What Our Culture Critics Want to See in 2020
As former columnist Heather Hansman passes the torch to Erin Berger, the two share their strongest takes on outdoor media and culture
This year, Outside contributor Heather Hansman is passing the torch of the Culture Notebook column to Erin Berger. To mark this transition, both of our opinionated critics let loose about the outdoor media they loved (thoughtful podcasts, “cli-fi”), the trends they hated (“rad” adventure-movie tropes), and everything they want more of in the year to come. (More outdoorsy fiction, please.)
The year 2019 was dismal for a lot of reasons, but it was a great year for dismal books (yay?). Climate fiction (“cli-fi”) and stories about our not-too-distant apocalyptic future felt resonant and urgent. On the nonfiction side, books like Elizabeth Rush’s Rising (about rising seas), Tommy Pico’s Feed (about modern consumption, among other things), and Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing (about the attention economy) all hybridized reporting and reflection. Those books lyrically hit the moving target of helping readers figure out how to function as a human being in a world that’s rapidly changing.
After years of sorting through the piles of book previews mailed to Outside, I surpassed adventure-memoir saturation long ago. Start making things up, people!
Last year, for example, I loved Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing, a thoughtful and often dark novel about a Taiwanese-American family living in Anchorage, Alaska. But I could use lighter fictional fare, too. How about an Island of the Blue Dolphins for adults?
Of course, I’m still excited for a lot of nonfiction releases coming our way, particularly former competitive swimmer and current do-it-all writer Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim. Tsui explores our relationship with a sport that quite literally represents quiet and flow (something we could use more of, no?) by offering a look at a grab bag of eclectic examples, like swimming samurais and an Icelandic shipwreck survivor.
My least favorite trope in the world of outdoor storytelling is “rad person goes somewhere rad, gets rad, has rad trip.” Snooze. So many sports films seem to follow that plot, and I am over the aggressive, self-congratulatory earnestness. I want more funny things. I want more sports movies with plots. I want underdoggy characters and occasional unhappy endings and some kind of narrative rise and fall.
There are some rays of hope. Life of Pie, Ben Knight and Travis Rummel’s hilarious, poignant documentary short about the mountain biking women who the Hot Tomato pizza joint in Fruita, Colorado, was one of my favorites last year. Plus, this year’s Reel Rock 14 lineup looks promising, with films about female athletes and punk-rock climbers.
The world may always remember 2019 as the year Free Solo won an Oscar and got everyone briefly interested in climbing—albeit a terrifying version of the sport that basically no one does. But two other films stood out for me this year: The Quiet Force, about the predominantly immigrant communities who keep ski towns running, and The River and the Wall, about a rafting trip down the Rio Grande that explores exactly what Trump’s border wall puts at stake. Both situated the outdoor world in urgent conversations about immigration reform and gave us visceral reminders of mechanisms we may not think about on a daily basis. More of this, please!
Music and Podcasts
It was a heck of a year for female songwriters. From the summer on, my personal playlist was dominated by the Highwomen, with some heavy sprinkling of Kelsey Waldron and Ashley McBryde. Wherever your tastes lie (Lizzo! Billie Eilish! Ella Mai! Brittany Howard!), female musicians came out strong with wordplay last year.
Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist, but I love podcasts that pull back the curtain on the reporting process by revealing how the host got the story. This year’s standouts included two looks at public land. Bundyville host Leah Sottile was way ahead of the curve on the story of Matt Shea, a controversial Washington state representative accused of domestic terror. And This Land, Rebecca Nagle’s highly personal look at tribal sovereignty and the Cherokee nation, unraveled so many of my wrong, long-held beliefs about land, rights, and laws.
It’s possible that this makes me a sociopath, but I’m the person in the ski carpool who’s secretly angling to be the DJ. I like to think I take an intuitive approach to this job—in fact, I have an emergency “Belting” playlist for when energy gets really low on the drive home. Classic Celine Dion and Mariah Carey ballads are central to my rotation, but their newer stuff (aside from Mariah’s “A No No”) doesn’t quite make the cut. This year, I need pop artists to produce more ballads for belting! The people (my friends who have no choice in the matter) demand it!
On the podcasting side, I am still obsessed with Jon Mooallem’s The Walking Podcast, which is just that: no talking, just hiking with the sounds of nature and sometimes an errant jogger. I have this weird ASMR love of crunchy sounds—like the sound a journalist’s recorder makes as they’re fumbling around, or shoes on gravel—and Mooallem really delivers. But if a bunch of other amateur podcasters got cheap recorders and copied his exact concept, I’d probably listen to every single one of those, too. See? Sociopath!
Whoops, did I say I was over people’s aggressive earnestness? I lied. In the social media space—which is such a weird, fungible, “are we doing it right?” world—I’m so appreciative of people with important platforms who don’t play into easy, clickbaity tropes. A lot of influencers, like Pattie Gonia, Kiona of How Not to Travel Like a Basic Bitch, and Jenny Bruso, seem to be making an honest effort at grappling with what it means to be in the spotlight. They seem to be being real.
Chai Vasarhelyi’s oeuvre (Meru, Free Solo) has brought outdoor culture into the mainstream. As Lisa Chase wrote for Outside, Vasarhelyi succeeds because she zeroes in on themes like grief and loss that transcend the outdoor world’s niche—they’re just about being human. I’ve also noticed the climbing world leading the way in hard conversations, thanks to initiatives like the American Alpine Club’s Grief Fund. I hope the bar keeps getting higher for outdoor subcultures and media to explore deeper subject matter.