Outside: the Anxiety Issue

One of my favorite bedtime stories as a kid was There’s a Monster at the End of this Book, starring Grover, Jim Henson’s fuzzy blue monster. October’s Outside is a grown-up version, starring a larger-than-life Harrison Ford on the cover.

This time, there’s no monster, just a rather high dose of anxiety for a magazine about the great outdoors.

Before delivering all the bad news at once, however, America’s chief frontiersman monthly eases its readers in. The first half of the magazine is cheery as a clear sky on the morning of a day hike. Even the ads make you want to get lost.

Flipping through the first half of this issue shows Outside in characteristic form, delivering its popular bag of tricks to readers who might be taking a break from The Economist.

There’s an update, for instance, on new climbing records set on El Capitan’s “nose route” (which if we were cool enough we would know about and not have to Google). There are brewery updates, book and website reviews, and a guide to food-based wilderness trips. By the time we hit the middle of the magazine, we’ve learned how to take better pictures and admired the latest in hiking-boot chic dress shoes. Things are looking up, and quite literally.

Then comes the slow descent. Or in storybook terms, some serious flak from Grover for turning the page and getting us closer to the monster. In the first feature, writer David Vann chronicles his in the flesh investigation into Californian John Long’s ill-fated voyage from Mexico to Ireland. The story reads like a Borges tale, taking us beyond our Gore-Tex and nature paths, to where travel crosses the trajectory of human longing. With modern-day pirates, corruption, and truths left untold, Outside shows that it’s more than a catalogue.

Ford jumps in briefly to offer respite from the somber, with a list of new places to put on your life list. While most of us are barely through our first three, it’s a nice gesture. Even if he does have his own private jet, the man’s allowed to pretend to dream.

Then it’s down we go again with T.J. Murphy’s profile of infamous triathlon coach Brett Sutton. Murphy pulls no wool over the eyes as he plumbs Sutton’s shady past with pointed prose.

We finish with some black humor as travel writer Patrick Symmes’ psychoanalyzes his desire for a cabin all his own. The glimpse he provides into his failures and missed marks is raw and vulnerably existential. It actually kind of makes me want to stay home.

The issue peters off with some bland service pieces hidden away in fold outs and behind ads. We’re left with Outside’s characteristic “Parting Shot,” and this time it’s a man walking off a rocky precipice into nothingness.

There may not be a monster at the end of this book, but we’re left to contend with something nonetheless. We win, we lose, we fade away. And most of the time, it’s without much of an outro.

You tell great stories, Outside, but next time, go easy on the heavy.

Jennifer Ward


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