July’s Outside magazine featured a story of survival. That was it: a guy trying to survive. Thayer Walker, the author, dropped himself off on an uninhabited Panamanian island and allowed himself to starve for three weeks. At the end, he picked up the phone, called a nearby resort, and a boat came to pick him up.
In the meantime, he ate termites, limpets, coconuts, and some sugarcane that someone had planted and then abandoned. He snorkeled around the island’s reefs for an hour or so a day. He tried to weave baskets. He failed to make a fire.
In the end, he learned that he really didn’t like pina coladas much anymore. Too coconutty.
While I admire Walker’s ability to gut it out for so long, I don’t understand why he did it or why Outside decided to tell us about it. We used to read about life-or-death struggles endured on quests with at least partially noble motives. Into Thin Air, about the 1995 Everest disaster, springs to mind. Or a better example, Farley Mowatt’s Canadian summers watching wolves and getting by on voles.
But those kinds of stories upped the ante, and now poor travel writers have to think of ever-more obscure ways of nearly dying in order to catch our attention. Last year, a BASE jumper had to jump from a bridge into a canyon continuously for 24 hours, puffing back up the hill every time, to get our attention.
Told well, and when real drama is involved, it’s gripping. But has anyone noticed that the person is occupying more and more of the frame these days? The outdoors is getting squeezed into smaller and smaller nooks – and I don’t know about you, but the outdoors is why I go out into the outdoors.
Walker went to a 5-day survival school before his trip. He was bent on learning to make fire with a bow and stick, and succeeded once or twice, although his teacher’s words were prophetic: “Fire is always most difficult when it’s most important.” But did he do any other preparation? Did he learn what the common plants and animals were likely to be? Which plants might be edible? What might be fruiting? Whether to eat termite larvae or termite adults?
There’s almost no jungle in Walker’s story beyond the word “jungle.” Didn’t he see anything interesting while he was looking for food or tinder? No snakes, no cool bugs, weird flowers? At least on the first well-fed days, didn’t he marvel at anything around him? There’s none of this kind of detail – just steely lines about eating limpets and throwing up.
Maybe this isn’t Walker’s fault – maybe he discarded page after soulful page because his editors wanted this instead. But for us it amounts to the same thing: an article about a person. Somewhere. Trying to nearly die.
Outdoor magazines seem to have decided that the 20-something upwardly mobile male is the only person worth publishing for. They’re turning into Maxim, just with more granite: hence recent Outside articles on a Playboy bunny at Everest base camp and “How to Shag on a Portaledge” (Cheesy first line: “So you’ve just climbed a 5.12 with a 10.0 and you’re all sweaty and hot”).
A recent National Geographic Adventure ran a story on road-tripping through Baja California. The captions – which outweighed the rest of the text – told us what each person was wearing and how much it cost. At this point, the Patagonia catalog is doing a better job of being an outdoor magazine.
Back in the day, Tim Cahill did some actual research for his Outside stories. He looked up historical accounts of anacondas and their fearsome size before going out to look for them. And then when he did rustle one up, he admitted it was a lot smaller than it was cracked up to be. David Quammen used to fill us in on actual things happening outdoors, like asteroidal craters in Kamchatka and illegal immigrants jumping desiccated border fences and why we ought to revere the mosquito. Sound interesting? It is.
I don’t mean to pick on Walker and his plucky, if pointless, quest to survive. But survival has become just another additive, like high fructose corn syrup or guarana extract, that we get in everything now whether we want it or not.
We’ve got YouTube for when we want to see someone point a videocamera at his face right before doing something foolish. So could the outdoor magazines please pan back around to our surroundings now? It’s pretty out there.
All images: Charles Eldermire, taken during fieldwork in Costa Rica.