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Tim Cahill is often identified as an outdoor adventure writer, but it’s not the identity he prefers.
“What I am is a writer,” he told John Pulasky, host for the TV show That’s Montana. “What I found interests me and what I do well is outdoor stuff.”
OWAA can now refer to Cahill in a different way — keynote speaker for the 2016 annual conference in Billings, Montana (July 16-18).
Cahill will speak on July 16 at the Holiday Inn Grand Montana.
He is perhaps best known as a founding editor of Outside magazine and the author of nine books, several with such colorful titles as “Jaguars Ripped My Flesh,” “A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg” and “Pecked To Death By Ducks.”
The fearsome sounding titles are throwbacks to a bygone era when manly adventures appeared in such pulp magazines as Adventure, The Argosy and Frontier Stories.
The back story to the titles for his books is linked to early discussions with two colleagues at Rolling Stone – Harriet Fier and Michael Rodgers – as that publication was developing Outside. Initially, there was doubt that the travel adventure genre was suitable for Outside. He disagreed … and prevailed.
“Our very simple concept for Outside back in the ’70s was to produce literate writing about the out of doors,” Cahill said. “Seems like a slam dunk now, but back in the day we were ridiculed for ‘wasting’ National Book Award winners and Pulitzer Prize winners on outdoor stories when it was well known that people who went outdoors were not literate. They were knuckle dragging mouth breathers.
“Our nine national journalism awards — competing against magazines like the New Yorker or The Atlantic — were final proof that our concept had legs.”
Cahill’s travel adventures became popular features of the magazine, largely because he didn’t shy away from incorporating his mishaps and misfortunes in stories that revolved around his flirtation with risk and the attendant fears it produced.
“You don’t need Superman to do an adventure story,” Cahill said in an interview with FORA.TV. “Where’s the drama with Superman? What’s gonna go wrong? He can leap tall mountains in a single bound. He’s not going to have any trouble.
“You’ve got to have somebody who’s a little clumsy. You’ve got to have somebody who can write a coherent English sentence but is easily frightened. I recall Harriet Fier saying, ‘Tim, you do it.’ And that’s how I came to be an adventure writer.”
Cahill was born in Nashville, Tennessee, but grew up in Wisconsin, where he became an accomplished youth swimmer. He helped Waukesha High School capture two state championships by winning individual titles in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle races, despite competing with a broken foot.
“Which may have led me to believe that obstacles make the story,” he said. Cahill earned an athletic scholarship to swim at the University of Wisconsin, earning a bachelor’s degree in European intellectual history.
His first break as a writer was a feature article on vultures that he sold to the Sunday magazine of the San Francisco Examiner, but he says the turning point of his career was his first book — “Buried Dreams: Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer.” His examination of John Wayne Gacy, who was convicted of murdering 33 young men in suburban Chicago in the 1970s, was a national bestseller, but convinced him to seek a different path with his writing career.
“Publishers wanted me to take on every new whack job that came down the pike,” he said. “Jeffrey Dahmer, those kind of guys. But I had exhausted my curiosity about serial killers, and I did not want to spend the rest of my life in the brains of those foul men. No, outdoor adventure was psychologically healthier for me. It didn’t pay as well, but I enjoyed the work.”
His stories have been singled out for National Magazine awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors and Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers. He was the co-writer on three short nature documentaries that were nominated for Academy Awards.
Another of his books is “Road Fever,” an account of his rapid ride with professional driver Garry Sowersby from the southern tip of Argentina to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. They covered the roughly 19,000 miles in a Guinness Book of World records time of 23 days, 22 hours, and 43 minutes — less than half the time of the previous standard.
Cahill currently resides in Livingston, Montana, which will make his commute to Billings and the 2016 OWAA conference a more manageable 120 miles. ♦
— Story by Phil Bloom, Conference program chair
Conference keynote speaker: Outside magazine founder Tim Cahill