What would it take to leave a cush tech job to embark on a crazy career path in adventure travel writing – a competitive profession only a few succeed at?
Even more, what would it take to thrive in that new profession and become an international award-winning adventure and travel writer? And how would you deal with the cataclysmic changes in the travel industry brought on because of Covid?
In this wide-ranging interview, Jayme Moye discusses that – and a whole lot more. She’ll also talk about her writing discipline, how she systematically approached travel writing as a business to achieve fast success, and three key tips she’d give to herself when she graduated from college.
We’ll even discuss three of her favorite stories and how they came to be – including one in which she decided to not go cycling with Afghanistan’s women’s cycling team because the Taliban had just announced they were about to start their spring offensive.
Just for some backdrop, Jayme grew up and attended college in Ohio, then moved to Colorado and started a career as a computer systems data analyst. Realizing a career in high tech wasn’t for her, she made the shift to travel writing.
Since then she has won:
- 2019 Banff Centre Mountaineering Article Award for Mountain Literature
- 2019 Keith Bellows Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism
- 2018 North American Travel Journalists Association’s Travel Writer of the Year
- 2017 Best Book Awards Finalist
- 2010 Lowell Thomas Award for Adventure Travel
She is also currently the Whitewater Ski Resort Writer-in-Residence in Nelson, BC.
Enjoy this inspiring and revealing interview with Jayme Moye.
Website & Social Media
Articles & Books
- On the Nose: A Lifelong Obsession with Yosemite’s Most Iconic Climb – her book on Hans Florine’s 101 ascents of Yosemite’s most iconic rock climbing route.
- Thirteen Feet Under – Her story about a woman that was buried 13 feet under an avalanche and – against all odds – survived.
- Is Colorado’s Rafting Industry Guilty Of Misogyny? – An explosive story on sexual misconduct in Colorado’s whitewater industry.
- The Road Not Ridden (Women’s Biking in Afghanistan) – Yes, Afghanistan has a woman’s cycling team! This is their story.
- Jayme Moye at Outside Magazine
- Fate and Destiny, The Two Agreements of the Soul, by Michael Meade
- Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic, by Adyashanti
DG: This is Doug Greene with What Really Matters Interviews. What would it take to leave a cush tech job to embark on a crazy career in adventure-travel writing – a profession renowned for low wages.
Even more, what would it take to thrive in that new profession and become an international award-winning adventure and travel writer? And how would you deal with the cataclysmic changes in the travel industry brought on because of COVID?
In this wide-ranging interview, Jamie Moore discusses that and a whole lot more. She’ll also talk about her writing discipline, how she systematically approached travel writing as a business to achieve fast success, and three key tips she’d give to herself when she graduated from college if she could write back to herself now.
We’ll even discuss three of her favorite stories and how they came to be – including one in which you decided to not go cycling with the Afghanistan’s women’s cycling team, because the Taliban had just announced they were about to start their spring offensive
Just for some backdrop, Jamie grew up in Ohio, moved to Colorado for college, originally started her career as a computer systems data analyst, realized it wasn’t for her – and made the shift to writing. Since then she has won the 2019 Banff Centre Mountaineering Article Award for Mountain Literature, the 2019 Keith Bellows Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism, the 2018 North American Travel Journalists Association’s Travel Writer of the Year, and the 2017 Best Book Awards Finalist.
She is also currently the Whitewater Ski Resort Writer-in-Residence in Nelson, British Columbia. I hope you enjoy this inspiring and revealing interview with Jamie Moyer.
Jamie, thanks for joining us.
JM: You’re welcome. It’s great to be here.
DG: Just jumping right into sort of the adventure side of things here, I read that article you did on the Afghanistan women’s cycling team. And I know you were a really good cyclist, like one Colorado’s best female cyclists. And you were over in Afghanistan covering a team with the Taliban, kind of in the background, maybe even the foreground to a certain degree.
Talk about that adventure. You know, what was going on there? I know you originally wanted to ride with the team. You’re there. There’s stuff happening that makes you think, well, maybe that’s not such a great idea. And you were even potentially putting these women’s lives at risk by being there. But there was a story to be told.
Can you kind of give us an overview of that? What led you there? What the experience was like? And, you know, what it takes to do a story like that.
JM: Yeah, absolutely. So the year was 2013 and it was the spring. And I will say that Afghanistan at that time was actually more stable than it is now. Of course there was a risk of going there. But I wouldn’t equate it to the risk there would be going there right now.
We’ve definitely seen increased instability there in recent years. And what got me over there was, of course, the story. So for me, I think I call myself a compulsive writer. So when I get on the track of a story, I almost can’t not tell it.
And it almost doesn’t matter where it takes me or what the risk is. I have to go and I have to do it. And this is what happened with that one. I found out about the team through the work of a woman named Shannon Galpin, who ran a nonprofit at the time called Mountain to Mountain, which was mountain communities – her community was Breckenridge, Colorado – reaching out to do helpful things In other mountain communities around the world.
And so in this case, Shannon herself was heavily into cycling and she was really inspired to learn that there was a women’s bike racing team, a fledgling women’s bike racing team, in Afghanistan. And she threw the entire weight of her nonprofit into supporting that team exclusively.
And I had written about Shannon and about the work she was doing as an activist and as an advocate for women’s rights all around the globe. And so when the opportunity came up to accompany her in Afghanistan – she was going out with a small team of women filmmakers to do a documentary – I absolutely wanted to tag along.
And so that story was going to be my breakout story for ESPN for their women’s channel. So it would be a story, what we call a profile, about the women on the team. And as part of that, I was going to ride with them. And I was so psyched for that.
What happened is we arrived, and we’re staying at a guest house in Kabul, the capital city, which is also, you know, where the different kind of diplomacies are, and such. It’s a seat of government. It’s definitely the safest place for Westerners to travel.
And so I was let’s say “on guard”, but not feeling terribly uncomfortable. Shannon had traveled there I think seven times by that point. She had lots of contacts on the ground there. She had contacted the UN. If something was going to go down, she was going to know about it. Right? And she had backup plans to get us to safe places very quickly.
So I was feeling pretty good. We sat down at our first dinner at the guest house and Shannon’s like, “Well, just want to let you guys know that the Taliban announced that they’re starting their spring offensive and Kabul’s a target. And pretty much any local Afghanistan folks who are working in local security as well as foreigners are the target.
And she pulls up a tweet. And I just remember being stunned, one that the Taliban used Twitter to communicate that they’re opening up war. And two, that. I was suddenly in a much more dangerous predicament than I thought. And so for the two weeks that I was there, it kind of drastically changed the nature of the trip for me and made me a lot more timid about things I normally would have done and not done.
And when I went on that training ride with the women’s team and realize they trained on an open highway the one that goes out of Kabul on the North side, you’re a moving target. As I put in the story, I chickened out of riding with them.
And, you know, I talked to Shannon about it the night before, and we agreed, it was just the safest thing to do. I didn’t need to ride with the women’s team to write a profile about them. And, the story for ESPN turned out beautifully. I was really excited about it.
And here’s the interesting part. I ended up writing a second story for a smaller nichier magazine called Women’s Adventure, which is no longer in print. And that was a personal essay about me going to Afghanistan to report on the country’s first female road-bike racing team, the Taliban launching their spring offensive, and me chickening out of riding with them.
And that story was actually really hard for me to write because, as an adventure journalists I call myself, you kind of want to paint yourself as extremely competent and adventurous and, you know, kind of going back to like the old format of like Outside Magazine stories that I grew up reading in like the eighties, right?
Where you’re like, you’re Tim Cahill out on your adventure, and you’re just like going through dragons, you know? And you’re just so cool about it and you’re just observing as you go. And yeah, that wasn’t me in Afghanistan. And I did chicken out.
But when I was able to write a story about it and just, you know, be honest about what happened – and I think I ended the story with, I realized it didn’t matter that I didn’t ride. What matters is that they did.
And that story, of all the stories I’d written up until that point, ended up nabbing me the nod from the North American travel Journalists Association to be their grand prize winner, which is the prize we call Tribal Journalist of the Year, as well as a couple of other awards and recognition.
And that story kind of put me on the map. And it’s a little bit surprising and eye opening to me that, hey, when you’re real and when you’re vulnerable, you can still tell a really powerful story. And maybe even more so, because you’re more relatable.
DG: There’s that saying to, “The more specific you make it, the more universal it becomes.”,
And when you brought your own personal experience to it, it probably played out – I’d like to read that story by the way – people can probably relate to it beyond cycling. You know, there’s a lot of different ways that that could show up where you had a fear about something, you know, putting people’s lives at risk and there was this sort of aura or this sort of way of being in the air, you think you should have been.
And then reality kind of bumped him and said”, well, you know, maybe you want to reconsider that for a number of reasons.” And that’s being human, right?
JM: Yeah. Yeah. You’re right, Doug. In writing, we call that having a transcendent theme.
So whatever the details of the situation is, there is that very human element to it that we all experience in our lives, really, no matter what the situation and that resonates with all of us.
So people might not have been in Afghanistan, you know, at these super high expectations for writing this story for a big publisher and then Taliban … that scenario won’t happen to everybody. But yeah, everybody’s been in that place that you kind of described where things just take a drastic turn than what you were expecting, and you kind of get a different perspective that comes out of it.
DG: Um, one of the things that you said at the get-go was, um, once a story grabs you, you can’t let it go or it can’t let go of you. I’m not sure which it sounds like … it’s sort of, um, talk about that …
JM: I guess you could use the word inspiration, right? So it’s this idea of being inspired. And there’s definitely other artists and creatives out there that I know of who will say that inspiration is actually its own entity – kind of outside of the human mind and the human experience.
It’s almost like a different level of consciousness. And it exists independently without people. And it’s kind of looking for a home. It’s looking for a human to bring it to life. And if that sounds kind of crazy, you can blame Elizabeth Gilbert, because I’m reading her book Big Magic right now, which actually talks about that.
If you think it sounds brilliant, feel free to attribute it to me. But the way it works for me personally, as a story will come up and in this case, like the Afghanistan one, it hits me like at a really visceral level.
It’s not just like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” It’s like, it kicks me in the stomach and I’m obsessed with it. I have to know more. I become so inexplicably, unapologetically, curious. I want to know everything I can know about it. And then I want to tell it to anyone who will listen. And it’s not even a question anymore. Like I have to do it; it becomes a compulsion or an obsession. And that story about the women’s team was absolutely like that.
And there’s a lot of personal factors there. I mean, I was a captain of a women’s road bike race team in Colorado for the couple years leading up to that story. And becoming involved in women’s bike racing for me was just a huge transition point in my life in terms of empowerment.
It’s when I found the courage to leave a career that didn’t suit me in the tech sector and pursue what seemed, at the time, like a crazy dream of becoming a writer. It’s also the period in my life where I was able to admit my marriage of 10 years wasn’t working and to start leaving that relationship.
And so the parallel between what I had experienced personally, with cycling in my life, what I knew these women in Afghanistan were going to experience through cycling and their lives, I was just like, “Oh my God, like, this is a start of a revolution. If women start riding bikes in Afghanistan, the higher culture is going to change.”
So I saw so many levels to the story and I just. Yeah, I fell in love with it as a piece of inspiration as an idea. And. It became like my entire life’s purpose to bring it to light
DG: Michael Mead’s book … I don’t know if you’ve read or know of Fate and Destiny?
JM: No, but I love the name.
DG: The basic theme in his book is that we come into this world with a fate, but we know not what it is – or let’s call it a gift. And it is our destiny that, if we’re going to live a full life, we need to find out what that fate is and then live it.
I remember seeing him speak and I asked him, if you were to essence that down to one sentence, what would it be? And he said, “sing your note.” And another speaker I really like, kind of related, is a Zen guy named Adyasyanti. And he says that “We’re spirit having a human experience.”
JM: I’ve heard that one before. Yes. Like for an embodied spirit. I love that.
DG: And so spirit is seeking to express itself through us some way. I kind of see these blending together with Michael Meade’s thing right? We each have this sort of note that we’re meant to express.
Yours is obviously adventure, journalism, at least right now. What informs you, though, when you’re on that? Can you dig a little bit deeper into that gut feeling you have that just tells you when you’re on and when you’re off and what it feels like inside? What are the sensations? What’s the, um, whatever it is inside? I’m really interested in this somatic side kind of getting out of the head and into the, the body level.
JM: Yeah. Yeah. I do know. And I think the best approximation I can use comes from the sports world. A lot of athletes will describe it … the flow state, right? Or being in the “zone.” It’s where everything just makes sense. Everything clicks. Everything’s clear.
Granted, there’s details. you need to work out. There’s things, there’s logistics, there’s finances. But none of those things seem insurmountable. They just seem like part of the process. And roadblocks that come up just seem like part of the process. It’s a laser focus and a laser certainty. And a lot of those voices that we have in our heads most of the time that are potentially doing negative self talk, it’s like they can’t even surface. They’re just not there.
DG: And when you’re off track and not in the flow, what do you feel?
JM: Hmmm. Well, I guess that’s more just like everyday life,
DG: Well, maybe specific to story writing.
JM: Hmm. Okay.
DG: You’re starting down the path of a story and something just tells you …
JM: It’s just not jelling.
JM: Hmm. That’s a harder one for me to verbalize. It’s definitely different from like the usual mental chatter or negative self talk. It’s almost like nothing you can do feels right.
Like it’s not a matter of, “Oh, I need to edit this line” or “I need to do more research on this subject.” Like there’s not sort of a tangible solution to it. It’s not necessarily logical. But it is like an overbearing sensation that I need to be going in a different direction. And I’ve done that before with stories where, you know, I’ve written it, I’m just like pounding my head against the wall over it.
And then I’m just like, it’s just not right. And so I need to rewrite it, you know? I need to go in a different way on it. And that’s definitely happened before. And it’s kind of a painful process, you know, there’s part of me like, Oh God. It. Just want to make this work. Come on.” Like this is how I thought it was going to be, but it’s just, it’s not.
DG: And you look at all the time you’ve put into it, and the writes, and the rewrites and the drafts and dah-duh. And then all of a sudden, it just hits you that, like, “this is a square peg trying to go into a round hole” and it’s just not gonna happen.
JM: Yeah, exactly. And with me, I almost need to get even a little bit angry about it. Like there almost needs to be a, excuse my language, a “fuck it” reaction. Okay. Fuck it. I’m going to go for a run.” You know, something that takes you out of that, just churning around in your own head to a change of scenery and then things kind of start becoming more clear.
It’s almost like you get in your own way because you’re trying so hard to make it work, to figure it out, to fix it. And really the answer is just “Fuck it!”
DG: You’re so close into it and deep in it that you need to get back up on the ledge or up on a plateau and look out across the bigger landscape and go, “what the fuck?!”
DG: Talk about your writing process. Actually, you know what, no. Let’s go in and talk about how you got into writing. I know that you were working in I.T. You were in Denver. You were working, I believe, for Oracle?
JM: That’s right.
DG: And it sounds like you were married at the time. You were making good money. And something just hit you and like “time for a change. Big change. Career change. Life change.”
Talk about that. How did it go to writing and specifically to adventure writing and travel writing?
JM: Well, Doug, I had not gotten the memo that you need to “sing your note.”
So here I was, you know, having grown up in a conservative suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. And yeah, wasn’t looking at life like you need to sing your note. I was looking at life like, “okay, you need to get really good grades so you can go to college and do really well there and get a really high paying job and make enough money to buy a house as soon as you can, because it’s a really good investment.
And in the meantime, you also need to get married and have probably two kids. You know, I was following a prescription, you might say, that had been laid out for me by, you know, many well-meaning people in my culture, in my community that had worked for them. And I had never questioned the fact that maybe this won’t work for me.
I just kind of went barreling down that path. And you know, I thought I was doing a heck of a good job. I owned a condo, and then a house, in Boulder, Colorado. I was one of my first friends married. I was married at 24. Which sounds crazy now, in retrospect, right? People don’t get married until they’re 30 and they don’t have babies until their forties.
But here I was married at 24. And him and I had been together for three years. So I’m like, “yeah, nailed it on that one!” Um, did great in college. Got into a really high-paying challenging career field in the technology sector. Was working at Oracle. You know, one of the greatest tech companies that exists in the world. And I thought I was winning.
But whatever you want to call it, that gift inside me, or, you know, that purpose or whatever is floating around there in my core, was not happy. It wasn’t satisfied. And probably in my late twenties, I think, which I think that’s a period of time for a lot of us that we start rethinking, you know, the story we’ve been told in our culture and our family lives about what it means to be an adult or what it means to be happy.
And as I started looking more closely at things in my life that supposedly were successful, I realized, no, they just, they weren’t making me happy. And I started wondering what I was doing wrong. Right. I didn’t realize at the time that I think the story I’d been following was more, what was wrong?
Just the context that I was operating in wasn’t … it wasn’t for me, you know?
DG: So sort of like maybe if I rearrange the furniture it’ll be okay?”
JM: Well, it was definitely my first inkling that – “ha!” – you know, maybe this isn’t the path to have a happy and fulfilling life. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much money you make or how handsome your husband is.
Or, you know, the fact that you own a house, all these extrinsic indicators of success, they weren’t what I wanted, or they weren’t what felt right to me. And so I was searching, I would say for a while, for a couple of years, you know, what do I want to do with this life? Who am I? All those questions you start asking in your late twenties.
and it just happened to be that one of the ways I was trying to figure this all out was just getting really engaged in things outside of work, you know, hobbies. You know? Like I got really into yoga. I got really into road bike racing. I think this is common, right? If you’re not really into your job, you find a hobby that you’re really into.
And it was through the cycling that the writing door opened up. So I think one of the questions you asked was how I got started in all this, which is a roundabout way of answering this question, But I had always been a writer. As a kid, I’m ten years old and scribbling in my journal, you know, mostly complaining about my mom or, you know, just what boy I had a crush on in the fourth grade and that kind of stuff.
But I loved reading and writing and I did it really consistently from the time I could both read and write. And it permeated all through grade school, high school, university, even though I opted for a more traditional major, a business management major with a focus in computer information systems.
I still love to read and write. I just didn’t think that was a lucrative career path. That wasn’t going to get me to the big job and the big money and the big house and the trophy husband. And so it was the cycling, it was the bike racing where a lot of things started shifting.
And one of my roles as team captain was to write the team race reports, which were supposed to be what the conditions were like, which members of our team race, how we executed our team’s strategy, lessons learned, et cetera, et cetera. But me, being a writer, compulsive writer, I would write them narratively. And, they were funny if I do say so myself.
And the women on the team loved them. Like they would forward them to their husbands and their boyfriends. And it kind of got out there that I did this thing, this writing thing. And we had a cycling magazine in town called Velo News. It was published out of Boulder, Colorado. It’s still is, it’s a international cycling journal, and it covers the sport of bike racing. And they were in need of a woman to do some women’s mountain bike reviews.
This was back in like 2007-08 when women’s specific bicycles were just saturating the market. And their team was all men and they kind of realized “Huh. If we’re gonna review some of these new women’s specific bikes, we need a woman.
And one of the women that I raced with knew the editor of that magazine really well. My name came up. She introduced us and I started writing for Velo News. I think my first pieces of writing appeared in their Spring 2008 Buyer’s Guide. And it was a women’s mountain bike review. I think I reviewed six different bikes. And I wrote a story about a guy who was making really modern furniture out of refurbish bike parts. And I did a writeup on what makes a bike women’s specific.
And when I got that paycheck in the mail, I think it was $500 for those three stories. It was just like all the light bulbs went off! It was like, “People are going to pay me to do this? People are going to pay me to write?!”
You know, I’m very analytical. I was a data analyst for a long time in my tech career. And I’m pulling out the spreadsheets, right? And I’m like, “what’s the potential earnings here in magazine writing?” And looking at, okay, if this magazine pays actually really crappy, I think they paid like 10 cents a word. But what about magazines that pay one to two dollars a word? How much do you have to write?
And I’m doing the numbers and I’m like, “This actually adds up, like this works out. Like I can do this, you know? Maybe I can’t do it right away. You gotta work your way up to those $1-2 per word magazines. But I’m at the bottom of the barrel, right?
Like I’m figuring I can increase my skills as a writer and start increasing my rate and like, yeah. In that moment it was just like my whole life changed. It was like I found my note and I opened my mouth and somebody paid me to sing it.
DG: So you did those three stories. How did it go from there? What was your next sort of trajectory off of that? How long did you stay with your other job before you said “I’m outta here”?
JM: I had those three story examples. So I can now make myself a website, right? Showing off my three clips. “Clips” is what we call your story samples.
Yeah, I put up a quick little website and I started, I guess you could call it moonlighting as a writer. I mean, I was still working my tech job by day, and then I was pitching magazine story ideas by night. And I might’ve written like maybe two or three other stories that year.
Like it didn’t go super well in that first year. But it was enough for me to see, okay, there is potential here. Like I am able to start making other connections with other small magazines, other small niche magazines. And the whole outdoor adventure thing, honestly, it just kind of came along by default. Because they say “start with what you know.” If you don’t have a lot of experience or background in writing, at least choose things that you have expertise in.
And so for me, I was captain of the top ranked amateur women’s bike racing team in the state of Colorado. So it was like, okay, pitch things, pitch story ideas, along those lines where at least you have that expertise. And so yeah, living in Colorado and just being active in the outdoors, I had that going for me.
So a lot of the magazines I initially approached were ones that focused on recreating outside and cycling. And then at the end of 2008, I found out that a new magazine was launching in Boulder called Elevation Outdoors. And they had named a man named Douglas Schnitzspahn as editor in chief.
And I knew that name. You don’t forget a name like that. I had seen him speak at a writing conference in 2008. Which is another thing I was doing, right? I was reading anything I could on breaking into freelance writing or looking for any opportunities for writing meetup groups or writing conferences or magazine writing.
So I had encountered the name Doug Schnitzspahn at that point. And so I reached out to him. I sent an email and just said, “Hi. I saw you speak at the conference and I saw Elevation Outdoors is coming to town. And I was wondering if you would like an unpaid intern.” And he wrote back, “I think I can afford that.”
And so this is now December 2008, and I’m supposed to be working at Oracle. And I am instead going into Elevation Outdoors being an unpaid intern. And it was pretty quick where Doug was like, “You’re not an intern. It’s like you have a lot more to offer than that. How would I make you assistant editor and pay you $500 an issue?”
And they were going to have six issues in 2009 in the inaugural year. I’m like, okay, six times 500. Okay, I’m gonna make $3,000 in the year 2009. I’m like “Sold!” So I left my job in tech in January 2009. And everybody thought I was absolutely insane.
But my idea was I’ve got this steady gig at elevation outdoors. It’s not full time, but I’ve at least got that. And I will freelance on the side of that. And that was my big plan. I made $19,000 in 2009, including the $3000 I made for Elevation Outdoors, which was a huge difference from what I was making in my tech job. But I don’t know, it just felt right. I’m not saying I blindly went into it, Doug.
Like I looked for ways to downsize my lifestyle. And one of those things was selling the house. My then husband and I decided we weren’t going to have kids. And we downsized from the house and our double tech-income to his single tech income, my writer’s income and a two-bedroom condo in the same neighborhood.
We ended up getting divorced by the end of 2009. So then the husband went!
DG: Was your career change part of what impacted that, or was that already on the wall?
JM: You shouldn’t marry the guy you fall in love with when you’re 21. And that’s what I did. You know, he was my college sweetheart. We grew up 10 minutes away in Ohio and we just changed. And yeah, my career change was a big part of that. I suddenly wanted to follow this writing compulsion, wherever it may take me. And he wanted to live our same Boulder life, where we both went to our tech jobs ,and once a week rode our bikes there, and we both trained for a triathlon together.
And I think he was just kinda like, you know, “What the hell.” So I think he was kind of blindsided by it. But honestly, it hadn’t been working for a long time. We just wanted different things out of life, ultimately. So I think the writing was on the wall for that relationship before I made the career change.
DG: So you get into writing, you fully commit to it. Take us along that path relatively quickly until we hit some bigger milestones along the way. I assume you started writing more and more stories. You got higher rates. Did you hone your skills more deeply in certain areas? When did you get your first award? What brought that on? Were you obsessed with it along the way?
JM: I mean, I jumped in full everything headfirst. I think my life philosophy back then in the system came from my road bike racing was like, “Go hard or go home.” That was over a decade ago. So I’ve mellowed out since then, but that’s definitely how I approached it. And I made a list.
You know, these are the top tier magazines in my industry – my industry being outdoor sports and adventure and travel and exploration. And I’m going to work my way up to them. And that’s what I did.
I hired a writing coach. I was kind of like, well, I can go back to school for this, or I can hire a writing coach. So I hired a local woman who I met through a writer’s Meetup group . And I think I stuck with her for first two years – so probably 2009 to 2011. So I basically paid someone to sit down with me and go through each story before I turned it into a magazine and give it like a first pass edit.
And that’s really what helped me understand what I needed to do to a story. One of the first realizations was you don’t just turn in your first draft. I write sometimes 20 drafts before I turn it into my editor. And then through the edit process, we go through sometimes one, two, even three drafts for bigger stories.
So rewriting’s a big part of that process.
DG: That’s curious, I haven’t met too many writers that have gone the coach route. What informed you to do that?
JM: I thought it was way less expensive than going back to school for a master’s in creative writing. But also, I think I recognized there’s a difference between someone who loves to read and write and has a natural aptitude in writing – and professional writing. Like there’s a big gap there, and I need to figure out how to cross it.
A lot of the things that you would have learned in journalism school or creative writing, I had to suddenly learn those things. And it’s a cutthroat industry. Like nobody’s going to just teach it to you. You’re not going to have a kindly more experienced writer in Boulder who’s going to be like, “Oh, let me teach you all the tricks so that you can then compete against me for these freelance writing assignments.” Yeah. It just doesn’t work like that.
I think working in tech in big corporate business for almost a decade was really helpful for me in that regard. I could see the business side of the writing industry and look at it with maybe a little more logic and a little more rationality than I think a lot of people have as aspiring artists.
And so I was able to do that as opposed to looking at it as like a passion project. Like what’s the business side of this? What’s a lead? What’s a hook? How do I get an editor’s attention? What makes a piece of professional writing and how is it different from the writing that I do in my journal? All those things I had to learn.
DG: What did the coach offer you? What was her list of qualities that you saw that made you go she’s the one I need to be working with right now?
JM: Honestly, it wasn’t like that. It was like, I went to a writers meetup group and she was there, and she had these services to offer, and I gave it a try and found it really helpful. So she would say things like “you don’t want to use cliches on your writing.” I didn’t know that. I’m just like, “Oh, that’s an easy way to describe something. I’ll say it … I don’t know, give me a cliche …
DG: Forest for the trees …
JM: Right? I’ll say that in the narrative. And she’s like, “well, no. What specifically were you feeling in that moment?” Like, it’s lazy to use the cliche, but it’s not very descriptive or authentic. So give more like your exact feeling. So things like that.
Or she would say, “No, you need to use stronger verbs here. You’re using too many “to be” verbs. “This is, this is, she is, he is” … can you rephrase that in a way that uses more of an active verb. It’s the difference between writing in an active voice and a passive voice. And these are all things you learn in school.
She was in a master’s writing program, and she was basically relaying those things along to me for an hourly rate.
DG: Okay. Another big one kind of taps off of that conversation there is writing your feelings, bringing your feelings into the story. I have a journalism background and I was taught to keep my feelings out of the story. Right? Be objective, just stick with the facts who, what, where, when, why, and the format for news stories and all.
So it took me a while to make the transition to bringing my feelings into a story. Did you have that sort of journey? On the Enneagram, I’m a six; I’m a mental type.
You’re a body type. So my gut feeling is that it’s easier for you to tap into those feelings and bring them up and describe them than somebody like me that’s up in my head and needs to work to drop down into that emotional realm.
JM: Yeah, absolutely. I think that actually comes natural for me and even more so, because I wasn’t stymied by a journalism background, right? I didn’t come into this industry doing newspaper writing. I came in doing magazine writing, which, you know, by the last decade, magazines were deeply influenced by reality television. And so the reader of a magazine sort of wants you to take a more personal stance on the writing.
It’s why people read that as opposed to straight news and newspapers. And so I think the harder part for me was writing stories where I needed to show part of myself, and parts of myself that weren’t necessarily favorable, like chickening out of cycling with Afghanistan’s national women’s team.
So showing the person that you are, as opposed to the person you would have liked to have been, or that you wish you were, and you know, that’s gotten a little bit easier as I’ve gotten older.
And I’d say something that holds me back in that area is just fear. I have a lot of fear and anxiety, which if you had told me this in my twenties, I have been like, “No, I don’t!”. But that’s a really strong symptom of someone who actually does have a lot of fear and anxiety. Right? You hide it really well. You hide that soft underbelly.
And, as it turns out, I’m a person who has a ton of fear and anxiety. And so it’s getting down a couple levels to, I’m going to use that term again, your soft underbelly and letting that come through a little bit in your work, because it’s so much more resonating to other human beings, so much more connecting.
DG: So when you feel that fear, how do you move through it? Or how do you work with it to get … do you get stuck on fear in the first place? Does it stop you in your tracks? And then, once you recognize that is fear, do you have some practices or exercises or something you do to help you move through them to accept them or whatever it is to move past them?
JM: In the beginning, it was like baby steps. It was just kind of acknowledging that it was there. And then once I could acknowledge it, I find myself just fighting it and I was just always fighting it.
I have a new trick now. When we’re fighting fear, we’re always looking for ways to stop feeling that feeling. And so for me, it’s really easy to be like, “Oh, I’m going to go on a run. I’m gonna work through it by a run.” Or I’m going to do something really strenuous or difficult in the outdoors. I’m going to go ski touring out in the back country. I’m going to go for a run. I’m going to go for a long, hard paddle on the river, on a paddle board. I am going to go have dinner with friends. I’m going to go meet a friend and have tea.
Like those are all actually positive, productive ways to deal with fear, except that you’re not really dealing with fear. You’re just doing something else to handle all that fear adrenaline. And so this new thing I’ve been trying is just actually inhaling the fear or whatever negative so-called negative emotion you’re experiencing.
Like you literally just breathe it in. Like, I’m just gonna take this in. I’m not gonna try to fade it or fix it or run from it or do something else. I’m just going to breathe it in. I’m just going to feel it. So you breathe it in and then on the exhale, you just let out … some people think of it as like you let out relief.
I think of it as you just like, let out some space, some space to process whatever you’re feeling. So I’ll let out like some space or like a breath of fresh air. So you inhale the fear, you exhale the space or the refreshening. And it is so difficult for me to do, just how I know I need to do it.
And it’s so opposite of everything I’ve been taught to do. Cause you’re like … you’re inhaling love and peace and your exhale and all your negative emotions. You know, I’ve done practices like that my whole life, like starting back in Catholicism, which is the religion I was raised with. But yeah, so this whole “breathing in” the fear thing is … wow, yeah, it’s different. So that’s what I’m trying now.
DG: It actually reminds me of an exercise … I’m in an Enneagram class, somatic Enneagram class. And the process she takes us through is – when we bump up against something that’s really like perturbing us – we drop in and try to feel where the sensations are. Right?
Don’t judge the sensations and turn them into feelings, just “where are the sensations?” And then to breathe around that, and then to breathe into the open spaces where the sensations are not. And then the feeling itself will change. And then you sort of, “Okay, so where’s the next set of sensations?”
Anyway, it sounds like it’s something you’re doing innately, or intuitively, without having to …
JM: No. I mean I didn’t make that up on my own. I do a fair amount of work in these areas in working through fear, dealing with anxiety, finding ways to ground. It just happens to be something I read this past spring or summer.
So it’s a recommendation that comes from a Buddhist philosophy practice. It’s called Tonglen, the practice. It’s actually a formalized practice. And I read about it in a book. I think it’s called When Things Fall Apart.
DG: By Pema Chodron?
DG: Yeah. She’s amazing.
DG: Absolutely amazing.
JM: It’s funny. Cause I then did find something similar being echoed in the book I’m reading now, Big Magic, which is about creativity and on harnessing creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert. And she basically says inspiration and fear go hand in hand for her.
And instead of fighting fear, she basically is just like, “okay, I’m going on a car ride and fear and inspiration are coming.” They’re both always coming. They’re both always there. And she kind of has a little talk with fear. “Fear, we’re going on a trip. You’re invited too. You’re always invited; you’re always welcome. But you’re not going to drive. You’re not gonna to drive . That’s our deal.
DG: I believe I need to get that book.
JM: I’m about 60 pages in, so I may be like a quarter or a fifth of the way through. I’ll let you know if I recommend it once I’m done.
DG: Okay. I like her work. Um, moving on. Writing, being productive, cranking stuff out and having a systematic way to look at this as a profession versus, you know, dabbling … what’s your day like? What’s your year, season, and month, week, day, like?
Are you planning out that far? How do you set your goals? How do you achieve them? How do you monitor it? How do you break that down into different chunks of time? Like the day, the week, the month? How many words a day do you crank out too? That’s always a big one.
JM: Oh my gosh. Which question should I start with Doug? I’m going to start with my regular day. I will say this. Again, one of the benefits of having worked in big corporate tech for almost a decade is I know how to sit down and work ” cubicle style”.
So, granted I work from home and my cubicle is a desk with beautiful windows. But I get up and I go to work. And I work a pretty standard work schedule just like you were in an office job.
Now I’m not a super great morning person. So I don’t actually sit down at my desk until probably 8:30 or 9:00. Just my commute’s so short. You know, I’m in my sweat pants coming upstairs from my room.
But yeah, I start each morning pretty much just like reading the news. And then I sit down at my desk at about nine and I might be there until like six. And I’ll do some kind of physical exercise in between the two. So I might go on a hike or a run or a paddle from like noon to two. Or if I stop working at four, I’ll go then do my outdoor activity from like four to six.
So every day there’s this combination of a fairly standard desk schedule, plus some kind of outdoor activity in the middle or at the end. Not in the morning because I don’t like the morning.
DG: So if you were to break that day down, those seven or eight hours, what amount of that is actually spent writing? What amount of it might be spent editing, versus marketing, versus whatever other thing researching that you might have going … pitching?
JM: Yeah, it’s always different. Pretty much every day is different. So like right now I’m not doing any writing at all because I am on the jury for the 5Point Film Festival, which is an outdoor adventure film festival held in Carbondale, Colorado.
I think it’s in its 14th year. There’s two other jury members and we are watching 58 films I think. Ranging from a minute and a half to about a half hour each in length. We’re watching those films and we’re writing up statements on them. We’re judging them more or less. We are simply judging them and writing up our jury statements on which winners we’re selecting to receive prizes.
And then yesterday I had a friend who’s a photographer and filmmaker come over and shoot me when the light was right in my house, like sitting on my couch, kind of reading or reciting, some of our jury statements for that. Because then that all gets put together for this big virtual film festival.
Cause you know, nothing can happen in person with COVID. So everything’s going to be livestreamed, prerecorded, but livestreamed, if you know what I mean. So that’s a day that involves no writing at all. And that definitely happens sometimes.
But most days I’m writing. I’m either writing a pitch, which is the story idea that you’re presenting to an editor through email, or I’m writing a story, or I’m working through edits with an editor.
Like right now I’m waiting on edits from Patagonia for a feature story for their spring issue, 2021. And I’m working on a pitch about a sailing adventure I had back in September that got cut short by the smoke blowing up from the South, from the U S across the border from the wildfires there.
So I wasn’t expecting to be impacted by smoke sailing in the Strait of Georgia on the West coast of Canada. But there was a wind shift and the wind started blowing Southeast and shrouded us. So. I don’t know how else to answer that, except that it’s always different.
DG: So the bigger, consistent thing is you’re cranking out seven, eight hours of work every day, five days a week?
JM: Yep,that’s correct. Also, before COVID, I’d also be traveling quite a bit. I do like 1.5 trips on average per month. Whether that’s within British Columbia where I live or traveling somewhere else in the country or in the world, that’s how I see the inspiration for my stories, right? Is actually being out there and having experiences and meeting people who are out there having experiences.
DG: On travel. I remember a quote I read was. I’m going to probably be paraphrasing it here, but “You don’t write to travel; you travel to write.” You traveled to find good stories. Can you elaborate on? And first of all, is that accurate? And second, could you elaborate on it if it is?
JM: Yes, I did say that. I think the context behind that, the way that came up, is there’s definitely people who look at the life of a travel writer or someone who writes for the outdoor industry and thinks, “Oh my gosh, that person gets to go do so many things, amazing things. I want to go do those amazing things.”
You know, like I want to hike Kilimanjaro with a team of paraglider pilots, or I want to go back country ski tour in the Selkirk Mountains or et cetera, et cetera. And what I was saying was if you’re going into it with that mindset, like the writing is a means to an end.
So you’re going to become a writer or a photographer because you want to go do those things in the outdoors. It doesn’t work that way. You need to want to be the writer or the photographer, and the things in the outdoors are just the fodder for your creative process. And that’s how it is for me.
I just want to write all the time. Like I’m a compulsive writer. I love to write. It’s what I have I have to do. It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. It’s how I process my world. And so if I want to write professionally, in other words if I want to earn my living through writing, I want people to pay me through writing, I need to have things to write about that are interesting or relevant to other people.
And so that’s why I’m taking these trips or having these adventures – is to have a story to tell that somebody else might want to read.
DG: Okay. And so why travel adventure versus … I mean, on the one hand it makes sense, right? Adventure and travel itself is pretty amazing in its own right. But why that over say some other niche or specialty?
JM: Well, I think the truth is I write about what I’m interested in, or what I’m passionate about. So when we talk about something I have to write about it’s because it’s deeply interesting and meaningful to me. You don’t put that on your website: “I write about the stuff I really want to write about!”
But that’s really what it is. And I just happened to be really enamored with the outdoors and the experiences you can have in the outdoors. I didn’t get to do a lot of travel growing up as a kid, which I think is another part of it. So travel is in a sense, kind of still new and exciting to me. Now, this idea that you can go other places in the world and experience other cultures or geologic formations you might not ever have seen is still a pretty fascinating topic to me.
So I’m just deeply interested in it. And in the transformation it causes in people and it causes in society, kind of when we open ourselves up to having really new or different experiences or unexpected experiences.
DG: I remember when I asked you to send me a few story examples that really stood out to you, ones you’re most proud of, one of them was the Afghanistan one we talked about at the beginning.
Another one was the whole women and rafting and whitewater culture, misogyny, the whole sexist kind of thing going on there. What inspired you to take that on?
And I got to say, it’s an amazing article. It’s the details in there, and getting everything right, and the chronology, and getting good interviews with the right people and, you know, and with something where there could be blowback if you made some errors in there.
Talk about that. Why did you do it? Why’d you take it on? How are you able to do it so well?
Thank you so much. That story is really important to me because it’s set in my then-home state of Colorado, where I lived for almost two decades right out of university. And the whole thing came about because I was doing a lot of work for Men’s Journal at the time.
JM: So I was one of their adventure news correspondents, which means I was cranking out usually multiple kind of news-oriented stories for their online medium. And my editor came to me and said, “Hey, this just happened.” This was probably January, 2016. And the Department of Interior had released a pretty damning report on the Grand Canyon alleging a history of sexual harassment there.
Someone had filed a complaint, the Department of Interior had investigated it, and their findings were like worse than anyone anticipated. He was like, “Can you report this?” And I was like, “Yeah, absolutely.”
As as I’m digging into it, I’m like really unexpected on a lot of levels. At the same time though, I’m a woman in the outdoor industry. I see this all the time, you know. Like whether it’s cat calling or butt slapping or like sexualizing women, like, “Oh, put her on the front of my raft.” And it’s the pretty girl in the bikini, you know, like a hood ornament. Like it’s so part of the culture, you almost don’t even see it.
And I remember putting a post on Facebook about it and getting so many responses of other women. “Oh my gosh. This is exactly how it is in the rafting industry. This report is dead on it. It’s worse.”
A whole bunch of stuff ended up happening from that . The superintendent of the Grand Canyon Forest Service Department stepped down. Other ones around other national parks started stepping down. There was a huge culture of this in that entire industry. And for me, I started thinking, “what about here in Colorado?”
I mean, we have the Arkansas River, which is the most heavily rafted river in the United States. We have over probably half a million people come whitewater rafting in Colorado. We have 19 different rivers. The Arkansas sees a large chunk of those people. We have thousands of river guides. And so I started looking into that, that, and then found a lot of people saying, “yup, here too. Here too.”
And I’m like, I’ve been on these river trips. I don’t really see it. You know, I don’t overtly see it. Anyways, that’s how the whole thing started. And I started talking to people saying, “well, like yes, guides had their game face on for customers. So you just might not see it. But as female guides, we really see it.”
So I started talking to female river guides and that’s what brought that whole story to light. And it became one of those things where I became so curious about it. And then once I started learning about it, I had to tell other people about it. I had to write about it.
And I was lucky to partner with 5280, which is the Denver magazine, which has an incredible editorial staff. Like they’re fully capable of bringing a story like that to light. And it was just a great partnership. And that story did go on to win multiple awards. It is what earned me another North American Travel Journalists Association Travel Writer of the Year honors, and I think really cemented my ability to report.
As you said, there’s a lot of different sources. It’s really potentially sensitive information. And so you couldn’t make even a tiny mistake there. It all had to be rock solid. And it was a great experience. I definitely think that article led to a lot of other outdoor magazines taking a much more serious look at sexual harassment and misogyny in the outdoor industry.
Like Outside Magazine followed up with a feature on their own that spans the entire outdoor industry that came out shortly after that. And we saw a big shift in people’s awareness of the problem and in outdoor outfitters’ willingness to address it. So I’m really, really proud of that story.
DG: Did you get any threats during that?
JM: I did. Not during. After it came out.
But you know, I don’t want to make it sound more pervasive than it was. It was more just like the occasional internet troll. Like, I got called like a, I don’t know, a “scumbag feminist”, or “I hope you drown.” You know, that kind of stuff where it was almost funny. Like I wasn’t so much in pain and in tears as I was just like rolling my eyes at it.
DG: I remember in the article, I think you mentioned that some of these river runners, um, these are all mining towns and things and logging that all of a sudden tourism came to. So the people that started these companies were more like the rednecks that live there. And there’s that pervasive attitude in those smaller more conservative communities than say, like being in Boulder, Santa Cruz or Nelson, right?
JM: Yeah, for sure. And part of it was, though, that it was happening in the more progressive places too. So it was like river culture.
DG: Okay. The other story you sent was fascinating too, I believe it’s called “13 Feet Under.” It’s about a woman who was buried in an avalanche 13-feet deep and survived. Talk about what drew you into that story and how you structured it too.
I saw something in there that I thought was pretty intriguing, but I’m curious to hear your take on it, why you structured it the way you did, how you were able to make it so powerful.
JM: Yeah. So the structure you’re referring to, we call it a “braided narrative.” And in a braided narrative, you basically jump – you think of a braid, right? You kind of have usually two threads there. And you jump between the present moment of action that’s being experienced. And then you jump into some backstory or some history. And you’re going back and forth between these different things. And for me the braiding that made sense was let’s talk about what’s happening in the burial, the woman who’s buried underneath the snow, and then what’s happening with her friends on top of the snow who’re trying to dig her out.
And so that’s kind of where that braiding came in. And honestly that’s always the way it was gonna work in my head. It’s just the way that made sense to do it. And my editors agreed, fortunately.
So with that story took place in Canada, about eight hours from where I’m living, in the province of Alberta. And I hadn’t heard about the avalanche when it happened. It happened in April of 2018. I didn’t actually hear about it until probably that fall when a colleague of mine, a photographer named Tim, emailed me and says, “Hey, I want to do some writing about the avalanche, you know, like some lessons learned from it.”
He’s like, “Can you give me some tips on some possible magazine outlets that might want to publish it?” And I’m like, “What avalanche?” And he includes the link to the new story that went out about it. And I’m reading about it in this news link and I’m like, “Oh my God, he was in it!” This is Tim Banfield.
And then there’s another woman named Maya. And there was a third woman who didn’t want to be disclosed in the news article. So there was three of them in this avalanche where one of them was buried 13 feet, which technically she should have died, right? Because avalanche probes, where you try to find the person by poking down in the snow, they’re like 10 feet.
How do you probe for a person who’s 13 feet under? You can’t even find them. So, again, I’m getting this curiosity. Like “wait, you were in this avalanche?!”
So of course I’m on the phone with them. I’m like, “What?!” I’m like, I didn’t even hear … I mean, granted I’m in the different province, I’m in British Columbia. But I didn’t hear about it.
So I was just incredibly curious. And he’s telling me all about it. And he was wearing one of those GPS watches that actually tracked all of his data. Like he has his heart rate when he got caught in the slide, like when he …
And I’m like, “this is fascinating!” Like you should totally pitch this to wire and tell me if all the data. And like he has his heart rate when he’s trying to dig Michelle, that’s the woman who was buried out. And the happy ending is they actually got her out. And she was under it for like almost maybe 20 minutes. It’s an amazing avalanche recovery story.
But what really got me is I’m like, “what about Michelle?” What about the woman who was under there?”
He’s like, “yes, she hasn’t wanted to even have her name given in the media. She’s like a nurse and a pro climber. And she’s really embarrassed that this happened. And she’s just kind of keeping it on the down low.”
And I’m like, “yeah, but she was under there! Like, what was she thinking?”
He’s like, “actually she said something really interesting when we were driving after the rescue. When we were driving home, she said she saw some of our friends down there.”
“What do you mean?”
He’s like, “well, like some of our friends who died recently, like they were there in the hole with her, like they had a conversation.”
“LIke does she believe in God? He was like, “no, she’s a nurse.” I’m like, “I got to talk to her!”
I’m like, I’m dying to hear. Like I have to know what was she … like if she had that lucid of a memory to know that she saw her friends, like she was lucid down there, she wasn’t passed out. What was she thinking down there? So he’s like, “you know, I can send an email and introduce you. Maybe she’ll talk to you. Maybe not. I don’t know.”
They sent the email and, oh my gosh, she is the life partner of another male climber, John Walsh, who I’ve interviewed before in the past and have a good working relationship with. And he kind of vouched for me and she agreed to talk to me. I was like, “Oh!”
And she was so cool. She’s so down to earth. She was so honest. She’s not dramatic. Like this is someone I can interview and like, this could work. Like I felt like I could probably get inside of her head, and she’d probably let me, if we went about it the right way. So at that point, I was just like, I have to tell this story.
And so on the surface level it’s a story about a remarkable avalanche recovery. But it’s really a story about an exploration of human consciousness. Like what happens in our brain? Like what constitutes life? How much oxygen does your brain need to be alive, to function properly? Did she access another level of consciousness, or was this just a brain in hypoxia, which is an oxygen-starved state. Is that what our brain does? And, oh, I lived, breathed and died the story for probably six months. It’s all I thought about. It’s all I did. I went deep on that.
DG: I’ll have a link to that by the way, in the show notes. So people that want to read it ….
JM: It’s a long story, be forewarned. Maybe it’s like 6,000 words.
DG: It’s like twice as long as your usual long form …
JM: Oh, you’re lucky if you get a 2000-word story in a magazine these days. It’s sad. But yeah, I love that story. And I did choose Alpinist. I could have written that story for anyone and I chose Alpinist.
They’re a magazine out of Vermont, and their reputation for literary narrative nonfiction is world-class. If anyone could do with what that story that I wanted done with it, it was them. Katie Ives is one of my biggest influencers in my career. She’s their head editor over there, the Editor in Chief.
DG: Okay. So speaking about writing stories about others, you have a book that you did called, I believe, On the Nose.
JM: It is. Not to be confused with “up the nose”. It is On the Nose.
DG: Can you talk about that, how that book came to be, what it was like writing a book versus , well, your whole experience of writing that book. But the difference between that and writing , say, articles. The amount of dedication, the time, all of it.
JM: Yeah. So that book published in 2016, it’s basically a rock climbers memoir, a rock climber named Hans Florine looking back on his decades of climbing and his obsession with a rock climbing route called “The Nose.” Hence the title On the Nose.
The nose is a 3000-foot route up El Capitan, which is a rock formation in Yosemite. It’s arguably the most famous big wall climbing route in the world. Everybody whose into big wall climbing knows El Capitan. Everyone wants to climb The Nose route because it’s just this really adventurous, iconic route. It just defines the whole sport of big wall climbing. It’s just the classic. And Hans is a local to California, and he became obsessed with it.
When we wrote the book, he had climbed it a hundred times. And that kind of milestone …
Look, that’s a once in a lifetime climb, and this guy has done it 100 times. He held the speed record on it with Alex Honnold for, you know, second to last one that was broken. And he held the speed record on it for the longest consecutive amount of time, years, and years and years until Alex and Tommy broke it somewhat recently.
But anyways, I digress. The story’s a look back on what makes a person do this – to do this 100 times. I was so interested in that, and I wanted to help him bring the story to light. And so it’s written in his first person voice. But I was his coauthor.
Basically he would tell me all of his different stories and memories over a phone call, and then I would translate those all into written word. So that’s how we worked together.
And the reason I went for a book project was a bit serendipitous. I had applied for a fellowship at the University of Colorado in Boulder. It’s an environmental writing fellowship, which is a type of writing I’ve been wanting to get more into.
And I actually thought I was a shoe in for it. So I had kind of blocked off most of the academic year, like nine months for that fellowship. So I had not lined up stories like I normally would. I didn’t get it.
I was like, “Oh shit!” I thought I was going to be starting this fellowship. I don’t have anything even in the holster to work on.
And literally the next day I get an email from Hans Florine, the climber. And it was very cute. “Hi, I’m Hans Florine.” Of course I knew who he was. You know, I’m an outdoor writer, and climbing’s one of my sports. He needs no introduction; he’s a living legend.
But he wrote the proper email introducing himself. You know, ” I’m planning my 100th ascent of the nose in September. And after I do that, I want to write a book about it to be published the following September. And my publisher suggested I have a writing partner on this. You know, I need a ghostwriter, basically. Would you be interested?”
I was like “funny you should ask, because I have nothing to do for the next nine months. I would love to.”
No, it wasn’t quite as easy as that. I mean, we did a phone interview. He had one of his good friends who lives in Colorado, kind of vet me, to take me out climbing in Eldorado Canyon, which is like a classic trad climbing area, and make sure I had the head for it, and the skills – cause I was going to climb it with them.
So I got to climb The Nose with him on his 100th ascent, because I needed to to write the book, right? Can’t, write a book devoted to The Nose and never have climbed The Nose. I just felt like that would not be prudent. And he agreed. So I got to not only climb arguably the greatest rock climbing route in the entire world, I got to write a book with Hans Florine.
And writing a book is a lot harder than I thought. It’s also a great opportunity for personal growth. Although the way I was looking at it, I’m like, okay, a book is about 10 chapters, a chapter is like 6,000 words. It’s basically like writing 10 feature stories.
Okay. I’m just going to write like a feature story a month.
It is so much more than that. And I got totally immersed in it. It was like nine months to a year of my life. And it was not as easy as writing a feature story. And plus it’s not easy to write a feature story a month anyways. If I think about the Alpinist story about the avalanche, you know, I was engrossed in that for six months, and that was one story.
So if you’re thinking you need to write like 10 of those, it’s a lot of time and effort. I would not trade it for the world. I learned a ton, but …
DG: Will you do any more books?
JM: After I did it, I was like “No more books!” I think it’s like after giving birth, you’re like, “I’m never doing that again.” So I thought no more books. Part of it was I didn’t like losing touch with publishing, you know? I wasn’t publishing a lot of magazine work during that time.
And so I felt like I was losing touch with it. I was just devoted to one thing and I sort of missed having a byline, missed covering new topics. I missed the variety. So I’m like, “Well, I think I’m not so much a book writer.” It’s too much of a deep dive.
But you know, doing that book was absolutely a precursor to the Alpinist story about the “13 Feet Under”. I feel like I probably wouldn’t have had the ability to do that had I not done a book. So I certainly see the value of a book and I would welcome another book project if I felt like it was the right one, for sure.
So I can now say that now that the book’s been out for what, three years, four years? The pain of the delivery is over. I’m like, “Yeah, I’d do another book.”
DG: Okay, taking a shift here. Travel writing in the time of COVID. Travel in the time of COVID. What has shifted now in this world for you? I want to add this – we’re doing this interview in October of 2020. So COVID, it’s here. It’s been around while and who knows when it’s going to go away?
JM: Oh, COVID has been such a huge bummer on so many levels. Yeah. We are seven months into COVID at this point. And COVID sent everything I had planned for the entire year … well, it canceled it all.
So all the trips and the articles. So this is everything from, I was supposed to be running the Green River in Utah. I was supposed to be in Australia for three weeks. I was supposed to be in Carbondale, Colorado as a juror at the 5Point Gilm Festival. It’s like all of these story assignments that you had, all the trips already planned – just gone.
And it’s funny because there was a sense of optimism in the beginning. Like, “well, there’s going to be the COVID pause.” You know? But, “okay by fall it’ll be fine.” You know?
It’s not. Like we rescheduled the 5Point Film Festival from April to October. And we’re doing it virtually now, for example. So for me, it was actually a period of a lot of grieving, and still is, and a pretty strong dose of situational depression.
I have some colleagues who did a nice job of pivoting. So they started covering like travel in the time of COVID, for example, or what you need to know about travel in COVID, or what you need to know about recreating outside during COVID gene, a mask and blah, blah, blah.
And I just didn’t. I didn’t have the heart for it. I was so downtrodden. It’s kind of when kind of went deep inside myself for a bit there. I was really lucky to have a project that kind of carried me through most of April, at least. This is a lovely project. It’s a photographer who was writing – I was doing a coffee table book of her work – and I was basically copywriting all of her captions. And she does baby animals and the outdoors, like endangered animals.
So she’s doing like jaguars in India. She’s the one who gets a call from like the Conservancy in Botswana that there’s a baby elephant about to be born. And she’ll go out and be in the bush for like two weeks getting this elephant to habituate to her, to get the photo. She’s quite remarkable. So that was a really uplifting project to be working on during April.
But then yeah, just nothing. And so I think that’s why I’ve been reading a lot of these books we’ve been talking about, you know, from Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart, or Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. I’ve been doing a lot of reading, trying to also learn some new skills. I’m working on photography. I got my first actual professional camera. So doing that.
So yeah, kind of in a tough spot.
DG: Probably not a good time for people that are thinking about becoming travel writers to become a travel writer, eh?
JM: I’ll be honest. I don’t think it’s been a good time to become a travel writer for like the past 20 years. From what people who were in the industry before me have said, like the glory days of it are gone. You know? And magazines that weren’t already on their deathbed, COVID sure as heck put them there.
A lot of the magazines I write for just shuttered. Most of the airline magazines have closed, which were producing great travel content. And then the ones that are still producing are way scaled back. You know, the Patagonia Journal, they cut the rest of their issues for 2020 . And then they’re only publishing two in 2021, and even those are way scaled back.
So there’s a lot of restriction right now, a lot of cutback, a lot of cancellation. So unfortunately I can’t say it’s a great time to become a travel writer.
DG: Do you see some shifts that you might make in the coming months yet, any kind of lights shining out there that might illuminate a new direction?
JM: There’s definitely appetite for story. People want stories more than ever – the stories that inspire, the stories that inform. And people so much miss travel, you know? They’re so dreaming about travel.
So it’s more looking for, well, what’s an appropriate way to cover these things that is aspirational and forward looking, as opposed to being just a big downer. Like nobody wants to read about a travel writer going and having an epic adventure right now, because we’re not really supposed to be traveling right now, you know? And it ends up making you feel angry. “This person gets to go do this and gets paid to write a story about it?”
And , you know, I’m restricted only to essential travel. Or most people are kind of restricted to essential travel only. I’m not totally clear on what the rules are in the U S right now, but in Canada, it’s still pretty strict. We can’t cross the U S border and vice versa. And the recommendation is, you know, kind of try and stay close to home or in your province.
I do know that there’s definitely a resurgence in close-to-home stories. So, you know, let’s talk about those amazing things we have in our own backyard that you don’t need to cross an ocean to see or experience.
So I think the appetite for the stories is still there. It’s just, how do we package them? How do we tell them in a way that makes a positive impact right now … is what I think everyone’s kind of struggling with.
DG: That depression piece you’re talking about, where are you in all of that? How are you moving through that? Or are you stuck? What has worked for you?
I went through my own really dark time when I was diagnosed with advanced glaucoma and almost went blind. And, uh, basically I was ready to check out, crossed what I’d call the somatic suicide line and made my plans. And if it weren’t for a bucket list, and then later on ketamine, I would not be here.
JM: Wow, Doug. That’s really tough. Thanks for sharing that. That’s a hard thing to say. I’m sorry that you went through that.
DG: Well, there’s, it’s nice to pretty much be on the other side of that. But, um, as I’ve spoken about it, like I did a TEDx talk about it, it amazes me how many other people it resonates with and want a) they just like knowing that they’re not alone, and b) that there’s hope out there. It sounds like you’re having your own version of going through that dark time.
JM: Yeah. And, you know, it’s … I’m dealing with situational depression, as opposed to clinical depression. To use a cliche, it’s kind of a horse of a different color in that you don’t recognize it as your “forever state”.
I think that’s the problem with clinical depression, right? Is you don’t see a way out of it. Well, I’m more of the mindset of I’m grieving. I’m grieving the loss of so many different opportunities and travel. And this is just more of a grief situation. And so there’s not much I should do or can do except just kind of sit with it and find the small things that bring me joy in this space, you know.
It is a great opportunity, like I said, to learn some other skills, like the photography. I’ve read way more books than I normally would have the time to read. Not just self-help books. I mean I’ve read six novels since COVID, which is such a sweet indulgence for me. I mean, normally maybe I get to read three novels in an entire year, you know. And I’ve read six in like six months; like what a treat.
But I also, um, not drinking any alcohol, I think is really important; that puts me in a depressive state. So I don’t want to enhance that. But I do like the idea of having like a special celebratory drink. And so I’ve been drinking kombucha. It’s just kind of marketed as like a health tonic.
So that’s helping. And trying to just keep perspective on things, and a lot of what helps with that is reaching out to people. So I know we can’t socialize the way we used to, which is kind of fine by me, cause I tend more towards introversion. But I do like those connections with those close friends, and it’s a good chance to spend, you know, an hour at a time doing a zoom call or a Skype call or a FaceTime call and just catching up.
And I probably normally wouldn’t do that in your life. But in the last seven months, it’s become kind of a regular thing. Like, this is actually a great thing. How often would you send a friend, like, “Hey, let’s have a catch-up happy hour, you know. And I drink my kombucha on Friday at five and we sit there and just talk. It’s actually been really good.
I did also take up another activity – sailing I’ve gotten really into sailing. And so it’s giving me time to go pursue that as well and …
DG: Isn’t that a beautiful sport? God where the wind and the waves and the hull and all of that come together – wind and sea – it’s just something so glorious about it.
JM: And it’s something I can do right here in my home province of British Columbia. I know I started out doing it here on the lake In the Kootenay mountain region, and then went out to the coast and have started doing it on the ocean.
So there’s lots of good things that are happening during the COVID pause. And it’s just a matter of not getting bogged down, I guess, by the grieving side of it.
DG: The next phase: life lessons learned. In your years so far, and all of the stories you’ve written and your life experiences growing up in a small, relatively small city, closed environment, and now having seen the world, what matters most to you?
If you could write a letter back to yourself in high school or college, there’s a lot of questions in here. Let’s start with three big lessons you’d send back to yourself as a kid or just coming out of high school.
JM: Oh my gosh. There are so many. I feel like the one that’s jumping out at me right now, though, would be to say, um, I don’t know a really a kind way to say this … maybe this is kind enough, but just to say “Lighten up!”
I have such a serious side to me. I take everything so seriously. Just levity and lightness. Like it’s all going to be okay. You know. So I think lighten up would be a good one. And that totally echoes with what Pema Chodron says, the idea of lightening up.
The other one is I wish I would’ve known, especially like in the high school and college ages, I was so preoccupied with what am I going to be? What am I going to do? What’s going to be my career? How am I going to make money? How am I going to pay off my student loans?
And it’s like it almost doesn’t matter so much, like what you choose as a course of study or what you take as your first job, I might have advised myself to just be a little more focused on your intrinsic goals than some of these extrinsic factors of like getting established in the world, getting moved out of your parents’ house, getting your student loans paid off, landing that job before you even graduate college.
Like that was really important to me. I had to have job offers coming in, in the spring before I graduated. So just, yeah, put a lot of … again, maybe it’s that seriousness.
So let myself have a little more lovey, like, you know, it’s okay to follow your heart a little bit and to not know what you’re going to do. And frankly, you shouldn’t know what you’re going to be right now. You don’t know that when you’re 18. You don’t know it when you’re 22. I am 44; I still don’t know it. And that’s sort of a beautiful thing. So that would definitely be another one.
Um, I have to pick three?
DG: You can go with two, if you want. I was thinking of some quotes to go with those. There’s a saying that David Pond did that I heard that I liked. He said, “Lighten up, lighten up, lighten up … until you are enlightened.”
And the other one had to do with your other one, which is, um, and it kind of comes out of sailing, um, “One step in the wrong direction is better than a hundred years of thinking about it. You can always course correct.”
JM: I love that. There’s a quote that I’ve found really charming that I heard maybe like a decade ago. But it’s a Mary Oliver quote, I think: “Leave some room in your life for the unimaginable.” And I may be butchering it.
But if somebody would’ve whispered into the ear of my, you know, 22 year old self that the man I thought I was in love with at the time, who I ended up marrying that, you know, “you guys would be divorced and you’re going to leave your corporate job to become a writer, and you moved to Canada.” Like, if somebody would have told me the way things would have gone, I would have been like, “Nah-uhh.” No.
If some angel sat on my shoulder and whispered how things would come to be, I would be absolutely gobsmacked. “No that’s impossible.” You know, “You would become a world traveler. You would climb The Nose. You had summit Kilimanjaro. You would mountain bike in Haiti. You would go to Iceland.”
Like whatever, whatever … I would not have believed them. And that’s why that quote means so much to me. You know, leave some room in your heart for the unimaginable. If you’re always so carefully scripting who you are, who you’re trying to be, you miss out on all of those things of who you could become. You miss this whole infinite opportunities. And so that’s kind of what I’m getting at what I’m saying, you know, lighten up. And also, like, it doesn’t matter so much when you’re 22, what job you take out of school or what your major was, or …yeah.
DG: Some other questions. What authors have influenced you the most?
JM: I’m snickering because growing up, my parents kept a stack of magazines on our two respective toilets, on the back of our two respective toilets. And in my dad’s bathroom, there was Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated. And in my mom’s bathroom, there was People Magazine and Us Weekly and all those tabloids like The Star and The National Enquirer.
And I was a really heavy reader as a kid. I would read anything you put in front of me. And so, you know, if I’m doing my business in the bathroom, I would turn behind me and see what was back there.
So I have this really weird influence of like, let me use Gary Smith as an example: Gary Smith and Sports Illustrated. He writes these incredible personal interest profiles about people in the athletic community. And then like these super glam, glitzy, brainless articles about like people’s exterior appearances that appeared in these tabloids. Or like Hollywood gossip stories of scandal.
And so this was like my influences coming into adulthood. So random. And I look back too on like some of those early pieces I worked on with my writing coach when I changed careers. And I think that’s where some of like my cliche-ridden dramatic stuff comes from. It’s like National Inquirer style, but then like mixed with like Gary Smith with these long form, deeply personal narratives about other people. It’s just, it’s hilarious.
But I would have to say the writer that I most wanted to model myself after, or the writer that held the most sway or influence over me as I started getting into all of this and like 2009, 2010, when I was embarking on this new career path was a magazine writer named Tracy Ross.
She worked for a while as an editor at Backpacker, also at Mountain Magazine. And she’s an avid freelance writer. Now she writes mostly for a lot of the Rodeo publications like Runner’s World, Bicycling, also Outside Magazine. She’s a major contributor there.
What put her so firmly, so squarely on my radar or on my pedestal, however you want to look at it, is she wrote a story … there’s a feature story for Backpacker, which I think was called “The Source of Things.” I might have the name a little bit wrong.
And in the story, she is taking her stepfather on a hike. And she grew up with her stepfather and her mother being very avid campers. And so it makes sense that here is a woman, and she might’ve been in her late thirties in that story, as she takes her stepdad. They’re hiking together in an area where they used to kind of hike and camp a lot.
And in the story, she confronts him about the fact that he sexually abused her on these family camping trips as a child. And the story just blew my mind. Like it blew my whole concept, like wide open of what’s capable with outdoor writing. And it made me realize when you’re doing outdoor writing, whether you’re talking about the first women’s bike racing team in Afghanistan, or about a personal camping trip or hiking trip, it’s something that a lot of people relate to.
Like we’re all interested in outdoor recreation and kind of like interesting or adventurous travel. But you can get at so much more through that medium or through that lens. You can pull people in through that, and then you can give them so much more. And that’s inspired me throughout my entire career.
And I got to get to know Tracy a little bit. I’d call her a colleague and a mentor and even a friend. She just writes with so much heart and so much guts. She’s probably the bravest writer I know.
And I admire her because she has this ability to I think get past the fears that I have of looking stupid or saying the wrong thing or not coming across like perfectly together.
She’s able to kind of move past that. And you know, she doesn’t always nail it and it’s okay. Cause everything she produces, it just has so much heart and soul in it. I so admire that. I so want to get to that point. So I’d say as a kind of writing hero, she’s kind of mine.
DG: What are some of your biggest life lessons so far? Top ones?
JM: One that’s become really apparent to me is that you can have a really lovely upbringing, and you can have a lot of people who are really dedicated to kind of showing you their values and helping you model your life into those same values. And it can still not be the right fit for you.
It was sort of an interesting realization for me when I realized that the model that was set forth for me by my parents and my family structure was not the one that I was inclined to follow. And it was actually kind of a shocking realization, like, “Oh, this really worked for them, and a lot of their friends and most people in my community. But it’s not how I want to do it now.”
I don’t want to have kids. And I don’t want to live in …
I mean, I want to live in a nice place; I shouldn’t say to all of them. I don’t want to live in like a large house with a perfectly manicured lawn and my Pottery Barn furniture that looks like it was put together by an interior decorator. And go to, I don’t know, Hilton Head or some other beach on the East Coast for my family vacation every year.
I feel like a lot of the things that I ended up wanting or gravitating towards were really different than kind of the structure I was raised in. And I was confused by that for a long time. Like, it’s just how it is, you know? People are just surprisingly different even when they all come from the same place or are raised in the same way.
DG: So, if you were to encapsulate that into a headline, what might it say?
JM: It’s okay not to meet other people’s expectations as long as you meet your own. Other people have expectations for you. And that’s, you know, it’s nice. They care about you. They love you. They want certain things for you. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right thing for you.
I think I just spent too much time being really concerned with extrinsic goals and extrinsic motivators. And I don’t want to say wasted time, that’s the wrong way to put it, but maybe he was preoccupied with the wrong thing in life. Maybe I went down a couple paths that were not actually satisfying or meaningful for me, just because I sort of thought that’s, what’s what you’re supposed to do, as opposed to thinking well, what would you like to do Jayme. What do you find interesting? What would you like to study as opposed to, what are you supposed to do?
DG: What else?
JM: I am very skeptical about religion. I don’t know if religion is a good thing for human beings or a good thing to raise children with.
You know, a lot of people believe it’s a nice way to establish a moral compass in children. But I have had the pleasure of having a life partner, my husband, whose parents are not religious. They’re not outwardly atheist, but they are atheist essentially. And he wasn’t raised believing in things like “life after death” or going to heaven.
And I’m actually quite jealous of that, because I was raised very strongly with religion, which I thought at the time was a positive thing. And in hindsight I don’t think it really was. I think it was really limiting for me. And I remember being pretty shocked when I kind of made the realization.
And this happened a lot later in life; I’m kind of embarrassed to admit. I don’t think I was 18 until I started asking question like “Wait, so there’s a guy who lives in this place called heaven and he manifests on earth as his son, and he also manifests as a Holy Ghost and you’re going to die and then go hang out with him in a place called heaven?”
You know, just a lot of these things that are faith-based stories, right? They’re not necessarily fact. But I interpreted them as fact. And it was almost like learning there was no Santa Claus. I’m like, “wait, I thought you’d go to heaven and you become an angel.” I mean, that doesn’t necessarily happen.
You know, some people are like, “well, no. Your body decomposes in the ground. And like, lots of people have lots of other ideas about what happens when you die, but it’s not necessarily that you become an angel and go to heaven.
And I was like “But I had all these big plans for my afterlife.” Like I was going to ask God if he could make me a mermaid for awhile so I could spend some time around the sea. And I’m like, well, “maybe he could let me try being a bird.” And like, I was going to apply to be a guardian angel and I had these big plans.
And I’m making light of this. But I think the sad part of it is I had always grown up thinking you go somewhere good when you die. And that your life on earth is maybe not quite so important.
And there’s a lot of other beliefs are like, “No, this is all you get. This is your one life.” And kind of grasping that has been really difficult for me. And coming to terms with that, whereas my partner is just kind of like, “Oh yeah, you just die.”
Like. “Doesn’t that bother you.” It’s like, “No. Why would it?” I’m like, because I thought you got to go have like this awesome party!” I’m not so sure religion is such a great thing; we’ll leave it at that.
Buddhist philosophy, on the other hand, I’m finding very helpful as a way to live a more sane life.
DG: This is a book I’m going to send you a link to by Adyashanti. Actually it’s called Resurrecting Jesus. But it’s looking at the Bible through as Zen dude’s eyes.
DG: It’s a great read, oh my gosh. I grew up agnostic, so I’m not attached to … you know, I want to respect Christianity. He actually grew up in a religious family and he went Zen quote unquote. And he writes about Christianity in a way with respect, but brings the Buddhist lens to it. It’s really good.
So that’s two. Third one? Third life lesson?
JM: Oh, okay. I learned something really incredible through some of my travels to the developing world. Which is, when you invest in girls in the developing world, it has amazing ramifications throughout our entire society.
Sometimes I feel kind of hopeless. Like how do you make the world a better place? Especially right now. Things are pretty rough between U.S. Politics, COVID and climate change. You know, all the disasters we’re living through right now with wildfires and tropical storms.
And, um, there’s this thing called the “girl effect”. When you start educating young women, when girls have a chance to stay in school just as long as boys in their community, and whether we’re talking about whatever developing country you want to insert here, it kind of goes across the board.
Um, amazing things start to happen. Education goes such a long way. These young women are less inclined to have children. As children themselves, they get married later in life. They have fewer children. And they actually give back to their society, their culture, their community, in really quantifiable ways through ingenuity, small businesses, things that directly impact the children and families in their own community.
This was kind of startling to me. And I started doing research on it and looking at the numbers and the stats and the facts and figures, which I’m failing to communicate here. It is astounding.
So it’s almost like if there’s anything you’re going to push for in this world, like you’re going to put your money and your resources into – the education of young women in places where they traditionally haven’t had access to education at the same level as the boys in their community. And that to me just brings a lot of hope.
So educate girls stay away from religion. What was my first one?
DG: I’ll have to go back. I think it was don’t plan on going the first route that was …
JM: Oh yeah. Yeah. It’s just the structure that’s presented to you or laid out for you isn’t necessarily the right path for you. You know, we all have our own path. And it can be really different from the way you were brought up and that’s okay. My family also loves me. I’m such a black sheep and they all love me.
DG: Anything else you want to add to this? Any final statements, any words of encouragement, any final, you know, maybe … I know. Here’s a Tim Ferris Podcast line. If you could put up on a billboard whatever you wanted for the world to see, or let’s say on the Windows open screen, desktop screen, or Apple and Apple, what would it be?
JM: Read more books. It’s one of the simplest inexpensive joys we have as human beings is to read good books.
DG: Okay. Fair enough. Anything else?
JM: No, I can’t think of anything. I feel like I’ve talked way too much, Doug.
DG: Jayme, Jayme, Jayme … you have not. It’s been wonderful. Um, first off, thank you so much for that as time. And for those out there, a lot of the different things we’ve talked about – articles, books, et cetera – will be in the show notes. And this is Doug Greene with What Really Matters Interviews with Jayme Moye. And thanks for listening.