skills at whatever pace I wanted. I climbed so much (and probably so badly) when I started that I constantly had injured fingers and weeping skin.

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On Her First Job

After graduation, the job market was okay. I wanted to stay in Boulder for a little bit. Right out of school, I got a job at a small, residential architecture firm. They were modern and fun and also did a bit of branding and graphic design for the buildings they made. That rollerblade video was full of shit—I worked my ass off in school. I could have gotten a job at a bigger, better-paying firm, but a smaller shop felt more “me.” A lot of people in my class were going to giant corporate firms down in Denver or other cities, but I was more interested in smaller scale residential design—and I was more interested in working closely with clients and staying close to the mountains.

That shop was a safe place to escape to after being intense (again) throughout school. I didn’t want to jump into a high-intensity job. There, I got exposed to graphic design, brand design, and architecture. They did a lot of the drawing by hand, which I loved. Right then, things were teetering on being all computer-based. Eventually, we did take all drawings into the computer, but all of the concept iteration was hand-drawn. All of the renderings were hand-drawn, which I got to do and loved.

On Leaving Boulder

The person I was dating at the time is now my husband, and I think after about a year in Boulder, Charlie and I were pretty ready to take off. We decided to take a trip to South America, go to Chile and Argentina to go snowboarding and skiing down there.

We were at a resort called Las LeƱas, which has an amazing zone of lift-access/assisted backcountry. One day, Charlie and I were riding separately. It was really crap conditions and I kind of got off my line and was a bit lost. I saw these people just beyond me on this plateau with sastrugi all over it. It was sunny, but windy, like hard-to-move type wind. And I remember seeing a few people and thinking, “They look like Americans,” I screamed out to them, “Hey, can I ride with you guys?”

So we basically get together on that random plateau in Argentina. Maura Mack, her husband Jason, and Adam DesLauriers. We rode a shitty, icy line together and had a hilarious experience in super bad conditions. We got down and decided to go get beers and hamburgers and meet up with their buds, Lel Tone and Tom Wayes. Charlie joined us at the end of the day, and we all went to a hot spring and had non-stop, hilarious conversations. They felt like our people and they told us we should move to Tahoe. A week after we got back from Argentina, we decided to go to Tahoe and check it out. They set us up with a place to live, I got an architecture job, and Charlie started working at Granite Chief, tuning skis. Plus, it was only a short drive from Bishop. I was sold.

On Meeting Fitz and Becca Cahall

That first year in Tahoe, I spent a lot of time in this really tiny climbing gym, if you could even call it that. The Sports Exchange in Truckee. It was really just a used gear shop that had a room in the back with some holds on a woody. But I spent a ton of time there, looking for friends like those I had left in Boulder.

There weren’t a ton of women climbing in there. I saw Becca Cahall—she was strong and I decided, “That girl’s gonna be my friend.” I like to say that I picked her up in the climbing gym. We started talking, I met Fitz, and Charlie and I started going over to their place in Kings Beach every week for dinner. Becs makes a mean lasagna. It’s amazing at that point in time in my life how much time I had—or made—to connect and chat with people.       

We started climbing with those two. At the time, I think Fitz was in the very early stages of starting The Dirtbag Diaries and he was doing a bunch of writing for print publications. Becca was often gone during the summers, doing field biology work in Oregon. And Fitz and I would climb a good bit together in the summers when she was gone. The friendship really started from there.

They moved to Corvallis, Oregon, for Becca’s graduate program. From there, they moved to Seattle. Charlie and I were still in Tahoe, but we kept in touch with those guys and saw them whenever they came through. We were in Tahoe for just over seven years and I was working at an architecture firm there. I was getting really tired of designing 3,000 square-foot “cabins” for people from the Bay Area. Architecture was barely providing a living in a mountain town that’s difficult to make a living in. But it wasn’t really filling me up creatively.

Charlie was tending bar, skiing a bunch, and tuning skis. At some point, he wanted more of an intellectual pursuit. He started looking around at programs to get his MBA. He was interested in getting into the creation of ski clothing and technical outerwear. We were poking around for schools for him—we chose Seattle because of its creative opportunities and proximity to mountains. He had also grown up in Washington, so family was a draw. It was a huge benefit that Becca and Fitz had already made camp here.

Charlie got into the University of Washington and I found a really great position at a firm called Graham Baba Architects. I basically walked into a dream job in an outrageously bad job market. So it just seemed like everything fell into place. Then I found myself in the city. I never really thought I would live in a city, but all of a sudden, I was.

Pretty soon after we moved to the city, I convinced Charlie to take half of a year of his MBA program in France. So I took an eight-month sabbatical from the architecture firm, even though I hadn’t really been there that long. I spent the season climbing in Fontainebleau. We lived in the 11th in Paris, and traveled around to Italy and Switzerland to do some climbing and snow sports.

On Cancer

When we got back from Europe, I ended up getting a rash all over my body. I thought I had developed a food allergy, so I went to a doctor and I went to a naturopath to get tested for food allergies.

She said, “No, sweetie, you don’t have an allergy. You have bed bugs.” They were pretty common in France at that time. She told me how to get rid of them and offered to do my annual exam while I was there (she was a nurse practitioner, too). She does a breast exam on me and she says she feels something. A lump. I could tell she felt like it was bad. She said, “I think you should go get this checked out.” For whatever reason, I just knew there was something wrong. I hadn’t been feeling well, but I couldn’t really attribute anything. Had I not brought those bed bugs back from Europe, I might not have found the tumor. I fucking love bed bugs.

So the very next day I got in for a biopsy at one of the cancer centers in Seattle, and it came back as triple negative breast cancer. That’s an invasive form of breast cancer. All at once and very quickly, things slowed down for me and sped up, if that makes any sense. I went through a series of tests to see what the extent of the cancer was—full body scans to see if it the cancer was anywhere else. Waiting for those results was terrifying. I was trying to figure out my course of treatment, and just trying to understand and grapple with everything.

I was whisked into chemotherapy, and that was a crazy, awful chunk of treatment. It stops all fast-growing cells—like cancer—from producing in your body. That’s why your hair falls out—your hair is a fast-growing cell. I decided to take some control and shave my head before my hair really fell out. It just seemed like a helpless situation.

Can you believe that I had a wig made of my own hair? I had it made, and then I never wore it. Not once. It just sat on this weird styrofoam head in the corner of the bedroom the entire time. It was like this weird little animal sitting in the corner. I don’t know why I had it made. Like a security blanket, I think. When I put it on it felt like I was lying about what I was going through.

Chemotherapy just makes you feel acid washed from the inside out, but it’s what they said was the best and only treatment for my cancer type. Afterwards, I had surgery to take out the tumor, followed by radiation. You don’t fight cancer, you just weather it.

On Deciding to Switch Careers

Coming out of cancer, I realized that architecture wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I wasn’t happy on a day-to-day basis. At that point, after all the cancer stuff, I realized I could pull the plug on architecture and not feel bad at all. I deeply realized that time is short and that I didn’t want to spend a single day doing something that I didn’t love. So I started looking around for other things.

I sat down with my pen and paper, as I usually do. I drew out my problem. I basically tried to draw an infographic of the things that I liked about architecture and the things that I didn’t. I mapped out all of the tasks that I did in between the beginning and end of an architecture project, starting from the first client meeting and ending with them moving into their new or redone house.

Overlayed on the project timeline, I drew an up-and-down heartbeat line. It trended up when I loved the project tasks, and it would go down when I really didn’t like what I was having to do. This line didn’t correlate to difficulty of task—all jobs have hard parts that need grit to get through. But this helped me understand what I didn’t like and why.

When I looked at my infographic of my life, it seemed like such a small portion of every project had a loving heartbeat line. The ratio of I love this to I really don’t was just not enough. This visual helped me communicate with people who I was having coffee chats or meeting with, exploring new careers and positions. I could point to the graphic and say these are the things that I’m doing in every project that a) I really excel at and b) fill me up emotionally and really satisfy me as a professional and a creator. Clear, insightful visuals are so key to having good conversations.

I met with a guy who worked at a brand agency. He said, “You really seem like a creative strategist or a brand strategist.” I said, “Okay cool—what is that?” Basically, a strategist makes creative plans and develops foundational ideas that give meaning and inspiration to projects. Strategy helps teams understand and fulfill creative goals. I wasn’t sure I understood it at first, but I finally had a job title to search for online. I didn’t even know that job existed.

So I started looking for jobs as a creative strategist. I came across an internship that was being offered. This job was definitely aimed at someone ten years younger than me. It was at a brand and design firm here in Seattle called Hornall Anderson. Basically, I took my infographic and my architecture portfolio into the interview. I got the job.

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(Photo: Ken Etzel)

How Brand Strategy Relates to Architechture

Essentially, I figured out that creating a house or a space for somebody to use is really similar to creating a brand. In the beginning of an architecture project, you meet the people that you’re going to be working with, the people that will live in that house. You understand how they want to live, the types of spaces they’ll need for their specific lifestyle. You understand the land they have to build on, whether it’s really hilly or flat. You understand the adjacent buildings and you decide how you want your building to respond to those around it. Stand out? Fit in? Be crazy or subdued? Be earthy or modern? You consider budget and you consider the builders that will actually create the building. You chart a creative course.

At the end of the day, that planning process that I learned in architecture can be applied to almost any creative project, especially brands. You take a brand. You look at the landscape—where is it going to sit? You understand the brands that sit around it. You consider how your brand is going to respond to, compliment, or go against those adjacent brands. You learn about the people who will be living in that brand—the people who are running it and the people who will be purchasing its goods. You set a creative intention that helps develop a solid plan for your building or your brand. Or solid plan for making a film. Or an advertising campaign. Or an event. Whatever that is, there can always be a front-end structuring and creative process that helps you launch into ‘making’ in a considered, intentional, and hopefully unique way.

On Doing an Internship in the Middle of Her Career

I got the internship and it was three months long—terrible pay, of course. But I learned a lot. I had also been in the professional world for ten years at that point. I got hired the day my internship ended, and started working as a brand and creative strategist.

The internship was definitely a proxy for going back to school. I’d definitely recommend it. That job gave me amazing experience and mentors. There, I was able to develop my own techniques of working through brand problems with large teams. Strategists shape clear creative ideas so that it is easier for multiple people to express them.

On Joining Duct Tape Then Beer

I worked at Hornall for several years. It was the type of agency that had ping pong tables and kegs of beer and free cereal for breakfast. All of those things meant that they wanted you to never leave! I worked a ton, my climbing dropped off. I felt pretty unhealthy. Creatively, I was producing a lot of awesome stuff, working with big brands and talented designers—but eventually it felt a bit soulless. You can only use your intelligence and creativity to sell potato chips for so long.

I wanted to be climbing more. Through those first six years in Seattle, I was of course hanging out with Becca and Fitz. We loved talking about professional and creative stuff. I was always tracking on what Duct Tape Then Beer was doing. One night, I went over to their house and held a little facilitated visual Post-It party to chat with them about creative goals, what they were working on and what they wanted to be. At this point, they had positioned themselves pretty squarely as a film production company and of course The Dirtbag Diaries were still going strong.

When I was at that large agency, I saw people making films and content for brands in categories other than the outdoor industry. I saw how campaigns were being created and how solid, unique creative was being monetized. Basically, I wanted to help Duct Tape expand what they offered. People were coming to Duct Tape saying, “We want a film.” And then Fitz and Becca would ask, “What do you need a film about and why?” The brands rarely had good or solid answers for these questions. Maybe they didn’t actually need a film—maybe the brand actually needed a perspective.

Essentially, Duct Tape Then Beer had been creating emotional, unique perspectives for brands and expressing them in films. The value though, for the first years, had been being placed on the film outcome rather than the strategy and thinking that needs to be done before a good story is told.

On What She Does at Duct Tape Then Beer

Fitz and Becca told me they thought they could hire me. That was a big deal. I was really wary of working with good friends. I had always kept my personal life and work pretty separate. I just didn’t want to ruin our friendship by working together every single day, or having weird professional interactions with folks that I love so much. Eventually, those guys just talked me down from the ledge. They said their first priority was keeping our friendship solid—and they thought we could make some really cool things together. They said we would only work with brands and strengthen and nurture connections to the natural world. They said I could go climbing. That was it. I ended up leaving the big agency and joining Duct Tape to develop a brand strategy offering so that we could answer the brand questions before the topic of the creative output was even addressed.

Before a creative expression (film, messaging, campaign) is ever decided upon, we crystallize emotional ideas that will elicit action. How will we express an emotional idea? Maybe a film. Maybe a podcast. Maybe new headlines or messaging that gets rolled out over a few years. Maybe a social media campaign. Maybe an event. But we always start with clear, emotional ideas.

There aren’t many projects that come through Duct Tape Then Beer that I don’t have some sort of hand in. But you could say that about all of us—we all touch every project. Our skills overlap and are complementary. I make all of the pitch decks. I don’t like to admit that I am a writer—it was always so hard for me—but it has flowed as I’ve gotten older. If it’s a story that Fitz discovered, he’ll write it up and then I design a compelling story deck—sometimes with infographics—to get our ideas across. I do a lot of strategy work for us internally and for our clients. I do the graphic design and edit the photos that come out of our office, functioning as the art director and social media person. But my official title is director of brand and creative strategy.

Our podcasts need a good bit of overarching creative strategy. We don’t just haphazardly assort stories and guests. We look at culture and we try to understand what’s going on and try to actively seek out stories that express complex, emotional topics in today’s world. I’ll work to help shape this topic mix.

At the helm of Duct Tape, we’ve got five full-time people. We are all seasoned creatives and high-functioning human beings that love to contribute and work hard for each other. I think that’s what makes project good—when several smart people contribute in a considered way.

On Snowboarding vs. Skiing

I snowboard. I skied when I was tiny in Canada a couple of times. Since being in Colorado, I’ve been a snowboarder. More and more, I stay out of resorts and am loyal to my splitboard and to snow that makes no noise. I’ve had three torn ACLs on one leg. I’ve torn my meniscus three times. So yea, I ride snow that makes no noise. Luckily, soft snow is usually easy to find in Washington.

Advice

It was scary and hard for me to leave behind a profession that I’d put a lot of time and energy into. But I knew, deep down, that I didn’t enjoy it. My advice? Take some time and be really honest with yourself about what you like doing (and why) and what you don’t like doing (and why). Because every job is going to have something that sucks about it. Really anything worth doing is going to be pretty hard at some point, so the answer, “I don’t like doing this because it’s too hard,” is bullshit.

But I do recommend that process that I went through. Visually mapping out what filled me up emotionally and what depleted me emotionally. Visualizing that was so helpful. And clear. And it helped me realize what I wanted to be spending my time doing. Continually revisiting those two questions: What do I like doing and why? What do I not like doing and why? Continually revisiting those has been the most helpful thing for me over the last ten years.

Filed To: ClimbingFilmSportsBoulderFamilyKidsSkiing
Lead Photo: Aidan Haley
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