Tim Cahill Is an Outside Legend. Thank Goodness He Didn’t Die.
Cahill’s stories and rollicking misadventures around the world have made this publication what it is today. Here he talks about his role in the creation of Outside magazine, choking down snake blood and gallbladder cocktails in the name of journalism, and how he came back from the dead after a frigid swim in the Grand Canyon’s biggest rapid.
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No one person—editor, writer, publisher, or athlete—has meant more to Outside than Tim Cahill. One of the founders of Outside, he put adventure journalism on—and off—the map. Whether he was riding a small pony across Mongolia, eating sago beetle larvae in Irian Jaya, or suffering through a yoga retreat in Jamaica, his every-man style of travel has been mixed with literary reporting and a hefty dose of hilarious, and sometimes harrowing, misadventure.
My Drowning (And Other Inconveniences)After a legendary career in adventure writing, Tim Cahill thought his story was over. Thrown from a raft in the Grand Canyon’s Lava Falls, he was trapped underwater and out of air. When he finally reached land, his heart stopped for several minutes. Then he came back—and decided to risk Lava again.
Cahill and two other editors came up with the concept for Outside in 1977, working in an old warehouse in San Francisco. For more than two decades, he wrote the magazine’s Out There column, work that was collected in eight books of essays, including Pass the Butterworms, Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, and Pecked to Death by Ducks. He also contributed ambitious investigative features to the magazine, like “The Shame of Escobilla,” in which a trip to southern Mexico to see olive ridley sea turtles turned into an exposé of the mass slaughter of an endangered species.
His life of adventure was almost cut short on a 2014 river trip down the Grand Canyon. Thrown from the raft, Cahill swam the notoriously dangerous Lava Falls. There on the beach after being rescued, he lost consciousness. For up to ten minutes, he had no pulse, no breath. His heart had stopped entirely. The resulting story, “My Drowning (and Other Inconveniences),” was one of his most poignant, not only for the gripping writing but also because we almost lost him.
Cahill talked with contributing editor Elizabeth Hightower Allen, who worked with him on several stories while she was on staff at Outside, from Livingston, Montana, where he has lived for many years.
Outside: Welcome back from the dead.
Tim Cahill: Thank you.
Let’s come back to that story later and start at the beginning, when you were a young writer at Rolling Stone. You’ve said that you got bored writing about rock and roll, because all those musicians did was trash hotel rooms. So, of course, my first question is, Who was the best at trashing hotel rooms?
Well, I can’t indict any one band. But it was Rolling Stone, in the late sixties and early seventies, and there were various inebriants involved that led us to be somewhat less than careful. I did like traveling with the Allman Brothers, however.
I confess I didn’t know about some of the Rolling Stone features you wrote back then. Your story on the aftermath of the Jonestown Massacre—the murder-suicide of some 900 members of the Peoples Temple at the behest of cult leader Jim Jones in 1978—is one of the best features I’ve ever read.
It’s not something you want to see—nearly a thousand people lying dead in the blistering jungle with constant rain. I was down in Guyana for nearly three weeks. When the story came out, I was living in San Francisco, where the Peoples Temple had been headquartered, and there were still believers who did not commit suicide and were upset if you suggested that Jonestown was not a glorious gesture against repression. You were suddenly a target. It was a year of being very careful about where I went and who I saw and how I was armed.
Wait, you packed heat in San Francisco in the 1970s?
I did. Right after Jonestown, I legally purchased the gun and learned how to shoot it. Happily, I never had to use it nor brandish it in any way.
That was right around the time you helped create Outside. Could you tell us the origin story again? We never get tired of hearing it.
Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, wanted to do an outdoor magazine. One of our editors, Michael Rogers, was an avid outdoorsman, and I was the only other person in the office who liked to go outdoors. So, the two of us and a wonderful editor named Harriet Fier huddled up in a room in an old coffee factory with piles of canoeing magazines, trying to figure out how to put it together.
Really simply, the concept was to pay homage to the strain in American literature of literate writing about the out of doors—from John Fenimore Cooper through Mark Twain through Hemingway and Faulkner. What was available in the late 1970s were magazines with titles like Man’s Adventure (which I like to call Man’s Testicle), in which heroic guys ran through the jungle, usually dragging along a woman. The guy’s shirt was ripped, hers was ripped even more, and they were being chased by rhinos or hippos. The sense you got reading these was, I don’t think this is true. I honestly don’t think there are any penguins at the North Pole, much less bloodthirsty ones.
I said, Well, I could do some of these things. But if I see a shark, say, I don’t have to pull out a penknife and battle it to the death. I could just write about the wonder of seeing such a thing. Take somebody like me who’s not entirely coordinated and easily frightened—then you might have an adventure story people could relate to. I was in the permission-giving business, I hope. People thought, If this clown can do it, so can I.
Let’s touch on some of your greatest hits, which included eating a lot of disgusting stuff. Which of these was grossest?
- Baked Turtle Lung, Northern Australia
- Rooster’s Head Soup, Peruvian Andes
- Sago Beetle Grubs, Irian Jaya
- Snake’s Blood and Gallbladder Cocktail, Beijing
- Lutefisk, Lutheran Church, Livingston, Montana
Some were actually good! With the snake’s blood thing, they put the gallbladder in a glass and mull it around with a chopstick, and then you drink it with this very strong liquor. I said, Well, I’m just going to throw this down, and I did, and boom, there was another. You’re encouraged to drink it again and again and again, and who was I to go against cultural norms? I remember banging against the walls trying to get back to my hotel room.
Okay now we have another quiz, this time about your literary sensibilities. I have three reviews here. Which describes you best?
- San Diego Tribune: “Cahill . . . (writes) with the precision of John McPhee and Joan Didion tempered by a Monty Pythonesque sense of the absurd.”
- Jae from Goodreads: “He’s like Allan Quartermain meets Anthony Bourdain, with a little David Attenborough tossed in.”
- Paul from Goodreads: “There is no purpose to this except the author’s own glorification. It reads like a very bad guitar solo.”
Give me the first one. I like being compared with Joan Didion, John McPhee, and Monty Python. Three of my heroes!
With all those misadventures, did you ever get in trouble with your editors?
I was damn lucky with editors, from Terry McDonell to John Rasmus and Mark Bryant. They would want changes in the story, but the changes always improved the story and made it more like me.
You never, say, called from Borneo and said you needed $6,000 in a bag because you’d been kidnapped?
That never happened. Although I was chased across the Sahara desert by Tuareg bandits. We were going up to see if we could find the forbidden salt mines in Mali. The problem was, Mali was split into two groups: the Hutu people, south of the Niger River, and the Tuareg, in the Sahara. They’d been at war for quite some time and had signed a peace treaty. It was pretty clever: the government said to the Tuaregs, Look, we don’t want to fight you guys anymore. Why don’t you defend our country and we’ll pay you? You’re our army now. You’re not fighting us. You’re fighting anybody trying to get in here.
The ones who didn’t join in were the warlords. These guys drove around in white Land Cruisers they’d stolen from some NGOs. And sure enough, near the last town before the mines, we noticed that we were being followed by a couple of white Land Cruisers. We had a security man, but when he saw those two Land Cruisers, he said, Let me out here.
Luckily, we found a walled compound, and asked the people there to arrange a parlay. We thought, we’ll do what the government did and hire these guys to be our security. And bang flash—now we had two Land Cruisers and some scary guys protecting us.
What I particularly liked about that story was that it started in Timbuktu —the jumping-off place was Timbuktu. And the salt mines still exist. I have in my mind’s eye this wonderful vision of a row of camels walking nose to tail up these sand dunes, with the sun glittering off the big blocks of white salt they were carrying. It was an amazing sight.
In your travels were you more scared of, say, being up on a rope climbing, or these sorts of interactions with people who weren’t necessarily friendly?
Probably people. You should be able to speak a few words of the local language, and you should know the political situation. Then, when things happen, you just react normally. Panic does no good. I’ve never been on a trip where anybody panicked.
One story where you went in expecting one thing and got another was The Shame of Escobilla, in which you uncovered a massacre of sea turtles in southern Mexico. What was the original assignment?
The assignment was simply to go to Mexico and see the arribazon—the arrival of hundreds of thousands of olive ridley turtles, which were endangered at the time, lay their eggs on the beach.
But when I got to Escobilla, there were no turtles. A Mexican fishery company was catching them in nets out beyond the breakers. They claimed it was a sustainable fishing practice—while the mother turtles would be killed, their eggs would be packed in sand in Styrofoam coolers and stored on the beach until the babies hatched and made their way out to the sea.
They showed us this big lab, where scientists studied turtles swimming around in pools. It was a big dog-and-pony show for Mexican TV and newspaper reporters. But when I came back two days later, the tanks were dry. There were no scientists. Turtle eggs were rotting in the sand. There was one old man there, and I asked him what happened. He said, If you want to see the arribazon, go to the dump.
They had slaughtered all the turtles. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a dump in the tropics—a dump where they’d thrown hundreds of thousands of carcasses, acres and acres of rotting turtle meat and eggs—but I considered it an evil place. I wrote an angry story. And it gained traction. There was a great outcry from that story.
Now the olive ridley is listed as vulnerable. I’m hoping this is a conservation story with a semi-happy ending.
When I wrote the follow-up story in 1982, it was not hopeful. But now it is a matter of some pride to Mexicans to see these turtles on the beach. People pay to come and see the arribazon. The turtles are once again a source of income for the people who live there—without poaching.
You told me that was the story you might be proudest of.
You sometimes wonder when you do a story like that, Will this ever work? Or am I just writing about the end of the olive ridley turtle? When you have 43 years to look back on it, you can say, Yeah, that worked. I just saw a YouTube video of thousands of turtles laying eggs on the beach at Escobilla. I’d love to go back.
Now, we should talk about your death. You and I got to work on a story after you died, on the Grand Canyon, at age 71.
Yes, this December 7 was the seventh anniversary of my death.
I had always wanted to float the Grand Canyon, and a group of friends from Wisconsin, where I grew up, managed to get a permit, but it was in December, when the days are short and cold.
Lava Falls is arguably the toughest, nastiest rapid on the river, and instead of wearing my dry suit I wore light rain gear, with the idea that if I went over, I could steer myself using my skills as a collegiate swimmer. But there are forces entirely beyond human control. I went in right at the top of Lava, and I recall a sensation of being pulled down by my feet. There was a quiet pool above me, and I could see the blue Arizona sky above. Then I felt myself tumbling off a cliff, still underwater. Everything I saw was like breaking glass, like an explosion in a glass factory, only in slow motion. Except—boom—when I went over the cliff, everything went back into fast motion.
When they finally pulled me back on the boat, they rowed over to what’s called Tequila Beach. My friend “River Roy” Crimmins gave me a Pabst Blue Ribbon, and I went to open it and fell over. And that’s all I know from my point of view. From the others’ point of view, I turned blue and then gray, and then God bless them, they went into overdrive, performing CPR.
I don’t know how long that took them. They told me later I had no pulse and I wasn’t breathing. I’ve since learned that CPR is only about ten percent effective in these kinds of situations. Nobody took a stopwatch and timed how long I was unresponsive. Some people said I was gone for two or three minutes. Others said it was as long as ten. I’ll go for the longer estimate.
Other interviewers have wanted to know what message you took from this near-death experience. You told one that all you could say was that the river was deep and the guy in it was shallow.
If I had been a very intelligent writer, I would have said I’ve seen the serene, or some vague stuff. And then I could have written a book about it. Look, I didn’t see anything. It wasn’t gray. It wasn’t black. It wasn’t there. There was nothing—no rainbow bridge, no big light, no beckoning relatives. Not even a guy with a red suit and horns. When they called the helicopter to medevac me out of the Canyon, I said, Wait, I can still go on the river!
After that scare, what constitutes an adventure to you now?
I’m fairly retired. I’ve got two dogs that are my personal trainers that force me out on the trails every single day, rain or snow.
One last question. You and photographer Chris Rainier once pitched me on a plan to take a hot air balloon over the summit of Everest. I actually believed this and took it to a story meeting. Would you have really done that if Outside could have made it happen?
No! We would have ended up dead! Even in my very prime, I had no business being above base camp on Everest.
I think I may have been the victim of a ten-year-long practical joke.
You may have been.