Adventure Journalist Michael A. Lanza Shares His Secrets
A former editor for Backpacker Magazine, Michael A. Lanza now makes his living blogging about the incredible outdoor adventures that he takes, often with his familiy, for his website, TheBigOutside.com.
We recently talked with him about how he got his start, how climate change is affecting the wildnernesses he’s been exploring for decades, and how outdoor experiences in childhood can lead to a strong lifelong sense of environmental stewardship.
Here’s PAGE TWO of the interview. Click here for PAGE ONE.
ABOVE: Michael A. Lanza, outdoor adventurer and creator of TheBigOutside.com, kayaking with his family in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park.
How did you break into the field of outdoor adventure journalism? What’s your advice for those who aspire to turn writing about outdoor adventure into a career?
I was a newspaper reporter and editor for 10 years. At my last newspaper job, I wrote a weekly outdoor column. When I quit that last job, more than 20 years ago, to launch a freelance career, I started by syndicating a weekly outdoor column in daily newspapers around New England. Then I made connections with magazines and started writing for them, sporadically at first, then building my relationships with them, especially Backpacker. I eventually became a contributing editor and then Northwest Editor of Backpacker for 11 years.
My advice is to get published wherever you can to build experience, connections, and publication credits. Work as an intern at a magazine. A college degree that’s relevant is certainly helpful. Start a blog and grow it as you have time at first, see whether you can make something of it. And expect to make very little money at first, perhaps not for quite a while. This is more of a lifestyle commitment than a traditional job.
How did you first develop an enthusiasm for the great outdoors? And how did that grow into a full on, globetrotting outdoor adventure obsession? In other words… what’s your outdoor adventurer origin story?
I didn’t grow up in a family that camped, hiked, backpacked, fished, hunted, or did anything like that. We played the usual sports and took vacations to the beach, all of which I liked, of course. During and right after college, I had a few friends, and then a girlfriend who introduced me to dayhiking peaks around New England, and I was immediately smitten. I would hike every weekend I could, and that gradually expanded into backpacking, rock climbing, and mountaineering. In recent years, thanks to my teenage son getting really into whitewater kayaking (on his own, with us putting him in summer camps with pro guides), we’ve spent more time whitewater rafting and kayaking.
I’ve been fortunate to work for Backpacker and now run my own website and blog, which have enabled me to travel around the world and explore a lot of the backcountry of U.S. national parks and wilderness areas for my work. This had been my dream job 30 years ago, when I was a young reporter and hiking during much of my free time. It’s very much a job when I’m out there, but it’s a job I absolutely love, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.
What’s your advice for trying to convert someone who’s afraid or skeptical of outdoor experiences into a nature enthusiast (we all have a friend or loved one who we know would benefit if they’d just take that first step)?
There are easy places to introduce people to the outdoors all over the country. My first bit of advice for anyone who’s experienced is: Don’t underestimate how intimidating or physically demanding even a hike or other activity that you consider easy may be for a newbie. Start with something that’s easy but has a big payoff in terms of a view or other reward. Let that person set the pace. Bring some good food. Make sure he or she knows how to dress and has adequate footwear.
My mom was in her late 40s (and I was in my 20s) when I took her on her first hike. We’ve since traversed the Presidential Range, hiked to the summit of Half Dome, backpacked in the Grand Canyon, and trekked in Norway together, among other adventures—all of them some of the best times we’ve had together, even though all were quite demanding for her. (She’s tough and trusts me.) But don’t expect everyone to love the outdoors. I’ve taken people backpacking who truly had a miserable time, and I didn’t try again with them. You can’t turn a pig into a swan.
Your book, Before They’re Gone, is about the year you spent traveling to America’s most endangered national parks with your family. What do you hope people take away from reading it?
My goal when writing it was to use a personal story about family experiences in our country’s most beautiful and cherished national parks to make people care more deeply about how we’re drastically and irreversibly altering these places, in many ways for the worse. Nature is our canary in the coal mine: It suffers and reﬂects the consequences of climate change more rapidly than our manicured environments in civilization, where we can turn on the sprinklers and air conditioning to mask the impacts of our fossil-fuel dependence.
But what I learned during that year of national park adventures was just how richly fulfilling these times together were for my family. And my kids, though just nine and seven years old, really comprehended far more than I expected they would about why I wanted to show them the glaciers of Glacier National Park and Joshua trees and the Everglades, where something like two-thirds of the park is in danger of disappearing under the rising ocean.
I want people to ask themselves: What will we say to today’s children when they’re our age and they ask us, “Why didn’t you do more to prevent this?”
Lanza and his daughter on Grand Canyon trek.
Where, in all of your adventures, have you witnessed the effects of climate change most dramatically?
I really could write a long list of examples, but I’ll just mention some that come immediately to mind. I’ve been in many mountain ranges where lakes shown on maps no longer exist—maps that are often just 40 or 50 years old. A friend and I climbed Glacier Peak in Washington and the layout of glacial ice and outlet lakes shown on maps was nothing like what we saw. In Patagonia, I met a guide who told me the winters in those mountains were much warmer, and there’s less snow than when he was a boy; and he was not yet 30 years old.
My book was inspired by an article I wrote for Backpacker magazine about a researcher in Glacier National Park whose data suggests those 7,000-year-old glaciers may be gone by the time my kids are young adults. Joshua trees may be extinct in Joshua Tree National Park before the end of this century. And as I wrote above, in the Everglades, which is remarkably ﬂat and barely above sea level, something like two-thirds of the park is in danger of disappearing under the rising ocean.
These are just some of the myriad examples. This is a staggering impact we are having on our planet, and the changes are occurring now and will accelerate rapidly within my life, and certainly within the lives of my children. We really bear a tremendous responsibly to do as much as possible as quickly as possible, because our continued inaction endangers our children’s future.
One focus of SCA’s service programs is helping maintain America’s trails. What’s the most impressively maintained trail you’ve ever hiked? What’s the worst experience you’ve had due to lapsed trail maintenance?
I can’t really think of one trail that stands out, there are many that I’ve seen that are marvels of trail design and construction. But I can say that I’ve generally observed that trails in national parks receive better, more regular maintenance because our parks are better funded than our national forests, which face a crushing and shameful maintenance backlog, and Congress is basically making zero effort to reduce that backlog. I’ve tried to follow trails that haven’t seen a trail worker in a decade or more, and while they’re shown on maps, they essentially no longer exist. I remember walking a “trail” in Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness that was completely overgrown; I could only discern it by periodically bending down to part the plants and grasses to find a remnant of a packed treadway underneath them.
After so many years and many thousands of miles hiked, I still get a thrill seeing a trail stretch out ahead of me toward a distant horizon, or into a forest, ending beyond sight. It communicates to me a mystery that I have to discover, a possibility awaiting me. I’ve long believed that, as I get older and slowly lose physical ability, I’ll still be happy as long as I can take a short walk on a trail.
Writer and photographer Michael Lanza is the creator of The Big Outside, where he blogs about his far-ﬂung outdoor adventures. He was the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 11 years and continues to write for the magazine. His book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, winner of a National Outdoor Book Award honorable mention, chronicles his wilderness adventures with his wife and their young son and daughter in national parks threatened by climate change.