That ’70s Guy from Outside jversteegh

This story update is part of the Outside Classics, a series highlighting the best writing we’ve ever published, along with author interviews and other exclusive bonus materials. Read “We Dressed a Modern Man Like an Outdoor Dude from the 1970s and Set Him Loose in the Wild,” by Eric Hansen here.

The subhead read: “Outside was born into a far-out bicentennial world of Coors, cutoffs, and bright orange tents. Maybe there’s a reason they say, ‘Don’t look back.’ ”

But we did anyway. For the magazine’s 30th anniversary, celebrated in 2007, Outside sent Eric Hansen on simulated time travel to 1976, the year the magazine was founded, by having him dress like a dorky outdoorsman from that era and do his wild and crazy things in the modern world of Boulder, Colorado. Hansen was the perfect choice for this embarrassing assignment. Having started as an intern in 1999, he’d proven his mettle with his inaugural feature story: poaching a first descent of Kilimanjaro on a pair of Big Feet, the short little skis you see on bunny hills. Sadly, Guinness did not recognize the achievement.

Starting in late 2006, Hansen became Outside’s Out of Bounds columnist for more than three years, memorably writing in the gonzo adventure style of prior greats like Tim Cahill and Randy Wayne White. Among other feats, he ran a marathon above the Arctic Circle while smoking a pack a day and captained Outside’s Partially Icelandic Quidditch World Cup Team, which ended with him getting carried off the field. He could be serious too, and in 2010 wrote “Amateurs Without Borders,” an account of delivering aid to Haiti by sailboat after that year’s catastrophic earthquake.

In time, Hansen’s humanitarian interests led to a career change: he now writes and runs PR for Partners in Health, the international organization founded by the late Paul Farmer. Hansen’s former editor, Elizabeth Hightower Allen, talked to him at his home in New Mexico, where he wore business casual instead of the preferred style of That ’70s Guy: a star-spangled backpack and denim short-shorts.

OUTSIDE: So the concept was to dress you up like an outdoorsy 1970s love machine, send you out into the world, and watch people’s jaws drop, right?
HANSEN: Yes. The editors wanted to see if seventies style still had the power to frighten. And I think they looked around and were like, Do we have a goofball stuntman in the vicinity? Yes, we do. One thing I loved about this story is that there’s virtually no news value. So long as you really got into it, you couldn’t screw it up.

You had to round up some vintage gear, including a T-shirt that said: LOVE MEANS NOTHING TO A TENNIS PLAYER.

Unlike most stories I wrote, I actually did a lot of prep: going to thrift shops, calling gear companies, and rummaging through yard sales. It was a dissociative experience. On the one hand you’re like, This is so fun. On the other hand, it’s deeply humiliating. It’s one thing to paw through the racks, and another to go to a real club in Denver dressed like you just came out of the Hot Tub Time Machine.

How does one prepare to become an adult who does, well, things like this?
I was pretty adventurous, even as a teenager. Growing up in Seattle, there’s so much to do. When we were 15 years old, four buddies and I took the ferry to Vancouver Island and went sea-kayaking for six days. We had no business doing this. I can’t even believe my parents allowed it.

At Outside, a process of elimination came into play. I looked around, saw so many great literary writers, and quickly realized: I can’t write like that, so what’s left? Well, go do something the bookworms wouldn’t, and try to be a little bolder or less prepared or more naive.

Your assignments often required serious athleticism and involved similarly serious risk. In the ’70s Guy piece, you’re doing endoes in kayaks, and you complete a race on a very heavy bike. In other articles you wrote, you skied clear-cuts in southeastern Alaska’s Tongass National Forest and hitchhiked to a remote bar in Colombia. Did you ever worry about the danger?
At the time, I didn’t think there was anything weird about it. I don’t know what I was thinking. I mean, these days I wear a helmet to bike to the grocery store.

Tim Cahill pretty much invented the kind of Outside story that combines far-flung adventure with bad decision-making. What did you learn about writing from predecessors like him?
Tim gave me some great advice once. I had a column due, and I had nothing on the page. I just couldn’t get started. This happened to me every couple of years—once, I had Chris Solomon, my roommate at the time and a fellow Outside writer, literally duct-tape me to a chair.

Anyway, I was freaking out, so I drank two beers, thinking that would loosen me up to write. Instead it loosened me up to find Cahill’s phone number on the Web. I left him a message that went something like: “Tim, my name’s Eric. You probably don’t know me, but I write for Outside and I’m a huge fan. I have a story due tomorrow and I have nothing. Can you help?“

I woke up at probably 6:30 to a phone call. It was Tim, and he did help. He said to just start writing the part you like. Write that, and then write the next part you like. Sure enough, a week later I had a story.

One of my favorites is “Out of My Way, Pumpkin,” about an entirely made-up condition called Skills Deficit Syndrome (SDS) that affects mountain-town relationships. Your girlfriend dusts you at every sport and then dumps you because you can’t keep up.
Well, she dumped me because of other things too, I’m sure!

 But beneath all the high jinks, you often explored substantive issues. You worked for a week as a trekking porter in Nepal and outlined the indignities Western trekkers impose on porters. And you sailed to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

I certainly didn’t go into those stories with an agenda, but I always liked serious takes on comical subjects, and vice versa. One of the things Outside taught me is to meet the reader where they are, and then take them someplace new. I was very aware that it’s an absolute honor to have people read what you’re writing. And so you really are obliged to entertain while you maintain fidelity to what’s actually happening.

As for Haiti, I’d seen poverty like that before, but it blew my mind that it was so close—the fact that you could get in a little boat and sail to that place. The juxtaposition of Haiti’s deep poverty with its proximity to the U.S. really struck me. That and how disorganized the international aid apparatus was. It was like a crash course in global health. And it got me interested in it as a career.

What do you think ’70s Guy knew that 2020s Guy does not?
First, that you just have to get out there. Most of the gear in your bedroom is good enough for just about any adventure. The important thing is to find the time and go do it. Second, approach it all with love and curiosity.

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