I’ve been writing about adventure and the outdoors for a little over a decade now, and though I’m no Jon Krakauer, occasionally someone asks for my advice on “how to get started.” As much as I’d like to ask them how I can get started myself, I assume I should do the right thing and tell them a little bit about how I lucked into becoming an outdoor writer and filmmaker.
My no-bullshit answer is: I got a job on the sales floor at REI in 2004. That’s right. As much as I would like to tell some story about traveling the world for a year to find myself, taking only a camera and a small backpack with me across five continents, or spending six months living in a cave in Yosemite climbing around the Valley and finding my voice by filling notebooks with poetry, I got my start in the outdoor industry in the Camping and Climbing section of the Paradise Valley REI, right across the parking lot from a Target.
I had spent a month living in Phoenix with my brand-new master’s degree in journalism from the University of Montana, firing off resumes, cold-calling people who had never heard of me, searching job listings over and over, and finally got tired of waiting to hear back from potential employers. I walked into the closest REI store and filled out an application.
At that point, I had spent probably 20 total days on hiking trails and maybe five nights in a tent, ever, but I was excited—later, I’d learn it was called “stoked”—about the outdoors and needed a job more than I needed to utilize my degree. I got interviewed, then offered a part-time job. Foot officially in door.
I didn’t know much about gear, but I knew how to work hard (thank you, teenage factory jobs) and how to talk to people (thank you, bartending career). Fortunately, one of my co-workers, Trevor, knew more about backpacks, sleeping bags, tents and climbing gear than probably anyone I’d met before or since that job, and he was happy to patiently explain everything, including the pros and cons of various types of down fill and the differences between brands of waterproof, breathable membranes. So I learned a lot in my first couple weeks in a green vest.
I’ve never been that much of a gearhead—I basically just want stuff that works so I can forget about it and focus on enjoying where I am. People came into the store because they needed gear, so I always discussed that with customers, but the more important question for me was: “Where are you headed?” I got to hear about people’s plans, from the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon to the Appalachian Trail to hut trips in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains; there was even a guy who was flying his plane between backcountry airstrips in Idaho and Montana and needed some topo maps. I built a future tick list in my head out of all those customers’ adventures.
A couple months into my part-time gig at REI, I finally landed a full-time newspaper job at a small suburban paper a few miles away. I would be using my education in journalism after all. Still, I thought, why not hold onto my job at REI? My 12 hours a week there became a lot of my social life, interacting with people who were into hiking, backpacking, cycling and climbing—even though I was pretty sure the latter wasn’t my thing. But long story short, a couple guys from REI took me out for my first top-rope laps on Camelback Mountain and Pinnacle Peak, and that was the start of my foray into climbing. While it didn’t really grab me at first, over the next decade climbing would become a huge force in my life.
After a year, I moved to Colorado, got another newspaper job and headed to the mountains every weekend I could, backpacking, hiking, skiing and climbing. I eventually wore out the climbing shoes and harness I had bought as an REI employee and started writing about adventure, at first for small publications and websites, and later for some of the bigger magazines like Climbing and Backpacker. I started my own blog about the outdoors, called it Semi-Rad, and wrote whatever I wanted. In 2012, I made the leap to full-time adventure writing and filmmaking and, despite my dad’s worries, I didn’t run out of money or work. In 2014, REI started a blog and reached out to me to ask if I’d like to write some stories for it. Ten years after I started on the sales floor at the Paradise Valley store, I became an REI “green vest” again—a contractor this time.
In 2016, Mountaineers Books published my book, Sixty Meters to Anywhere, which I’d been working on for more than a decade. I put together a book tour, including 10 REI stores. I hadn’t been to the Paradise Valley REI store since my last day of work there in 2005, but when I walked in to set up my slide show and a table of books, three of my former co-workers were there: Trevor, who taught me pretty much everything I knew about gear; Dustin, the first person to try to teach me to climb rocks; and Bruce, our rascally resident Grand Canyon hiking guide on the sales floor who became a backpacking partner even after I left Arizona.
Like all places you visit after a long absence, the store felt a little smaller than I remembered. And you can bet I knew a hell of a lot more about climbing and backpacking—and life—than the first time I walked in.